Sailing Nova Scotia: Jagged coastline makes for a unique cruising experience

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Nova Scotia’s intricate coastline has wilderness, history and civilisation in abundance. Tom Zydler explores it

All photos: Tom Zydler

As soon as the sun began to disperse the fog that had settled at night over Pubnico Harbour we weighed anchor. Cape Sable was about 15 miles away and the wind, light and contrary, made it slow going.

Three hours later a sheen in the veil of wet haze changed into a low, sandy shore. My wife, Nancy, spotted the first buoy, a red dot bobbing in and out of sight among the waves. We noticed the current was still running with us to the east. The visibility wasn’t too bad. We now motored less than a third of a mile from land.

To starboard, swells grew higher and higher on scattered shoals only 150m away. On the shallowest spots of Horse Race, a wall of swelling sea thundered and collapsed before reaching our channel. Soon a tall lighthouse came into sight and then vanished behind as our Mason 44, Frances B, popped out into much smoother waters.

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Molly’s Cove on Shelter Island, a gem of the Eastern Shore

This inshore shortcut close by Cape Sable made rounding the southernmost tip of Nova Scotia a fast and exciting jaunt. Earlier, from the west, we crossed the famed Bay of Fundy with its extreme tides to Brier Island – the boyhood home of Joshua Slocum, the first of the great single-handers. The red cedar shake boot shop of the Slocum family still overlooks the harbour.

Every summer currents filled with plankton and krill bring hundreds of whales to the overfalls off Brier Island, yet in June 2017 we failed to spot any. It was an unusual year when most of the right whales in search of food moved instead into the Gulf of St Lawrence.

South of the tiny, remote Brier Island and over on the mainland of Nova Scotia lies the port of Yarmouth. Entirely protected from winter gales it was once a major centre of shipping and shipbuilders. Today the wharves built near and over the old launching ways serve countless fishing vessels of all types. Up the harbour and downtown yachts pick up moorings or tie up at a small marina.

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It didn’t take long to get a sample of Bay of Fundy currents. Fog, thick enough to chop with a hatchet, took a long time to lift over Yarmouth Harbour. As it thinned we left, a few hours too late to carry a fair current all the way. Schooner Passage through Tusket Islands offers a shortcut safe from tidal overfalls and open ocean swells but the currents, in half flood, had already turned contrary when Frances B pointed her nose between ghostly islets in the thickening fog.

We revved the engine to speed up. Instead of the usual six plus knots the GPS registered about a knot and half. At least in the lee of the island the sea flattened, broken only by eddies and swirls of tide. Finally, out of the Passage, the wider waters diluted the fierce stream. The course change towards Pubnico, our staging anchorage for rounding Cape Sable, brought clearing afternoon airs and fair current.

East of Cape Sable tides diminish, the seas calm down. Ahead stretch 250 miles of Nova Scotia, its coast shredded into inlets, sounds, bays and coves, all easily accessible in day trips. A long inlet a few hours from Cape Sable hides Shelburne. Every boat sailing Nova Scotia will sooner or later show up here to refit, relax and socialise.

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A ‘Redcoat’ guards the Shelburne home of a loyalist who escaped the 1776 American Revolution

At the yacht club docks we spotted the bluewater ketch Kantala. Michael and Sheila Donnan built her in British Columbia more than 20 years ago before setting off to make ‘a Guinness World Record for the slowest circumnavigation’.

The 20m schooner Wolfhound was quite a sight too. Artist Steven Dews and his wife, Louise, have allowed for about ten years of cruising to reach their home base in New Zealand. Steven is a maritime artist famous for spectacular canvasses of sailing ships and classic yachts.

The waterfront near the yacht club shows preserved evidence of maritime history. The cooper shop dates back to the 19th Century, and the schooners bound for offshore banks once stopped in Shelburne to buy boats made in the Dory Shop – its doors are still open.

Among Canadian yachtsmen, starved of sandy, sunny beaches, Port Mouton counts as an irresistible summer destination. On this coast, summer morning south-westerly airs may, by the late afternoon, due to hot air rising over the land, muscle up to a really strong breeze. After midday we had already reefed the main and rolled some of the genoa.

Gybing into Western Channel brought the rising chop right astern, the wind 20 knots. Steering by hand we raced by the buoys, rolled up the genoa and screamed within spitting distance of a red beacon. A long beach backed by high dunes opened up to view, and the forest at the background cut the wind to a breeze while the anchor splashed into Caribbean blue water. The setting sun threw long shadows on the sand.

Port Mouton isn’t all about lolling in the sun. Out of sight behind a massive breakwater hums a busy fishing fleet. After the collapse of cod stocks Canada introduced very strict conservation policies; an open season for some species may last only few days. One autumn evening we counted 57 longliners leaving port at high speed.

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Bluenose II, the pride of Nova Scotia, sails off Lunenburg harbour

Of all the port towns with maritime heritage, Lunenburg is the most irresistible. As we reached from the outer waters into Lunenburg Bay a hilly skyline of steeples rose ahead. The waterfront resembled a 19th Century etching complete with masts of schooners and square riggers.

With luck you can tie up at the exquisite Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic next to the Bluenose II, a schooner that beat the best of the American competition from Gloucester. Beloved by Canadians, Bluenose II often ventures out – a thrilling sight in the bay. The town has managed to hold back developers’ bulldozers and lovingly maintained timber architecture lines the streets. No wonder Lunenburg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Labrador Current from the Arctic bathes the coast of Nova Scotia, but the Gulf Stream flows north a bit farther offshore, its warmth serving as a hurricane path. Now and then an odd tropical storm pummels the coast. Come September it pays to listen to the weather coming from the East Coast of the US.

