Sail­ing north to Labrador where po­lar bears, ice­bergs and un­touched wilder­ness await

SAIL - - Contents - BY BILL COOK

In the sum­mer of 2016, I de­cided to head for the high lat­i­tudes on my Bris­tol 56, Res­o­lu­tion. An­tic­i­pat­ing this might be my last north­ern cruise, I had a num­ber of con­ver­sa­tions with the crew about our goals. Most of us had done one or more cruises to­gether, and we came up with sev­eral des­ti­na­tions we thought we’d like to visit. One of the most in­trigu­ing, not least for its sym­bol­ism, was Res­o­lu­tion Is­land in Hud­son Strait. An­other pop­u­lar choice was the Torn­gat Moun­tains of north­ern Labrador.

As our early July de­par­ture neared, we be­gan to fa­vor a loosely de­fined goal of go­ing as far north as we com­fort­ably could in the six weeks or so that fit our var­i­ous sched­ules, ex­pect­ing this would get us into the best part of the Torn­gats. Right away, this strat­egy showed its worth, as the north­bound crew of Paul Bushu­eff, Skip Garfield, Larry Hall and I all had to wait out a two-day nor’easter be­fore we could even leave my home port of Mar­ion, Mas­sachusetts. Our re­ward was three days of easy pow­er­ing to the Bras d’Or Lakes on Cape Bre­ton Is­land with clear vis­i­bil­ity the whole way—a first in my cou­ple of dozen trips along the Nova Sco­tia coast.

Although we each had a CAN­PASS doc­u­ment that would al­low clear­ance into Canada by phone, we were also armed with the rec­om­mended po­lar bear de­fense of a 12-gauge shot­gun, and had to show this, as well as its doc­u­men­ta­tion, in per­son to the cus­toms of­fi­cers at St. Peter’s. Larry, Skip and Paul are all ex­pe­ri­enced with firearms, and Larry was des­ig­nated as our “bear war­den,” of­fi­cial­dom’s eu­phemism for the per­son with the gun.

We stopped that night in John­stown Har­bour, a fa­vorite among the many snug coves on Bras d’Or Lake, and then set out again by way of the Great Bras d’Or Channel, which to me al­ways seems like the be­gin­ning of the tran­si­tion to the “north­ern” Mar­itimes. Af­ter that, with strong winds in the fore­cast, we put in at Ding­wall, the clos­est shel­ter to Cape North, to wait for bet­ter weather: and what a splen­did “port in a storm” it was—a 400ft-wide lake that pro­tects you from even the strong­est wind gusts af­ter you’ve made you way past the large com­mer­cial basin and up a nar­row but deep creek. Next day, with the help of a fair, gen­tle breeze, we headed north across the of­ten lumpy Cabot Strait into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where we en­joyed re­mark­ably good vis­i­bil­ity all the way to Bat­tle Har­bour, Labrador. Af­ter that came beau­ti­ful Horse­fly Cove at the head of Ship Har­bour, where Res­o­lu­tion had rid­den out a storm 10 years be­fore. By now ice­bergs were be­gin­ning to show up in force, rid­ing the south-go­ing Labrador Cur­rent. I mea­sured one with a sex­tant and radar at a new (per­sonal) record of 251ft high.

Three long daytrips af­ter that (with overnight stops in Grady and We­beck har­bours) found Res­o­lu­tion in Makkovik, a fa­vorite fuel and wa­ter stop, which was fol­lowed by an overnight sail to Sa­glek, which put us solidly among the Torn­gats. The overnight was fast but more ad­ven­tur­ous than I had in­tended, with strong wind, big seas, more ice­bergs and fog. I had been in touch by e-mail with fel­low Cruis­ing Club of Amer­ica (CCA)

member Joe Hoopes (who sails the Lit­tle Har­bor 75, Palawan) and he had of­fered some ice “wis­dom” that in­cluded heav­ing-to in “bergy” ar­eas when­ever any two of the three fol­low­ing con­di­tions were present: waves, dark­ness and fog. I think this is good ad­vice, though I didn’t fol­low it.

St. John’s Har­bour in Sa­glek Bay serves as the base camp for the Torn­gat Moun­tains Na­tional Park, and the park staff there ex­pect vis­i­tors to check in with them be­fore go­ing far­ther north. They also of­fer some lim­ited sup­plies, though fuel is a heart-stop­ping $20 per gal­lon. Though the camp had been open for a week, no vis­i­tors had yet ar­rived, as nearby Nain air­port had been solidly fogged in.

By now we’d de­cided that Sea­plane Cove in Kan­galak­siorvik Fjord would be our turn­around point, which would al­low us sev­eral days in the moun­tains. It also had some per­sonal sig­nif­i­cance for Skip, be­cause his wife, Tally’s, grand­fa­ther Alexan­der Forbes had made the cove his base for an ae­rial sur­vey of the Torn­gats in 1931. Fi­nally, by not push­ing far­ther north we would be able to spend a full day and night in the north arm of Sa­glek Fjord, de­scribed in the CCA’s Cruis­ing Guide to The Labrador as “not to be missed.”

The land at the head of the arm slopes gen­tly up a large val­ley, mak­ing it ideal for walk­ing. There are also many ru­ins from an ear­lier Inuit set­tle­ment around the mouth of the stream there. With in­creas­ing numbers of po­lar bears in re­cent years, hik­ing in this area presents the dilemma of self-de­fense. Park rules pro­hibit firearms ashore, but our crew was unan­i­mous in its de­ci­sion that safety was its main con­cern— we’ll leave it at that.

