Conventional wisdom dictates that you not enter an unknown harbor at night, and as we prepare to depart Quebec City, I wonder if the same applies to leaving. For three days the wind has been blowing a steady 25-plus knots from the east, against the current of the Saint Lawrence River, pinning us down in Bassin Louise, the old port, now Quebec City marina. But let's be clear; this is not a hardship.
With the ramparts of Chateau Frontenac and Quebec’s old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, rising above the marina, the ambience of the city is delightfully European. And the shopping is fantastic. A mild mid-August evening finds my partner Mike and me feasting on fresh lobster ravioli on a romantic restaurant terrace surrounded by French-speaking Qubcois. We are discussing tomorrow, our route and destination, our joie de vivre.
With the tide, current and wind now favorable, we lock out of the protected inner basin and tie up Phantasia II, our Niagara 35, to an outer floating dock near the tugs and pilot boats. At 0330 on a moonless night, we cast off and head downriver.
The Saint Lawrence is a significant marine thoroughfare, very well charted and marked, and we pass the dark hours uneventfully as the tide begins to ebb and we gradually pick up speed. Sunrise finds us passing south of le d’Orlans, part of the rich agricultural region of Charlevoix. Every few miles we see a village—St. Michel, St. Laurent, St. Francois, Berthier-sur-Mer—with several sailboats and fishing trawlers clustered inside a small harbor. Each village is anchored by a wood or stone church with a typical galvanized spire, flanked by farmhouses with jewel-like red or turquoise metal roofs.
The river widens and we keep to the northern main shipping channel to avoid the many small islands, reefs and shoals. As the river bunches up into the channel, the current builds and the little wavy lines indicating rapids start appearing on the chartplotter. The current, combined with the still ebbing tide, boosts our speed over ground to almost 10 knots; as we shoot into the channel between the north shore and le aux Coudres, we reach 12 knots. At 16,000 pounds, Phantasia isn’t a surfing boat, but we carve a thick creamy trail in the mysterious opalescent green water of the river.
La Malbaie with its fabulous hotel, Le Manoir Richelieu, comes into view and I make a plea for a lunch stop on the “Flavor Trail” that Quebec gourmets recommend. But Mike, ever the pragmatist, reminds me that we must keep the tide in mind or our last few miles to Cap l’Aigle (the eagle), our destination for the day, will be difficult and slow.
The small marina at Cap l’Aigle has come highly recommended by a Quebec acquaintance. Above the marina office is the charming Restaurant Aux Bateaux Blancs, which offers a fabulous view of the river, an occasional passing freighter and the south shore, now washed in sunset hues. Over an espresso we discuss plans for tomorrow’s passage to Tadoussac at the entrance to the Saguenay River.
Timing on this next stretch is critical, since it is essential to arrive at the Saguenay as the tide begins to flood or entering the river becomes very difficult. So at 0700 we are back on the river with a perfect light southwest breeze, hoping to spend the next six hours making 7 knots. We have also entered the Saguenay-Saint Lawrence Marine Park, which means we must keep 400 yards away from any beluga whale and 200 yards from any other whale. The depth, temperature and abundance of shellfish krill attracts an incredible variety of whales, including blue, fin and humpback. Belugas, the Casper the Ghost of the whale species, number only about 1,000 in the St. Lawrence and are a vulnerable population.
Over time, the powerful and deep Saguenay, actually a fjord, has swept much sediment into its mouth, building up huge sand banks and bars so that the force of the current now squirts out a very narrow channel marked with pairs of red and green buoys. We head for the marina at Tadoussac and tie up with the whale-watch tour boats, Ministry of Fisheries runabouts, fishing trawlers and other visiting sailboats. The village, over 400 years old, is famous for its red-roofed resort hotel, which was first established in 1864 and is now a popular tourist destination. We have Gasp shrimp on board and resist the temptation to try the hotel’s dining room. Besides, we have a date with the ebb tide at 0500.
