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…


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.


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.


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?



Back to winter

monark in snow

We’ve been watching the forecast in Gaspé, we knew there would be snow on the ground when we arrived at Newport, where our boat has spent the winter. From a distance, it didn’t look too bad, just a light covering on the ground in most places. Then we pulled into the boatyard.


Lobster season opens tomorrow, and the yard was pretty much emptied of fishing boats. A big front-end loader was frantically digging out the last few boats to be launched… and piling the snow around the handful of sailboats at the edge of the yard. We looked at our boat in despair. There was no way we were going to be able to get aboard without cutting steps in the snowbanks around it, a huge job.

Chris got started while I watched—we only have one snow shovel. When he finally made it to the top of the snowbank, he noticed that the wooden blocks supporting the starboard side of the boat had been knocked over by the loader. The boat was standing on three flimsy metal stands and the blocks on the port side. The snowbanks may have been the only thing keeping the boat from teetering over.

Chris Shovelling (2)

“Un problèm,” we told Roger, the friendly man who manages the boat yard, once we tracked him down.

“Pas de problèm,” he said and clambered over the snowbanks like a mountain goat. He slid down under the boat and stacked the fallen blocks up one by one.


Somewhat tentatively, we set up a ladder on top of the snowbank and climbed aboard. Not bad. Not bad at all. One tarp had come loose and flogged itself to pieces over the winter but all the others had held. We unzipped the canvas around the cockpit and went below and much to our delight, all was well. No leaks, no problems of any sort. Except of course that the boat was frozen solid.

Chris set up the generator and rigged up an electric heater in the engine room, while I started hauling the small stuff aboard—tubes of caulking, stainless steel bolts and washers, a spare water pump, oil filters, clothing, my favourite kind of balsamic vinegar (yes, I brought four bottles of it all the way from Ontario), firewood for out little wood stove. By the time I was done I was much warmer than Chris, who was rewiring the inverter and fixing the grease coupling on the thrust bearing and doing other obscure man jobs in the engine room.

Then came the tricky part. We needed to get the life raft, which weighs about a hundred pounds, off the foredeck and into the car so we could take it to be repacked before we set off into the ocean. No problem. Chris rolled the life raft onto a tarp, tied the four corners of the tarp to a halyard, then had me winch it up in the air (with our electric windlass) while he guided it over the side. We backed the car up to the snowbank and slid the life raft down to the tailgate, one, two, heave and it was in the car.

As we were pulling away, Roger zoomed up in the front-end loader, waved and smiled, then began attacking the snowbanks around the boat. At the end of a long day, he was staying late to dig us out.

We’ve only been here a few days and already we’ve accomplished all we had hoped to, more, in fact. Chris is now perfectly bilingual—he speaks English and Tim Horton’s French. Tomorrow the surveyor comes to assess the seaworthiness of the boat, at the insurance company’s request and for our peace of mind, then we’re heading home until spring arrives here.

Lobster boat 25 pct

The lobster fishermen don’t have the luxury of waiting for better weather. The traps are all loaded and even though it’s still winter here, tomorrow they head out onto the icy grey waters. The marine forecast is calling for moderate winds from the north and snow flurries beginning tomorrow night. But the water is open, except for ice along parts of the coast, and the seas are no more than two metres. They should be fine. I hope they’re fine.

Best laid plans

road sign
Island life moves at a different pace

“Where are your mitts?”

I’m not sure who the woman is talking to, then a helmet emerges at the top of the bridge that arcs over the lagoon between Algonquin Island and Toronto Island, and a little boy appears. He’s maybe five, riding a scooter—without mitts.

Without missing a scoot, he plunges one hand into his pocket—now he’s getting ready to coast down the bridge to the road, one-handed. I can’t watch. But I don’t hear a crash and when I turn around, he and his mother are on their way to the ferry.

I will miss these little encounters when we leave the island—just a week from today. Anywhere else, the little boy would be strapped into the back seat of a car as his mother drives him to school. But there are no cars on the island, so everyone travels on foot, by bicycle, on scooters. One talented young man travels everywhere on his unicycle.

