Aurora Borealis Cruising

In order to put some miles in their wake, the Zartman family makes some overnight passages and is rewarded with one of nature's best shows.

Zartman- buoy at dawn
Danielle Zartman

I’ve never been good at reading tide tables—not because I can’t muddle out an answer from them, but because my answer is usually wrong. So digging out the tide table book we’d procured in St. Anthony, I handed it to Danielle, who delights in tweaky mathematical calculations. Soon the cabin was littered with tiny bits of paper covered with even tinier writing, which boiled down to our needing to leave Havre-St-Pierre early in the morning for a quick run to Mingan. After a few hours there we would leave with a fair tide to cross the Strait of Jacques Cartier, round the point of Anticosti Island, and hope the tide wouldn’t flow too hard out the Honguedo Strait. By afternoon of the next day we would be arriving at the south shore of the river, where the tides would be completely different anyway. It sounded good, and with two days of calm in the forecast, it was probably the best window we would get.

In the evening of our last day at Havre-St-Pierre, a marina attendant finally showed up. Danielle was afraid she’d try to charge us for wharfage, but she had been told that we were there and just wanted to give us the key to the shower and laundry room. No charge: perhaps she was embarrassed that we’d sat there for two days without services; perhaps she didn’t want to bother opening up the office. Either way, it was a nice end to our stay and a nice beginning to the long push ahead.

The first leg of the push was a shorty—twenty miles to Mingan to wait for the flood to begin. There was not much there: a few dirt roads, a gas station/convenience store, a lot of weeds. It is a native town (Inuit? Eskimo?—I don’t know which term is currently preferred), and I felt very much the Kabloona—the white guy—as I stretched my legs on the littered streets.

It was nothing like Havre-St-Pierre, with its mowed lawns, shiny cars, and general sheen of prosperity; instead, Mingan looked like it should have been the farthest-away place yet. In a way it was, I supposed, being unvisited by the giant coastal ferry that services the remainder of that coast.

What it lacked in amenities however, it made up for in wildlife. Twenty feet from the steep-to beach a pod of minke whales spouted all morning, while scores of large gray seals put their heads out of the water to puff and dive again. Our pleasure in watching them was matched by our anxiety in watching the tide as it went on dropping past the appointed time. Several more times we went though the calculations, and at last Danielle figured it out: you had to allow for Daylight Savings Time, which threw the whole thing off by an hour. Or two, if you allowed for it in the wrong direction. I still don’t know if we ever got it right, and in the end we left when I decided we were ready.

Nothing like having two unknown foreign tongues to choose from.

It had been a few months since we’d done an overnighter—that’s one of the advantages of unhurried coastal cruising—and I’d forgotten how much they can be enjoyed. Not only is there the quiet of children fast asleep, there’s no urgent feeling of having to get anchored before dark. That night, as we crossed the Jacques Cartier channel, was calm and clear, and the northern constellations reflected in the pellucid water made it seem like Ganymede was floating in space, with stars above, below, and all around. When Jupiter rose large out of the sea I made sure our sternlight was on, thinking a pretty big ship must be coming up behind.

When the night was far spent we could see away to the the south hundreds of tiny blinking red lights that marked the wind farms on the Gaspe peninsula, and by morning the tops of the Chics-Chocs mountains loomed high out of the mist. It would have been nice—so nice, to rest overnight at St. Anne-des-Monts, where we tied up late in the evening to buy fuel and have a run on shore. But the forecast was still for twelve more hours of calm, and with again a fair tide, we couldn’t afford to waste it. And, so, wearily, we cast off and chugged into the gathering night.

I had expected, after my pot of evening coffee wore off, to merely slumber over the tiller until Danielle would take a turn, but that night proved to be the most magical I’ve ever spent at sea. It began with a faint loom to the north, where no cities existed close enough to create it. As the night wore on, the loom grew, just as though some celestial giant had lit a fire under the Big Dipper and were boiling water in it. Soon the loom had spread over a quarter of the sky looking like the thinnest-spread of clouds, but perfectly clearly could all the stars be seen beyond. Suddenly a column of the sheen broke out and swept the heavens like a searchlight beam. “Wake up!” I called into the cabin. “It’s the northern lights!”

Tousled heads crowded the companionway to watch the scintillating, pulsing glow that now filled all the northern sky from horizon to zenith with its ethereal dance. I could go on describing it for thousands of words and never approach the wonder of seeing it oneself—the Aurora Borealis is one of those spectacles of nature that absolutely beggar human description. The show continued all through the night until dawn took the darkness from the sky and all was lost in palest blue.

It was just after sunrise, and dead low tide, when we arrived at Matane and found an abandoned-looking wharf, covered in stinking guano, tucked in the farthest corner of the breakwalled enclosure. Gratefully we made fast, cleaned up as best we could, and hunkered down to sit out the big blow. We were fairly in the St. Lawrence river now, several hundred miles along from Mingan, and ready for a much-deserved rest.

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._