Cone of uncertainty


It’s not a term I’d heard before, but I’m certainly familiar with now. We’ve never sailed in the ocean during hurricane season, so studying forecasts from the National Hurricane Centre has never been a morning ritual. But it is now. Actually, I check the forecast several times a day. And in the middle of the night. I’ll admit that it’s turning into an unhealthy obsession. Sometimes Chris hides the iPad.

Hurricane forecasts are based on computer models, satellite data, and the actual movement of a particular storm. The cone of uncertainty, which represents the probable track of a storm, is designed to show that the further out the forecast is projected, the less sure anyone is about a storm’s track.

A couple weeks ago, some long-range computer models had Jose making landfall exactly where we were, in Lunenburg. So we left our comfortable mooring ball there and scooted ten miles up a nearby river to wait it out.

As we rounded the final bend in the river, a wall of derelict fishing boats and a huge old navy vessel loomed out of the fog.

“This can’t be right,” Chris said.

navy ship

We double-checked the chart. Sure enough, we had reached the public wharf in Bridgewater, at the head of the La Have River. Ample room for visiting sailboats to tie up, our guide said. But there wasn’t. We circled a couple of times, then finally squeezed in front of the navy ship. Its grey hull rose high above our stern. I climbed onto the rough concrete dock and secured our lines around a couple of huge, rusty bollards. A flight of pigeons settled on the bow of the ship behind us, peered down through the gathering gloom. On the wharf beside us was an old steel sailboat, waiting for the cutting torch. Nearby were the remains of another boat, Just a transom and a couple of winches. It was a sad sight.


We spent a week in Bridgewater, in the fog and the rain, waiting for Jose—which never did hit Nova Scotia—to be downgraded to a tropical storm and head off to sea. Which he finally did.

But Maria was hard on his heels, with a massive cone of uncertainty that blossomed out into the North Atlantic. Forecasters were saying that Maria would miss New York and Boston, but might brush the tip of Nova Scotia and merge with the remnants of Jose before heading out across the Atlantic.

Might brush the tip of Nova Scotia. It’s the uncertainty that gets me.

Chris is pretty Zen about it all. He works on the boat, reads his book, flies his drone when the fog lifts. What’s for dinner, he asks. Another day has slipped by.


After Jose headed offshore and before Maria moved our way, we managed to sneak along the coast to Shelburne, a pretty little town near the southeastern tip of Nova Scotia. We’ve been waiting here for Maria to make up her mind, which she finally did. The night before last she passed well offshore of us and headed out to sea. But the wind in the night was unbelievable. I sat in the cockpit wrapped in a blanket and watched waves breaking around the boat in the anchorage, even though we’re a good ten miles from the ocean here. Then the rain came.

But this morning has dawned sunny—and sharply colder. It will take a couple days for the seas to settle down enough for us to make the three-day passage to Cape Cod, but it looks like we’ll be able to start heading south over the weekend. I’ll just check the forecast…

Wait a minute. Where’s the iPad?

Hurricane hole

at anchorEleven and counting. That’s where we are today. There have been eleven named storms so far this year—you’ve probably been watching the devastation caused by Irma on the news, Jose is coming across the ocean on much the same path, and Katia is rambling around in the Gulf of Mexico. And it’s early September. We don’t expect things to completely quiet down until the first of November.

Irma was a big question mark. At first it looked like Irma might make landfall halfway up the coast of the United States, too close for comfort. So Sunday we took cover five miles up a river on the eastern coast of Nova Scotia, along with several other sensible sailboats.

We learned an important lesson on the way here: a storm doesn’t have to have a name to cause trouble. We left the shelter of the Bras d’Or Lakes just after an unnamed storm which had come up the coast had moved off to sea. Fine, we thought. The winds had settled (if you call 25 knots settled) and were in our favour, so we set off. It was a lively ride across the Canso Strait, waves breaking over the bow and showering the boat with salt water, and we were making good time. Until we rounded the northwestern tip of Nova Scotia and encountered the swell left by the unnamed storm.

There’s still debate among those of us sheltered here in this hurricane hole as to how big the swell was. Some say six feet, some say more like nine. It sure looked like nine feet of water to me when it loomed in front of the boat (yes, of course we were pounding into it.) But there was a long interval between waves so for the most part, the swell just lifted us up then set us down again more or less gently, except of course when we crashed into the next wave.

We’ve decided that if an unnamed storm can wreak this kind of havoc with the seas, we’re going to wait here until Irma wears herself out before we continue our journey south.


