Almost There: Home Stretch on the Unrelenting River

Zartman- barge

It’s a funny thing, not being ready to sail at any moment.Danielle Zartman

The charts we bought in Newfoundland for the St Lawrence River have a neat feature: a letter inside a little diamond leads you to a table in the margin that tells you what the current will be doing just there at each stage of the tide.It was hopelessly confusing for me to figure out, but Danielle seemed to think it made sense, and told me at what times we had to cross over each diamond to catch a favorable current. Some of the diamonds weren’t even a mile apart, but the difference in current was significant. What it boiled down to was that when we left Cap a L’Aiguille at the beginning of the flood, we could check our progress against the diamonds and know whether we’d made good enough way to carry on or whether we needed to stop and wait for the next tide. This next portion of river, between Cap a L’Aiguille and Quebec City has the strongest tides, and there would be no going against a seven-knot flow. Also a wind opposing the tide would make for an inconceivably horrible chop. A lot of things could go wrong, but if things went right, we could really make tracks.

The marina had closed for the season and was deserted, and we enjoyed a few hours of quietness and rest alongside one of the piers that hadn't been pulled out yet. The girls found a splendid waterfall to explore, and we felt pretty good when we left in the early afternoon to squeeze into the narrow passage between L'Isle-aux-Coudres and the mainland. We had thought to stop in there and wait out a predicted gale, but it proved unsheltered and full of traffic. What's more, the current was screaming through at better than five knots, and there was still a lot of tide to go. We pressed on and were glad we did, since the weather was good and Ganymede did over ten knots on the GPS all afternoon. As if that weren't good enough, a breeze came up from astern and we set some sails and really made good time, arriving with some consternation at a narrow, poorly-lit passage north of Ile d'Orleans just after dark. We could have done without the wind as we arrived, since it got up pretty hard and we had plenty of other things to think about as Ganyemede rolled and bounced her way between and even over shoals that would dry at low tide.

It was but indifferent shelter that we found inside that narrow channel, and when we dropped the anchor it was obviously among rocks, but we were too tired to care. As long as Ganymede didn't drag as the current swept past I didn't mind how much she rolled nor how much noise the anchor made. At dawn, still groggy but with enough tide left to make it to Quebec City, we hove up the anchor and sailed past the bustle of that enormous port city. With the gale still on our minds, we motored into the Quebec Yacht Club for fuel just as the tide was about to turn, and finding that wharfage would not be as outrageous as we had feared, decided to stay until the storm blew over.

I’ve found, from time to time, that paying a little extra per foot for a nicer marina can be well worthwhile over a cut-rate place. Our stay cost us $76, which is excessive, but factoring in the clean and spacious restrooms, the very inexpensive laundry, nice grounds for the kids to play on, and best of all being safe and comfortable while a really-truly nasty gale blew by outside, it was well worth it. We couldn’t afford that every night nor yet every week, but once in a while it doesn’t hurt too badly. By the time we left next evening, we and our clothes were clean, the decks and hull had gotten a much-needed scrubbing, I had tuned up the outboard engine, and a local had given me a ride to a splendid grocery store.

It was evening when we left Quebec—the tide has no regard for day or night, and by now there was more night than daylight anyway. The river, however, is extremely well-buoyed, and also has many sets of range markers to help you along. In the northern part of Quebec there had been hardly any buoys at at all, since there's so much ice to damage them, and we'd gotten used to looking for range markers to guide us through the narrow island passages. It was luxury, then, to have both buoys and ranges, and it passed the time to tick each buoy off the chart as Ganymede, aided by the tide, shot past.

A little more disconcerting were the ships—giant tankers and container ships that plowed along fast enough to sneak up on you from behind if you forgot to look for five minutes. One moment you would be alone with your thoughts in the dark, and the next a giant wall of steel would go sliding past fifty or a hundred feet away. It wasn't too bad—as long as we kept the starboard side of the channel they all would see our lights easily and go around—but once or twice two would pass in opposite directions just where we also were, and things would get squeezy, to say nothing of the violence of mixing wakes that could toss all of Ganymede's ten tons aside like a toy.

It was a long slog to Trois-Rivières, especially after the tide petered out and there was no more flood: nothing but a two-knot river current flowing against, a current that opposed us for another grinding 30 miles beyond Trois-Rivières, cutting our five knots though the water down to three over the ground. That last night in the river—the second one since leaving Quebec City—was the chilliest yet, but mercifully it was devoid of both wind and ship traffic, and at three AM, bone-chilled and weary but triumphant, we turned out of the channel, dropped the anchor, lit a fire and collapsed into bed. We were not out of the woods yet—there was still the mast to lower and stow, 50 miles to make up the Richelieu River, and all the locks to get through before we would be in the US again, but we were through the hardest part; no more opposing current, no more ship traffic, no more need to run at night. It had been, as we’d suspected, the hardest, coldest, and most tiring push of our lives, but it was done and our sleep the rest of that night was the best we’d had in weeks.

We are the Zartman family: Ben & Danielle, and our three girls, Antigone, Emily and Damaris. We created this blog to chronicle our sailing adventures on Ganymede__, a home-finished 31-foot gaff-rigged cutter, which has been our home since 2009, when we sailed from San Francisco, California, to the Sea of Cortez, then down along the Central American coast.