Pre-Fiona: Gaspé to Les îles-de-la-Madeleine

This Ariose Note is going to back up a little, to the time before Fiona, a time that feels so very long ago, when we were hiding from winds. They were in the 50 km/hr range, gusting to 90 and were not conditions we wanted to be out in. Little did we know that the following week we would find ourselves on a punishing sail in similar winds. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to mid-September…

(Length warning: Ariose Notes are a personal journal that Tim and I enjoy sharing with others. Writing helps us appreciate and process our voyage. Gotta let you know that this leg needs a LOT of processing, so consider yourself warned!)

We arrived at the town of Gaspé in the wee hours of the morning, motoring in the moonlight to the sheltered western shores of Gaspé Bay. We had been unable to sleep anchored off Forillon’s peninsula due to some unruly swells (we have since been offered some great tips to deal with dreaded at-anchor rolliness – thanks Steve & Lisa).  We were now surrounded by hills as natural wind- breaks and nestled behind the long sandspit that cuts off the town’s shores from the Gulf of St. Lawrence’s seas.

Random thought: How the heck did the word “swell” ever came to have positive connotations? It would seem to be more suited to being an expletive, or at least a descriptor of things that cause great discomfort. Maybe it was an early one of those annoying opposite-appropriations, like where ‘bad’ means ‘good’, and ‘it’s been a second’ means ‘it’s been a really long time’?

Anyways, the next day, we had a good weather window to continue on to les Iles-de-la-Madeleine, our next destination, but we let it pass. Tim and I needed a break. We were already tired, and the prospect of an overnight  or two, with heavy conditions looming just a few days beyond meant that the passage would be burdened by the anxiety of getting caught in nasty conditions if something came up to slow us. So many things can go wrong on a boat (as anyone who has been with us on ArioseNotes knows).  We try to allow a generous time buffer if we can. So stay we would.  

Gaspe, at about 15,000 people, is the largest community in Gaspesie , and serves as the gateway to Parc Forillon on one side and Roche Perce/Bonaventure Island on the other.  It’s a good place for a break.

We took a berth at the Club Nautique Jacques Cartier, whose name, like much in this region, honours this early European invader. Gaspé proudly proclaims itself, and in particular, a small point of land along the York River near where it empties into the bay, as the Birthplace of Canada. In French, it’s labelled the Berceau (cradle) of Canada. We cringed at this completely tone deaf-to-the-harms-of-colonization tourist promotion. Yes, there was a nod to indigenous peoples in some of the displays, but the audacity!

A cross, a huge 42 ton granite monolith, quarried far up the St.Lawrence and with much ingenuity, transported and erected to mark the 400th anniversary of Cartier’s arrival, is the centrepiece of this historical site. It’s a bit of one-upmanship to the wooden cross placed here by Cartier to claim this land for France.

One of the excerpts from Cartier’s journal carved into a sculpture on the museum lawn speaks volumes:

“I am more than ever of opinion that these people would be easy to convert to our holy faith. They are the sorriest folk they can be in the world.”

Surprisingly considering Quebec’s deep Catholic roots, the Jesuits failed in their effort to establish a presence in the area. Perhaps those disheartened priests would find their spirits boosted by the Cross of Gaspé. Based on the many steeples lining the coastline that we’ve witnessed from Ariose, their efforts in the “new world” were not completely evangelically bankrupt. A few hundred years later, though, there’s push back, as the t-shirts of the youth captured in this lens-based art exhibit along the waterfront, proclaim.

The plaza, with recreated historical structures, has stories posted of the early days of European exploration and settlement, and the infoboards continue along a shoreline walk.  Much of the focus is on entrepreneurial folks – men that is – who developed the first wharf, launched the first business, erected the first warehouse, etc. and generally made money. Gaspé became an important international seaport. This landmark commemorating their achievements is backed by a modern day tribute to commercialism, the Place Jacques Cartier mall. Ironically, the last of the historic docks and buildings were demolished to allow parking for the mall.

400 years of commercial development. Progress!?

Tourism is clearly important. Cruise ships have been stopping by since the early 1900s. Two anchored in the bay while we were there, and we watched the parade of orange tenders ferry folks to and from the docks.  I had an amusing encounter with one passenger in the tourist info building adjacent to the marina. This elderly woman emerged from the toilet cubicle facing the one I occupied at the exact moment as did I.  She startled for a split second, then in a charming slow southern US drawl, explained,  “I thought you were a mirror”. I wasn’t sure how to take that. A person, looking to be in their late 80s, mistook my nearing 60 presence for her own. I’m still adjusting to the aging appearance of my reflection, but that glimpse into my future that she gifted me was a little much.

