Onward from Quebec City: Riding the currents

Au revoir to Québec City.
We weighed anchor just as the currents were turning in our favour, and before we knew it, the city’s striking profile slipped by and Vieux Quebec was in our wake. Montmorency Falls, visible in the distance, tempted us to take the northern route around Iles d’Orléans to check out their glory, but we had distance to make, so instead, we headed east along the faster southern shore.

We were buddy-boating with our new friends Lisa and Guy on Inti, their Alberg 30, planning to hang out over the next week or so, and we had mutually agreed to make nearly 50 nautical miles to a good anchorage at Iles aux Coudres for the night. That was the plan. It was a novel treat to be jointly setting intentions for the next day with another boat.

Tim and I divvy up our roles on board according to what we’re best at and what we most enjoy (or don’t!). For those who know us both, you won’t be surprised that I’m the lead navigator. Tim’s far stronger at in-the-moment stuff. Looking ahead is not his forte, whereas not looking ahead just stresses me out. If you are interested, here’s the information I review each evening to plan the next day’s sail. If you are not interested, feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs.

First, we check in with each other on how we’re doing morale and energy-wise (Are we up for a long sail? Or do we need a more relaxing pace?). We also talk about any particular wants or needs that might influence our next few days (like we’re low on an essential, say, peanut butter, and will soon need to find a place to provision). Usually I then take a look at the paper chart to do a first draft plotting of our route. We have a stack of official Canadian Hydrographic Service charts, purchased from Nautical Minds bookstore in Toronto. They have a great inventory of boating literature and resources, and equally great customer service.

The Predictwind app is next, providing multiple forecasting models of temperature (will it be a 4-layer of clothes or a 5-layer day?), wind strength, direction, and gust strength (pay attention to the gusts!).

Predictwind also gives times and heights of high & low tide at our intended destination (important for anchoring), and high/low tide times at a designated reference point. From these reference times, I then use the Currents Atlas to review the direction and strengths in our anticipated location for each hour we’ll be sailing. The Atlas is a super helpful resource (Fisheries and Oceans Canada Atlas of Tidal Currents for the St. Lawrence Estuary). I can’t imagine boating in these waters without it. I also check the cruising guide we’re using for hints and cautions (Cheryl Barr’s Down East Circle Route ), and the Guide du Tourisme Nautique for this region. (Thanks, Charles, for passing your copy on to us.) While processing those particulars and factoring in how fast we’ll be able to travel in the forecast conditions, I turn on my iPad and use the Navionics electronic chart to plot our actual route. I always find and mark several safe bail-out options should we need to stop early.

Then, I pull out one final technological marvel – paper and pen – and record the key particulars in a spiral notebook that has become our go-to adaptive aid. Our middle-aged brains are just not what they used to be when it comes to retaining information. Before the brilliant notebook strategy, Tim and I would waste a ridiculous amount of time going back to the original sources multiple times a day when needing a reminder on some particular detail.

Initially, it was taking me a big chunk of time and energy each evening to digest all this information and to plan. As I’m becoming more fluent, 15 minutes or so is all it takes to proceed with confidence into unfamiliar waters the next day.

Anyways, all that to say we have LOTS of information at our disposal to inform decisions, and I should have known better than to agree to a 50 nautical mile passage. Inti absolutely did not twist our arm, but in hindsight, I think the fun of making plans together caused me to be less cautious. I didn’t follow my usual steps.

We did know that it was ambitious for Ariose to cover that distance in a day sail, but the current would give us a boost, I thought, a bit of an extra oomf for most of the day. Inti had sailed these waters before and thought it was do-able. The problem is, our boats are the same, but different. Inti is faster. Perhaps Inti’s crew is more skilled, but we attribute the speed variation to weight. Boat weight that is. The gear we’ve added to Ariose to make longer-term cruising safer and more comfortable adds thousands of pounds and slows us considerably compared to Lisa and Guy’s relatively naked Alberg 30. “Thousands of pounds” is not an exaggeration. Alberg 30s weigh 9,000 lbs, and ours, measured as she was dangling from the crane a month ago, was11,200 lbs, and that was before we added diesel and water and us! We are not out to win any races. Not that buddy boating is about being competitive, right? , says the slower boat.

The other problem with our 50 nm ambition is that tidal currents do reverse at some point in the day. We knew when that happened, we’d lose speed. What we didn’t expect was how that earlier push-along oomph would turn on us, in a punches-to-the-gut kind of fashion. Had I followed my usual planning steps, I would have realized what was in store. But that was hours of superb sailing away, and rather foolishly not on our minds, so I won’t go there yet.

As we sailed along the charming villages, historic homes, and rural landscapes of Iles d’Orleans, we could see Inti in the distance (we had got an earlier start from Quebec City) but gaining on us. Of course.

