For the cruiser, Cape Breton Island is a large salt-water sea surrounded by land with a long peninsula, the Highlands, on the west side pointing the finger NE toward Newfoundland.
This area and the Stockholm Archipelago are our second-favorite cruising grounds after the North Channel (Lake Huron) and Lake Superior. Cape Breton Island is in the province of Nova Scotia, and connected to the mainland by a causeway with a lock and lift bridge, but it is an island. It has its own flags, although the only place we saw one flown was in St. Peter’s Inlet on the south shore.
The unofficial flag of Cape Breton available everywhere The official Cape Breton flag not available anywhere
The northern part of the lakes is three large channels. The Great Bras d’Or Channel is the only direct connection between the Atlantic and the lakes and has a fierce tidal current, few anchorages and the city of Baddeck at its head.
St. Patrick’s Channel runs from Baddeck southwest to village of Whycocomagh and includes the Little Narrows; there are many anchorages in this channel. St. Andrew’s Channel runs somewhat parallel to Great Bras d’Or from the Barra Strait towards North Sydney; there are just a few anchorages in this largest channel. The Barra Strait separates the northern part of the lakes from the southern part. It has a lift road bridge and a swing railroad bridge (always open except when maintenance is performed).
The larger part of the lakes is south of the bridge and is divided into four sections: The East and West Bays, St. Peter’s Inlet in the south and “The Boom” in the north. The East Bay has only one good anchorage, and we visited many of the anchorages in the West Bay in 2006 (documented in our 2006 log and photos), so we cruised in The Boom and St. Peter’s Inlet in the southern part of the lakes. The Boom is a large island that forms several intricate bays in the northern part of the lake just south of Barra Strait between Grand Narrows and Orangedale. Is Grand Narrows the same as Stewart Maclean’s fictional Big Narrows, birthplace of Dave in the Vinyl Café?
Baddeck and St. Peter’s are the only towns in the lakes with docks and facilities for sailors. Cruising in the Bras d’Or is an anchoring experience, and fortunately the harbours have reasonable depths (9-20 feet), good mud bottoms and calm conditions most of the time. Cruising for three weeks in Cape Breton was the most relaxing time we have had on Pilgrim since 2009 in the Swedish and Finnish archipelagos.
Most of the harbours are in coves, bays or river mouths. A characteristic feature is islands or long points of land with shallow sand spits reaching far into the water. Some islands have a sand spit causeway connecting them to the mainland. The sandy soil is orange-brown, similar to its neighboring island to the west, Prince Edward Island. The rock is a contrasting white gypsum / marble. Gypsum is mined, and many islands and points of land are named “plaster.” The predominant trees are evergreens dripping with lichen and birch. The calm harbours provided the first opportunity since the Baltic archipelagos for Jane to inflate her kayak to go where Pilgrim’s keel would not allow.
The Scottish, the French, and later the Irish immigrants farmed and fished on Cape Breton during the 18th and 19th centuries. Mining coal, gypsum and even marble were major industries in the 20th century. Now the island’s main industry seems to be tourism. Everywhere there are many cottages, both modest cabins and trailers and opulent summer homes. Baddeck is a summer tourist town. When we drove through Baddeck in late May on our way to Newfoundland, many stores, hotels and restaurants were either closed or on off-season hours. In August Baddeck was packed with tourists.
The star attraction in the Bras d’Ors is the eagles. There are many fresh-water streams that flow into the Bras d’Or Lakes with sufficient numbers of trout to keep a thriving colony of eagles living throughout the lakes. The eagles are relatively easy to spot since they are the top of their food chain and can afford to sit on the top branches of dead trees without fear of predators. In McKinnon’s Harbour, a lake that is almost land-locked just south of Barra Strait, we saw a large nest in a dead tree with no camouflage. A young eagle flew to the tree and perched above the nest, keeping vigil for several hours.
Eagles on the wing, with the nest and landing in a high tree
Bald Eagle at Eagle Point
We also saw one osprey, many belted kingfishers, and a group of American mergansers.
We heard, but did not see, loons in St. Peter’s inlet. In Big Harbour we must have been on the flight path for hummingbirds, since three times we were “buzzed.” The first time it happened we thought the sound was from a motorcycle. Since Pilgrim did not provide any sweet nectar, the hummingbird did not stay long enough to get photographed.
There were also plenty of terns, gulls, cormorants, geese and crows, so there must have been some small fish in the waters.
