In September 2004 we set sail from Meaford for Labrador, on our second expedition to this largely wilderness area of the country.
This time, we travelled in a 27 foot sailboat via the Great Loop route, an interesting and varied series of rivers and waterways from Lake Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida, north through the Inter-coastal Waterway, a protected channel leading to New York City, then up the Hudson River into Lake Erie or alternatively the St. Lawrence River.
We left ‘the loop’ at New York and navigated the eastern seaboard to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and finally, Labrador.
One is exposed to a plethora of sights and experiences while on a voyage of this scope. Ours was no exception. As we neared the lock which separates Lake Michigan and Chicago’s Sanitary Canal we had to take down the mast from the sailboat due to low, fixed bridges along the route. We meandered along the canal, round-eyed at the imposing architecture and complex road and bridge system of this large city.
We thought it was really beautiful but of course, seeing anything from a watery vantage is very different than seeing the same thing on land. As we entered the Illinois River we were quite shocked to see people fishing. We were still in Chicago’s Sanitary Canal!
It was on this first day on the Illinois River that we met our first “tow”. A “tow” is a collection of floating containers or barges, chained to each other to form a rectangle, and pushed by a powerful tug. Meeting a tow was always a heart-stopping experience for me as most of them are really massive and take up –or seem to – all the dredged part of the river.
All the rivers we navigated from Chicago to the Gulf of Mexico are heavily used for commercial purposes. It is cheaper and far more efficient to carry goods on water than land; consequently the easily silted rivers are dredged periodically.
Our boat had a draft of 5 ½ feet so whenever we met a tow or had one go by, we had to squeeze to the edge of the dredged part of the river and lived in fear of grounding. There are numerous locks on the rivers and watching a tow enter a lock with only inches to spare on either side is truly an awesome sight. We developed a steadfast admiration for the Captains skills.
The mighty Mississippi truly deserves its’ reputation. It is a river of great debit and fast current. In some areas, the river speed was greater than the maximum speed of our boat, leading to wild out of control rides.
It took 34 days of river travel to reach the Gulf of Mexico. We saw so many interesting sights, learned so much about life along the rivers but in spite of hearing the Captains and lock operators talk on the VHF radio for over a month, at no point did we clearly understand what they were saying as their southern drawl is honed to perfection.
We settled for a few days at a marina in Mobile, Alabama. We were excited to have a sailboat again complete with an upright mast. We carried bicycles as part of our gear and with these spent a great deal of time exploring the town.
On our way to Florida, we came across numerous boats thrown ashore by the previous years’ hurricane Ivan as well as the still devastated town of Pensacola. Seeing the impact of a hurricane first hand is a very humbling experience.
We spent Christmas in Carrabelle, Florida waiting at a marina for suitable weather for the 159 nautical mile open water crossing to Tarpon Springs. The marina attendant was considered to be a weather expert and convinced us to leave. Unfortunately, his predictions were inaccurate and we soon found ourselves in the midst of heavy winds and waves. This is when we discovered Captain Greg suffers from motion sickness. 34 hours after we left, we dropped anchor at Tarpon Springs, exhausted but proud of ourselves. After this, motion sickness medication became standard supply on board.
The sail down the west side of Florida was uneventful. We visited a large number of marinas, some of which were located in gracious neighbourhoods, which did not make us envious but rather appreciative of how good taste and money sometimes occur simultaneously. We had another overnight crossing to the Dry Tortugas, the western most Florida key and once again had to deal with rough conditions.
We were responsible for our predicament, heading out in what we knew would be sustained 20 knot winds on our aft quarter with 8 – 12 foot waves, conditions in which the 1st mate – me – was not skilled enough to steer. The Captain was outside at the tiller all night, both of us wondering if we would make it to the tiny island. We did in the early morning after over 14 hours of challenging sailing. We spent 2 days resting and visiting Fort Jefferson, built in the 1880’s to protect shipping in the Gulf of Mexico against potential piracy.
We spent the next few days anchoring among small islands on our way to Boot Key where we planned to stay a while. There are hundreds of boats anchored here at any time as the natural harbour offers incomparable protection both for 'live-aboards' and transients biding their time to sail over to the Bahamas. We really got into the social aspect of boating here, sharing many Happy Hours with fellow travellers.