We’ve always shied away from joining other boats. Tim and I are both introverts, although Tim, perhaps more hermit than introvert, makes me, in comparison, seem like a social butterfly. The shared wisdom and companionship of buddy-boating have appealed, but the anticipated drain of feeling obligated to socialize, and also the danger of peer pressure, have kept us from doing so.

With Lisa and Guy, the similarities we share go beyond having the same boat. From our kids to sawmills, from sailing philosophy to life perspectives, it felt like we had met our dopplegangers. We couldn’t imagine a more compatible couple and vessel, so were willing to give this buddy boating thing a try. From a practical point of view, this was a chance to draw on Lisa and Guy’s knowledge having sailed these waters, and they looked forward to leaning on us to grow more confident in anchoring. And it would be nice to have some company.

As the day progressed, the sailing was marvelous. We felt that intoxicating blend of invigoration + relaxation that we craved. “Relaxing”, though is a relative term. Freedom on the water is a fallacy. When living aboard and sailing, there may not be 9-to-5 expectations driving the day, but you are still bound by the rules of winds and currents. So this brings me back to my navigational planning.

Tim and I well know the power of currents, and especially, the danger when winds oppose them. We took this very seriously on our last voyage to the Bahamas, especially when crossing the Gulf Stream. We heard many stories of treacherous situations befalling those who dared venture out when conditions weren’t ideal, and did not want to become another tragic tale. We patiently waited for the perfect weather window, and it was a great experience. Even still, I can easily conjure up the feeling of the powerful Gulf Stream slowly spinning us like a helpless cork as it whisked us along. I’m not sure why we didn’t give the St. Lawrence currents the respect they deserve. We do now.

As I mentioned before, we knew we had to make good time. When Inti caught up, they looked like they were trying to stick with us. I immediately realized that there was another reason that I had been reluctant to buddy-boat in the past. Throughout my life, I have been prone to take on more than my share of responsibility. Decades of parenting, caring for my kids and placing their needs before mine cemented this tendency. In my significant relationships, and in my career, I’ve felt compelled to go beyond a reasonable level and have often slipped into taking on tasks and accountabilities that should have rested with others. Quite an effective method of courting at the doorstep of burn-out. I am really enjoying being at a point in my life where I can pretty much put myself first. Feeling responsible for others on another boat was not appealing.

I picked up the vhf and radioed Inti to say “Go ahead”. I really didn’t want to carry the guilt of slowing them, and causing them to get caught in adverse currents. And off they went.

By this time, I had gone back and filled in some of my planning gaps. I had taken a closer look and realized that the narrow channel we were heading into has currents up to 7 knots, stronger than we could power through even with our motor. The dominant current from the St. Lawrence flowing to the Atlantic would be against that incoming tide, so the water would be turbulent. And to make matters worse, the winds forecast for later in the day would be opposing the main current. Being in the midst of a battle between the powers of water and wind is always a recipe for gnarly conditions. It wouldn’t be dangerous, mind you, if nothing went amiss that is, but likely VERY uncomfortable.

Days later, as I perused the boat tourism guide, I learned that this stretch is notorious. I came across a warning about this very channel:
Avertissement! Une mer difficile, voire dangereuse, se forme dans le chenal, lorsque les directions fu vert et du courant sont opposées… les deux branches du courante … et additionnent leur force.
“Difficile”, “dangereuse” … some words don’t need translation. Hindsight!

As the day progressed, we had a nice stiff breeze, but plodded along at a disappointingly sluggish speed. With the time pressure we had put ourselves under, it became worrying. We finally noticed why we weren’t moving well. We were towing our dinghy, and it was riding unusually low. The seas were building, and we didn’t feel safe sorting things out while in transit , so headed to shore to temporarily anchor. It was still a little wild, with waves bouncing us about, but the issue was easily resolved. A small bit of spare rope had come free and transformed itself into an effective plug in Poco’s self-draining hole. Water was accumulating, causing our usual buoyant dink to become a heavy drogue. All in all, this didn’t take too long, but it did use up the slender cushion in our schedule. We knew we would be hitting those adverse currents later in the day, and there didn’t seem to be any good spots to opt out. We carried on, but could feel our anxiety building with the current.

Things did get rough. I’m not sure I can describe how it feels to be on board when in these conditions. It’s not like large ocean waves that you can surf up and ride down. These wind-against-current + current-against-current, with a topping of occasional residual freighter wakes waves are distinctly different. They pile on top of each other, coming from every direction, with such short intervals, that the boat has no time to recover from being rocked in one direction before being hit from the other. Even with gear well secured, it’s loud. And unnerving. Ariose is a solid, seaworthy, full keel boat that can handle these kinds of conditions far better than her crew can. We always tether ourselves when in rough seas or whenever sailing after dark, but there’s still risk of injury when being flailed about on the end of that line. It’s virtually impossible to even maintain steerage when you need to hold on with both hands to not be thrown about. It feels akin, I think, to being tossed in a washing machine as it’s agitating dirty laundry. When it’s done, though, there’s no fresh and clean feeling. And as if the conditions weren’t rough enough, the sun had set, and things always feel more out of control after dark. We had a mere 10 miles to go to our destination but the current had slowed us to about a knot. That 10 miles would take 10 hours! No way.

