Cruising Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lakes


The Captain and First Mate aboard ‘Sweet Caroline’ – July 2013

After days of provisioning and planning a wardrobe suitable for boating in extremes like heat and/or humidity, high winds, cold and damp, and rain, we reviewed the checklist one more time before boarding our 34’Mainship coastal cruiser.  Whatever we forgot, we will do without.  Well maybe.

leaving montague 1st day

Beautiful Montague River

It was overcast, damp and humid as we pulled away from our dock.  Marine forecast predicted winds would diminish mid afternoon making it a good weather window or at least as good as it gets.  Waiting until noon was like watching paint dry; we were anxious to begin our vacation and it was a “hurry up and wait” kind of morning.  Humidity lingered in the galley and my hair was doing its ringlet thing and sweat covered my brow and neck.  Mother Nature was playing her usual games and as we often say here in the East Coast…if you don’t like the weather – wait five minutes and Mother Nature is sure to oblige.  One thing we can always count on is the weather being neither predictable nor boring.

As we pulled out of our port, the river was flat and quiet.  Most of the boats heading to the lakes had already left.  That’s the way it is with boats and their various rates of speed.  But like the tortoise and the hare – we were to find out later they weren’t really ahead of us – by much.

A boat trip can be like camping ( albeit on the water) with one exception.  If you don’t get along REALLY well with your ship mates, there is really no place to go.  It’s not like you can say; “I’m outta here!”  It’s paramount that you know your mate(s) really well allowing you to make allowances for any shortcomings.

(For clarification, I am the First Mate…or the ONLY mate.  The Captain is my husband and he has been boating since he was a wee lad.  It took years for me to ‘earn’ the status of First Mate, but after several rough ‘crossings’ on the Northumberland Strait, I proudly accepted the honor. Boating is not for everyone, but after thirty some years I am confident I have found my ‘sea legs’.)

The sky was dark and gloomy that first day and we crossed our fingers that the rain would hold off…or at the very least we would cruise out of it into some sunshine.  It was not the case.  Along with the dark sky came a heavy mist and lumpy seas with three foot swells striking our craft on the port stern making steering difficult and erratic.  At times the boat would be ‘thrown about’ almost 180 degrees.  Not fun!  We persevered and made few trips down the ladder from the flybridge as possible.  Everything that could fall had already been secured safely in the cabin, but there is always the one thing you might have forgotten.  Moments after we passed the channel marker at Panmure Island there was a loud thump from something below in the cabin.  Such is boating in rough seas!

canso lock

Canso Causeway Locks

The pitching and swelling of the sea did not abate until we approached the Canso Causeway locks.  After a five hour run it was near evening and we had enough cruising for one day.  We tied up at Port Hawkesbury marina for the night and relished a much deserved evening cocktail, a tasty barbeque on board and a sound sleep!  The v-berth bed was hastily made with sheets fresh from the clothesline the day before.  They were stored in an airtight plastic casing keeping the damp air out – at least for the first night of slumber.  A light rain drummed softly on the deck and the sloshing of waves striking our bow from the wake of a passing boat added to the already intoxicating ambience of sleeping on the water.  With a sleepy ‘nite nite’ and huge sigh, Captain and First Mate were soon in slumberland.


Visibility of about 10-15 feet in dense fog

Close to the lakes now, our excitement mounts for the next day’s entry through another set of locks at St. Peters; our first stop in the Lakes.  Morning came quickly and with dismay we found ourselves looking through a pea soup fog.  It would be a 2 hour cruise to St. Peters inlet and we were anxious to get under way.  Six other motorboats were also milling around making decisions on whether to go or wait until the fog lifted.  My fearless Captain was not waiting.  He reviewed his ‘track’ and those mysterious weigh points on the plotter.  He announced we were good to go. It would be slow going for awhile and at 5 knots it seemed even too fast when we couldn’t see a hand in front of us.  The channel markers and buoys were directly in front of us before we could see them.  GPS plotter… please don’t fail us now!!  We took on the position of lead boat – for reasons I am not clear on but maybe the confidence of the Captain had something to do with it.

We silently slick through the water; the dense fog shrouding us like a moist blanket.  The bow barely makes a ripple and the only sound is the low rumble of the motor idling slowly at 5 knots.

captain in the lead

Captain takes the lead

The six boats took up positions behind us following a safe distance but close enough so they could still see us.  It seemed eerie at first but with the steady hum of the motor and the bow cutting through the flat water, it became very peaceful.  The plotter would send out its squeaks and alarms and the marine radio would cut through the silence now and then with updates from Sydney Coastguard radio.  It would startle me when the radio cut in so abruptly, but I was ever thankful that they were there…within calling distance. The land we could normally see on a clear day resembled ‘Lochness’, but after an hour or two the fog lifted enough and we could increase our speed to our regular steam at 12 knots.  St. Peter’s lock master answered our call and announced they could take all 6 boats together through the lock.  It was a cozy, tight fit but judging by the smiles and cameras clicking away, we knew with the sun high in the sky it was going to be a good day.

st peters lock

St. Peter’s Lock – Cape Breton

Gregory Island

Gregory Island

Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lakes are massive.  This was our third vacation on the lakes and we have just scratched the surface.  Surrounded by lush green forests and hills covered in various species of foliage, it gave us the impression we were in a watery bowl.  There are small ‘islands’ dotted throughout the lakes and they each have a small lighthouse of sorts.  One such Island is called Gregory Island.  It is my personal favorite.  The first time we cruised these lakes we had our youngest with us – and he was very impressed to find this little Island with his name.  Three times through now, I still bring the camera out and snap a photo of ‘Gregory’ on our way by.

