Prince Edward Island may be Canada’s smallest province, but if you like golden beaches, fresh lobster and mussels, Down East music and all the breeze you need along green-topped red shores, this is the place for you. Most harbours in the Northumberland Strait and East Coasts are suitable for keelboats, although there are some interesting destinations on the North Shore. The West Coast offers little more than a nasty lee shore, although it is a pretty sail in good weather.
Many places outside the major harbours, though, are best enjoyed by those whose boats draw less than six feet; some are limited to those with much less! Many sheltered areas have large mussel farms, but they don’t hinder navigation; they are always in shallow water and help to indicate the safe channel.
The Northumberland Strait offers the warmest waters and is narrow enough that one is nearly always in sight of PEI, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick shores. Halfway along sits Charlottetown, the Island’s main hub. With two marinas (the Yacht Club and Peake’s Quay), a host of restaurants and pubs, the Confederation Centre of the Arts and a broad expanse of sheltered water that sees regular club racing, this is the starting point for many sailors’ Island cruise. Out through broad Hillsborough Bay and another 15 miles to the west lies the little village of Victoria, “prettiest village in PEI”, where yachts tie to the old wharf (and often sit harmlessly on the soft mud bottom at low tide). There’s a restaurant with fresh lobster right on the wharf.
Summerside, a further 20 miles west, is the Island’s second largest town. If you need a break on the way, the old ferry harbour at Borden lies right under the shadow of the 13km Confederation Bridge but doesn’t have any facilities. The Silver Fox Yacht and Curling Club in Summerside will welcome you with its full-service marina, restaurant and with free entertainment and shops nearby at Spinnakers Landing. The town is a convenient place to provision.
On the southwest tip of PEI lies West Point harbour – well-protected, with a few floating docks and a pleasant walk from the restaurant in the base of the black-and-white-striped lighthouse you can see from the dock.
From West Point, it’s a 60-mile sail – a good day’s sail with fair winds – north along red cliffs, around North Cape with its spinning windmills and south again to Northport on the north shore. There are a few harbours on the way, but unless you have a stout heart and minimum draft they can’t be recommended. Northport is approached through a shoaling river entrance between sand dunes, a spectacular approach and made even more exciting on a strong ebb tide. The tide can run over four knots here, and if the wind’s coming in off the Gulf can raise a dangerous sea in heavy conditions. Pick a flood tide if you can. Once inside, though, there’s a marina, restaurants and stores – or you can anchor out in delightful peace in Cascumpeque Bay. Make the most of a good rest here, because except in very good conditions and with the latest information you may have to keep going to Souris. It’s a little over a hundred miles, so be prepared for an overnight sail.
Off to the eastward, you’ll find a low shore of seemingly endless dunes to Malpeque Bay, famous for its oysters and Rustico in New London Bay. These entrances need care and preferably local knowledge in anything but perfect conditions, but Rustico is charming. It’s very much a fisherman’s harbour, so don’t expect luxury! In many of these smaller harbours you will have to lie alongside a fishing boat. They won’t mind as long as you don’t mind being woken very early in the morning – and as long as you take your own lines in to the shore as they do, so they can leave simply by letting off one line for a moment without having to re-tie everything. It goes without saying that big fenders are a must. Island lobster boats don’t have much in the way of cleats – typically just a ring on the bows, a recessed cleat on the quarter, and a loop of line or a hole in a deck knee under the side deck. If you’re coming alongside a lobster boat short-handed it helps to have a short line made fast amidships so you can jump aboard the other boat and get your boat under control by tying to this deck knee quickly while you run your lines ashore. An old fisherman gave me this tip and it‘s a good one. You are unlikely to be asked to pay in these little places.
The entrance to St. Peter’s Bay is also difficult, but once inside the wide expanse of the bay is navigable to close to the village.
The harbours at Naufrage (beware of a harbour named “shipwreck!) and North Lake are both blocked by low bridges – even lobster boats have to lower their antennas!
More electricity-generating windmills lie inshore from the coast between here and East Point, where the “meeting of the tides” can raise a choppy sea. From this bold point it’s usually an easy run along some of the most deserted but best beaches on PEI to Souris. As with most of PEI, it’s hard to believe that this is Canada’s most densely populated province. Point of departure for the ferry to the Magdalen Islands and a major fishing port, Souris looks a bit industrial but has an excellent new full-service marina plus good facilities for repair or haulout. Several big yachts lay up for the winter here. This is a good place to take off for the Magdalens, Nova Scotia or perhaps Newfoundland.
A few miles south is one of my favourite spots, Fortune. Creep in over the bar into a tiny fishing harbour where you can tie up and walk up to the four-diamond Inn at Bay Fortune restaurant, or follow the winding river up to the head of navigation. It’s peaceful and green.
South again, into Annandale with its tall range lights, perhaps, or on to the “Three Rivers”. All three are easily navigated, with the Cardigan River offering a choice of restaurants at its head, the Brudenell River a marina resort with a world-class golf course, and the Montague River with a full-service marina and the biggest shopping centre east of Charlottetown. At the mouth of the rivers lies the town of Georgetown, once the Island capital and now a sleepy place except for its shipyard (you might see a giant tug being tested) and lumbering business. Watch out for giant barges laden with trees or gravel (the Island has to import all its gravel, believe it or not), and towed a long way behind their tug.
On the southeast tip of the Island lies Murray Harbour, a cruising area in miniature with three rivers, four harbours but only two villages. The main one is Murray Harbour, where the Bowdridge Landing Marina offers dockage and showers. There’s an excellent garage across the road that can advise on engine problems – and even completely re-machine an engine at its machine shop business. The Community Centre up the hill, just past the store and Post Office, has ceilidhs on alternate Friday evenings.
Heading west again now, the ferry terminal at Wood Islands offers shelter overnight and seafood at Crabby’s takeout. Further west, perhaps with the scent of potato blossoms blowing off the land, the Pinette River is a challenging piloting exercise up to the road bridge, where you could tie to a fishing boat and walk up the road to place a bet on the trotters at Pinette Raceway. Or, if you’re not in the mood, it’s next stop Charlottetown again for the completion of your circumnavigation of the Island. No doubt you’ll have been out in some wind by now and been shaken around a bit – the wind in the Gulf is rarely calm, and the Strait often raises a short chop. But you’ll have experienced only moderate tides; except in the inlets the flows are rarely strong, and tidal ranges are less than eight feet maximum and less in most places. It’s about 300 miles around the Island – more if you poke into all the spots I’ve suggested, of course. You’ll have seen eagles and ospreys, gannets and terns, seals (they’re common in the East coast rivers) and possibly whales and tuna (these speedsters are often seen off the North shore), tied up in quiet harbours, enjoyed golden sands and sun, perhaps sampled some city nightlife or some rustic entertainment and certainly some seafood straight from clear, cool water. Above all you will have met some of the friendliest folk around in a trim, lovely and slow-paced Island with a character all its own.