But this is not such a bad place to be. We’re at the head of the Liscomb River, anchored off an old fishing lodge—it’s been here since the 1950’s, upgraded over the years, to include a swimming pool and hot tub which boaters are welcome to use. Very civilized. Showers. Laundry. And a restaurant specializing in cedar-planked salmon. I’m okay with being holed up here.

Yesterday we amused ourselves by going on a 10-kilometer hike to the waterfalls and fish ladder at the head of the river. It was a rugged hike—“Master’s Level,” the map cautioned—but we had all day, and anyway, how hard could it be?

Hard, is the answer. It started out okay, but as we got further up the river, the trail started to climb and we had to scramble up slippery rocks and teeter along logs laid across little streams. Two hours it took us to get to the suspension bridge over the falls, but it was worth it (I think): the view was spectacular, and the fish ladder was quite something, a major piece of infrastructure. We had expected a narrow wooden, well, ladder. This was a superhighway for spawning salmon.


Truly one of the best things about this place, though, is the other sailors. A couple of the boats holed up here are on their way back from Newfoundland. The stories they tell make our sail here seem like a Sunday outing. The people on one boat are professional documentary filmmakers, and after watching their videos and seeing what they’ve sailed through, we feel reassured about our decision to stay here for a bit. Even they aren’t willing to venture out in this.

How many more days will we be here, you might wonder?

So do we.

Sailing with MacGyver

I wasn’t the first person to call him MacGyver. It was Neville, a single-hander we met just after we made landfall in the Azores. He limped into harbour a couple of days after us, having gone through the same gale we did but having fared much worse. His engine was seized, his boom was broken, and his batteries were dead. He’d been hand steering for four days and he was exhausted. Chris helped him put his boat back together as best he could using the sparse materials at hand, and ever after Neville called him MacGyver.


We set out for Newfoundland on Monday, under sunny skies. The wind was at our back, the seas lively but on our stern quarter so we were moving right along. We’d been out for about three hours when Chris gave me the wheel and went below to check something in the engine room. He was gone a long time. I heard the auxiliary bilge pump come on. Not a good sign.

“There’s water in the bilge,” he said.

“Where’s it coming from?”

“I don’t know but I’ve pumped it all out. I can’t see any obvious problems. Let’s just see what happens.”

We sailed along for a bit, going over all the possibilities we could think of. Then I went down below to see how we were doing.

“The bilge in the engine room is full,” I reported.

“Take the helm.”

He pumped the bilge out again, then came above deck.

“I’m just going to have a look in the garage.”

I’ve mentioned the garage before—remember? The enormous locker at the stern of the boat big enough to park a small car in? Well to our horror, it was almost full of water. Something had gone seriously wrong back there and the new bilge pump we had installed wasn’t keeping ahead of it.

“Turn around,” Chris said. “We’re going back.”

Now we were sailing into the wind and the seas, and it was impossible to point the boat back towards the Great Bras d’Or inlet without the help of the engine. Chris kept checking the garage—we weren’t winning.

“There’s a sandy bay over there,” I said pointing to a spot on the chart just outside the inlet. “We could drop anchor there.”

“Good idea,” Chris said. “It’s shallow enough there that we can ground the boat if we have to.”

I didn’t find this very reassuring.

We dropped the hook and while I kept an eye on the anchor, Chris hauled everything out of the garage—no small feat—stripped off his pants, stepped in, and started bailing with a bucket. The water was up to his thighs.

“There’s the problem,” he said, once the bottom of the garage had emerged. The engine exhaust hose, which unlike a car carries cooling water, not just exhaust, had split in two. We had been pumping the ocean into the garage as we motored out the inlet. And as we made our way back to relative safety.

He went down to his workshop, came back up with a can of glue, a roll of self amalgamating tape, and some shrink wrap—the kind we use to cover the boat in winter. Before long he had a temporary fix in place.

“Let’s get moving.”


We motored into the inlet, against the current but we didn’t really have much choice. We had to get out of the ocean. At one point, we were moving at one knot—about one mile per hour. It was after dark when we finally dropped anchor in the shelter of Otter Island. It had been a long day.

But a good day, in some ways. It reminded me that I’m sailing with MacGyver. We could have sailed across the ocean, if we had to, with the exhaust hose taped together so securely. Chris can fix anything but a broken heart.

Wait a minute—I’ve seen him fix one of those, too.


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.


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.


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.


“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.


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.”


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.