Run to The Rock

IMG_3964We knew this would be a bad hurricane year. On average, there are maybe a dozen named storms between June and November, but this year up to 17 are predicted. We’re at eight named storms already, with Harvey tracking through the Caribbean at the moment and two as-yet-unnamed but suspicious-looking weather systems following close behind. Gert, thank goodness, missed us and has spun out to sea across the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, leaving nothing but high winds and rain behind to dampen our plans.

We’re hoping to get to Newfoundland this season, but it’s getting a little late. Normally, we’d want to be heading south by the first of September. But maybe with all the storms brewing along the coast of the southern United States, we’re better to stay in Canada a little longer.

The weather seems to be returning to normal now in the wake of Gert, so maybe tomorrow we can make our run to The Rock. We spent yesterday getting ready to spend a couple weeks exploring the remote southern coast of Newfoundland. Some of the settlements along that coast have been deserted, and of the ones that remain, many are accessible only by boat. So diesel fuel, water, and food could be in short supply. Never mind cel signal. You might not hear from us for a while.

We hauled jerry cans of diesel fuel and jugs of water to the boat, topping up our tanks. We made a trip to the bakery (fresh bread! scones! oatcakes!) and the grocery store, picked up a couple of spare parts from the marina.

Then I spent some time putting together the abandon ship kit. We have a life raft lashed to the deck, which will deploy itself if it hits the water. It’s filled with emergency supplies—flares, a first-aid kit, a bailing cup, a flashlight, a rain water collector (whatever that is), a fishing kit. But we keep a carefully packed bag ready to take with us if we have to abandon ship, with such niceties as juice boxes and granola bars (I could survive a long time on these before I ate raw fish). A blanket. Some ginger candies to ward off seasickness. Toilet paper.

May I never see the inside of this bag, I say to myself each time I pack it. And may we never see the inside of the life raft.

Am I looking forward to making to the crossing? Not really. We could get pretty beaten up out there. And I’m not looking forward to dodging big ships in the dark—we’ll have to sail overnight, right across the entrance to the St. Lawrence River. But I’m sure once we’re out there I’ll be fine.

Now all we need is for the seas to subside a little in the Cabot Strait. There’s been a 10-foot swell out there in the wake of Gert—a little too lively for two people who have spent the summer sailing in the sheltered waters of the Bras d’Or Lakes. We’re anchored in the far north of the lakes right now, in a place called Otter Harbour, not far from where the lakes squeeze through a narrow passage and out into the ocean.

Who knows. If this rain ever lets up, we might even get to see some otters.

Mussel beach

You haven’t heard from us for a while because we have been busy. Very busy. Okay fine, we haven’t been busy at all—we’ve been on vacation.

vacation

This is what vacation looks like on a sailboat. We spend a lot of time at anchor, reading, drinking coffee, napping. When we feel ambitious, we go for a ride in the dinghy, fish a bit, swim if it’s hot. Each day we go for a hike, along pebble beaches for the most part, sometimes along a meadow trail (if the bugs aren’t too hungry.) And some days, we even sail, if it’s sunny and warm and the wind is in the right direction.

Chris has been doing a lot fishing. Well I have to believe that he’s been fishing—though he disappears in the dinghy for hours at a time, he’s yet to bring back a fish. But we have found something we can catch: mussles.

We had read somewhere that there was a mussel bed off Chapel Island, which is one of our favourite anchorages, so we set off in our dinghy to find the spot and yes, just off shore the sandy bottom was littered with mussels! We scooped up a pail full and took them back to the boat. Mmmm. Mussels for dinner. We left them in salt water for several hours, changing the water regularly to remove the grit they were supposed to have spit out. Then we scrubbed them and steamed them and sat down to a bowl full of tasteless mussels full of sand. Well, the ones that opened anyway. Most of them stayed resolutely shut.

But Chris isn’t one to give up. He came back from his next fishing expedition with no fish but with some exciting news: he had found another mussel bed, full of young, clean-looking mussels. Our friends Rick and Sally were coming for a visit so we decided to take them “musseling” and try this again.

harvesting mussels

In no time we had filled a pail with much more promising-looking mussles, and, as luck would have it, Sally had brought her famous recipe—and all the ingredients. She spent hours carefully scrubbing the mussles (Chris and I may have skimped a little on this step…) then disappeared below deck to reappear in no time with a pot full of steaming mussels.