Although there were no good anchorages, we made the call to drop the hook at a spot where if we dragged, we would head out to deeper water (and not to the dangerous lee shore). We were at Petite Riviere-Saint-Francois, at the base of Station de Ski le Massif. We did our own slaloming at anchor for the next couple hours. It didn’t offer any protection from the wind or waves, but even an uncomfortable stop would give us a chance to rest and assess our options.

We messaged Inti so they wouldn’t be concerned. No response. We assumed they were just setting their anchor or maybe even sitting down to dinner, and missed our text. We later found out that they couldn’t answer because they, too were in the midst of the Maytag treatment.

We were relieved to find that the anchor held, even with the extreme bucking. We decided to wait out the current, and even managed to get some sleep. It’s remarkable how you can catch a few zzz’s while your body is jerked about. Just lie prone with one side wedged against your partner and other arm and leg bent out wide to the side. It sort of works.

At midnight, I was up and grateful to find that the conditions had calmed and the current was now in our favour. I knew we should go before the cycle repeated and we were thrown back in for a second wash. My brain launched a familiar 2-sides debate. Left hemisphere: Be logical. Wake Tim and get going. You can motor at 5 knots and be there well before currents turn again at 5am. Right hemisphere: Ahh, you’re tired. It’s cold and drizzly out there. That v-berth and the body waiting there is so warm and cozy. Just go back to bed and don’t worry about it. Short-term comfort won. Back to bed I went.

At 3am, Tim was up to check our anchor. Aging bladders are a helpful safety measure for night-time monitoring. I woke too, and was horrified that I had allowed us to almost miss the opportunity to avoid those horrendous conditions. We had 2 hours before the rock ‘n rolling started again, and 10 nm to a protected anchorage. With seas fairly calm we could motor at 5 knots, so we should be fine. I don’t recall us ever getting into gear so quickly at any time of day, and certainly never at 3am. We were off.

We made good speed through the darkness, and then, within view of the navigational light marking our destination, we could feel the tide turn and the current begin to slow us. I stared down that that welcome green beacon willing it to guide us into our safe anchorage. It did. Five-thirty am. We made it.

As we settled in, we looked about for Inti. They should have been there before dark. I messaged before we conked out to let them know we were safe and sound, and was relieved, this time, to get a response. It ends up, they were nearby, but well camouflaged with their anchor light blending with the house and street lights on shore. Lisa, concerned about us, had woken just on time to see our lights enter the anchorage.

We were at Iles aux Coudres, the only recommended anchorage along this entire stretch of the St.Lawrence’s north shore. Both Inti and Ariose made another joint decision – an easy one – to stay put and take a well-deserved recovery day.


As with all of the spicier times when sailing, or in life, once it’s over, it becomes part of the story. Over the next day, we exchanged our respective versions with Lisa and Guy of the rough night we had both survived. Even though we weren’t any help to one another, and in fact, our joint decision making probably contributed to getting us into the situation in the first place, the camaraderie in debriefing sure was nice.

That was it for demanding type of adventure for us on this leg of the voyage. I’m a few weeks behind in blogging, so I can even say that in nearly 6 weeks of sailing, that’s been our only adrenaline-fuelled situation of our own causing. That’s a way better week-to-situation ratio compared to our last voyage. I guess experience is paying off, but perhaps we were due for some humbling.

Unfortunately, Inti experienced one more incident on this leg. In the following days, we made our way up the north shore. We found a pretty spot at Port Saumon to spend the night, surrounded by rock and pine, and backed by steep hills that rose into the Laurentians.

We got there first, and watched as Inti set hook. Backing down on an anchor is a standard practice to ensure it’s well dug in. While Inti was reversing, their dinghy painter caught on the propeller. Thankfully they noticed immediately, and no engine damage was incurred. But a rope wrapped around the prop is not a good thing. We had no idea this had happened, but certainly took note as we watched Guy strip to his skivvies and bravely plunge into the cold water. We were getting to know each other as couples, but hadn’t figured Guy to be the exhibitionist type, nor a polar dip aficionado. Once we learned the reason for his frosty bath, I tried to offer support, in a shared experience kind of way. Guy’s lips resembled Ariose’s new paint job at this point. I sent them this shot I took of Tim in the bath-tub temperature, clear waters of the Bahamas, you know, just to reinforce that we, too, have felt the pain of catching a line in your propeller.

