I wrote this for an article in Points East Magazine a few years ago. Seems to fit the theme of this thread.
“Because it’s hard…..” - Petit Passage
, Nova Scotia
John Kennedy challenged us to do things not because they are easy but because are hard. Our goal was Little River, St Mary’s Bay, Nova Scotia
. We were ready to take up the challenge. The passage to Nova Scotia can be harsh. I wanted to do this passage for years having in the past been turned back by weather
and time pressures. This was the summer (2007) to go. While not a huge ocean voyage, Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail alone around the world (in the 1890’s) respected the waters in the area that we were going. He grew up on Brier Island, just a few miles from our destination
. A monument to his accomplishment was something that I have wanted to see for years. Here is how we got there.
We island hopped up the coast of Maine
for a week. We were joined for the first week by friends Chuck and Sue and Tom and Judy on their boats “Reediculous” and “Firefox”. We left them behind in Cutler before dawn on the sixth morning as we continued into Canadian waters catching the flood current in the Grand Manan Channel. We cleared customs
for the third time in as many years at North Head
Harbor, Grand Manan, New Brunswick.
Up in the big tides of the Bay of Fundy, timing is important. Our plan was to cross the outgoing tide from Grand Manan to Petit Passage on Digby Neck. From there we would ride the incoming tide up St Mary’s Bay to Little River. Thirty-two miles of open water
full of fog
and currents stood between us and Digby Neck. We wanted to get to the southern end of the Passage at exactly low slack water to avoid the legendary 7 – 8 knot
flow through the passage and the big rips that surround it.
was for light southerly wind
and a bit of fog
. Not so bad, we would go. Before leaving North Head
Harbor, Grand Manan, a local fisherman advised that leaving an hour to an hour and a half before high tide would be about right. As we left the harbor the crew of the “Sarah Gay” out of Norfolk VA made a last minute decision to join us for the crossing. It was comforting to know that another boat would be out there with us.
Stella, our 40 year old 30’ Allied Seawind ketch
, had a lumpy close reach across the Bay towards Petit Passage. The outgoing Fundy current heaped up against what became a stiff southerly breeze. She shouldered the steep chop aside bravely but we were still in a go against the wind
, waves and clock. We had one reef in the main and the jib
was reefed to 100% as we corkscrewed through the waves. We needed to average about 5 knots. At times the gps
indicated 7.2 snotty knots over the ground. It wasn’t patchy fog; we were crossing in 150’ visibility fog - a day of looking at unpainted sheetrock. Throughout the day I kept calculating our progress and checking the clock to see if we were going to be at the far end of Petit Passage in time.
Stella was under the watchful eye of Fundy Traffic. Like air traffic controllers, they keep an eye on the shipping
and boat traffic over the entire bay. They let you know when there is another boat close aboard that could spell trouble. The Fundy Traffic operator indicated a cargo ship outbound in the shipping
lane bearing down on us just as we approached the lane. We kept track of it on our radar
as well. We did some fancy maneuvering to keep out of their way and to avoid too close an encounter. Still, it was close. We never got a visual on it.
conversations transpired between Stella and the Sarah Gay
during the crossing to keep up the spirits. Only a couple of times during the day did the fog thin so that we actually had a visual on the Sarah Gay
even though our radar
showed her within 800’ of us much of the time.
It is said that 100 billion tons of water move in and out of the Bay on each tide. We have no doubt about that. A good bit of it was trying to drag us off course. Steering
a course of 158 mag across the Bay’s outgoing flush of water seemed to keep us on track towards Petit Passage. We headed for a point ½ mile north of the gut so that the outgoing tide would sweep us down into the passage. We didn’t want to try to climb “upstream” if we ended south of the entrance. It proved to be a good strategy as there was a pretty good rip guarding a southern approach to the entrance within the fierce outbound current. The fog lifted just long enough for a partial glimpse of the rips and the Boars Head Lighthouse before closing in tight again. The rip is like a white water rapid on a large river. It is said that they measure these rip waves in meters. Our brief glimpse was indeed an inspiring sight. We doubled our efforts to keep our boat heading to the entrance keeping well north of the waves.