Now I had pretty much gone off mussels after our last experience, was thinking of becoming a vegetarian to avoid such experiments in the future, but Sally’s mussels made me change my mind. They were delicious. The four of us polished off the whole pot and soaked up the leftover broth with bread. And of course washed it all down with a fine white wine from New Zealand, which Rick and Sally also brought. (Future visitors please take note: anyone attempting to board without a nice bottle of wine—I mean a really nice bottle of wine—will be repelled.)

If you’ve read this far, you’re in for a bonus: Sally’s mussel recipe appears at the end of this post.

Look, I’ve got to go. We’re still on vacation and I have some serious loafing to do.

yum

Mussels with tomato coconut sauce

2 lbs mussels, well cleaned. No, I mean really well cleaned.

1 tsp extra virgin olive oil

1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced

4 green onions, thinly sliced, white and green parts separated

1/2 cup cilantro

4 cloves garlic, minced

Salt (to taste)

1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes or to taste

796 ml (28 oz) can diced tomatoes

398 ml (14 oz) can coconut milk

1 1/2 tbsp lime juice

In a medium pot, heat oil on low. Add red peppers and sauté until soft (about 4 minutes). Add whites of the green onions, 1/4 cup cilantro, red pepper flakes, and garlic. Cook 1 minute.

Add tomatoes, coconut milk, and salt to taste, cover and simmer on low about 10 minutes to let the flavors blend together and to thicken the sauce.

Increase heat to boil and add mussels and cook for 5 minutes or so, until they open. Add lime juice.

Divide equally among 4 bowls and top with remaining green onions and cilantro. Serve with lots of crusty bread.

Make and mend day

MonArk In Little Basin cropped

To our surprise and delight, we have found a completely secluded, calm anchorage just off the Strait of Canso, the busy shipping channel between the Nova Scotia mainland and Cape Breton Island. After passing through the lock at Port Hastings we dodged big ships and tugboats pushing huge barges for a while before the waterway widened and the traffic thinned out. We put up our sails, switched off the engine, and enjoyed a lovely, lazy sail towards the Bras d’Or Lakes, where we hope to spend much of the summer.

Around five o’clock, we checked the chart for a quiet place to stop for the night and decided to try to slip into a place called The Little Basin, off MacNamara’s Island (we figured he wouldn’t mind.) The opening to the basin was quite narrow, but Chris threaded in between some rocks on one side and a spit of sand on the other and we found ourselves in a pool of deep water, surrounded by uninhabited islands on all sides.

“Let’s stay here,” I said to Chris.

“Forever?”

“No, but for a couple days at least. It’s so beautiful.”

At that moment, a seal poked its head out of the water beside the boat, looked at us curiously with his moist black eyes. Then another beside him. Then they both slipped back into the water.

“Okay,” Chris said.

gone fishing

We declared the next day make and mend day on the good ship MonArk. Much like any other home, the “to do” list on the boat only gets longer, never shorter. Chris was up at the crack of dawn.

“I think I’ll go fishing,” he said.

I smiled.

“I’ll have the coffee ready when you get back.”

Off he went in the dinghy, while I pulled out the brass polish and some clean cloths, unhooked the oil lamp… then curled up on the settee with a cup of coffee, our hiking guide to Cape Breton, and the charts of these waters. Finding a place to hike may seem like a simple undertaking, but it’s not. First you find a trail nearby, one that comes down to the water’s edge at some point, then you check the chart and see if there’s an anchorage close by, one that’s secure enough that the boat can be left on its own for a couple of hours. Last you check the weather and see if you can sail there. If the wind’s on the nose, you’re out of luck.

“I’m on my way back.”

I jumped, didn’t realize that Chris had taken the handheld radio with him.

“Get the coffee on, woman.”

As we lingered over breakfast, we looked around at the impossibly still water. We are on the very edge of the Atlantic Ocean, and yet the basin was as still as a millpond. You could see the trees reflected in the water all around us.

“I think I’ll fly my drone,” Chris said, taking the cups below. “You don’t get days like this very often.”

While he was gone, I polished the oil lamp, did up the breakfast dishes, washed the cockpit windows, filled the stove with fuel, the drone whizzing over the boat from time to time.

“That was fantastic,” Chris said, climbing back on board. “Can’t wait for you to see this.”

So we didn’t. I made another pot of coffee and we snuggled in on the settee to review the “footage” (does that term even make sense any more?) To see Chris’s video, click here.

