Memorable Cruising in Bras d’Or Lake

In a week of sailing in the heart of Cape Breton Island, Bras d’Or Lake turned out to be far better than expected.

Cloud-shrouded mountains, sun-splashed hills, wilderness forests, snug coves, broad bays, eagles soaring overhead. In a week of sailing in the heart of Cape Breton Island, Bras d’Or Lake turned out to be far better than the place I’d read about for years, with the hopes of one day visiting. Toss in fine summer weather, water that’s as prefect for sailing as it is for swimming, sparkling fiddle tunes, Race Week festivities and some of the nicest folks you’ll meet on the planet, and well, my next question is, “How soon can I get back there?”

To reach this Canadian Maritimes cruising ground, most East Coast sailors would cross to Nova Scotia on their own boats and enter the lake through the lock in St. Peters. Once inside, there’s 1,200 miles of coastline to explore before returning home or leaving through the Great Bras d’Or Channel and passing under Seal Island Bridge to continue on to Newfoundland or points farther east or north.

My wife, Sue, and I arrived instead by car (Read "Plan C"). We took the ferry from Portland, Maine, to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and from there, drove east to Cape Breton Island. Our destination: Baddeck, home to charter company start-up Sailing CBI, and its owners, Paul and Donna Jamieson. They'd be our hosts for the week, along with Jamie Schumacker, captain of the company's new Alpha 42 catamaran, Cape Bretoner 1. Also joining us for the adventure was sailing photographer Bob Grieser, and along the way, we'd welcome aboard a good number of visitors who were either friends of the Jamiesons (seemingly everyone on Cape Breton) or just curious about the boat. You don't see a lot of ocean-going catamarans in this neck of the woods.

Our week got off to an interesting start. After spending our first night in a lovely little cove up the Washabuck River, we awoke the next morning and motored across St. Patrick’s Channel to a mooring in front of the Jamieson’s house, where we planned to pick up guests for the day. Circling while our captain rowed ashore to fetch them, we discovered that one of the props had gone missing. The good news: we could still motor, and sail, of course; the bad: maneuvering in close quarters was interesting.

Tied at the mooring, calls were made to secure a replacement. Meantime, we took full advantage of the sunshine and our surroundings to enjoy lunch and an afternoon of swimming and kicking back. Later, we headed south, past the working gypsum quarry and loading docks that bring large ore carries into that part of the lake, to a lovely shoreside anchorage where we spent the night.

The next day, we completed our tour of what the locals call the small lake and returned through Little Narrows, bound for the Jamieson's mooring once again to pick up a new crew of people and a chef, who'd do the heavy lifting during our evening dinner cruise through lovely Baddeck harbor. Golden evening sunlight flooded the cockpit as about a dozen of us sat around the table and enjoyed the ride. Cape Bretoner ghosted along under genoa as the collective "we" took it all in. Then as we turned to head back up the lake, if the evening wasn't fine enough, a nearly full moon popped up to light our way back.

The next two days, we struck off south, passing through the drawbridge at Iona and into the big lake. I’d wager you could spend a summer here, exploring the endless nooks and crannies accessible to a cruising sailboat. Locals would argue it would take a lifetime. Among the landfalls we ticked off: Maskells Harbor, The Boom and Frazer Cove, Little Harbor, Marble Mountain — only a handful, but as many as our time would allow.

Sunday morning, we pointed the bows back to Baddeck, where we arrived in time for the Bras d'Or Lake Yacht Club's annual Sail Past, the kick off to Race Week, held the first week of every August. In a lively 20-knot breeze, 100 or so boats of all description — from schooner to jet-ski — paraded past the club. The shores on either side of the harbor were lined with people enjoying the sights and a perfect sunny afternoon. The party that followed was monumental, and, according to reports, ran well into the night. Knowing we had work to do the next day, we prudently retreated to comfy accommodations at the nearby Lynnwood Inn.

You wouldn’t know the revelry went well into the wee hours. On Monday, it was all business as sailboats line up near the starting line, set just off the Alexander Graham Bell estate at Beinn Bhreagh. A near perfect 10 to 12 knot breeze sent us on our way. Now, we were aboard Paul Jamieson’s family boat, a C&C 33, which he’s raced for years on the lake. By the third and final lap of the buoys the breeze had grown quite sporty. Spray flew off the bow as we flew toward the finish — a perfect end to our first — and not last — visit to Canada’s inland sea.

Alpha 42

Alpha 42

Mark Pillsbury
Bras d'Or Lake

Bras d'Or Lake

Mark Pillsbury
Bras d'Or Lake

Bras d'Or Lake

Mark Pillsbury
Bras d'Or Lake

Bras d'Or Lake

Mark Pillsbury
Bras d'Or Lake

Bras d'Or Lake

Mark Pillsbury
Bras d'Or Lake

Bras d'Or Lake

Mark Pillsbury