By Peter McKelvey
Since buying back Quelle Vie, the Grampian Classic 31-foot sloop my father bought new in 1966 and I sold in 1993 (see “Just Like Old Times,” November 2017), my son John and I have pursued an intensified interest in sailing. We keep Quelle Vie in a marina on Grand Bay, Saint John, New Brunswick, about 5 miles from the mouth of the Saint John River.
New Brunswick is unique in that it offers cruising in both fresh and salt water. While most local boaters restrict their endeavors to the river, which, in the summer, offers 350 miles of cruising in warm sheltered water through bucolic pastoral scenery, John and I have felt drawn to the salt water of the Bay of Fundy, where navigational hazards that include fog, rocky shores, and the tidal currents that accompany some of the greatest tidal ranges in the world put our navigation skills to the test. The reward is beautiful vistas and the satisfaction of a voyage well executed.
Just getting to the Bay of Fundy from Grand Bay is a challenge, as it requires negotiating the Reversing Falls, rapids that reverse direction with the rise and fall of the tide. When the tide is rising and the water level in the bay is above that in the Saint John River, the water flows upriver. When the tide in the bay falls below that in the river, the flow reverses. The rapids created are dangerous, and often impossible, for a small boat to navigate. The idea of traversing the Falls intimidates many visiting sailors, but the passage is easy at slack tide.
Which is why, on our second foray into the bay aboard Quelle Vie, our father-and-son cruise in 2018, John and I left Grand Bay at 0830 to ensure we arrived at the Reversing Falls about 30 minutes ahead of slack tide. This allowed us to speed through with a 3-knot current pushing us.
Wanting to make our longest passage first on the way to our prime cruising ground, we set out for Grand Manan, the “Queen of the Fundy Isles,” an intriguing and enchanting place that I always long to return to. The largest and most remote of the “Fundy Isles,” Grand Manan is at once isolated and cosmopolitan, dominated by commercial fisheries and a modest tourist industry. Its striking scenery and friendly people leave a lasting impression on visitors.
What followed was a long, hard thrash to windward. The passage got complicated when I went below and my feet got wet. As we were 3 miles offshore and the water temperature was 60°F, this was cause for concern. Soon after we started pumping, we calmed down when we saw we were gaining on the water. Nonetheless, we anxiously lifted floorboards and opened lockers to check all the through-hull fittings. Unable to find a point of entry, we concluded that water already in the bilge had caused the bilge pump to turn on and, because the boat was heeled enough to put the discharge line under water, initiate a siphon. After we turned off the electric bilge pump and pumped out by hand, water stopped coming in.
And then the engine died. We’d been motorsailing to make time, and this put the fuel tank on the lee side. Because there was not a lot of fuel in the tank, the pickup tube eventually drew air. A fill-up from a jerrycan solved that problem.
Having dealt with these setbacks, we passed Point Lepreau and set out across the bay and into the world of seabirds. We saw gannets, three kinds of shearwater, and razorbill auks.
When we finally rounded the breakwater and tied up to a wharf in the peaceful harbor of North Head on Grand Manan, we were feeling wind-blown and wave-tossed. Our first order of business was to find fuel.
Encounters with islanders
It felt good to get off the boat, and John and I walked up to the wharf and asked directions of the first person we saw. He pointed in the direction of the service station and then said, “Take my truck, the keys are in it.” I guess it would be hard to steal a truck on an island, but the kindness of the gesture wasn’t lost on us. After that, I took a half-mile stroll to the general store for tea bags, only to find it closed. On the way back, I struck up a conversation with a bed-and-break- fast operator who was in his garden with his dogs. When I mentioned I was in search of tea, he ran inside and came out with a bag full of tea bags. Island people share a connectedness that we’ve lost in much of our society. And experiencing that, on the first stop of our 2018 father-and-son voyage around the Bay of Fundy, made up for the sail across the bay to get there.
Following our pleasant encounters with the locals, we indulged in a Grand Manan specialty — mini donuts. Island residents Al and Are MacDonald operate a small stand outside their home each summer where they sell fresh coffee, ice cream, and their famous mini donuts, made on the spot. We bought a couple of bags and found it took a lot of self-control not to return for a couple more.
That night, Quelle Vie was one of three yachts amid the fishing fleet. Aboard the others were a couple from Vermont who had sailed from Lake Champlain and two guys who’d sailed from neighboring Deer Island. Over evening libations with the latter crew, we shared tales of our sailing adventures to top off an eventful day.
The next morning, we awoke to a glassy calm and waited until noon, hoping for some wind. After lunch, we rounded the Swallowtail Light and enjoyed a lazy sail, sometimes motoring to make time, alongside the 30-foot yawl of our friends from the night before. We were again surrounded by seabirds: murres, black guillemots, puffins, dovekies, and more shearwaters.
We could see several boats and a concentration of birds off the tip of Campobello, and as we drew closer, we saw numerous dolphins. Then the back of a whale emerged slowly from the water. For about a half hour, we watched at least four finback whales. I always experience a primordial sense of humility on seeing these huge creatures. I was heartened to learn that this was an exceptional season, with more whales seen than in many years prior.
