By Katherine Stone
“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 simple beauty, Cape Breton outrivals them all.” This couldn’t have been better said than by Cape Breton’s most famous resident, Alexander Graham Bell. From the summer of 1886 until his death in 1922, Bell lived half his life on an estate that he built at Red Head, a peninsula opposite Baddeck, using the Bras d’Or Lake to test man-carrying kites, airplanes, and hydrofoil boats. It was here that the famous Silver Dart took flight off of the frozen ice of the bay.
The native Mi’kmaqs called the Bras d’Or Lake “Pitupaq,” meaning long salt water. Today it is known as the “great inland sea” (the largest in the world) in the centre of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Six major rivers empty into the lake, combined with three points of contact with the Atlantic Ocean, making the water brackish. This combination supports lobster and oyster fisheries and a significant concentration of bald eagles. Coupled with the outstanding natural beauty of the Cape Breton rolling hills, UNESCO declared the area a Biosphere Reserve in 2011.
A renowned summer vacation destination, the lake has approximately 1,100 square kilometres, running 100 kilometres in length and 50 kilometres in width. The Washabuck Peninsula and Boisdale Hills divide the lake into northern and southern basins linked by the 1 kilometre wide Barra Strait. Silver Donald Cameron, Canadian author and yachtsman, describes Bras d’Or Lake as “A basin ringed by indigo hills laced with marble. Islands within a sea inside an island.” There are many explanations as to the origins of the lake’s name: the most popular came from the French, the first Europeans to settle the area, who called it Bras d’Or, meaning “arm of gold,” which probably referred to the sun’s rays reflecting upon its waters.
A beautiful four season recreational spot, the idea for a marina at Ben Eoin came about due to the efforts of a small community group that wanted to make the area a world class recreation centre. Starting with the Ben Eoin Ski Hill (420-foot vertical), founded in the early 1970s, plans were put in motion in the early 1990s to develop an 18-hole golf course and marina at the same time, immediately adjacent to the ski hill. As the golf course took shape, it soon became evident to the organizers that the golf course development would exhaust all the funds.
In 2010, architect Graham Cooke took the first tee-off to open the course, which exceeded everyone’s expectations! A renewed group of volunteers now set in motion the vision to build the marina. Partnering with Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation, a not-for-profit Ben Eoin Marina Ltd. was started in 2011. Comprised of a Board of nine volunteers, including representatives from the Ben Eoin Ski Hill and the Lakes Golf Club, the 76-slip marina was quickly completed in November 2012. The governance structure ensures that the link between all three recreational facilities will co-ordinate and manage their future growth and goals.
To construct the marina basin, the entrance was double boomed and water was completely pumped out so that dredging could be done and dock anchors were installed in consultation with local residents and indigenous groups. The docks were then constructed to marine standards under the watchful eye of local club member tradesmen. Construction then started on the clubhouse, which was designed and overseen by volunteer fleet captain/dock master, Ray Campbell. The volunteers soldiered on and ground was broken for the clubhouse building in November 2011.
Located on the south shore of the East Bay arm of the lake, a 25-minute drive from Sydney, you will find the newly constructed Ben Eoin Yacht Club. A Social Membership at $99/couple or $150/family is the best deal in town. From the beginning of May to the end of October, the Friday Night Socials, pub nights, sail/power poker runs, and regattas all offer fantastic musical line ups for great dancing and fun. Like most clubs, the demographics of their membership is getting older and they are trying to institute programs and services for younger boaters with families.
Open to any community member, the Learn to Sail program is now two years old and open to juniors aged 8-16, with certified Sail Canada instructors offering the CANSail 1-4 program. Sail Nova Scotia first arrived with their mobile program and then the club bought their Optimist sailboats, some lasers, laser IIs, and 420s. With the wonderful golfing facilities located right across the road, there is also a sailing/golf camp offered in August. To get the kids inspired, Olympian Lisa Ross volunteered to be on hand for registration night and to speak about her competitive experiences. In future plans, the club would like to include an adult program in 420s as well as J/24s. To get as many kids involved as possible they have partnered with the United Way to offer scholarships.
Sailboat racing has long been a tradition on the Bras d’Or Lake with Regatta Week hosted by the Bras d’Or Yacht Club for over 100 years. Like St. Margaret Sailing Club, also in Nova Scotia, the sailors often went from beach to beach with their races, having no formal building or committee boat for regattas. Ben Eoin Yacht Club hosts the East Bay Regatta each year in July and will be coordinating with other clubs to provide expanded regattas for both yachts and junior sailors.
With the indented shoreline of the lake and numerous protected, soft-bottomed harbours and coves, these snug anchorages provide shelter and calm waters. The Bras d’Or Lake is crystal clear with 78 degree water and no fog. Along with local boaters, visitors from Canada and the United States enjoy the best sailing waters in North America. In 2011, Baddeck played host to the Ocean Cruising Club during early July as they prepared to make passage to Newfoundland. In 2012, the Cruising Club of America (CCA) returned home to Baddeck. CCA was founded at the Bras d’Or Lake, in Maskell’s Harbour.
The Ben Eoin Marina is the largest on the lake with 14 acres, 75 slips (seven for visiting yachts), and room to accommodate boats up to 40 feet and with a draft of 10 feet; however, special arrangements can be made for larger vessels. All amenities are available including a fuel dock, boat ramps, mast crane, electrical/fresh water hook ups, washrooms, showers, laundry facilities, Wi-Fi service in the clubhouse and docks, variety store, plenty of parking, and daily posted weather reports. The marina docks are 8-feet wide, tapered and fendered for ease of boarding and docking. It’s a popular place with weddings booked almost every weekend; during these events, members and guests are free to access the lower level of the clubhouse and showers.
Cape Breton Island is known for its Gaelic music, food, cultural experiences, and hospitality – not unlike the yacht club. Where else can you go for a sail, a run in the power boat, or early morning fishing excursion and then play a round of golf right across the street? The Board of Directors, Mike Gillis (Commodore), Ray Campbell, Sandy MacNeill (Treasurer), Bryan MacDougall (Jr. Sail Director), and marina manager, John Williams, were all able to agree that being the closest marina to Sydney, boaters love their location, fuel service, clean facilities, friendly people, AND great showers!
Gilbert M. Grosvenor, editor, president, and chairman of the National Geographic Society, put it into perspective, “The Bras d’Or Lake is my favorite landscape on planet Earth. Nestled into the rolling hills of Cape Breton, NS, their pristine tidal waters reflect centuries of Scottish culture, music, and friendly people.”
I sure am glad that I made a point to stop by and visit, and you should too!
Ben Eoin Marina and Yacht Club; 4950 East Bay Highway, East Bay, NS B1J 1N9 902-828-1099