Cormorant flying low Common tern turned into the wind
Canada Geese and a Blue Heron
Minnows took shelter under our hull and we saw several pipefish swimming near the surface in McKinnon’s Harbour, but the main human food from the water are bivalves: oysters and mussels. There are aquaculture sites in harbours that we avoided for collecting oyster spat (oyster seeds), but we did see one establishment in the North Basin in The Boom. There were definitely not enough barn swallows and martins for the large mosquito population.
The weather was the warmest we have experienced since 2009. The hatches and portholes were left open and the mosquito netting for the hatches saw the light of day. Even the fans were in use. The shorts and light-weight clothing was dug from the bottom of our clothes storage area.
Great Bras d’Or: Kelly’s Cove. The first anchorage going into the lake gave us relief from the strong ebb tidal current (4 knots against us) as we arrived at an inopportune time. We actually saw a whirlpool in a narrow part of the channel.
St. Patrick’s Channel: Baddeck, Crow Point, Indian Cove in the mouth of the Washabuck River, West Cove behind McInnis Island near Whycocomagh, and The Harbour in Baddeck Bay. The Harbour is where Alexander Graham Bell conducted many marine experiments when he lived in Baddeck. Nearby Herring Cove is where the 90-foot schooner Yankee was scuttled by its second owner after Irving and Alexy Johnson. The Johnsons cruised (and photographed) the world during the 1950’s. Jane’s first cruising experience was with Larry and Midge Perkins aboard Allegro in 1960 in the North Channel. She remembers Larry’s stories of sailing across the Atlantic with the Johnsons in Yankee.
Baddeck Harbour and the yacht club hosted a Race Week in August
St. Andrew’s Channel: Maskells Harbour, the perfect anchorage. 17 knots of gusty SW wind outside and a whisper in the anchorage.
It was blowing 20 knots outside with barely a ripple in the harbour
The Boom: McKinnons Harbour, entered via a short dredged channel invisible until almost in the channel. An unmarked sand bar just inside the channel had grounded two sailboats who were leaving as we were entering. Eagle Point in Denys Basin (yes, there was an eagle). Boat Cove in Malagawatch Harbour (Big Harbour)
The white sailboat is aground on an uncharted sandbar
Johnstown Harbour, just outside St. Peter’s Inlet. Almost landlocked harbour entered via a very narrow channel with sand spits on either side, but 30 foot depths.
The water is quite deep just off the end of the sand hook
St. Peter’s Inlet: Damion’s Cove, French Cove, Beaver Island / Sampsonville, and St. Peter’s. We especially enjoyed the artwork on many of the fire hydrants.
Megayacht refueling at St.Peter’s Marina
Blue heron refueling in French Cove Firehose refueling in St. Peter’s
St. Peter’s Canal and Lock: The southern entrance/exit for the Bras d’Ors is dramatic. The canal was blasted out of granite and took 15 years to complete. Before it opened in 1869, small boats were hauled on skids by ox teams. There is a road swing bridge at the north end of the canal and one tidal lock. Tidal locks have 2 gates at each end which when closed form a diamond shape. One gate must be angled to face into the side with the higher water level. The lift or drop is only 2-5 feet, so the transit through the lock is short and easy. Not at all like the Göta Canal (see logs and photos from 2008 in Sweden)
We walked to the canal and lock to review the procedures with lock staff
Two Observations: There are many boats in the Bras d’Or Lakes. A few are year-round residents. About 1000 yachts transit the St. Peter’s lock during the summer arriving mainly from Canada and the United States. The docks and moorings in Baddeck are full, and the St. Peter’s Marina is usually full, but the anchorages are relatively empty. Especially in The Boom, we saw only 3 cruising boats. There is plenty of room for all unlike in our favorite cruising grounds, the North Channel, during July and early August.
Second, the Bras d’Or Lakes have been designated a “no discharge zone.” This means all cruisers are required to have holding tanks and go to a pump-out station rather than discharge waste into the lake. This is standard practice in the Great Lakes and we wholeheartedly agree and comply with the policy. However, the only pump-out stations in operation are at the crowded fuel docks in Baddeck and possibly one at the marina Grand Narrows (not verified by us). The other two pump-out stations were out of service: in St. Peter’s Marina it was broken and the marina in Dundee has closed. It is hard to be compliant under such circumstances. In one of Finland’s popular anchorages there was a raft with trash receptacles and a hand-operated pump out station. Canada could learn from the Finns.