As I watched, I was struck by how small our boat looks from the outside, alone in the middle of the basin, in the middle of nowhere. To me, it feels so big, it’s our home, the best home I’ve ever had. We have everything we need in 43 feet of boat. A tiny perfect galley. A cosy salon to curl up in at night. A v-berth to sleep in, with a hatch over our heads so we can watch the stars. And a spacious cockpit, where we spend our days, when we’re not off exploring.

The boat feels so solid, so safe and secure. Yet when seen from afar, it looks tiny and vulnerable. You probably never have to worry about your house drifting onto the rocks while you sleep. Or water suddenly filling your basement. (Okay, maybe you do have to worry about that.) Which is why make and mend days are so important.

“Oh my god, it’s almost noon,” Chris said, snapping the computer shut.

We sprang into action, and by the end of the day, Chris had solved the problem with the toplight, pumped out the cup or so of water that had found its way into the bilge in the engine room, inspected all the hoses to make sure that this was just rainwater somehow finding its way in. Together we waterproofed the canvas on the cockpit enclosure, re-rigged the foresail (we had used the wrong halyard)… I’ll spare you the full list.

By the end of the day we collapsed, exhausted, in the cockpit. The seals popped up again. You guys quite finished?

We were. We really were.

One-horse island

busy harbour (1)The only way to get to Entry Island, the one inhabited island not connected to the other Îsles de la Madeleine by road or bridge, is by boat. You can come by ferry or private tour boat or you come in your own boat, like we did. Somehow, visiting boats have to find a place to squeeze into the tiny harbour with the resident fishing fleet—a dozen or so boats of various sizes, lobster boats, for the most part, but there are a couple big scallop and crab boats as well. It gets a bit, shall we say, tight? And the water in the harbour is not very deep so there’s not much room to manoeuvre.

The entrance to the harbour is hard to spot from the sea. Fortunately, the fishing fleet was returning when we arrived so we were able to follow one of the boats in. There was a big swell in the narrow channel, not to mention a big wake from the boat that had just gone in, but Chris managed to avoid both the breakwaters and suddenly we were inside—with no place to tie up.

Rafting off the fishing boats, who were busy unloading their catch, didn’t seem like an option. We were about to turn back and head out when one of the tour operators waved us into a spot on the far side of the floating dock. Was there enough water there, I asked him? We draw six feet and the chart only indicated four feet of water there. Yes, yes, he said impatiently. Chris did a three point turn in the narrow space between the fishing boats and the tour boats and we tentatively came alongside where the tour operator was waiting to take our lines. No problem. Six and a half feet, the depth sounder said. And we were at low tide.

big hill

There’s lots to do on Entry Island, which is about two-and-a-half miles long and a mile and a half wide and has a population of fewer than a hundred. You can hike to the church. Or you can keep on going past the church and hike up the big hill in the centre of the island, called…wait for it…Big Hill.

We decided to climb big hill. On our way there, we passed a small sign saying “Farmer’s grave.” Up the sideroad we could see an abandoned farm, and behind it, a big white cross. Unusually big, for a grave. Must have been someone really special.

“That’s funny,” I said to Chris. “Why wouldn’t they have his name on the sign?”

Okay, it really is a big hill, but the climb to the top was worth it. The view of the islands was absolutely spectacular. So was the wind. While Chris happily admired the panorama, I held onto my hat, wondering how strong the wind would have to get before it would actually carry a person away.

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We picked our way through grazing cattle as we made our descent. Big Hill is a huge common pasture, enclosed by an electric fence. We spotted what we thought was a dead cow in the valley below us, but as we came closer, we could see that it was a horse. And it wasn’t dead. It lifted its head as we passed by, but didn’t get up. Was it okay? We weren’t sure.

We stopped at the little museum at the foot of the hill, told them about the horse, which I started to describe.

“Oh we know which one you mean,” the woman said. “There’s only one horse on the island. And it was okay an hour ago. The last group of hikers said they tried to approach it and it ran off.”

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But Entry Island wasn’t always a one-horse island. At one time it was home to a number of horses, including a famous horse named Farmer, who, after being sold to someone in Havre-Aubert, swam five miles to return to his home here, where he lived for the rest of his life.

“There is a big cross marking his grave,” she said, “on the road from the harbour.” Ah. Now it made sense. Not Farmer the farmer. Farmer the horse.

