Nova Scotia idyll

The author and his wife at Peggy’s Cove, a small rural community located on the eastern shore of St. Margarets Bay.

By Roger Karlebach
For Points East

We were sailing our solent-rigged Saga 43 sloop, ILENE. Just me and my mate, Lene – and our crew. Well, Lene calls ’em crew; I call them our handicap. But Witty and Alfie have cruised with us since 2008, when they were kitties, and they seem to like the cruising lifestyle more than living in their New York City apartment. We can’t blame them because we do, too.

This report takes you with us from our departure point of Nantucket to Nova Scotia waters, for 46 days and 1,186 miles. Our longest passage was the first, 272 miles from Nantucket to Shelburne, Nova Scotia. It consisted of one very short, late-June night bookended between two, long, northern summer days, at an average speed of 6.8 knots. We departed with the assurance that Lene wanted from weather guru Chris Parker: no headwinds and no rain.

I would rather have had a bit more wind, but, overall, it was not a bad passage. When we were about 40 miles from the Nova Scotia coast, we saw a small, white sandbar. No wait, there can’t be sandbar at these depths. Oh, an overturned boat; let’s check for any survivors. But the second impression was also erroneous. We smelled the truth before we saw it clearly: the bloated white belly of a dead whale. We called in its position to the Canadian Coast Guard as a hazard to navigation.

Canada is the easiest nation we’ve ever checked into. One phone call. We gave them our information, and asked them where to meet to show the cats’ health records. Not required. They gave us a number – about 10 digits to write on paper and tape inside the dodger window facing the dock – so officers in other ports could check their computer that the number matched the one assigned to our boat – and so they wouldn’t have to ask unnecessary questions.

It wasn’t until we got to Nova Scotia that I realized how big that province is. Shelburne was our first and last port. Between those visits was 287 miles, comparable to a Miami to St. Augustine passage. We used 14 days, including seven lay days, to get from Shelburne to the Bras d’Or Lakes.

During our two visits to Shelburne, we spent five lay days: some for a repair, others awaiting a weather window, and a bit for touring. Shelburne is a Loyalist town, settled by folks who fled north when the rest of us were disloyal to the Crown back in 1776. The town boasts some interesting small museums and several eateries, including Charlotte Lane Cafe, which is a gourmet experience.

Here we met Bill and Sando, who we’d first met in Maine in 2007 when they owned a Saga 43. We reconnected with them on other cruises in St. Martin, Martinique and Oriental, N.C. They were actually the ones who told us to cruise Nova Scotia. They now own m/v Lucille, a large power yacht, but such a switch of propulsive methods can’t disturb friendships between sailors.

All told, we took six lay days in Halifax, the provincial capital, which bustled with lots of construction. Friends Manu and Michelle – whom we met in St. Martin and in a half-dozen other ports, including New York – were not in Canada, but, when they learned we’d be visiting Nova Scotia, told us to look up a couple named Greg and Wanda in Halifax: “They’re sailors; you’ll like them.”

We found them and invited them for dinner aboard ILENE at the Armdale Yacht Club dock in the Western Arm, a long narrow bay on the back side of Halifax. Also present were Beret, a neighbor in New York, and her fiance, Michael, a Haligonian (as people from that city call themselves). They’d showed us around town, and we dined in Michael’s apartment. Greg and Wanda invited us to use their dock on the way home, and we did.

The dock extends from their beautiful home in a cove near the north end of Bedford Basin, the large lake used to stage convoys during the World Wars. To get there, we passed through the strait that separates Halifax, on the west, from Dartmouth, to the east – cities connected by two large suspension bridges. On our way up the straight, we passed the many Tall Ships that had convened there.

Our new friends drove us to Nova Scotia’s wine country. Who knew that this province had a wine country? And they took us to photogenic Peggy’s Cove. A lighthouse sat on a huge rock in front of a tiny cove, too wee for even one boat ILENE’s size! They took us provisioning and to Costco, where we waited on line for a propane refill. They insisted that we sleep in their guestroom. Lene was reluctant to leave Halifax, but Greg and Wanda would stay with us in New York when we returned.

We enjoyed Lunenberg, where the large maritime museum shows the nuts and bolts of the fisheries industry back in the days of wooden boats. Here we docked across from a modern scallop-harvesting ship. The biggest problem on this coast was deadly thick fog. We took a few lay days because of it, and got caught out a few times. However, two features make Nova Scotia an easy place to cruise, and both help in fog. First, no lobstering is allowed during the summer, so unlike Maine, where it’s almost a miracle not to get hung up, Nova Scotia has eliminated that hazard. Second, there was almost no one else out there. We called using low-power VHF Channel 16: “Any boat, any boat,” giving our location and heading relative to channels and asking for a call so we could communicate on another channel to avoid collision. No one ever answered. Apparently, hardly anyone was there.

Along the coast, we spent about a week in different coves, large beautifully wooded anchorage areas, often with barely any sign of humanity ashore. At times, we were the only boat or one of two. We had even more of this in the Lakes. If you want solitude, Nova Scotia can fit your bill.