Provisioning hike, with Ariose waiting in the background.

With the prospect of a longer passage coming up, we took advantage of the short walk to re-provision groceries. We use propane for cooking and when needed, heating, and had just finished the 1st of our two 10-pound tanks, so tried to top that up too. Tim squeezed the tank in his increasingly worn backpack and we headed off to the only place in town that would fill it. “Just go to the Esso”, we were told. Oops, not the one a couple blocks from the marina, the one a couple kilometers up the hill, yes that huge hill. It ended up being an enjoyable Saturday afternoon hike, prior to our Sunday departure. Good thing it was pleasant, because the propane place was closed until Monday morning. We can wait.


We ended up remaining in Gaspé for a week, as I’ve said, intending to rest and hide out while the strong winds moved through. It wasn’t particularly restful, though. The atmosphere between Tim and I echoed what was going on outside. Conditions, relationship-wise were also heavy.

Heavy clouds over the Club Nautique Jacques Cartier, echoing heavy discussions within Ariose.

Cruising brings extremes, from the ultra-highs that swing to gutting lows, the moments of wonder to the monotonously mundane. For Tim and I, like most cruising couples, especially on a small boat and small budget, relationship dynamics are also intense. It brings out our best and worst qualities. When we’re on the move, or in crisis mode, we often work exceptionally well together. Our differences are complementary. We can be a tight team. During down periods when there’s time to reflect, like when sitting in a marina for a week with the howling winds disrupting sleep, having such divergent ways of communicating, of processing information, of experiencing the world… those differences no longer feel harmonious,

Conversations turned deeper.  The excitement we felt on our maiden voyage in 2016, that dopamine rush that propelled us through the trying times, has waned.  This is not to say we are not enjoying incredible moments, but so far, the jury is out on whether they outweigh the accumulated minor adversities. Will this turn around once we hit those warmer temps and the gorgeous southern waters? Are we even going to make it that far, or should we pull the plug? (Terrible choice of words when living on a boat… I mean figuratively not literally!) We are less than 1/5 of the way to the Caribbean.  If we decide to end the voyage, it would make sense to do so while still in Canada.  Are we more interested and are we more suited to preparing for the dream than the sometimes grind of living it? Are we out here because we’ve talked about it for so long, planned for it for so long, and publically committed to it for so long? Or are we here because we really want to be doing this?  It wasn’t all heavy discussion. We also engaged in some major Netflix binge-watching. Light stuff. As you know, we did decide to carry on…

… right into the path of a hurricane. Once again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

5 days after departing Gaspe

Since we’ve been in the outer St. Lawrence, we’ve been keeping an eye on the US National Hurricane Site. While we were in Gaspé, Earl flitted off Atlantic Canada, and Fiona was yet to be born.  By the time we left, she was a storm of concern, but far, far away.  The day we left Gaspé, we had a vigorous sail out of the bay- a little too vigorous in fact – but we appreciated the half-day head start on the crossing to the Îles-de-la-Madeleine (Magdalen Islands). We would then just have a day and a half, rather than a two day sail.

We were pooched, but  as we rounded the peninsula, we anchored with appreciating the break it gave us from the wind and our surreal view of iconic Roche Perce. Before retiring, we checked the weather. Fiona was now building, and projected to head north with about a 50% likelihood of reaching the Maritimes. Most hurricanes that do, brush by and spin off eastward in the Atlantic. And if Fiona did visit Canada, her arrival was expected to be a week away.  It was a concerning, but we decided to continue on. With hindsight, we realize we were influenced by the itchy feet of having just spent a (long) week waiting for weather in Gaspé. Returning to Gaspé for another week would have been prudent. Hindsight.

Early the next morning, a slight deviation in our direct line course to les Îles-de-la-Madeleine allowed us to swing by for a closer view of the iconic Gaspésie landmarks of  Percé Rock and Bonaventure Island.

Bonaventure is a bird sanctuary, and an important northern gannet colony on this side of the Atlantic.  Over 100,000 of these lovely birds call it home. If you look closely, you can see that each ledge has been decorated with their “icing”. I had hoped to catch a good photo as we passed, but no. We will carry lots of images of them zooming around us, and doing their impressive dives, but these need to remain in our memory.  Not a single decent photo.