We’re staying here another night as we wait for the winds to go west so we can carry on with our eastward journey. Maybe tomorrow we’ll hike to the church again. Or up Big Hill. Or maybe we’ll take a closer look at Farmer’s grave. The choices are overwhelming.

 

Îsles de la Madeleine

The list of boat chores this morning is long—troubleshoot trilight, install AIS, rig radar reflector, order spare carburetor kit for the outboard. But what is Chris doing? He’s on shore, helping his new friend Henri make some repairs to his trebuchet.

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Yes, there’s a trebuchet on shore here, two of them, in fact, tall wooden structures that use a swinging arm to hurl things at enemies—rocks, for the most part, or whatever’s at hand.

Chris and I had spotted the trebuchets from the anchorage when we arrived, assumed they were part of the historical site of La Grave on shore here, which is not a burial ground, as the name suggests. It comes from the French word grève, which means pebbly and sandy terrain. La Grave is a thin spit of land with beach on both sides, lined with fishermen’s shacks that have been converted into little shops and cafés. Heaven, in other words.

Henri, who worked in the salt mines here on Îles de la Madeleine for 36 years, uses concrete balls—with a line and a float attached so they can be retrieved. He has made 250 shots at a wooden target—the castle, he calls it—out in the bay. He has to row out and repair it every time he hits it. His record is 928 feet.

“With the wind behind,” he says.

The trebuchets are just one of Henri’s retirement projects—I was afraid to ask about the others.

“Do you shoot English ships trying to enter the harbour?” I asked him.

“English, French—I don’t care,” he said with a grin.

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Former fishing shacks, now shops and cafés 

We are in the marina here at Hauvre Aubert now, after a couple of frustrating days at anchor. Our first day here, the weather was so lousy—rainy, cold, big winds—we didn’t even try to go to shore. Couldn’t have, actually—we were too busy dragging around the anchorage. Sure the cove here is sheltered from seas in all directions, but the low dunes do nothing to stop the wind, and the bottom is soft mud, very bad holding. Our superior Rocna anchor let us down for the first time ever.

It had calmed enough by the second day for us to launch the dinghy, but after about an hour, Chris gave up trying to get the engine to start and we pulled anchor and went into the marina.

As soon as the boat was secure, we went to shore and walked along the strip, looking for a place to eat. Actually, I knew exactly what we were looking for: “the nicest terrasse on the islands,” according to the tourism website, where we could expect a warm welcome from owners Isabelle and François. “François is a musician, so you may expect a serenade at any time of the day… And at sunset, each day: a moment on the violincello on the terrasse… Magic!”

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François plays while the sun sets

And it was. We sat on the terrace at Vent du Large, watching the sun slip into the sea while we sipped cold glasses of white wine and munched on cod cakes, listening to François play from Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello, starting with the first piece, which I always think of as Master and Commander music, and which we played at our wedding. This is why we put up with heaving our breakfasts into a pail. To get to places like this.

The dinghy engine gave us an excuse to rent a car, so the next morning, bright and early, we set off in search of an engine mechanic. Réal, the dockmaster here, had directed us to the service station just up the road (the mechanic there looked at the engine in our trunk and just shook his head sadly) and to a garage in Fatima, on the next island. We drove along a narrow strip of road between the ocean and a massive lagoon. The sand dunes on the ocean side were tempting, but we were on a mission.

We couldn’t find the place in Fatima, though we were happy for an excuse to drive around looking for it. Finally we headed to the town of Cap-aux-Meules. According to our cruising guides, if you can’t get it there, it isn’t on the island. We couldn’t get it there. The Honda dealer, which sold outboard motors and claimed to be willing to repair any make, didn’t have time to look at ours until mid-July. The chandlery in town suggested that we try the Yahama dealer, but they were closed. Fine. Obviously it was time to go touring.

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Sand, sand, and more sand, spectacular dunes and miles of beaches between the islands. On the islands themselves, high hills and steep cliffs, gray sandstone cliffs on the highest, volcanic islands, soft red sandstone cliffs along other shores, sculpted by wind and waves into fantastic shapes.

We drove the length of the islands, to Île de la Grand Entrée, the main fishing port, and what a busy place. We were so exhausted by watching the comings and goings of the fishing fleet, the one we sailed through on our way here, that we had to fortify ourselves with ice cream cones for the drive home. On our way back we parked the car, climbed the dunes, and looked out towards Gaspé, over the waters we had sailed. We could see the “offlying rock,” le Corps Mort, in the distance. The far distance. How far off does something have to be before it’s no longer offlying?