The ferry in winter is not for the faint of heart

And sooner or later, we all meet on the ferry. Earlier this week I made the crossing with two of my neighbours. On the seven-minute journey, we discussed Henry James’ book The Portrait of a Lady (we agreed that the writing was a bit dense, and the pace of the story rather slow, but it’s a good read nonetheless). I admired the earrings the woman across from me was wearing—she makes them herself, in a workshop behind her house. When I asked her where I could by a pair, she shyly admitted that they could be purchased at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Then we talked about women’s pants for a bit, how you could wear an old blouse or sweater and still look okay, but if you got the width of your pantlegs wrong, you looked like a little old lady. Where else could this kind of exchange take place?

We will miss our neighbours, who have welcomed us into this tiny community in a way we hadn’t dare hope. We’ve dined with them, gone to the theatre with them, sat in the little church on the island with them—and their dogs. It was a new experience for both of us, going to church in the first place, but also sitting behind a very well-behaved dog who seemed to be listening attentively to the minister. No, the dog didn’t take communion.

our island car
Our island “car”–a tandem bicycle

I will miss walking on the beach with Dejan and Monty—yes, Monty is still with us. Who would have thought that he would outlast Bica? I will miss walking out the boardwalk and back each morning, then rewarding myself with a freshly baked muffin from the Island Café. Strawberry rhubarb, still hot from the oven. Apple spice. Banana nut… Oh, and peach muffins, in season. Maybe we should cancel our plans to go sailing.

How we spent our winter

But I don’t think Chris would go for that. And frankly, neither would I. We’ve spent the winter cosy in our island home, admiring the Toronto skyline while we pore over charts and pilot guides, planning our next adventure. It’s going to be a big one. This time, we have both retired for good. We can wander as long as we want.

The boat is in Gaspé right now, where there is still snow on the ground, lots of it, and lots more to come, according to the forecast. We will drive there after Easter with our new sail and dingy engine lift and engine oil filters and a couple new bilge pumps and filters for the water system and…

I’ll spare you the full list.

We’ll dig out the boat, if necessary, and get it all ready to launch, then drive back to Ontario and wait for winter to end in the maritimes. Surely we’ll be able to launch after the May 24th weekend? Then a summer of sailing in the maritimes and in August, we plan to cross from Newfoundland to the Azores, maybe winter in the south of Portugal, make our way to the UK in the spring.

Who knows what after that? And who knows if that’s what we’ll do? You know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men… But it doesn’t matter. We’ll be doing our favourite thing: making it up as we go along.

We’ll miss the view–but we’ll miss our friends more

Still winter

img_3367I’ve taken to walking every morning, as far as I have to, across the island, past The Rectory Café, out to the end of the boardwalk. That’s where I’d usually turn back, but these days I keep going.

I can’t find the words to describe the many shades of grey and brown I see as I walk along the beach towards Gibraltar Point. The snow fences, or rather the sand fences, are the only splashes of colour in an otherwise muted landscape. I pass a section of fence that has fallen over, the sand gradually eroded from beneath it, then finally a gust of wind takes it down. Even a snow fence can only take so much.

Mine are the only footprints along the beach. No-one walks here at this time of year. The point is exposed to winter storms from the east, and the prevailing westerly winds wrap around the end of the island, scouring the beach away. My boots hardly make an impression on the hard-packed sand. One set of prints. Just one set of prints.


I miss her funny lame paw prints in the sand, the arc she scribed with her back foot. I can’t remember the last time she walked on the beach with me. Not last summer. The summer before, I guess. She would bark hopefully at me as I put on my shoes. You stay, I’d tell her. I’ll be right back.

I miss her sharp little bark when she heard me come through the door, the jingle of the bell. Here I am. I’m back. But it’s silent now. The house is silent.

I look for her everywhere. On the love seat in the sun porch. She could see out the front door from there, watch people walk by. She would bark at the kids who passed our gate on their way to and from school. And the postman. She loved to bark at the postman, even though he couldn’t hear her.

I look for her under the table when I’m at my computer, but she’s not there. And when I wake in the night, I look for her beside me. Towards the end the only place she was comfortable was tucked tightly between us.

