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Cruising Nova Scotia

Saint John to Cape Sable

As a cruising sailor I feel blessed that I live in Saint John, New Brunswick. Here we have so many cruising alternatives: to the north, the Saint John River system; to the west, the coast of Maine, Passamaquoddy Bay and the Fundy Isles; to the south, Nova Scotia.

As much as I love cruising in Maine, I have come to love cruising Nova Scotia just as much, but for different reasons. Eastern Canada has a limited lobster fishing season that does not coincide with the boating one so lobster pots are not a problem here unlike Maine. The nuisance factor of US Customs & Border Patrol and the onerous US Cruising Permit reporting requirements are not an issue either. Both population and boat-density are low. I imagine that the coast of Nova Scotia now is much like Maine was fifty years ago.

I single-hand a lot and prefer day-runs so that I am in harbour and secure at a reasonable hour. Remember, this is not supposed to be work. Along the coast, I reserve overnight runs for special circumstances: a tight schedule or getting ahead of poor weather. What follows then, assumes day-light runs. Keep in mind the strong currents of the Bay of Fundy associated with its great tidal range. When cruising in a displacement-speed sail or power boat, it is preferable to 'run' with the tide. As my ketch powers at just under 7 knots and currents can run over two knots, I far prefer to time things right and make 9 knots plus, rather than 5 knots minus. Away from the tidal influence of the Bay of Fundy (east of Baccaro Point, NS and west of Schoodic Point, ME) the currents are much less pronounced.

From Saint John, the best sail, in my view, is a fair weather crossing to Digby, NS. The distance, fairway to fairway, is about 40 miles. In a good reaching south-west breeze, it's just a nice day's run. Sailing there provides just the right amount of challenge and sense of accomplishment, given that one makes a bona fide land-fall on a bold shore seeking Digby Gut.

If you are leaving the Saint John River passing through the Reversing Falls bound for Digby, the ideal departure schedule is to do so on a morning high slack (a slack water at the Reversing Falls that is 2 hrs. 25 min. after high water in Saint John Harbour*). Departing then means that if you keep your boat moving, whether under sail or power, you will arrive at Point Prim, at the entrance to Digby Gut, on the flood tide. As the ebb can run up to four knots in 'The Gut', the proper timing of an arrival there is important.

Digby is now a good small-vessel destination. The Royal Western Nova Scotia Yacht Club maintains a marina with transient space and floating docks in the heart of the town. The members are friendly and accommodating. Digby was not always a great place to visit. Yachts used to have to raft to fishing boats behind the massive government wharf. Getting ashore meant crossing a number of fishing boats on the way to slimy ladders and a long climb to the wharf. It was not for the faint of heart particularly at low water.

If your goal is Yarmouth or Halifax and beyond, then you may choose to take the most direct route and head from Saint John to Petit Passage. It is one of the two passes through Digby neck that allow easy access from the east to St. Mary's Bay. In this case, I advise a morning passage through the Revering Falls on a low slack (a slack water in the Reversing Falls that is 3 hrs. 50 min. after low water in Saint John Harbour*). This will mean that you will be well clear of Saint John Harbour and into the Bay of Fundy by high water so as to take full advantage of the ebb tide. On this run I generally motor-sail with a reefed mainsail as, with the prevailing south-westerly, the wind will be close on my starboard bow. If I can keep my speed up in the 6.5 knot range (plus a lift from the fair tide), I can cover the 60 miles to Petit Passage and pass through to St. Mary's Bay before the tide turns against me. The shelter of Meteghan is a further ten miles ahead. Stopping at Tiverton, on the west side of Petit Passage, is now a more attractive option with the recent construction of a small vessel basin and breakwater just north of the ferry dock. Traversing Petit Passage against a foul tide is simply not possible in smaller displacement boats. The current, at its peak, runs at almost 10 knots.

In normal summer weather it pays to get an early start. Prevailing south-west winds build as the day progresses and land masses heat- up. If your goal is to make distance to the south-west, getting underway early will allow you to make some miles to windward before headwinds either slow your progress or cause you to head for shelter and revise your destination.

Another option is to head down the New Brunswick side of the Bay of Fundy to Dipper Harbour or Grand Manan and cross to either Petit or Grand Passage on the way to St. Mary's Bay. Heading to Yarmouth or Cape Sable directly leaving Digby Neck to port is an option too but one must give South West Shoal off of Brier Island a wide berth. Remember that you are running beam-to strong currents so your 'set' will be significant. Your choice of route may be dictated by wind and weather. If you cross from North Head, Grand Manan, to Yarmouth you will be traversing a whale feeding area. Besides an abundance of whales, you will see whale-watch boats carrying tourists from both sides of the Bay. You will also be crossing shipping lanes to the Port of Saint John so a careful look-out, radar watch and a VHF monitor is advised.