Home, exhausted, all the little stores closed (maybe another day.) We had a long hot shower, a lazy dinner on the boat, then fell into bed early.

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The next morning, we rose early to go for a little hike before spending another day in the car. Butte des Demoiselles, two rounded hills with spectacular views of the islands, are within easy walking distance of the marina. We encountered a family of foxes as we climbed, who watched us from the deep grass, ducking down or running off if we stopped to look at them. Then it was off to the Yamaha dealer in Cap-aux-Meules.

Desolé, but he couldn’t possible look at our engine until next week. He did, however, say that it sounded like a problem with the carburetor, so armed with some carburetor cleaner and some ether for good measure, we headed back to the boat.

soap store

Cleaning a carburetor is a one-man job, thank goodness. So I left Chris sitting on a stool on the back deck, the engine in pieces around him, and headed off to explore the shops. (Finally!!)

There are a few “souvenir” shops here, masquerading as artisan boutiques, but most of them are the real deal—handmade clothing, jewelry, soap. Lots of local artwork, paintings and sculpture, and a few other things—nautical clothing, oils and vinegars infused with herbs grown on the islands.

so much soap

I bought more handmade soap than a person really needs at one store, a couple of hand-printed postcards in another, little gifts for family members whose birthdays we will miss this summer, a little gift for me: a pair of earrings, polished pink stones set in silver with a matching necklace.

I chatted with the young woman behind the counter as she wrapped my purchase. She had very cool hair, a couple of tiny braids mixed in with the rest of her shoulder-length brown hair which was swept up in a messy bun. How I wish I could master the messy bun. Whenever I try it I just look like a middle-aged woman who did a really bad job of putting up her hair.

joanie
Fellow world traveller Joanie

I asked if she was from these islands and she said no, she was from Quebec City. She asked where I was from, and I said a sailboat docked in the marina, told her a bit about our life. Her eyes lit up. She travelled in India for three years before settling in Quebec City for a year. She couldn’t stand it there. All the tall buildings.

“I have always wanted to be in the middle of the ocean. There is nothing. And there is everything.”

I returned to the boat to find Chris lowering the engine onto to the dinghy to test it out. He had single handedly rebuilt the carburetor, without damaging the gaskets, which is a good thing because we didn’t have any spares. After a couple tense moments, success! The engine started. We decided to take it for a test drive—a big test drive, over to Sandy Hook (does every place have a sand spit called Sandy Hook?) The walk on the beach in the wind and sunshine was absolutely glorious. The sand squeaks when you step on it! So much fun. Here’s a video showing how to get maximum squeakage.

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The dinghy engine now runs better than it ever has, so we decided to celebrate by going out to dinner at Café de la Grave. It’s a great little place in the building that used to be the general store, and they have live music most nights—that night it was a piano player, but as happens here, at one point a man with an accordion came and played a few songs with her, then another man wandered over and sat down beside her and sang some local songs, the whole restaurant joining in. We felt a little self conscious, being the only ones who didn’t know the words. But people smiled at us warmly, we felt very welcome.

Okay, I try not to obsess about food, but allow me this. The pot au pot, as they call it here, was just so good! It’s a sort of seafood pot pie, huge chunks of lobster and scallops and shrimp swimming in creamy sauce topped by a thick pastry crust. Mmmm. I’m hungry. I wonder if they open for lunch?

What’s Chris up to… I poke my head above deck, look over at the trebuchet. It’s swinging wildly—clearly they have just fired it. Another success! Maybe we should go out for dinner again tonight!

Because we’ll be back to eating on the boat for a while now. Tomorrow we’re going back out to anchor, then we’re going to tie up for the night, if there’s room, at Entry Island, the one offlying island here, before setting off for Cheticamp in Cape Breton. Or maybe Prince Edward Island. It depends which way the wind blows.

Wherever we end out, we’re hoping it will be a little warmer there. Here on these tiny island out in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence it’s been cool, cold even, some days, the temperature never rising much above 15 degrees, the wind making it feel much cooler. Maybe we’ll even be able to break out the shorts!

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Entry Island off in the distance

First passage

raising the mainSo I wouldn’t say spring has arrived, exactly, but the day before yesterday we set out for Ilês de la Madeleine, a 36-hour passage, which is a bit ambitious for a shakedown sail.