I miss taking her out in her little cart, wrapped in her blanket. That’s the life, people would say as we passed. Wish I were her!

No you don’t, I would say in my head. No you don’t.


It was so frustrating for her at the end. She couldn’t walk without help, hadn’t been able to for a long time, but it got so that she couldn’t really sit up on her own, had to be propped up with a pillow. If she did fall over, she couldn’t sit back up, she would just lie there patiently, waiting for one of us to see her predicament.

It was time to let her go, I know that. But I miss her every day.

Last night I found Chris standing in the sun porch. The sun was just setting, a last blaze of red as it slipped below a bank of purple clouds. But he was’t looking at the sunset. He was looking at the empty love seat.

I look out the window as I write this. It’s a bright, sunny morning, the wind is whipping up the bay, whitecaps as far as I can see. There is a white-breasted nuthatch creeping up the trunk of one of the big cottonwoods in the yard, the first I’ve seen in a long time, and the chickadees are singing their courting song now. Spring is just around the corner.

But it’s still winter in my heart.

Good night, MonArk

img_2921I write this surrounded by grazing cows.

We are in Durham, resting after a whirlwind week. Last Friday, we got up from our afternoon nap in the marina in Gaspé and checked the weather (the marine forecast is updated at 3pm.) GALE WARNING, a red band across the top of the page read. I started thinking about what to make for dinner.

“Look at this,” Chris said. He had pulled up the Windyty file, which shows wind direction and strength hour by hour. I looked. The gulf was a sea of dark green and orange arrows. Not good. He zoomed in on the Gaspé peninsula.

“If we leave at six tomorrow morning, and hug the coast, we can make it to Newport before the big gale really sets in.”

Sure enough, along the coast, things looked pretty calm… until Saturday at around supper time, when the whole gulf turned orange, then red. You don’t want to be out in red, believe me.

“Geez,” I said. I don’t like going out when the weather is clearly taking a turn for the worse. What if the forecasters are wrong by a few hours?? Chris scrolled ahead through the coming week.

“If we don’t leave tomorrow, we could be pinned down here for ten days.”

“But what about the car?” We had a rental car and our own car. The plan was to drop our car in Newport then return to the boat in the rental before we set sail.

“We need to move it, now.” He grabbed the two sets of car keys. “Come on, we’ve got to go.”

The road to Percé looks much less frightening in the day time

I hated the idea of driving through the mountains, negotiating hairpin curves in the dark, never mind the deer hazard. And worse, the moose. And there are many signs with skidding motorcycles on them. Do they come out at night, too?

But I could see that we had no choice. So off we went. I’m not saying I didn’t whimper a little as I followed Chris through the switchbacks at Percé. But by midnight we were back at the boat, safe and sound.

The next morning dawned clear and calm, as predicted. No wind. Yet. There was some residual swell from the east as we rounded the point and headed for Percé. (Well not directly for it, obviously, but in that direction.) We wallowed for a while, then the wind picked up a little and we were able to motorsail past the rock in the bright morning sunshine, strings of gannets passing so close we could see their orange masks. Funny looking birds. Every now and then the whole flock would wheel up in the air then start plunging down into the water, one by one, straight as arrows, making a splash that had to rise six feet in the air.

Up close and personal with Percé

It was a wonderful way to end our summer season. And we were in Newport, tied to the pier, well before the gale set in.

The calm before the storm

Which it did. Getting the boat off the wall the next day and into the travel lift was no small feat. It took several tries. Finally, Chris secured a stern line, threw the boat into forward, and opened up the throttle, which caused the bow to swing out enough for us to clear the fishing boat tied in front of us. Just.

Then there was MonArk, in the travel lift, heading up a gravel hill towards the boat yard. Not a sight any sailor likes to see. Boats should be in the water, not up in the air.


But that’s where MonArk is for now, and that’s where the boat will stay until next spring, up on funny blocks—they have a unique way of blocking boats, but it seems to work—buffeted by the gales of September. And November. And so on.

Good night, MonArk.


Hemmed in by Hermine

Securely tied to the dock in Gaspé.