Fortunately, Lunenburg is surrounded by a choice of escape anchorages. Twice we sought refuge in La Have River just around the corner to the south-west.

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To the north-east opens Mahone Bay. A vast body of water, scores of Islands, bays, yacht clubs, marinas and boatyards add to the busy summer sailing scene. In search of tranquility we sailed into Deep Cove, a cleft on the Bay’s high, cliffy east shore. A narrow channel, precipitous on one side and densely forested on the other, culminated in a pond. A necklace of moorings for local yachts kindly left the middle for visitors to anchor.

Halifax, with a population of 400,000 plus, naturally offers everything your yachting heart may desire plus a culturally thriving city. The great peninsula in the western approaches, a 20-mile stretch punctured by eight inlets that themselves branch into side arms, is the local yachtsmen’s fabled playground.

Considering the numbers of boats in Halifax we made sure to sample these coves on weekdays. Entering Prospect Bay and heading into Rogue’s Roost was a bit hairy since the high tide covered even the tips of the kelp fronds, an early warning of the rocks under. As novices in this maze of rocks and islets we motored gingerly in.

The chart promised a tight, deep pool to starboard, good enough for one boat of our size in this wonderfully wild place, despite Halifax throbbing around the corner. On Friday afternoon yachts began flocking in but by then we were secure in our bowl among hills.

East of Halifax is the least populated part of maritime Nova Scotia. Rising ocean levels changed deep gorges sculpted by receding ice millennia ago into long forested bays which in turn fork into enticing arms. Miniature archipelagoes of islands and islets, the passages between them open to careful navigators, dot the coast.

Molly’s Cove on Shelter Island, part of Pope’s Harbour, is particularly memorable for its clear, blue waters, the forests reflecting in the mirror calm sea.

Aquaculture certainly is making its mark in many coves protected from ocean swells. However, there is always room to anchor or pass by. We swung into the well-marked channel into Whitehead Harbour, our mind on anchoring in Yankee Cove. As is often in these waters a large reef of rocks positioned itself smack in the middle.

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A handy perch for an osprey on a yacht’s rigging

A bit of careful slaloming led in when a large installation of mostly submerged cages hove in sight leaving free space to anchor in a nicely protected indent in the shore.

The prevalent ocean swells on this coast come from south-east, a feature to remember when choosing an anchorage. Most of the prominent bays are cut into the mainland towards north-west. The exception is Liscomb Harbour, a four-mile long east-to-west slot. Three islands off the entrance effectively bar the ocean swells from intruding. As in other harbours of the Eastern Shore, less than a handful of houses stood among trees on the shore.

At the west end of the run rises Liscomb Lodge, large, but tastefully hidden on the cliff top. A floating dock, good for about one 15m boat, was taken but we found shelter in a narrow passage. Somewhere outside howled a strong gale yet only rare puffs moved the tree tops as we lounged near the bar to tunes delivered by two mature musicians.

When time comes to turn back to the south and home you become painfully aware of the prevalent south-west winds. Trying to wait this out till the next wind change led to other discoveries of secluded spots. One year coming back from a summer trip to Greenland, Labrador and Newfoundland we reached Canso.

Overlooking the easternmost peninsula of Nova Scotia the village was once thronged with fisher folk, mostly Basque, loading on cod. Centuries of vanishing fish stocks changed the town into a backwater, and the fisheries are now limited to lobster trapping in a short open season.

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Spectacular fog banks rise over Cranberry Islands near Canso at the easternmost tip of Nova Scotia

We spent some time in Glasgow Harbour on the south side of Canso Peninsula, entertained by noisy seals that hauled out on a rocky reef nearby. With the dinghy roped to the end of a park boardwalk, we landed by a meadow filled with pitcher plants thriving on a mosquito diet and an easy trail continued to Canso town.

Once the south-west wind dropped to 15 knots we followed the buoys of Andrew Passage, a mere ribbon of deeper water winding through rocks towards the open coast. Beating southward in these moderate conditions should have been no problem.

But out there, away from the lee of the islands, the seas were stirred up wild. Short, steep, vicious. The bow would dig in and then had no time to rise before the next wave rolled right over it. Steering off wind to gain more speed didn’t help – on top of the underlying south-eastern swell the fresh wind created waves from south and south-west, seemingly from all over, and they were winning.

In three unpleasant hours we made about 7 miles. Abeam opened a gap in the coast with Port Howe at the end. An S-shaped course led in; serious breakers boiled white over shoals. The bay was uninhabited: one mildewed house was leaning ready to topple, its windows gaping hollow.

Behind a spur of rocks, out of sight, stood a wooden cabin, probably only rarely used. Above our boat at anchor, on a giant basket of twigs, an osprey peeped at high pitch. Its mate wheeled down from the clouds and joined – there must have been chicks in the nest.

Dinghy cruising through the north-east arm of the bay, to the rapids of a tawny stream, we tracked a weasel foraging in and out of water. Nancy joined him, looking for mussels and periwinkles between seaweeds. A massive bald eagle followed our progress, flitting between treetops.

Nova Scotia is a quite unique cruising ground combining access to urban locations with easy escapes to wilderness and nature. Its jagged coastline could make a lifetime of cruising.

sailing-nova-scotia-tom-zydlerAbout the author

After a lifetime as yacht skipper for pay, Tom Zydler and his wife, Nancy, now sail the northern waters of the Western Atlantic in their Mason 44, Frances B.

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