Glen Cairns

450 square miles of inland sea

When many boaters in Central Canada imagine cruising in the Maritimes, they think fog, fierce tides and the perceived perils of the open ocean.  While there can be plenty of those things (although not nearly as bad as some imagine) there is however a place with almost no fog, tides or ocean waves, but with an abundance of breathtaking scenery, secluded anchorages and friendly inhabitants.  The Bras d’or Lakes in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, are 450 square miles of inland sea with enough cruising potential to last a lifetime.

It’s probably true that you’d be more likely to know sailors familiar with the charms of the Bras d’Or Lakes in Newport or Marblehead than in the whole of central Canada. This is party due to the traditional links between the Maritimes and New England, but also due the long relationship of American sailors with the lure of the Bras d’Or.  The Cruising Club of America (CCA) has made many cruises to the lakes since the 1920s. Indeed the idea for the CCA was first hatched aboard Alexander Graham Bell’s yawl Elsie by William Nutting (editor of Motor Boating magazine), Casey Baldwin and Bell’s son-in-law Gilbert H. Grosvenor while they were anchored in Maskell’s harbour near Baddeck. That Grosvener was the President of the National Geographic society and editor the National Geographic magazine meant the lakes got some very high profile publicity.

Alexander Graham Bell was an early visitor to Cape Breton and he so fell in love with the place that he built his summer home, Beinn Bhreagh, on the point overlooking the harbor of Baddeck. A visit to the Bell museum is a must to grasp the depth and breadth of his mind. In February 1909 the Silver Dart, designed under Bells supervision, made first flight in Canada taking off on the frozen surface of the lake. Bell went on the experiment with hydrofoils with his young helpers Casey Baldwin and Jim McCurdy.

 “I have travelled the globe. I have seen the Canadian and American Rockies, the Andes and the Alps and the highlands of Scotland, but for simply beauty, Cape Breton outrivals them all.” Alexander Graham Bell

The Bras d’Or lakes have recently been declared a UNESCO  “man and the biosphere” site reflecting the diverse ecology of the lakes and the surrounding coastline. A total area of 3,600 sq. kms. The Bras d’Or Lakes (properly Bras d’Or Lake, but the plural is more common) consist of two bodies of water connected by a narrow channel. The south basin is called the “Big Lake” and north is the “Little Lake” (still pretty big), and continuing with the literal naming, the Barra Strait connecting the two is usually called the “Narrows”. 

While the number of yachts coming from Ontario and Quebec each year is relatively small (mostly boats headed south to Florida and the Bahamas) it would be a big mistake to bypass the lakes in a rush to get south. Allow yourself at least one or two weeks to sample the pleasures of sailing this inland paradise. Believe me after the Gulf of St. Lawrence you’ll be ready for a break! Boats making a straight line from the Gaspe can stop at the Magdalene islands (another very special place) and then travel around Cape North entering the lakes by the Bras d’Or Channel.  Yachts taking the more common coastal route along New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island through the Northumberland Strait will enter the lakes at their southern end via the St. Peters canal.

 At the canal, the town of St.Peters is a friendly and convenient spot for provisions. Best to stock up as even simple supplies can be hard to find in the small villages and hamlets. Once you exit the canal a quick turn to the left puts you at the St. Peter’s Lions Club Marina. It’s a smallish, but well equipped facility with a very big heart.

Ben Eoin (pronounced, ben yawn) marina is a new facility located on the north eastern end of the Big Lake. Well appointed, with 84 slips and a large visitors dock, Ben Eoin makes a good spot for crew changes through the airport at Sydney, only a ½ hour away. The marina is adjacent to an excellent Graham Cooke designed golf course and The Birches Country Inn. A side trip to the National Historic site at Fortress Louisbourg, a Parks Canada restoration of the 18th French fortified town, is well worth the effort.

Baddeck is the main town on the northern lake and is a busy tourist destination with well stocked stores for provisions and numerous restaurants.  The town has two well equipped marinas, Baddeck Marine and the Cape Breton Boatyard. All this makes Baddeck a good place to winter your boat. This will give you time to really get to see the lakes and you wouldn’t be the first to be captivated by this part of the world.