first gunk hole Cape George harbour

St. George Harbor – Bras d’Or Lakes

Our first night found us in a beautiful lush cove in St. George harbor.  Birds of all species sailed overhead and blue herons honked to each other – probably announcing our arrival.  The water was flat creating a mirror image of our boats and our wakes sent wide ripples into shore. We set anchor and our boating companions rafted to the starboard side of our boat.  With battery operated lights, propane fired ovens, cook top and barbeque; we were prepared for our first night ‘off the grid’.  The boat’s batteries would continue to run the refrigerator, the bilge pumps and water pressure for the taps allowing us to settle in and sleep worry free.  And the bonus…our cell phones were still working.  Technology had come a long way since the 90’s!  I sent daily pictures to our family telling them where we were located so I guess we weren’t technically ‘off the grid’ at all!  After a few days we pulled anchor and moved on to the nearest marina for fuel and supplies.

bedeque harbor

Bedeque Harbor

Each port or marina has their own unique charm.  Some are up to date and others continue to run ‘bare bones’.  That’s okay as we are typically self sufficient but it is nice to get to land for a long hot shower (not having to worry if your water supply will run out), and if we’re lucky, a decent distance from grocery and hardware stores. (In Bedeque, a nice stroll to stretch the legs took me to the Alexander Graham Bell museum on a previous visit).  What is always present at these ports however is the camaraderie of fellow boaters.  It is unspoken and  a delight to meet others with the same passion for boating.  Some of the nicest people I have met have been boaters and virtual strangers. Always willing to lend a hand, boaters soak up the peacefulness of the sea and pay it forward.

setting the anchor Malagawatch

Setting the anchor – Malagawatch Cove

The next ‘gunk hole’, as we affectionately call the coves where we anchor was called ‘Malagawatch’ or Big Harbour.  It was about mid afternoon and the air was still and humid.  Clouds drifted over and our motley crew settled in for an afternoon siesta.  Upon awakening, the Captain announced that our anchor was not holding.  The wind had increased and with the weight of two motor crafts pulling on the same anchor, we had started to drift and it was evident we had to move to a port.  (Our boating companions discovered their anchor wasn’t working).We called ahead to the nearest marina who happily announced they had dock spaces available for us.  Just as the sun was taking its last ray of daylight with it, we pulled in and docked.  One thing about boating, expect the unexpected.  It is important to be flexible and fluid with boating schedules.  Mother Nature dictates when, where and how you boat…’nuff said!


Captain for a day!

Over the next few days we explored new coves and inlets.  Our son and his wife joined us for the day and a sleepover.  Accommodations were tight but with the boat’s ability to sleep six, we made a few adjustments here and there and all was well.

Ballantyne cove

Approaching Ballantyne Cove – sunrise trail in NS

The next day would be the beginning of our journey home.  A weather window would allow us to make the cruise to Ballantyne’s Cove which would be roughly the halfway mark across the Northumberland Strait.  A beautiful cruise with our bow into the wind, we made the crossing in jig time.  There was ample room at this small picturesque marina and we were only too glad to tie up for the night.  A young deckhand approached our boat smiling and announced we had arrived just in time.  The marina would be hosting their ‘Annual Lighthouse Concert’ right there on the waterfront!  We immediately moved to the flybridge and settled in for an evening of entertainment of Cape Breton music, fiddles and ballads.  A sound check before the concert started was a delight ; a blast from the past, they played ‘Sweet Caroline’ by Neil Diamond.  How fitting (and welcoming) since our Mainship was named after this same song.

ballantyne cove concert cheers

Cheers to the entertainment at Ballantyne’s Cove


“Sweet Caroline”…good times never seemed so good….

seal cove evening

Seal Cove PEI

The last leg of our boating vacation found us taking a small detour enroute to our home marina.  We weren’t ready to go home just yet.  A favorite ‘gunk hole’ in PEI’s south shore is a little place called Seal Cove.  It was Monday and the locals who also favor this place on the weekends had vacated leaving the entire cove for us!  We slowly motored in trying not to disturb the seals diving for cover off their little jut of land and the mussel fisherman working their stringers along the way.  The sun shone directly on our little cove while thunderheads built.  They continued to surround our cove and rumbled with the threat of heavy rain.  It didn’t rain.  The thunderstorm bypassed us completely (even though there was an extreme thunderstorm warning on the weather network).  We took a luxurious long hot shower and watched the lightning flashes off in the distance.  Mother Nature spared us…this time.

mussel fishers seal cove

Mussel fishers in Seal Cove PEI

thunderheads seal cove

Thunderheads building…

The last picture I captured on our little boating vacation was spectacular!  G’Nite all!

sunset at seal cove

Seal Cove at sunset


Cruising on the water, defying the notion of sinking in a 100’ of water is akin to jetting through the skies at an altitude of thirty thousand feet.  Both actions awaken my awe at mankind and the brilliant minds that made both possible.  It is a day to give thanks and a nod to our guardian angels that without fail shadow us along our way.  A brief moment later I looked skyward to acknowledge the beautiful formation of clouds unmistakably displaying the shape of angels’ wings.  I know this in my heart and reached for my camera.  To my delight and astonishment, the picture was even more beautiful and the clarity surpassed the naked eye view.  Our Angels put on a show that day for the camera lens!

blue skies and angels wings on our way home

Our guardian Angels


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