We had a mutually startling incident with one unfortunate gannet. In an earlier Ariose Note, I talked about the great force of their dives, followed by their buoyant  rise up which almost pops them up and out of the water. With this particular bird, we hadn’t noticed its dive, but couldn’t help but notice its surfacing . I was at the helm, and Tim was sitting comfortably wedged against the bulkhead, both in our usual zone, gazing around at the surroundings.  Suddenly, we were startled by a thud and flurry of large wings splashing at the waterline beside the cockpit, accompanied by a agitated squelchy-squawk.  No idea where this offended gannet entered, but bad luck that in such an endless expanse of water, it chose to come up – hard – under Ariose’s belly!

Albatrosses were believed to carry the souls of past sailors, and having one fly above was considered a good omen. The voyage would be a safe one. We had 30+ hours ahead of us and having a gannet clunk Ariose from below seemed an ominous omen. It awkwardly fluttered across the waves, sat for a bit collecting its thoughts, then took off. We carried on as well.

We maintained good speeds sailing close hauled the entire way to Les ÎIes.  Motion was relatively comfortable, far more so than when on a broad reach or running, but we still both found it hard to sleep. So hard to turn off the amygdala’s alarm whenever genoa sheet fairleads clunk or that errant waves hits broadside. I took first shift at sunset and at 2 am, tired, and thoroughly chilled by the damp sea air, handed over the helm to Tim. I crawled into the settee- turned-berth, appreciating that Tim had pre-warmed it, and rested. Around 5, I relieved Tim, and we both enjoyed the sunrise, guiding us toward our destination.

An hour or so out, we were able to get a cell signal, so with this Fiona storm on our mind, checked weather. Neither of us had been sea sick but that update did cause some queasiness. Fiona was now full-grown, battering Puerto Rico, and there was a strong likelihood she was on her way to Atlantic Canada and quite possibly, les Iles-de-la-Madeleine. Had we just sailed into the path of a hurricane?  Did the gannet incident have something to do with this? But it was Tuesday, and if the predictions about Fiona were accurate, she wasn’t arriving until Saturday. We reminded ourselves that there was still some possibility of it spinning off eastward across the Atlantic. We had time – not a lot – but enough that we didn’t have to make a decision immediately in our sleep-deprived state. 

A little tangent… one of those reality-is-stranger-than fiction tangents. What contributed to Fiona veering west, not east, you might be wondering? After Fiona was named, the subsequent storm was christened according to the next letter in the alphabet, “G” as per storm-naming protocol. Tropical Storm Gaston, brewing near the Azores, and occupying the central north Atlantic, shouldered Fiona right into our path. That storm shares the name of my ex-husband. Go figure. Back to our crossing…

By mid-afternoon, we were at Îles-de-la-Madeleine. An easterly wind for the next 24 hours meant we could stay put anchored off the Etang du Nord beach on les Iles’ west coast for the night. Winds would be an appealing 10-15 knots for most of the next day, before picking up, so we had a window to move.  Once we reached out to Richard, a fellow Alberg 30 owner (who I introduced 2 posts ago – our hurricane saviour) to ask about protected locations on the island, we retired. Time to sleep. We’d decide on next steps in the morning. That was the plan.

BUT – sailing has a way of reminding us how futile human intentions can be when nature is in charge.

Richard snapped this photo of a very insignificant looking Ariose, from the beach at L’Etang du Nord, just after we dropped hook. Thanks Richard!

The next morning, we awoke to our 6am alarm, and experienced another kind of alarm when we checked the weather. Those fierce winds (unrelated to the hurricane) we expected much later that day? They were here.  And Fiona was on track for an earlier arrival.


1 – Run back to Gaspe. Those fierce winds now upon us, and our post-overnight passage hung-over state caused us to rule this one out. It did not feel safe to pull off back-to-back overnight sails especially with a hurricane on the way.

2-Tie up at the neighbouring commercial wharf, a mere 15 minute motor away. Richard had secured us a spot next to a friend eager to swap sailing-to-the-Bahamas stories.  When Fiona hit, despite travelling northward, her spin would cause the most forceful winds/waves/surge to hit from the north-west. Satellite images showed a sturdy breakwall, which was good, but its orientation directly exposed it to Fiona. Hmm. Not so good.  Sadly, in the aftermath of Fiona, we learned that  other boat would never return to the Bahamas. It had been destroyed.

3- Richard, upon consulting with more experienced local navigators, recommended a well-protected  harbour on the inner curve of the opposite side of the island.  As a member of the board, he assured us we could have a berth. Scouring our charts and google satellite images, we agreed. Cap-Aux-Meules marina seemed to offer the best protection possible on the island. This was our best option (see this post if you’re interested in more details).