The southwest entrance to the Lakes is the single-locked canal at St. Peters. That town’s friendly efficient marina was our first and last stop in the Lakes. The town is rather tiny, but it offers two museums, nice walks, all the stores you need, and several restaurants, including the excellent one in the Bras d’Or Lakes Inn. We ate there on both visits. Don’t miss sharing a Gateaux St. Honoré – reportedly named after St. Honoré, the patron saint of pastry chefs – for dessert.

All told we made 15 passages in the Lakes, to 11 different ports during our 19 days there, totaling 189 miles – only 13 miles per passage. Now on our destination cruising grounds, we were no longer pushing ourselves to make mileage. And, despite one very windy day, the winds on the Lakes were generally gentle, the fog rarely appeared, the water was relatively warm, it didn’t rain, and the anchorages were idyllic. In short: Camelot on the water. On all other passages we raised and strapped the dink firmly against our stern pulpit; in the Lakes, we towed it.

We asked several people what the best spots in the Lakes to visit were; the cruising guide describes maybe 40. Their answers were uniform, honest and accurate, but not helpful: “They’re all nice.” But several folks mentioned Maskell’s Harbor, which we visited twice. Taking a walk, we had a chance meeting with Diane, the lady who, we later learned, owns the area, and on whose free mooring ILENE was secured. She came out of her historic house to quiet her barking – but tail-wagging – dog. We talked and invited her aboard for wine and cheese. She is a former racer and nautical architect, but she had a bum leg, which would hamper dinghy-to-boat transfers. She invited us to visit her historic home. We brought the wine and cheese, and we stayed for dinner.

Another great stop was Eskasoni, on the north shore of the eastern end of the southern lake. It is the reservation of the indigenous Mi’kmaq people. We met a man who drove us around the reservation and gave us a bag of snow-crab claws, processing of which is a tribal business. We took a cultural adventure on nearby Cow Island, where we were immersed in tribal lore and crafts. In Eskasoni, as in every port in Nova Scotia, the people were very friendly.

Sadly, we did not explore the eastern and western ends of the northern lake, nor the Atlantic coast of Cape Breton Island. People told us: “If you like it here in Nova Scotia, you will love Newfoundland.” That’s probably true, and Newfoundland is only an overnight, each way, from Sydney, the northern city of Cape Breton, but we would put enough miles under our keel on this cruise to feel satisfied. Maybe next time.

Our planned destination was Baddeck, on the north shore of the north lake. Baddeck has more of all that St. Peters has, plus ship-repair facilities, a summer-stock theater, and a museum about Alexander Graham Bell, whose home overlooks the area. Arriving here, we had no reservation, which was a problem. But after some time, the harbormaster put us on his dock for the first two nights and then we hid out in a beautiful cove we had planned to visit later, until a secure mooring became available.

On it, we left the crew, with access to sun and shade and lots of cat food, water and litter, and rented a car for a two-day land cruise of the Cabot Trail, the road around the coast of western Cape Breton Island. One can drive it in a day, but the enjoyment is stopping to hike the trails along the way.

Between the two Crammond Islands, near the western end of the southern lake, we followed the advice of the cruising guide to enter from the north and anchor toward the south. Another boat came in our “private” anchorage, but anchored toward the north. What do sailors do? We dinked over to say ahoy. But before we could, the captain of the new boat yelled: “We’re aground!” We took his second anchor in our dink, and kedged him off. Such paying it forward is one of the many things we love about sailing; sailors are eager for opportunities to help each other and we have often been helped.

When it was time to leave the Lakes, the southwesterlies laid down and we motorsailed, in one hop, back to Halifax, covering the distance we had taken four passages to make while outbound. The disadvantage was that we missed Liscomb, which everyone says is a must stop. Next time.

Our third and last overnight of the cruise took us from Shelburne, around Blonde Rock, and across the wide mouth of the Bay of Fundy to Long Island, 11 miles off the coast of Maine. We anchored in its Eastern Cove before clearing back into the States the next day in Northeast Harbor. All told, from St. Peters to Maine, including the two overnight passages, we put 438 miles under our keel during five passages in 11 days.

In hindsight, we would have been better off reversing the two destinations, visiting Maine before Nova Scotia, because it stays warm much later there, and staying longer in Nova Scotia and less in more easily accessible Maine. But knowing the winds prevail from the southwest, and get stronger in the autumn, we erroneously feared that we might run out of time waiting for weather windows on the return trip. I think my fear of time restraints is a reflex memory from our pre-retirement two-week cruises.

The total distance of our cruise – all measured by the shortest safe course, ignoring the tacking – was 914 miles from Nantucket to Nova Scotia to Maine. Our nights: three underway, 13 on our Rocna anchor, 13 on moorings and 17 on docks. Our meals during the 46 days were mostly aboard except for three breakfasts (two on the Cabot Trail and one in a home), seven lunches (two on the Cabot Trail), and 18 dinners (five in peoples’ homes, or on their boats).

Yes, Nova Scotia is a great sailing ground.

When not sailing, retired attorney Roger Karlebach lives in New York City with his wife Lene and their two cats. All four of them have also sailed their Saga 43, ILENE, from the Harlem Yacht Club, on City Island in Long Island Sound, south to Grenada, in the West Indies. Details of their adventures can be found at