We’re not the only sailboat spending a lot more time in Gaspé than we intended. We’re lined up along the breakwall, been here for almost a week. And we won’t be leaving any time soon.

Hurricane Hermine, now downgraded to an extratropical storm, whatever that means, has set off across the ocean to the UK, where it plans to spend the weekend. But it has left messy weather in its wake. Each morning, we study the forecast as we sip our coffee, looking for an eight-hour window to make the short trip down the coast to Newport, where we’ve made arrangements to pull the boat for the winter.

Yes, Newport, Quebec (despite its English name), not Sydney, Nova Scotia. We’re out of time. Chris has to get back to work, and I have yet another draft of my book to get working on.

Rounding the tip of the Gaspé peninsula. This is pretty much the last time we saw the sun.

When we realized we weren’t going to make it to Sydney, we did an overnight sail to Gaspé, a great place to leave your boat for the winter, we had heard. But the 12-ton travel lift here is too small. We weigh 20 tons.

Try Rivière au Renard, we were told. So we rented a car and drove across the Gaspé peninsula to the biggest fishing harbour in Quebec. A very nice man named Pascal tried to help us. He showed us into his office, at the back of a workshop, the floor swept clean, tools hung neatly on the wall. This looked promising.

“We can lift 300 tons,” he said proudly. “And here is a cradle you can use.”

But when we showed him a picture of our boat in slings, he shook his head. The full keel won’t work in a big travel lift. You can’t grab our boat by the belly, you have to pick it up by the keel. There would be too much danger of the boat falling over. Désolé.

We were starting to feel like the three little bears. Too big. Too small. We needed a travel lift that was just right.

MonArk in the travel lift at Port Credit.

Our next stop was the marine railway just up the road from the Gaspé marina. Because they move boats up an incline rather than lifting them in the air, they can pretty much handle any size or shape of boat. And they had lots of room for winter storage. Perfect, no?

No. The minimum charge to use the railway is $5,000. But of course that includes winter storage, the nice man told us. I eyed the leather chairs in his office, the Keurig coffee maker, the darling little espresso cups. Back to fishing harbours for us.

The next day, we packed a lunch and made the long drive to Newport, along the Atlantic coast of Quebec, just north of the New Brunswick border. The scenery along the coast was stunning. We had seen pictures of Percé, which we passed on the way, but pictures don’t capture the sheer size of the rock. It’s enormous. Of course we stopped and took a picture.


The fishing harbour isn’t really in the town of Newport, which isn’t really a town anyway, though there is a small garage and a dépanneur beside the highway. The harbour is north of Newport, in the middle of nowhere, really. It has a wharf where fishing boats tie up, a small floating dock suitable for powerboats, but it turns out it does have a travel lift that’s just right for us.

We parked the car in a dusty gravel lot and wandered around until we found what looked like the office. Two fishermen and a very skinny, nervous woman were sitting around a picnic table, smoking furiously and drinking coffee from paper cups.

“Bonjour,” I began hesitantly. “Nous avons une bateau à voile à quarante-trois pieds et  nous cherchons une place pour l’hiver.”

One of the men answered me in English, as often happens when I try to speak French.

“How heavy?”

“Twenty tons.”

“Not a problem.”

He turned to his companions and a long and animated discussion ensued. It seemed to centre around the question of whether or not they had space to store us. The woman kept eyeing us suspiciously, then finally burst out—in French, not realizing that although my spoken French leaves much to be desired, I can understand French pretty well—“But they are English!”

The men overruled her—they could pull us out of the water next week. Done deal.

Bica doesn’t really mind being hemmed in.

So it’s all settled. As soon as the seas in the gulf calm a little, we’ll sail to Newport, and with any luck we’ll have the boat settled in for the winter by the end of next week.

The marine weather is calling for southeast winds tomorrow (we’re travelling south.) Sunday, southwest again, 25 to 30 knots. Monday the winds go northwest briefly, gusting to 35 knots (that’s 70 miles an hour), then Tuesday, back to southwest 25. Showers. Fog patches. Big seas in the gulf.

Come on, Hermine. Enough already.