South of the park, in He­bron, the im­pres­sive Mo­ra­vian mis­sion build­ing has been fully re­stored on the ex­te­rior, and work is con­tinu- ing on in­te­rior de­tails. The build­ing was pre­fab­ri­cated in Ger­many in 1829, shipped in parts, re­assem­bled on-site and com­pleted in 1837. The restora­tion seems a huge ef­fort for such a re­mote area, but there is an in­ter­preter and a small dock for dinghy land­ings, and a num­ber of cruise ships visit each sum­mer. A week ear­lier a ship with over 200 stu­dents had ap­par­ently stopped by.

Con­tin­u­ing on from there, we stopped in at Nain, where we also made

a crew change, with Nancy McKelvy, Peter Stone and John Win­der com­ing aboard for the re­turn trip. Nain has un­der­gone a re­mark­able trans­for­ma­tion since the Inuit pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment of Nu­natsi­avut was es­tab­lished there in 2005. With a new gov­ern­ment cen­ter and clinic, as well as an ac­tive fish plant, many more are now em­ployed, and fewer ne­glected chil­dren roam the streets. The At­sanik Lodge even has Wi-Fi, which al­lowed me to down­load those same charts I had been en­vy­ing on Larry’s and Paul’s iPads.

Much of north­ern Labrador was re-sur­veyed in the 2000s, so for a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of this coast you now have a “path­way” of sound­ings per­haps a half-mile wide, in­stead of the sin­gle track shown on ear­lier charts. None­the­less, the stretch be­tween Nain and Makkovik re­mains a “rock gar­den,” some of which we got to see far too closely fol­low­ing a slight nav­i­ga­tional mix up.

Un­for­tu­nately, along the south­ern Labrador coast, Res­o­lu­tion met with a spell of bad weather, thanks to a deep low off­shore, with strong south­east winds, fog and a big swell re­bound­ing off the cliffs on shore. Domino Har­bour and Ea­gle Cove, how­ever, proved to be an­other cou­ple of cozy refuges in the storm, and by the time we re­turned to Ship Har­bour, it was clear enough for Peter to get out his wa­ter­col­ors and do a lit­tle paint­ing.

Af­ter that, Bat­tle Har­bour was our last port in Labrador. Though the “new” pier there has been de­stroyed by ice, it is still a fine place to spend a day, with great walk­ing trails all over the is­land. As we said farewell to Labrador, I teased John Win­der about not go­ing for a swim, as he had done once in Green­land. Truth be told, though, the wa­ter in the Labrador cur­rent is much colder than along the west coast of Green­land.

I some­times won­der whether the Strait of Belle Isle wasn’t named in the same spirit of op­ti­mism, or per­haps mar­ket­ing, as is said to have been the case when the Vikings named Green­land. The only thing that is con­sis­tent about it is its in­con­sis­tency. Our tran­sit wasn’t too bad, but with a head­wind blow­ing against a fair tide, the chop was so steep our speed ac­tu­ally im­proved when the tide turned against us and the seas set­tled down again.

In the end we made it as far as Bonne Bay, New­found­land, be­fore the south­wester re­ally started crank­ing, forc­ing us to have to wait an­other three full days, mostly at nearby Nor­ris Cove. Our pa­tience, how­ever, was even­tu­ally re­warded with a lovely sail in a mod­er­ate nor’wester down the coast and back across the Cabot Strait. Early in the morn­ing, I was able to see Cape Ray, New­found­land, Saint Paul Is­land and Cape North on Cape Bre­ton all at the same time, a unique ex­pe­ri­ence in my many cross­ings.

Af­ter a short stop in cozy Maskells Har­bour on Bras d’Or Lake, an­other day-night-day run brought us to Shel­burne, Nova Sco­tia, ahead of more lows and strong south­west­er­lies. We first tried go­ing along­side the Shel­burne Yacht Club’s floats, but as the wind piped up, the rear com­modore and man­ager came over and very gen­tly sug­gested Res­o­lu­tion might be more com­fort­able at the solid town pier a hun­dred yards away. They were clearly wor­ried that Res­o­lu­tion’s heavy dis­place­ment might break the float away from its moor­ings—a smart move.

Shel­burne was an­other nice place for a lay-day, with its re­stored his­toric build­ings, shops, restau­rants and the hos­pi­tal­ity of the yacht club. We were even in­vited to the Satur­day pig roast, but in­stead set off for Cape Cod and the gen­tle fi­nal leg home. s Bill Cook is a naval ar­chi­tect based in Barn­sta­ble, Mas­sachusetts, and has made 11 voy­ages to New­found­land and seven to Labrador. He is also an ac­tive member of the Cruis­ing Club of Amer­ica (CCA) North Amer­ica’s pre­mier off­shore cruis­ing and racing or­ga­ni­za­tion. The club’s more than 1,200 skilled and broadly ac­com­plished ocean sailors share their cruis­ing ex­per­tise with fel­low mem­bers and the greater sail­ing com­mu­nity. The club has 11 sta­tions around the United States, Canada and Ber­muda. It is also the prin­ci­pal or­ga­nizer, along with the Royal Ber­muda Yacht Club, of the leg­endary bi­en­nial New­port Ber­muda Race. For more on the CCA and its ac­tiv­i­ties, visit cruis­ing­

Paul keeps watch as Res­o­lu­tion en­ters spec­tac­u­lar Sa­glek Bay Bay mid­way through the cruise

Paul (left) and the au­thor en­joy some sun­shine; yes, the wa­ter up north is that cold (in­set)

Paul (left) and Skip keep an eye out for po­lar bears while step­ping ashore at Sa­glek Bay

Ice­bergs on a sunny day posed lit­tle threat; af­ter dark or in fog, how­ever, it was a dif­fer­ent story!

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