We estimated that what would be a 10 minute overland drive from our current spot on the west of this sandspit of an island to the sanctuary on the east, would be a 6-hour sail. We needed to head south, then east, then north-west.  That was ok, but what was not ok was that the winds were now at 28 knots, gusting to 52 (multiply that by 1.8 if you think in km/hr).  We are relatively inexperienced at ocean sailing, and have never been in anything close to those kinds of conditions. In fact, we hid out in Gaspé the previous week to avoid similar winds. Nothing like the prospect of a hurricane barreling toward you, though, to inject bravery. We set out immediately.

The strength of the winds in the southerly starting leg was surprising, considering we were in the lee of the island, but seas were tolerable, and even with the 3rd reef in the main (first time we’ve ever gone this far) and the genoa furled to less than 1/3, we made good time. (Reefing and furling sails makes them smaller so that they don’t overpower the boat in heavy conditions).  It might even have been a fun sail, had we not been weighted with the anticipation of what we would be met with as we rounded the southern end.  Tim and I were both nervous.

Anxiety and seasickness, we’ve discovered, are close mates. When anxious, most people are far more prone to being seasick, and being seasick tends to ramp the anxiety up way higher. When anxious, our body pumps out histamines, and histamines can trigger nausea. The medicinal ingredient in Gravol, the standard anti-nausea med is, not surprisingly, an anti-histamine. Tim and I figured out this connection on our first voyage, and, being prone to seasickness (and anxiety!), he now takes Gravol prophylactically. As our turning point neared, we both chewed up a tablet.

Moments later, we rounded the cape, and bam! We were hit full force. Brutal winds. Huge seas with a short period between waves. As Ariose crested one, her nose would be buried in the next with walls of water crashing over us. My Gravol stayed in my body; Tim donated his, and all his stomach contents to the sea. And he continued to do so for the next 9 hours, most of which time he was on his knees on the cockpit floor, curled in a ball. This was déjà vu to our first Atlantic experience in 2016. The trauma of that experrience returned forcefully. I was in fight/flight mode, which for me means feeling responsible to deal with the situation on my own. I was already not thinking clearly enough to remember that I might have been able to help Tim get back on his feet. We had Gravol in a “back-door” form that cannot be vomited up, and stronger anti-anxiety meds that Tim’s doc prescribed for just this kind of situation. But neither of us recalled those options until the next day.

This was the most punishing sail we’ve ever experienced.  I tethered myself to the binnacle, but was still thrown from side to side as I steered with one hand and tried to brace myself with the other. It was taxing. What we expected to be 2 hours of beating into the wind before rounding the next cape took 8, and felt like a lifetime. I could not point Ariose high enough to make progress. Usually, we can make 45-50 degrees to the wind, but I was only managing 80ish, and at that rate, we would never make it. Thinking it was the choppy waves and likely a coastal current holding us back, I did what I knew was the right thing to do, but as a life-long land dweller, feels scary. I headed us out to sea so we’d be less affected by the island. I also started the motor to provide a little more propulsion. It probably had little effect beyond the psychological, and may have even made it more difficult to sail well.

At some point, we had another psychological boost. A songbird, maybe a pine warbler (Kevan?), hitched a ride . We were not alone in our distress. Watching this fragile little creature hop from Tim’s shoulder, to grip various lines, gave hope. Eventually it ended up a stowaway in the cabin.

I was so grateful for Tim’s work on our bilge pumps. Even in the deeper seas, we were still getting lots of water over us, but a quick check verified they were working.  We were now making (slow) progress, and as long as I didn’t think about the torture Tim was going through, my confidence was climbing. I could do this, I thought. Then an alarm sounded. I looked into the cabin and felt a stab of panic.

Buoyant items stowed under the sole had pushed up the floorboards. Water was nearly over the starter battery. Had we been holed? Or was there that much water from the waves crashing over us making its way in? The pumps that were capable of expelling huge volumes of water were not keeping up. I realized the alarm must be the high-water one meant to alert us to this very situation. Tim was able to rouse himself enough to get the manual handle in, and to start to pump. I confirmed the water was going down. Breathe.  The alarm stopped.  The pumps had just been temporarily overwhelmed, I thought.  We’re ok. The potatoes stored under the sole (floor) will be soggy, but we will have an exciting story. Tim resumed his heaving huddle, and I was back to the helm.  

Within minutes, the alarm sounded again. Adrenaline spiked as I pumped with my left hand, steered with right, and tried to wedge head and knees to prevent myself from being thrown around. Alarm would stop. I’d breathe. And then the alarm would sound again, and I’d feel my panic spike. Alarm – panic pump. Over and over. Thirty pumps then breathe then repeat.  Muscles burning through the cold. I wasn’t sure I could keep going, so I made a plan.

