There’s a unique cruising ground that combines access to urban locations with easy escapes to wilderness and nature. Its native people may be the friendliest on the east coast of North America. Its coastline runs 250 nautical miles in a straight line, but that should be multiplied several times after factoring in its many indentations—enough for a lifetime of cruising. Called Nova Scotia, it seems close enough to reach from Maine in a sea kayak—on a chart, at least. In real life, though, the currents that slosh back and forth with the mighty tides in the Bay of Fundy can make life miserable, especially when the wind picks up. Off Cape Sable, the southwest corner of Nova Scotia, the going can turn into a true slog if the 3-plus knot current ever runs against you.
My wife, Nancy, and I made an easy crossing aboard our Mason 44, Frances B, from Gloucester, Massachusetts, to south of Seal Island, Cape Sable, 150 miles away. Midway across, the southwest breeze diminished and backed first to a ghostly southerly, then southeasterly. Fog swept in with it, dense. Trusting our plotter and radar and the engine, we pushed on. Three hours later Nancy spotted the first buoy, a red blob bobbing in and out of sight among the lazy swells. Happily, the current was still running east. A third of a mile from shore the thick vapors thinned out and a veil of wet haze rose slightly over a low sandy shore. The base of a lighthouse appeared, the rest of it hiding in high fog. Three cables away to starboard, swells crushed on the shoals of Horse Race.
East of Cape Sable the sea flattened, while ahead stretched Nova Scotia, its coast shredded into inlets, sounds, bays and coves, all accessible in day trips. A long inlet a few hours from Cape Sable hides Shelburne. Every boat cruising Nova Scotia will sooner or later show up at Shelburne Yacht Club to refit, relax and socialize. Some of the arrivals pack impressive sailing experience. Jacco and Jannie on the 51ft aluminum Dutch sloop Maaike Sadet circumnavigated via Tierra del Fuego and the Chilean channels on their previous boat. Larry Tyler on the 54ft Crealock design The Dove had sailed all the earth’s major oceans, including a summer stint in Greenland. Quiet now, Shelburne was once a busy sailing ship port, but the old shipbuilders vanished and the remaining shipyard now serves motorized commercial vessels. Nonetheless, some evidence of wooden-boat shipping lingers on along the waterfront. An active cooper shop, for example, dates back to the 19th century. Schooners bound for offshore banks once stopped in Shelburne to buy boats made in the Dory Shop, its doors still open.
Among Canadian yachtsmen starved for sandy beaches in the sun, Port Mouton, our next stop, gets high grades. Along the Nova Scotia coast the morning light southwesterly may, by afternoon, muscle up to a strong breeze. By midday, in 20 knots of wind, we had already reefed the main and rolled up some of the genoa. As we approached our destination, a red beacon to starboard flashed by within spitting distance. A long beach backed by high dunes opened up, the forest in the background cutting the wind to a breeze as the anchor splashed into Caribbean-blue water, The setting sun threw long shadows on the sands..
Port Mouton isn’t all about lolling in the sun, though. Out of sight farther up the bay, behind a massive breakwater, hummed a busy fishing fleet. Following the collapse of the cod fisheries, Canada has maintained a strict conservation policy; an open season for a species may last only days. One evening we counted 57 longliners chugging out to sea at top speed.
Of all the Nova Scotia ports, Lunenburg is the most irresistible. As we headed in, a skyline of steeples appeared ahead. Close in, the waterfront looks like a 19th-century etching, complete with schooners and square-riggers. If you can, tie up alongside the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic next to the Bluenose, a storied schooner that beat the best of Gloucester. Beloved by all Canadians, the schooner often ventures out, and she’s a thrilling sight. The town has somehow managed to repel developers, and lovingly maintained wooden architecture lines the streets. No wonder Lunenburg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As for the area’s seasonal weather, the Labrador Current flows by Nova Scotia from the icy Arctic, so you can forget about swimming. However, just a bit farther offshore the Gulf Stream drifts along eastbound, its warm waters a magnet for hurricanes.
A tropical storm or two strays over the coast each summer, but fortunately, escape anchorages are nearby. Twice we sought refuge in La Have River, just around the corner to the southwest.
To the northeast opens the vast Mahone Bay with scores of islands, bays, yacht clubs, marinas and boatyards. In search of tranquillity and yet another potential refuge, we sailed into Deep Cove, a cleft in the bay’s steep eastern shore. The narrow channel, precipitous on one side and forested on the other, ended in a bowl of a pond where a necklace of moorings for local yachts left the middle for visitors.
A little way east, Halifax, with a population over 400,000, offers everything your yachting heart could desire, plus a culturally thriving city in general. The great peninsula in the western approaches, a 20-mile stretch punctured by eight inlets that themselves branch into side arms, is the local yachtsman’s playground. Much of the time ocean swell will also roll by, providing the thrill of open-Atlantic sailing for mariners from the city. Considering the numbers of boats in Halifax, we made sure to sample the place on a weekday.
