When our 45-foot wooden schooner passed through St. Peters' pearly granite gates, the century-old canal locks into Nova Scotia's beautiful Bras d'Or Lake, it seemed we were entering heaven, not just the sheltered inland sea in the center of Cape Breton Island.
At least St. Peters was a haven. For behind us now were the heavy seas, fog, cold rain and daily iceberg reports for Newfoundland waters on the marine radio -- which accompanied us for much of our two-week "vacation" cruise from Maine across the Bay of Fundy and up the rugged 300-mile coast of Nova Scotia.
We wanted to see the new Scotland from the sea because it is one of the last primitive coastlines on the East Coast. The rocky undeveloped shore is a maze of islands and reefs, dotted with hundreds of white lighthouses and littered with more than 7,000 shipwrecks, which focuses your attention while sailing. Inside the reefs are quiet bays and fiords which look today much as they did when explored by Vikings 1,000 years ago and the first Portuguese and French fishermen 500 to 600 years ago (well before European adventurers and Navy types officially "discovered" the New World).
Our plan, as modern American explorers, was to sail as far Down East from Maine as we could in two weeks, with crew replacements flown in along the way and a new crew flying in to take over from us for the two-week return trip back down the coast.
Canadians in the coastal fishing villages and 19th-century summer resort towns welcome visiting yachtsmen like long-lost relatives. (In fact, many Yankees are related, since more than 42,000 American colonists loyal to England moved from the East Coast to Nova Scotia after the American Revolution, many taking their houses with them on barges.)
When our little schooner entered Nova Scotia harbors, residents inevitably drove down to the docks or rowed out to invite us to tie up at a mooring or to use their telephones and their cars to get provisions. One friendly sailor even spent two hours driving to the airport to pick up incoming crew members for our boat. Such courtesy found every passing native, whether in a boat or a car, waving to us. Or stopping to help if we had boat or car trouble. It was like encountering an island of Boy Scouts.
True, only one yacht club offered us showers, which U.S. yacht clubs and boat yards routinely offer visiting sailors. But then, we only encountered one yacht club on this remote coast.
After several days of preparation in Stonington, on Maine's Deer Isle, lacing sails on mast hoops and booms, stocking up on provisions and cutting firewood for the wood stove from boat yard scraps, we set sail across the Bay of Fundy, famous for its 40-foot tides and storms.
It was a false start. Less than five miles offshore we had to turn back when the chimney on the wood stove engulfed the cabin crew in heavy smoke. But a new stove pipe from Mount Desert Island soon allowed us to sally forth again, with the stove crackling and our crew of seven wearing long underwear, wool shirts and sweaters in what was relatively balmy June sailing weather for Maine. By evening we were out of sight of land, with full sails, calm seas, falling stars and a rising moon.
About 10 p.m., as we were sorting ourselves out into night watches, we saw what looked like gray fog coming down the bay. (In June in Nova Scotia and much of Maine, fog is to be expected 35 percent of the time, rain another 30 percent of the time.) Within 20 minutes the silently approaching wall of mist became a douse-sails, douse-everything thunderstorm in which all you could see from under the dripping visor of your rain hood was the faint red compass light and the blinking green computer lights of the loran (a long-range-navigational computer, to help us find our way electronically).
After a rolling, black-gray night and a charcoal-gray dawn we wallowed through the heavy seas and fog past the Cape Sable light (latitude 43 20 12; longitude 56 40 48 said the loran) and into Port La Tour, one of the many French-named havens from Nova Scotia storms. We had completed the 31-hour passage at a speed slower than that of a wobbly bicycle. The crossing, one sodden crew member noted, takes only six minutes by jet.
Cape Sable, with its dangerous riptides, is at the southern tip of Nova Scotia. French explorers Pierre Du Gua, Sieur de Monts and Samuel de Champlain sailed around the point in a boat little bigger than ours in 1605 to establish Port Royal, the first post-Viking European settlement in North America. (Jamestown was 1607). In order to fight boredom in the long winters, they wrote North America's first play ("The Theatre of Neptune") and created its first social club (the Order of Good Times). Members were required to cook elaborate feasts; salmon and rabbit, garnished with seaweed, were favorites. The Virginia colony, learning of the French and their Good Times, sailed up the coast and burned down the new Port Royal in 1613.
Most Nova Scotia residents are descendants of the fishermen, explorers and successive 18th- and 19th-century waves of settlers, the majority English, Scottish and French.
The three Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers who loomed out of the fog on the dock above our sailboat appeared to be of English descent, though the one who remained watchfully on deck spoke little. But the Mounties were perhaps justifiably cautious about the second American boat to arrive in Port La Tour. The week before they had confiscated a large American marijuana cruiser that arrived in Port La Tour at night and was abandoned when drug runners thought they had been spotted and escaped ashore.
Given a seal of approval by the Mounties, we were free to set foot on land and to head up the coast. We walked through Port La Tour and were invited by a retired couple with two parakeets to use their phone to make collect calls to the United States, which we did. We admired the new church, built by the local wooden-boat builder, and then got supplies at the village store, a one-room, windowless, plywood shack with a pale but friendly proprietor who looked like he rarely saw the light of day.