I turned back toward the island – thankfully it was a sandy beach and not rocky shoals. I knew that the waves in the shallows would be horrendous – and they were – but we needed to be close. I would continue as long as I could, tacking back and forth close to shore, and once the water in the cabin neared the top of the stove, I would call a Mayday and run us aground. It was a dreadful prospect, but I could think of no other options. We were in desperate straits. My body felt numb and my brain disassociated as I watched the scene unfold. Tim was blissfully oblivious, or as blissful as one can be while soaked and incapacitated on the cockpit floor.

Tim had no idea of my panic. He just saw me at the helm, dealing with it. That’s what I do: Keep up an appearance of “dealing with it”.   His reality was completely different than mine. He wanted the passage to be over, but felt no fear. This, for him, was just another issue with one of our boat systems, that he would get to correcting, once able.

Over the next hour or so, as I realized I was keeping up and we weren’t sinking, I allowed myself to feel some grains of hope. I vowed to NEVER allow us to be in this kind of situation again. 

Finally, we threaded the needle of the channel between Havre Aubert and Iles Grand Entrée. This well-marked pass, which we shared with a large fishing vessel  and some menacing rocks, would have been routine on another day, but with nerves fully frayed, it felt terrifying. We then sped along in improved seas, on a 90-minute broad reach to Cap-Aux-Meule harbour. Our sanctuary. Tim began to resurrect himself. Sadly, our inspiring stowaway didn’t fare so well.

Our intended 5-6 hours to relocated from the west to the east side of the island was11 hours in total, and it felt like it took several years off our lives.

Days later, once settled in safely at a motel, we realized that our situation was never anywhere as dire as I had thought. What I interpreted as the bilge alarm telling me we were sinking was not that at all. One pump was getting jammed on hoses in the bilge, so the pumps were overwhelmed at times, but the alarm triggering my panic was in fact the propane sensor, set low in the boat to alert us to leaks. It was malfunctioning due to having been submerged. I could have just ignored the annoyance. Perception is reality, though. My fear, unfounded as it was, was real.

I don’t have words to describe the relief in getting to Cap-Aux-Meule, but there was no time to celebrate. We now needed to get ready for a hurricane. We then set about  using the next  2 days to prepare for Fiona.  And that story, as you know, has a happy ending.

Ariose upon arrival at Cap-Aux-Meule marina. Safe.

5 thoughts on “Pre-Fiona: Gaspé to Les îles-de-la-Madeleine”

  1. Yes, your right Steph, one has to take their meds! I’ve been reluctant my whole life to take meds of any kind. So, getting myself to medicate now is still a fight, although, with my diagnosis, covid and travel requirements since 2016, I’ve gotten way better. Before we head out onto the big waters, I’m taking my meds now!
    I was pretty incapacitated on that sail around the island and was only capable of cranking a sheet winch between cowering on the floor and heaving overboard. I know this sickness is bad for everyone but Autistics are particularly stressed by sensory overload. Do those extra histamines make the sickness that much worse for someone like me who is normally highly anxious? I couldn’t even stand up at times as my legs were useless!
    Thanks for those words of encouragement. Nice to hear anecdotes from experience too.

  2. Yeah, I think it might be a young Pine Warbler. I was suspecting Palm Warbler as their wing bars are more buffy, but the second picture shows large white spots on the underside of the wings and tail, which PIWAs have.

    1. Thx for the id, Kevan. My on-board birder wasn’t at his sharpest at the time… I’m just grateful the TIMA didn’t meet the same fate as the PIWA!

  3. Wow, Shirley and Tim, that was a harrowing adventure. I thought it was the crossing to the Iles that was the challenging part, but it was, in fact, the relocation to the safe harbour. We also know that if you didn’t make that move, Ariose may likely also be destroyed.

    So frustrating that the “back door” meds weren’t thought of. When I did my Intermediate Cruising course with Sue and Frank Baron on his 45′ Jeanneau, from Trinidad to St. Lucia, the first crossing to Grenada was a little rolly and I didn’t medicate, nor did the other two students. We were lectured by the skipper the next day. When we headed up the Portuguese coast to cross the Bay of Biscay, having the meds paid off.

    Being seasick is nasty and sorry you had to fight that battle alone. You are an amazing woman and you both have such great determination. You are definitely an inspiration and we appreciate you both sharing your journey with us.

    I hope that mild spell comes and gets you both, and Ariose, safely home.

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