Afterward, as we approached the narrow channel into the anchorage in nearby Rogue’s Roost, the high tide covering the tips of the kelp from the bottom made things a bit tricky and as novices in this rocky maze we motored in gingerly. Following the chart, we chose a cove to starboard that was good for one boat of our size. Later, hoping to take some photos from the surrounding high hills, I dinghied ashore in search of a path or trail. However, none existed in this still wild country to close to Halifax. Later that Friday afternoon, yachts began flocking in from the nearby city, but by then we lay secure in our pool among hills.
East of Halifax stretches Nova Scotia’s less populated and less developed Eastern Shore. For millennia, meltwaters from receding ice washed deep gorges on the way to the sea. Today’s these outflows have shrunk into rivers, long multi-armed forested bays and miniature archipelagos of islands and islets. For yachts pressed for time, a number of coves also provide shelter right on edge of the ocean. Molly’s Cove on Shelter Island, part of Pope’s Harbour, was especially memorable with its clear blue waters, forests reflecting in the mirror-calm sea and winding trails, and two long, sandy beaches to boot.
Aquaculture projects turn up in many other protected bays. However, they always leave room to pass through or anchor. A bit of slaloming led us into Yankee Harbour, Whitehead Bay, where a large installation of submerged cages hove in sight, leaving free space to anchor in an indent in the shore. In the morning two men came to tend their new oyster farm, and the oysters they gave us, round, still young and smaller than the giants of the Chesapeake or South Carolina, tasted delicious. Again, prevalent ocean swells on this coast roll in from the southeast and straight into many bays—though not into Liscomb Harbour, protected by three islands off the entrance. At the west end of the four-mile run Liscomb Lodge hides on the cliff over a fast, burgundy-red river. The floating dock was taken, but we found shelter in a narrow passage. Apparently, a strong gale howled outside yet only rare puffs moved the treetops as we lounged near the bar in the Lodge to the tunes of “oldies but goldies” delivered by two mature musicians.
When exploring these waters, boats of moderate draft will often take various different “inside” routes among offshore islets and rock reefs. Our 7ft draft put a damper on such adventures, except in a few cases. Nonetheless, while negotiating the channels between tiny buoys demands concentration, this extra effort is often rewarded by access to uninhabited, unspoiled bays.
Skirting an unmarked rock pile awash in the Louse Harbour entrance, we sent seals barking, diving, frantic. Then peace prevailed as a cluster of bewhiskered muzzles tracked our movements. In Port Howe a mildewed house leaned over, about to topple, its windows gaping empty. Behind a spur of rocks, out of sight, stood a wooden cabin, probably rarely used. Above our anchored boat an alarmed osprey on a giant basket of twigs peeped at high pitch. Its mate wheeled down from the clouds—there must have been chicks in the nest. Dinghy-cruising through the Northeast Arm to the pygmy rapids of a tawny stream, we tracked a weasel feeding among rocks. Nancy joined in and foraged for mussels and periwinkles in the seaweed. Flitting between treetops, a massive bald eagle followed.
In autumn, back on the edge of the Bay of Fundy, leaving Nova Scotia can be a chore. We went by the beach on Cape Sable again, and this time the seas on the shoals grew higher and higher till a wall of swelling water collapsed with thunder before reaching our channel. Once around in a light northwesterly we powered in the lee of islands to the north, hoping for a better angle to cross the Bay of Fundy to Maine. Out in deeper water the wind, west-northwest, stiffened against the current, the short seas now steep, vicious. The bow would dig in and have no time to rise before the next wave rolled right over it. Crossed with an underlying southeastern swell, the waves came from all over. The Bay of Fundy was winning.
Finally, a tack toward the shore took the boat into more reasonable waters near Yarmouth. Entirely protected from gales, the place was once a center of shipping and shipbuilding, important enough to require, from the early 18th century on, regular passenger and cargo traffic to Boston. Today fishing vessels of all sizes lie at wharves built over old launching ways. The CAT, a monstrous catamaran, also runs to Portland, Maine, in an unbelievable five and half hours. Yachts proceed up the harbor to pick up moorings or tie up at a small marina downtown.
For years I’d planned to stop in Brier Island, young Joshua Slocum’s home, and from Yarmouth it took just a few hours to anchor right off the Slocums’ red cedar shake home, well clear of some nearby salmon farm cages. All summer, the krill-rich Bay of Fundy currents bring scores of whales here as well as tourists in pursuit—a spectacle we missed, it now being October.
The wind, still northerly, turned the rhumb line to Bar Harbor, where we would clear Customs, into a fast overnight reach—until, while entering French Bay during a dark dawn, a lobster trap line looped itself around our propeller blade. Still under sail only, we pulled down the main and gybed several times under staysail before the strap slipped off. One advantage summer sailing in Nova Scotia has over Maine: Canadian lobster season ends at the end of May. No need in Nova Scotia for icy dives, a saw in hand, to free the boat!