It was now February 17 and after 2 weeks of carefree living, we pulled up anchor and headed north. We found the east side of Florida almost vulgar compared to the west side. So many buildings right on the water, so much tourism ... yet people flock here by the thousands so it must have some appeal. We floated past many mega yachts, boats whose only claim to being boats is being in the water.
We soon left this land of opulence, grounding a few times in shallow waters during ebbing tides, and entered the interesting waters of bayous and exotic vegetation of Georgia. Here, our boat’s white hull acquired the distinctive brown ‘moustache’ sported by any boats which ply the dark, high tannin waters of this area. This stretch was a favourite of ours ... the scenery was special but mostly, the old South gentility is still there to experience.
Charleston was a highlight in South Carolina and we spent several days tied up to the exceptionally long dock at the town marina so we could explore the city. Next big stop was Norfolk Virginia which has an incredibly busy port, with container ships unloading cargo in vast holding areas, tourist boats and water taxis vying for space on the water and last but certainly not least, a huge flotilla of military ships of every description. We felt pretty small as we floated past the aircraft carriers on the way to Chesapeake Bay.
New York City is just as imposing from the water as it is from land. We indulged in a bit of tourism and really enjoyed the contrast to our quiet lifestyle aboard the boat. We had an encounter with Customs officials in Gloucester, Mass. It seems we had neglected to report to Customs every time we landed and the officers who dealt with us put the fear of Uncle Sam in our souls.
We duly reported from then on, which was not always easy. We were nearing our border and couldn’t wait to be back in Canada. Our moment came when we were close enough to New Brunswick to head across open water from Maine. We ended up in a small man-made harbour on Grand Manan Island, alongside a dozen fishing boats. We were really happy to be back in Canadian waters even though we had such a good time getting here.
It was now May 20th and we felt a sense of urgency to reach Labrador. Still, we spent time in various towns and cities, not wanting to miss out on the uniqueness of the area.
Lunenburg, Nova Scotia comes to mind as we enjoyed this picturesque village from our anchorage. We made our way through the Bras d’Or lakes, another famed area, and from here, made the 14 hours crossing to Newfoundland. We had perfect conditions all the way to Port au Basque and somehow felt we had reached a milestone.
The scenery had changed from the time we reached New Brunswick, but nothing had prepared us for the ruggedness of Newfoundland’s West Coast. We loved it. We had to wait five days in a little place called Flowers Cove as the winds were so strong even the long liners stayed in port. Conditions were finally right for the 9 mile crossing of the Strait of Belle Isle and we found ourselves anchored in Red Bay, formerly an important whaling centre, now a tourist destination. It is said that when Columbus saw the Labrador coast, he exclaimed this was the land God gave Cain.
We see it differently as we relish the rugged beauty of this treeless coast. We stopped again in historic Battle Harbour, now almost restored to the state it was during the heyday of the cod fishery when schooners would crowd the harbour unloading fresh fish and loading salted cod.
We so enjoyed revisiting favourite sites and exploring new ones, such as the loading area of the nickel mine in Voisey’s Bay. Near Nain, the native people still operate a labradorite quarry and this beautiful rock is shipped mostly to Italy to become counter and table tops. We stopped briefly in Nain, the coast’s most northerly community then proceeded to Okak, a former Moravian missionary settlement of which only grave markers remain, and rhubarb, probably planted in the early 1800’s and unquestionably the best we have eaten.
It was August 1 and as planned, we turned around and headed south. It was an uneventful voyage except one night, we were almost blown ashore when gale force winds caused one of our shore lines to let go and the three anchors started to drag. That night was by far the closest we came to disaster. Back in the Strait, we located a boatyard in one of the small communities and after cleaning and winterizing Immram we left her for the winter.
Our return home was bittersweet, the yearlong adventure now a surreal memory, but at least, we had next year to look forward to when we would bring Immram home via the St. Lawrence River.
Suzanne farmed in the Valley for 20 years and moved to Meaford 5 years ago. She has travelled many areas of this country either by water, mostly in a canoe or sailboat, or on the road with a bicycle.
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