The Passage is 2.1 miles from one bay to the other. As we enter we have ½ hour before the tide changes. Stella makes good progress through the first half of the Passage riding the current. 6 knots then 5 knots. We’re slowing down. It’s only ¼ mile wide and we see nothing – no boats, no land, no buoys, no life - just the grey circle 100’ from us as we sweep though. We are tired, beat up and apprehensive. As this is our first encounter with Petit Passage we don’t dare explore - at this point our goal became simply to cross from the Bay of Fundy to St. Mary’s Bay and not hit anything. 4 knots! Three-quarters of the way through and we’re slowing down! With no visibility in the Passage and having not been there before, we don’t dare risk trying to find the Tiverton breakwater for refuge. The radar screen
is a mass of targets. We fear that any delay other than just avoiding rocks and boats would set the rage of tide against us and that would be that. The ground speed continues to decay. ¼ mile to go. I keep calculating the diminishing speed and distance to go curve and wonder if we are going to make it. I push the throttle on Johann – our old Volvo diesel
- a bit forward to see if he will give us a little more oomph.
We’re getting close to the exit - none too soon. The tide suddenly starts reversing. Boils of water swing Stella and our ground speed slows dramatically. We might be in a back eddy, who knows at this point. We are centered in the passage; we should be in the full stream. Should we try to find the back eddy? No let’s not chance putting Stella on the rocks. We end up with an increasing head current as we clear the Passage but we escape before its 8 knot
northbound current takes full flight. As we exit the Passage, everything becomes calmer. We round the headland and Stella turns northeast. The fisherman on Grand Manan was right; the timing was perfect.
While the sightseeing still isn’t likely in the gray, wet vista, we do have a relaxing 6 mile late afternoon sail up St Mary’s Bay with the incoming tide. The ugly chop is gone and the waves and wind are on our stern.
The little red light appears out of the fog at the entrance to Little River Cove at the end of the breakwater just as anticipated. It is the first thing we have seen since the lighthouse at the entrance to Petit Passage disappeared back into the fog a couple hours ago. We still don’t know what we’re in for in Little River. Will there be room for our little Stella? What kind of reception
will we get?
The entrance to the cove between the breakwater and a cliff is less than 180 feet wide. Upon entering in zero-viz after a long, white knuckle day and not having been there before, one is temped to take immediate refuge by turning to port behind the breakwater - the first secure thing we had seen all day. Typically with these big tides (about 7 meters in this area) we would raft up with one of the fishing
boats. However by pressing on another couple hundred feet we discover a second breakwater appearing on the port side. Inside this breakwater we come upon a convenient floating dock
with a nice ramp
. The dock
is fairly short – 30’ Stella covered the entire face and then some.
It didn’t take long (moments really) before word got out that there was an American sailboat in the cove. We were an immediate local attraction. We discovered that no one could remember when an American sailboat had ever been in the harbor before. Retired fisherman Forrest Boliver remembered that a seiner from Eastport stopped in sometime in the 1960’s. And Chet Denton, a prominent member
of Little River’s fishing fleet couldn’t remember seeing a U.S. sailboat in the cove – ever! People were driving down to the dock to take a look. People had their cameras out to document the occasion. We were advised by one of the many local spectators that there was good water at any tide at the dock so we were safe to leave her secured there. The rest of the harbor is for the small fishing fleet. We found the harbor secure and the locals typically very friendly. We were told, almost apologetically, that Sandy Cove just up the coast would be better protected. But we liked Little River just fine and stayed put. I spent three marvelous early mornings talking with Chet about life in the area and an earlier more productive time of fishing in the bay. Chet noted, as he tended his trap lines in preparation for the next lobster season, that the only wind that could come to harm one would be a stiff easterly/northeasterly wind. That kind of wind just wasn’t in the forecast
The store ½ mile up the road has more than just the basic supplies indicated in the Nova Scotia Cruising Guide. Ice, cheerful conversation, local advice
, boots, bolts and nuts, a good selection of foodstuffs, ice cream, raingear, rat traps, pet food
to outfit the local fleet, and much more can all be acquired at the Little River Trading Post.
When leaving a few days later on a clear morning, we are astonished to discover the beautiful and dramatic cliff faces along Digby Neck side of St Mary’s Bay.