The boat had been on the hard for nine months, frozen solid and scoured by winds off the ocean much of that time. We had spent a week checking everything over and renewing our safety gear in preparation for the ocean crossing we plan to make later this summer. Our life raft, it turned out, was beyond repair—the cylinder that inflates it completely and mysteriously empty, the rubber looking somewhat worse for the wear, having spent ten years crammed into a fiberglass case secured to the foredeck.

We bought a new life raft from Ted, in Gaspé, a man who lives and breathes safety gear. He equips many of the fishermen around here. We had him inspect our Mustang life jackets as well, and decided to spring for new ones. We walked out of his shop $3,000 poorer for equipment we hope never to use but feeling more confident of our chances of survival should it all go wrong.

IMG_3715Wednesday the boat was launched. Watching it in the travel lift always makes me feel slightly sick. Boats really shouldn’t be up in the air. But it went off without a hitch, and Thursday morning, bright and early, we threaded our way out of the harbour and around the many lobster pots and raised sail.

Okay, so the winds were a bit stronger than predicted, and the sea was much rougher than we expected. But you don’t get to just turn around when you’re out in the ocean, so we decided to carry on. We tied two reefs in the main and shortened the genoa a little, but we were still corkscrewing through the water at six knots. Here’s a short video of what the ride was like for most of the day. If you’re given to seasickness, don’t watch it.

Hardened sailors that we are…we got sick anyway. It always happens first time out. We managed to avoid actually throwing up by not eating anything substantial, just nibbling on crackers and drinking lots of water (sailing can be very slimming.) It’s always harder on Chris than it is on me—men get seasick much more easily than women do, for some reason. So he spent most of the day stretched out on the bench in the cockpit while I kept a lookout for ships.

By evening the wind had dropped and the seas had started—just started—to calm. Chris continued to hold down the cushion on the cockpit bench while I stood the first night watch. And the second. He stood the third without ever really standing—he sat behind the wheel, looking halfheartedly around—then I took the dawn watch.

I didn’t mind, really. There was so much to watch. The banks between Gaspé and Islês de la Madeleine are busy this time of year. The fishing season is short, just a few weeks. That’s not much time to make a whole year’s income. So at any time, there were at least a dozen busy boats around us to keep track of. No way they were keeping track of us, a pesky sailboat. What were we doing out there anyway?

sunrise on the ocean

Dawn comes early this time of year. The sky started to brighten in the east at 3 in the morning and the sun rose around 4. I was sitting in the cockpit, watching it, when a minke whale surfaced right beside the boat. Seriously, it was maybe six feet away from us. The sound of it blowing woke Chris up—he was on his feet in an instant, in time to see its fin disappearing into the water. To my delight, it circled around us and arced out of the water beside us again, and again. It was playing in our bow wake, I think. Or looking for morning coffee.

Chris was awake by then, so I made us a pot and we had an early breakfast before I went below for a big sleep. When I woke three hours later, the sun was fully up, the wind had died, and the seas had calmed. We had a lovely day of sailing, carefully avoiding the one hazard to the west of the islands—a rock described as “conspicuous.” You be the judge of that…

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Islês de la Madeleine emerged from the horizon around mid-day, and we spent a pleasant afternoon sailing along the southern coast of them to the cut that provides access to the sheltered waters inside the archipelago. We had the hook down by five and were in bed by seven o’clock, exhausted but pleased with our first passage.

Isles de la Madeleine

It’s rainy here today, and there’s a big wind from the southwest, but we’re sheltered in the sandy bay at Havre Aubert and looking forward to exploring these islands once the weather clears up. It’s warm, at last (would we call 15 degrees warm?) We’re hoping not to light the woodstove again until  the fall.

Would we call this spring?

When does spring arrive in Gaspé anyway? We thought the middle of June was a safe bet, but last night, the temperature dropped to five degrees, and this morning it’s cold and rainy and wind is howling through the rigging.

A week ago we were sitting on the deck of our other boat, Meadowlark, on our farm north of Durham, sipping coffee and watching a pair of bluebirds tending their young. They take turns bringing tasty (I can only assume) bugs and juicy-looking caterpillars to the nesting box. Bluebird TV. We could watch it all day. Shorts. We were wearing shorts. I’m sure of it.

Today we’re wearing jeans and T-shirts and thick fleecies as we huddle by the little woodburning stove on MonArk, which is still on the hard in the boatyard in Gaspé. There are still a couple of critical repairs to make, and we are waiting for our life raft to be repacked before we set off into the ocean. Maybe next week… though the weather doesn’t look much better then.