While Cape Breton is a long way by small boat from the Great Lakes, it is only a two days away by car. Trailering your boat here is a great vacation idea. There are a number of good launch ramps and Gerry at the St. Peters Marina can look after your vehicle and trailer while you enjoy your cruise. I’m surprised more trailer boaters don’t consider the lakes. There won’t be any traffic jams at the launch ramp and on the best days you’ll be happy if you see a few other boats sharing the most popular anchorages. If isolation is your style it is always available. The distances in the lake are small so there is no rush. Just slow down and start watching for bald eagles.

Summer weather is mild, but seldom really hot, 24C to 30C is the normal high on the lakes.  The weather can change quickly with the afternoon breeze coming on hard at times, but secure anchorages are always at hand. For the power boater mornings are usually the best time to travel.  Just pick your spot for the afternoon and enjoy the breeze.  If I had to pick a favorite time it would be late summer or early fall. The autumn colours come early to the lakes. The Celtic Colours festival in early October is a cultural event that takes place in various areas around the lake and Island. The fall scenery is spectacular and the weather can be beautiful although it will be cool in the evenings.

Race the Cape

There have always been numerous sailing regattas on the lakes but a new event is getting an enthusiastic reception. Race the Cape is a series of 4 destination races which see boats covering the full length of the lakes from St. Peters and around to Sydney. For 2014 the races will begin at Sydney. While racing ‘”round the buoys” can sometimes develop a ground hog day feel, this event has boats of all types working their way around the lakes.  For the leg through the Barra Strait boats cross a line, have their time taken and then motor through the bascule bridge, restarting the race at another buoy. Racers have to be content with wind conditions that can vary greatly depending on location and in the passage through the Bras d’Or channel, the current is a major consideration. Jen Rowe is the race co-chair and she points out that while the competition is real “the race is also about camaraderie at the end of the day.”

No shortage of “favorite” spots

Many boaters heading north or south through the southern Big Lake miss the attractions on the west side. While there are many to choose from, a favorite is Marble Mountain where you can anchor at the base of an old quarry and see marble blocks in the crystal clear water below. Another is between the Crammond islands where there is excellent protection. While Maskell’s Harbour mentioned above is a deservedly popular anchorage on the Little Lake, another spot handy to Baddeck is the Washabuck River where peace and quiet is the order of the day.  Indeed picking a couple of spots on the lakes to highlight is really impossible as there are literally hundreds of anchorages to choose from. The locals will always be helpful with friendly advice. The goal here is to wet your appetite to learn more about this fantastic cruising destination and encourage you to start working out your plan for getting there.

Here is a partial list of resources to help you plan your Bras d’Or visit:

Cruising Cape Breton: This is an on-line update of an older cruising guide which contains a wealth of information.

Race the Cape:  Lots of info on this web site including contacts for crewing on one the boats. At great way to be introduced the pleasure of the Lakes. Contact Jen Rowe

For general marine services information

Yacht Clubs and marinas

Baddeck Marine: Full service yard in Baddeck,

Cape Breton Boatyard: Full service yard in Baddeck

Bras d’Or Yacht Club: Baddeck,

Barra Strait Marina: Grand Narrows,

Ben Eoin Marina: Ben Eoin,

St. Peter’s Lions Club Marina: St.Peter’s.

Photo Captions:

1) Either as a must stop over enroute to ports beyond or as a destination to spend several weeks cruising the lakes, the Bras d'Or Lakes enjoy the pleasure of welcoming many sailing vessels each year.

Credit: Ken Heaton

2) A fresh SW breeze is common in the summer afternoons.

Credit: Ken Heaton

3) Passing under the Seal Island Bridge at the northern end of the Bras d’Or channel.

Credit: Ken Heaton

4) Ben Eoin (pronounced, ben yawn) marina is a new facility located on the north eastern end of the Big Lake.  Well appointed, with 84 slips and a large visitors dock.

Credit: Ken Heaton

5) No visit to Cape Breton is really complete without a drive around the Cabot Trail.

Credit: Nova Scotia Tourism Agency

6) Fortress Louisbourg is easier visited by rental car or tour bus than by boat.

Credit: Nova Scotia Tourism Agency

7) If another of your vices is golf, there are number of world class courses available.

Credit: Nova Scotia Tourism Agency

8) While the numbers of yachts coming from Ontario and Quebec each year is relatively small it would be a big mistake to bypass the lakes in a rush to get south.