We passed Campobello and sailed the east coast of Deer Island, a course that took us through a magical maze of small islands topped with greenery and girdled with seaweed-laden rocks exposed by the falling tide. Although the passage looks intimidating on the chart, with careful navigation by GPS we made a safe passage. Our destination was Lords Cove, a small fishing harbor on Deer Island that we approached from the east through a narrow passage.
As it’s closer to the mainland, Deer Island is less exposed and more verdant than Grand Manan. It’s quiet, with a small population, and very pretty. We tied up to a fishing boat in the well- sheltered harbor. Except for our friends on the yawl, who keep their boat on a mooring there, we were the only yacht in the harbor.
While waiting for the tide the next morning, we took a walk up to the general store, which was reminiscent of the 1950s. From there we walked along the shore, admiring the Victorian houses festooned with gingerbread. Around the next headland, we watched a crew pumping herring from a weir into a sardine carrier for delivery to the sardine cannery in nearby Blacks Harbour.
Tide rips and tourists
Our planned passage for the day was to sail to St. Andrews on Passamaquoddy Bay. There are three ways to get in to Passamaquoddy Bay from Lords Cove: the passage past Eastport, Maine, to the west of Deer Island; Little Letete Passage to the east; and Letete Passage farther to the east. Seeing it as the more direct route, we chose Little Letete. While this wasn’t a bad choice, navigating this channel between beautiful uninhabited islands proved to be an adventure. The pass is narrow and the current at mid-tide exceeds 5 knots.
We found ourselves in the middle of tide rips, whirlpools, and eddies, and our over-the-ground speed was nearly 10 knots! In the middle of this wild ride, the Deer Island ferry came steaming through the narrows. Luckily, there was enough sea room for both vessels and we waved at the tourists, who probably wondered what we were doing there. After about a half hour, we washed out into the bay and found ourselves on a glassy calm with the hot sun beating down. After an hour or so of steaming, we arrived in St. Andrews and tied up to the town wharf.
St. Andrews was a contrast to the other harbors we’d visited. Here we were surrounded by yachts, and the wharf was bustling with people. St. Andrews is a quaint little town established in 1783 by American Loyalists from Castine, Maine, some of whom brought their houses with them in pieces. In summertime, the place is thronged with tourists, but we found it a good place to have a shower and stock up with food and drink. It was also a good place to rendezvous with our wives, Barbara and Lauren. They drove down from Saint John that evening, and we enjoyed a meal together at The Gables restaurant on a tree-shaded terrace overlooking the harbor.
My brother, Roger, joined us as crew about noon the next day, and the three of us set off across the bay. The weather was cool and overcast. A light wind and a close reach meant that progress was slow, but in due course we came up to the eastern shore, where my friend Harry Bryan, a wooden-boat builder of some repute, has his home. He sailed out to meet us in his beautiful gaff sloop, Katie, and we sailed in company for a while.
Later in the afternoon, at the turn of the tide, we sailed out of Passamaquoddy Bay in a light breeze. This time we took Big Letete Passage and it was less exciting, but we still had a 2- to 3-knot tidal current pushing us. Then we ran into the great nemesis of sailing in the Bay of Fundy — fog! Navigating with both GPS and radar, we were comfortable and confident.
We sailed into Blacks Harbour, where Roger’s wife was waiting to meet him. We tied up to an old barge behind the Grand Manan ferry terminal and rowed him ashore. Since we couldn’t see across the harbor, we decided to stay where we were and have supper and pop a cork.
My old friend Gordon Dugas lives nearby and agreed to join us. It was dark when he rolled onto the wharf in his Jeep, and we could just make him out through the fog. It had been a while since we’d seen each other and we had a pleasant evening catching up.
The next morning, the thick fog persisted, but the wind was fair and the tide was right, so we decided to head toward home. We left the harbor and headed for the Blacks Harbour fairway buoy, and it was the last thing we saw for more than four hours. Sailing through thick fog is a strange experience; we felt as though we were in a small bubble of reality disconnected from the rest of the world.
Later in the afternoon, we came right up on the Dipper Harbour fairway buoy. From there we steered for the wharf, which we didn’t see until we were about 100 yards from it, and tied up for the night.
The next day dawned calm and clear. We motorsailed in light air up to the eastern boundary of Saint John Harbour.
Saint John is a large commercial harbor with a supertanker terminal and facilities for containers and bulk cargoes, such as potash and petroleum products. Unfortunately, the harbor lacks good facilities for small boats. There is a dock adjacent to a large shopping complex in the center of town, but it’s rarely a good place to lie as it’s open to the swell that often rolls into the harbor. So, as we usually do, we timed our arrival to coincide with slack water at the Reversing Falls, which allowed us to continue on toward our home berth.
Above the falls is a narrow gorge, a near-pristine natural area that passes through the center of the city. I am always struck by the contrast between the Bay of Fundy and the Saint John River. In the Bay of Fundy, the water temperature was 60°F. In the Saint John River, it was 75°F. Crossing Grand Bay near the mouth of the river, we stopped and jumped off the boat for a welcome swim. Refreshed, we motored into the marina for an anti-climactic end to a memorable cruise.
Peter McKelvey is a retired engineer who has been sailing the Saint John River and the Bay of Fundy since he was a child. He spends the Canadian winter in his shop making gifts, doing projects for Quelle Vie, and in community volunteering. He has also built a couple of small wooden boats. He and his son John plan further ventures on salt water.