Yarmouth has a deep protected harbour with recently improved docking facilities for yachts, moorings and shore side-showers. All of the amenities of the town are within easy walking distance. If one is planning to round Cape Sable and cruise the south shore of Nova Scotia the big hurdle is the rounding of Cape Sable. Yarmouth is a good place to plan this passage and await the weather that is conducive to it.

I have always proceeded to Cape Sable from Yarmouth via Schooner Passage. It is the shortest, most direct route but there are others. Schooner Passage is very picturesque and it is well marked. The only tricky part is a half mile south of Candlebox Island. There are submerged rocks that divide the channel. These are easily seen in the clear salt water and on the chart. I tend to stay to the east of them favouring the deep water by Turpentine Island. A strong fair tide does not give you lot of reaction time so I recommend that you slow down if it is your first time through.

Cape Sable is the extreme south-west tip of Nova Scotia and it is where the Bay of Fundy meets the Atlantic Ocean. Cape Sable Island is low and flat particularly on the south-west end. The prominent lighthouse and beacon are a blessing. From Yarmouth there are a number of places to stop if you want to break up the trip to Cape Sable (some 50 miles from Yarmouth). There are anchorages in Schooner Passage and there are harbours such as Pubnico, Wood Harbour and Clark's Harbour; but I prefer West Head. This is a man-made harbour just east of Clark's Harbour on Cape Sable Island that is much more easily entered in fog than Clark's Harbour and offers the deepest draft of any harbour in the area. A Canadian Coast Guard base and a lot of fishing boats are there. Ashore there are no facilities but the shelter is complete.

Rounding Cape Sable with a fair tide is essential in all but the fastest boats. The currents run very hard here (4 knots +) and the convergence of currents, rips, and the associated seas can be fearsome; and they seem worse in fog. I have found that departing Yarmouth at the right time relative to the Bay of Fundy tides will afford a fair current all the way around Cape Sable to Baccaro Point. Not getting this timing right will slow you down remarkably. Baccaro Point is easily identified, by the way, by its enormous radar dome which is much more prominent than the charts suggest.

My technique is to depart Yarmouth two hours before high water at Saint John to benefit from this fair tide. Coming the other way, returning to the Bay of Fundy, I make sure that I am at Baccaro Point three hours before low water in Saint John. In so doing, I obtain the lift of the fair tide around Cape Sable right to Yarmouth.

Once one has rounded Cape Sable the whole beautiful south shore of Nova Scotia is before you. A tidal range of about seven feet means that you no longer have to worry so much about timing your runs to coincide with the current. Under sail, the prevailing winds are, heading east, dead-astern. Perfect spinnaker conditions although the seas are often out of proportion to the wind.

I am always relieved to be 'released' from the imposed tidal schedule of the Bay of Fundy, so I find sailing here liberating. You are unlikely to encounter many other boats. Years ago the inshore fishing fleet was plentiful. Now one only crosses paths with larger vessels on their way to the off-shore fishing grounds. A radar target is most likely another visiting yacht as most Halifax and Mahone Bay yachts do not venture west of Cape Lahave.

There are a number of good cruising guides to assist you in planning your cruise of this coast. Most harbours have floating docks available for overnight stays at a reasonable cost. Fuel, water, ice and supplies are easily obtained here. All in all, this is a very pleasant place to cruise and a nice alternative to Maine.

*Note on the timing of slack-water at the Reversing Falls in Saint John.

The actual time of slack-water at the Revering Falls will vary depending upon the level of the Saint John River. The calculated times: 3 hours, 50 Minutes after Low Water in Saint John Harbour and 2 hours, 25 minutes after high Water in Saint John Harbour are based upon what the charts refer to as 'mean datum' (meaning some calculated average height of the river). The actual time of slack water can vary a lot. The Saint John River tends to be below this 'mean datum' late in a dry summer, for example. Conversely, it is above it in the spring flood period (locally called a 'freshet') associated with snow run-off into the Saint John River and its tributaries, or after a period of heavy rain.

So if the river is 'low' then a high slack (or slack after high water in Saint John Harbour) will be later than the calculated time as it will take the Bay of Fundy longer to come down to meet the river level. Conversely, a low slack will be earlier than the calculated time. The opposite of all of this is true if the river is 'high'.

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