Ahead of us the eastern sky is just starting to glow as we sweep out of the harbor next morning, aided by the current and tide. It’s very cold, and the air is so clear it seems our eyes can suddenly see more clearly. The hills appear more three-dimensional and their details are more precise. Our breath and coffee make the only shreds of vapor. Then we notice some strange puffs hovering over the water out in the middle of the river. Whales!
They are some way ahead of us, but the spouts are very tall and hang for seconds, backlit by the rising sun. We are nearing the rip line where the St. Lawrence and the Saguenay meet. The water is turbulent and gulls swirl and screech overhead. A fin whale breaches just ahead, cutting diagonally across our bow, and our coffees go flying as we grab our cameras and turn the bow up to move out of its path. The whale’s black back and sickle-shaped fin appear again and again as it surfaces and blows, until it is just a couple of boat lengths away.
Moments later the pillowy shapes of surfacing belugas appear to starboard. It is only about 0700 and we are the only witnesses to this amazing scene. My hands are still shaking as I help Mike raise the sails and trim for a broad reach, 43.5 miles northeast across the river to Bic Island and the national park.
We gradually peel off layers of clothing as the sun rises. The wind builds to 25 knots as we close with the eastern shore. We pass Isle du Bic and drop anchor in 25 feet allowing for a drop of 10 feet at low water, in Anse l’Orignal (Moose Cove). The cliffs and a small mountain give modest protection from the southwest, and the bay is quite choppy, so we put out 120 feet of chain and raise the riding sail. One of the cliffs overlooking the bay is Le Chocolat: time for a late lunch.
We spend the rest of the afternoon resting and watching the seals, razorbills and scoters. Some kayakers and hikers on the beach are the only people we see until another sailboat enters from downriver. It is time to turn things down a notch, and the decision to stay a day to do some dinghy exploring comes naturally.
Time seems to slow down on the river. The villages seem to get smaller and farther apart, the shoreline more rugged and dramatic. Farms give way to logging trucks. Cliffs are often topped with a cross; a tradition started by Jacques Cartier when he first landed in this region in the mid-sixteenth century. The Monts Notre Dame, part of the Appalachians, rise over 3,000 feet. We anchor or tie up in small harbors and marinas in Matane, Sainte-Anne-des-Monts and Grand-Valle. We eat fresh seafood, use our high-school French and ferry fuel to the boat by jerry can. Although we’re only a few hours from various urban centers in New York, Ontario and Maine, this region of Quebec seems undiscovered.
The weather has gone maritime with fog and rain, so we stay put in the snug marina in Riviere-au-Renard (Fox River) waiting for a weather window for rounding Cap Gasp. We are cozy inside, and Mike bakes a huge wheat and raisin loaf that he christens “Phantasia” bread. On September 1, in clearing weather and with a forecast of 10-20 knot westerlies, we head out for our final leg into Gasp. For the first time on this cruise we set the gennaker, and with a boost from the current we make 8 knots.
The Cap des Rosiers light, the tallest in Canada, is dwarfed by magnificent cliffs crenellated like the walls of an ancient fortress. Stretching into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Forillon Peninsula is a gnarled finger pointing to Newfoundland, les de la Madeleine and the Atlantic. It terminates in a spire called The Old Man.
The cliffs are sheer with water depths of 100 to 200 feet close in, and we switch to the double headsail rig and tack over, then back out, in no hurry to end the experience. The wind is frisky, and we enjoy our best sail of the trip. Qubcois call this kind of sailing “sportif.”
Cap Gasp is a narrow point, and soon we are past it, tacking into the bay toward the town of Gasp, past mussel farms and local sailors. We anchor off Sandy Point for a couple of quiet days before heading into Club Nautique Jacques Cartier, which will be Phantasia’s home for the winter.
While we go through the process of winterizing the boat, now secure in her custom-made wood cradle, we stay in a charming B&B. But after a month on the water, a stationary bed feels strange.
The chores are ticked off our list, and it is time for a final celebratory dinner. We’ve chosen a bouillabaisse, the fabulous fish soup that gets better as you work your way down to the bottom of the bowl. Mike and I raise our glasses in a toast: “To joie de vivre.”