Whenever I set out for a sail on my sailboat, I tend to cast a glance back over my shoulder towards my dock as I’m heading out of the harbor. I’m not exactly sure why it’s part of my departure routine, but do know that when departing on an extended voyage the usual glance is replaced by a long, lingering look. I suppose this could be in relation to a subconscious understanding that perhaps my boat and I may not return; acknowledgement that while modern boating is relatively safe compared to seafaring 120 years ago, there is still an element of risk. Statistically the risks are minuscule, but storms can wreak havoc, boats can run aground, sailors do drown, and a 32-foot sailboat is never master over the seas upon which it transits. This lack of mastery is why a good captain will always be on guard, or keep a good watch, while at sea….
After one long, lingering look back at my dock a few years ago, I found myself on a voyage that challenged my seafaring skills while allowing for exploration of new cruising grounds. It was my first cruise up to Cape Breton’s Bras d’or Lakes, some 170 miles northeast from my home port. Not a long journey, but I had planned it as a 10- to 12-day cruise of exploration. While the Bras d’or Lakes are a well-known sailor’s paradise, I also wanted to explore parts of the rugged and sparsely populated coastline between Dartmouth and Cape Breton, known as the Northeast Shore. Most recreational sailors sail its length far offshore without stopping, but I planned our return voyage home to take us up close and personal along the rocks and woods of that coastline, where we could spend nights in secluded coves or in the lee of desert islands.
Getting to the Bras d’ors to begin with proved challenging, as we were hit by a major nor’easter on our first day. The Forecast had called for sunny skies and a perfect southwesterly wind, but the skies had darkened by 10 a.m., and we found ourselves battling to make any headway in the rising northeasterly winds. By late afternoon we were fully reefed in what was the worst storm I have ever had to contend with as captain. We had reached the entranceway to Halifax Harbor where an outgoing tide meeting the offshore storm created a confused sea state in which school bus-size waves seemed to be rolling about in every direction, with some hitting us broadside with a mighty bang and a push over to the gunwales.
By 10 p.m., we had had enough. I consulted the charts and chart plotter and determined that Herring Cove would shelter us from the storm. It was a good call as the storm didn’t ease up for another eight hours, and who knows what Poseidon may have served up had we continued to challenge him throughout the night.
The rest of the trip up to Cape Breton and our exploration of the Bras D’ors was uneventful, and we were able to enjoy the beauty and sailing without any nautical challenges.
That is, until confronted with our second challenge of the voyage during the return. That first day’s sail did not disappoint our expectations as to the beauty of the Eastern Shore, as after passing by the port of Canso all we saw was wilderness and, excepting our modern sailboat and related gear, it felt like we could have been 16th Century explorers seeing the New World for the first time.
All went well until we arrived in Port Felix at dusk on that first evening. The chart plotter successfully guided us through the channels between Hog Island, Witch Island, Sheep Island and Harbour Ledge, but with a smattering of houses and a road, I had no desire to actually anchor in the small port. My cruising guide suggested that there was a safe, away-from-it-all natural anchorage to the south of Port Felix in what is called Witch Cove, and that I could get there via a narrow channel running between Richards and Sheep Islands. My paper chart indicated a mean low-tide nine-foot depth, as did my chart plotter, so after dropping the sails we motored down the channel at about five knots speed.
The depth sounder indicated nine feet, the chart plotter positioned us in the middle of the channel, and all seemed good as we cleared Richards Island. But suddenly the sounder counted down—eight, six, five, four, three at about that speed and our keel was just as quickly ensconced in thick mud. Meanwhile, the chart plotter still had us positioned in the middle of the channel. Many, many hours later we were approached by a fishing boat, which eventually managed to pull us free.
“What were you boys thinking?” the Captain asked.
“We were going to anchor in Witch Cove,” we said.
“You can’t get in there” he replied. “Why, at low tide you can walk ‘cross this here cove.”
Apparently information on the chart, chart plotter and cruising guide was based on 19th Century Admiralty charts.
Had I been a good captain I would have been more mindful of my lack of mastery over the sea, and would have steered us down that channel at a much lower speed and with a man keeping careful watch from the bow. Had I been a good captain I would have approached the anchorage with more care and followed the adage of never completely trusting the charts when in unfamiliar waters.
Live and learn, and I’m certainly a better captain now for the experience, but will never ever consider myself a “master.”
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