On the up side, the snow has disappeared. The boat is surrounded with dandelions now.

Chris is happy to be back on the boat. He hasn’t stopped grinning since we arrived. I’m having a bit of a struggle. I feel unsure about living in a boatyard in the middle of nowhere, and the boat feels, well, weird.

It’s listing to port, a lot. I have to gimbal the stove in order to cook, I discovered last night, when I dumped a can of tomatoes into the chili I was making and the juice dribbled out of the frying pan and down the front of the stove. Are we sinking into the grass??? I’m not sure even a thick carpet of dandelions will support a 20-ton boat. And it sways in the wind. Why does it sway in the wind? We’ve never swayed on the hard before. Hmmm. Would we call this hard?

I’m finding it a challenge to make the boat feel like home again. The first thing that struck me as I climbed down the companionway was the damp. Is damp even the right word? Everything felt wet. And no wonder. We opened the bilge to discover that it was full of water—well, not full but we pumped out at least 20 gallons.

Chris did a little investigating and determined that the problem was in the garage. That’s what we call the enormous locker at the stern of the boat. It’s big enough to park a small car in, but just like a real garage, there is never enough room. It’s where Chris stashes stuff—his fishing gear, a shop vac, cans of paint. A couple spare anchors. A portable welding machine (yes). Some fenders that should probably be thrown out but you never know when a deflated fender might come in handy. Chris can always fit one more thing in the garage.

Last year we installed solar vents in the garage to help keep it dry… but apparently we didn’t seal them properly. Rain has been dribbling in around them, making its way (miraculously) through all the stuff in the garage to the bilge. We weren’t able to leave the bilge pump running over the winter or it would have frozen, so the bilge just filled up.

So job one for me was opening all the portholes and hatches to air out the boat and hanging our bedding out in the sun to dry, and all of our clothes, why do we have so many clothes… Then I set to work cleaning, trying to get rid of the funny smell, not diesel or oil, but something else, what? I found the problem—I had left a bag of potatoes and some onions in the drawer below the stove. They were a mouldy, smelly mess. I will definitely not be getting a Marine Domestic Goddess award this year.

As I was cleaning the big locker in the v-berth—another space with seemingly endless capacity—I came across Bica’s lifejacket, her Outward Hound. No wonder I’ve been feeling so sad. The boat is just not the same without her. We keep looking around for her, then we remember.

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Slowly we managed to bring some semblance of order to the boat and my spirits began to lift. I noticed that a greater black-backed gull had claimed the radar arch on the boat beside us. Was it planning to nest there? Its deep, guttural call and crazy laugh made me smile. We went for a walk one evening, and found that the stunted bushes along the shore were alive with goldfinches. Chris pointed out the lobster pots studding the bay. We will have to be careful on our way out.

varnishing

Yesterday, it was sunny and warm enough to varnish, my favourite boat job. As I worked, I watched a flock of common eiders—not common to me—feeding in the tidal pool behind the boat. A small fishing boat raced up to the rocks outside the tidal pool, cut its engine then drifted through the sea of lobster pots as the men hauled them up one by one.

Then Roger, the nice man who shovelled the boat out for us on our last visit, stopped by. I could hear Chris and him chatting, about the weather, for the most part, but I’m pretty sure I heard Chris mention a medium decaf with double milk. His French is a little, shall we say…limited?

I still find myself thinking wistfully about the bluebirds, wondering if the little ones have fledged. I think the hardest thing about our nomadic life—Chris would say the best thing—is making the transition from one place to another. But I’m settling in here, it’s starting to feel like home. Yesterday we went for a long hike along the shore, and I found some white flowers, a carpet of them beside the trail, actually, so many that I didn’t feel bad picking a little bouquet for myself. If any of you recognize these as an endangered species, please don’t tell me.

 

The rain seems to be letting up now but a thick bank of fog has rolled in. I can hear, but not see, the buoy the Coast Guard installed yesterday at the mouth of the harbour. It clangs mournfully as it rocks in the waves. Or maybe as chunks of ice hit it?

We’re thinking now that it may be too early to sail to Ilês de la Madeleine. The weather in the Gulf looks cold and rough. Maybe there’s a good reason the other sailboats here have not yet been launched. We’re going to take our time getting ready to go in the water, then maybe sail to Gaspé and anchor in the sheltered bay there until spring comes.

Because it will come. It always does. Right?