We set sail in the rain for Port Mouton, named for the sheep lost overboard in 1605 by one of the Good Times club members. It was Father's Day, so the women in the crew anchored in the lee of the small Spectacle Island and its miniature weathered wooden lighthouse, took down the sails and cooked us a delicious stew. It wasn't salmon or rabbit and there was no evening theater, but we tried to follow the Order of the Good Times. Assisted by a guitar, wine and folk songs, we were soon all gently rocked to sleep in our bunks.
While we couldn't sail up every bay, bight or tickle -- as many inlets are called in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland -- we did read about the coastal towns in our sailing guides and were surprised to learn of their many American connections. Shelburne, just above Port La Tour, was built by 10,000 Tory Americans who arrived in 1783. Birchtown, beside it, was built by 1,000 blacks loyal to England who fled with them. They arrived in Nova Scotia just after the English, also clamping down on their Canadian colony, had forced the exodus of French-speaking Acadians from Nova Scotia. In the 19th century, thousands more black Americans, fleeing slavery, also arrived in Nova Scotia.
Whatever their background, the Nova Scotians of today are a friendly, cheerful and generous people, despite the poverty that has plagued Canada's maritime provinces for decades. Even their houses and boats are painted bright, cheerful colors -- turquoise, pink, lavender, fluorescent blue and green. Many houses apparently are painted with leftover paint from the fishermen's boats and lobster pots, making most coastal fishing villages and harbors easy to find in the fog.
After sailing dozens of Nova Scotia bays and walking the streets of many more seaside towns, often a little unsteadily since sailors can get landsick after a long time on a rolling boat, we concluded that Mahone Bay and its little seaside village of Chester were probably the most beautiful.
The bay itself is a popular Nova Scotia summer sailing ground, a smaller version of Chesapeake Bay. Its "calendar" islands (there are 365 of them) include Oak Island, where Captain Kidd allegedly buried his treasure. Occasional doubloons have been found and a group of islanders years ago suddenly paid off their mortgages in gold. But most treasure hunters have been scouring the island without any known succcess since 1795, when a deep mining shaft was discovered.
Chester, opposite Oak Island, was founded by New England families in the 1750s and is now a popular summer resort. Walking its tree-shrouded lanes and quiet, narrow streets, we couldn't find a house or even a store built after 1900. However, one resident who came out to our boat for a drink complained that the harbor was filling with modern fiberglass boats and had become a "forest of aluminum masts."And in the village itself, he said, some unspeakable person was even proposing to build a condominium.
The thousands of islands we sailed among and avoided with the help of loran -- the boat grazed only one rocky shelf and went briefly and harmlessly aground on another -- were more barren than the islands of Maine. And there were more shipwrecks. The weathered ribs of ships lay on the bouldered shores like skeletons of cattle in the desert.
We searched unsuccessfully for whales; humpback, giant fin and small minke whales are common along the coast, but apparently appear, like Canadian yachtsmen and swimmers, only later in the summer when the water warms up. But in almost every bay, seals were as common and inquisitive as dogs, and barked as loudly. The return crew spotted dolphins, and had flying fish land on the deck. And we all saw bald eagles.
When we reached the Bras d'Or Lake, we anchored within 50 yards of an eagle's aerie. Three of the usually shy birds sat by their nest in a tall fir tree and majestically ignored us as we rowed the dinghy ashore to explore.
More common were the Wilson's storm petrels, which followed the boat like giant swallows for much of our stormy trip up the coast, as did kittiwakes, magnificent gliding shearwaters and thousands of guillemots, eiders and other sea ducks, which could be seen bobbing on almost every wave.
One night we steamed giant four-pound Canadian lobsters in a huge pot of seaweed and seawater on the wood stove. Nova Scotia lobsters can weigh as much as 30 pounds (it is illegal to catch such large ones in U.S. waters).
Not all our touring was by water. When we reached the capital of Halifax, some of our incoming crew, initially put off by rough seas in the harbor, rented a car.
They drove up toward Cape Breton Island along winding coastal roads -- Canada's "Lighthouse Route," past seemingly endless historic lighthouses -- usually meeting us at night in harbors, to supper and sleep aboard.
We encountered several large freighters and container ships going in and out of the deep Halifax harbor, many bound for U.S. ports with lumber, newsprint and fish. The talk on the marine radio for the two days we were there was of the Soviet satellite-tracking ship that entered the harbor with us. According to our nautical informants -- the marine radio is like an old-fashioned party line where you can listen to your neighbors' conversations -- the Soviet ship apparently paid an emergency visit to Halifax when a woman member of its crew died following a miscarriage.
The major town on the 450-square-mile Bras d'Or Lake, and the turn-around town of our trip, was Baddeck. It is best known as the summer home of Alexander Graham Bell, the Scot who summered there for decades and died there. A national museum there is devoted to Bell, who is considered something of an adopted son by Canada, even though he wintered and did most of his experiments in the United States. But he migrated to Nova Scotia in the summer, because he said it reminded him of Scotland.
Our migration was perhaps too early in the season -- we were the first U.S. sailboat to enter St. Peters' gates -- since the weather and water were cold and some marinas had not yet opened for the season.
But like Bell, once in the calm, sunny Bras d'Or, we hated to leave. Going out St. Peters' gates, with the ocean foaming outside and the prospect of bucking the wind back down the wild coast, was like being expelled from heaven. But then the crew changed and we flew back to Boston.
The crossing of the turbulent Bay of Fundy actually only took five minutes.