Buddy boating is supposed to be about camaraderie, after all. No response from Guy. Perhaps hypothermia mutes one’s ability to sense warm & fuzzy mutual support.

Next, it was onward toward Tadoussac. More about that very special part of the St.Lawrence next ArioseNote.

I’ll end off with our heartfelt greetings to all on this Canadian Thanksgiving weekend and by sharing this short clip of Ariose under sail. (Gratitude to videographer Lisa).

Until next time!

12 thoughts on “Onward from Quebec City: Riding the currents”

  1. Hello again to you both. I have just finished reading your last few blogs and have to thank you for the most valuable information you have conveyed about navigating the St Lawrence River locks and the Seaway, as well as the challenges of sailing the waters below Quebec City. I hope to follow in your wake in the future so your insights are all the more important to me. My best wishes to you for less drama and more serenity on the next legs of your voyage. Fair winds.
    Phil Mayfield

    1. So nice to hear from you, Phil, and hope the work on your Alberg is going well. Always seems like every time a project is complete, another 2 pop up! The challenge is keeping a focus on the “musts” and not let the “nice-to-haves” conspire to delay actually setting sail.
      Glad you’re finding it helpful to follow along – we’ve always benefited from others’ experience so feels good to be in a position to pay it forward to others. Looking forward to connecting with you some day, whether on land, or even better, on water, and even better, at a lovely, palm-fringed Caribbean anchorage. Fair winds to you as well!

    1. Elsie! So good to hear from you and to have you aboard our little boat! Hope you and all the NBRHC folks are well. I think of everyone often.
      Envious? A lot of what we’re doing is fun and exciting, but a lot is also downright boring, or uncomfortable or scary. Travelling by sailboat offers quite a mix of everything – I think that’s why I love it. Hope those feelings of envy help fuel you to take small steps now toward pursuing your own dreams so that in 20 years when you hit my stage of life, you too, are living your dreams. cheers!

  2. Hey Shirl, nice to hear from you again, always exciting and adrenalin rushing to read your stories!
    We just got back from a month’s stay at the cottage, finally using up some vacation! It was nice and I am starting to taste a little bit of retirement! You seem to be making the best use of yours, great on ya! Wishing you continued safe travels and all the adventures you and Tim can manage.
    Cheers,
    Deb

    1. Love how you word that, Deb – “all the adventures we can manage”!!
      I know the fall time at the cottage has been a tradition for you. Glad you enjoyed it. Also good to hear that you are developing an appetite for retirement. It’s been nearly 18 months for me, and I still feel the thrill of being on this extended vacation! Hope the same for you.

  3. Once again, your writing gives me a welcome break from the mundane – and always learning something new, since my knowledge of sailing is less than the point of a pin. I’m sure I will think of you both whenever I do laundry! On this Thanksgiving weekend and beyond, I wish you and Tim much smooth sailing. I am thankful for your example of doing what you love when you can… Continued blessings to you both!

    1. Always appreciate your comments, Daria, and glad that you are enjoying being along with us. Happy to offer plenty of sailing wisdom, albeit usually of the what-not-to-do variety. And on behalf of your laundry, we’d like to advocate that you use gentle wash only!

  4. OMG….Shirley, your blog is so engaging! Thanks for taking us on this journey with you! By comparison, my dilemma yesterday was so minor. I decided I would take my first solo ferry ride in 3 months yesterday, to fetch a turkey for Thanksgiving. Getting ready takes twice as long because I still need the grabber to get dressed after hip surgery. Then I looked out at the winds and decided to check the weather app. Gale force winds were predicted! So I called a friend on Vancouver Island and asked if she would pick up the only turkey left at the Qualicum grocery store, which was set aside for me. And…..if the ferry ran, could she put it on the ferry? She was so obliging, but we decided she should give the turkey gravol so that the crew would not have a big mess to clean up! The cutoff for sailing is supposed to be 30 knots, and it did gust to 35 knots, but the crew decided to make for False Bay anyways, so we have our turkey!!
    Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. Josie! What exceptional weather planning and resourcefulness in securing provisions… once that hip has a little more healing time, you may well have beat out your cousin in auditioning as crew on Ariose. I could sub out one Martens for another!
      All the best to you & Don this Thanksgiving. xo
      P.S. Bet that gravol infused bird induced post-thanksgiving dinner sleepiness like no other!

  5. Happy Thanksgiving to both of you.
    Hope the little boat behind is only there for parade
    Enjoy Tadoussac

    1. Bonjour Marc – So nice to hear from you. Happy thanksgiving to you too! Yes, our little Poco serves many functions: lifeboat in the worst case scenario, much appreciated everyday link to land exploration, and now that you mention it, it does lend a festive air as we parade along the waterways!

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