We left Levis with a smile and a wave, and a grateful thank you for the help which meant we didn’t have to reverse out of the slip. Backing up a full keel boat can be somewhat awkward. As we pulled away from the dock I took the rope from the gentleman helping us, and then went back to the cockpit before we were in rougher water outside. There I took the helm while Richard took in fenders and took off lines. Then we were off, riding the current.
We went past the Quebec bridges, travelling between high banks punctuated by bays and rivers. The water was dirty and scummy here, city water, but it wasn’t long till we were passing beaches, many the kind that only appear at low water. They would grow larger soon – the tidal range increases in fall till the difference between high and low is as much as twenty-two feet. That’s why they begin taking boats out of the water in the middle of September. And we were passing through at the beginning of September. Just in the nick of time.
We rode the current into the evening, as far as Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures, where we dropped the anchor in sand and gravel. Not the best holding, there were waves and it was bumpy, but the anchor held until about 1:15 am (it’s usually some time early in the morning that the wind comes up or the anchor slips – at least that’s how it seems). The current wouldn’t be with us for a couple of hours yet, but rather than try to re-anchor in unfavourable conditions we decided to start sailing again.
We spent time tacking back and forth, aiming in the general direction of our next stop, feeling the push of the current against us. A couple of hours later the tide changed, the current turned, and we were really on our way, destination Portneuf. We had to stop there: after that there’s a narrower portion of the river with very strong currents, and the only way for us to get through there safely was to travel when the push against us was least. We got to Portneuf with time to spare before the tide changed, but not enough to ride it through the Richelieu Rapids ahead. So we dropped anchor again.
There’s not much in the way of good anchorage off Portneuf, though you can probably anchor safely enough if the weather is good. We dropped the anchor where the chart said the bottom was mud, in a narrow area quite close to the wharf that shelters the marina. For a while all was well, though the wind was strong and the water bumpy. The wind and current were against each other; maybe, we thought, things would grow calmer when the tide turned and they ran together. Then we would be able to wait more comfortably.
That wasn’t quite what happened. The wind was strong, and had enough fetch across the water to produce waves that pushed us off our anchor toward the shore behind us. The anchor alarm quickly confirmed what we could feel and see, so we picked up the anchor and tried setting it again. We dragged again. Then we tried setting two anchors, and still we dragged. For our third attempt we went to the other, slightly calmer side of the wharf and marina, where the area we might be able to anchor in was even smaller – and found ourselves sliding out of it with our anchor hanging. Nothing else for it – we had to go in to the marina. At least it was right there.
We had heard that the marina charged less if you were just waiting for the tide to turn. With an eye to the budget, as usual, we asked and were told there was a slip available and that the reduced fee might be possible. In the end it really didn’t matter – with no safe place to anchor and hours to wait for the current to change it was the only safe choice.
Going in proved an adventure in itself. We had seen there was a work boat and what looked like a buoy by or in the entrance. As we got closer we were trying to figure out what the buoy was. Was it connected with the work boat? Or a did it show how we should approach the entrance? Red – were we supposed to leave it to starboard? That seemed logical. We tried that first.
Then, almost on top of it, I looked down and saw the rope that ran from the buoy to the work boat (which had no-one on board, but was moored, somehow, off the wharf by the marina entrance). We turned away, went toward the front of the boat to see if we were supposed to go around that way, tried to communicate by gestures with a group of men on the wharf with no results, finally picked our way through the entrance between the buoy and the stony breakwater. That, luckily, was the right choice. And as we were doing this the motor was slowing down, not giving us the power we were expecting.
Inside the marina the combination of an engine that wasn’t giving us full power and a strong wind made docking interesting. On the first attempt the wind blew us off the dock, and we had to circle and come back in again with more authority (otherwise known as faster). Then lack of power in reverse made it difficult to stop in time. But the dock helped with that. After some drama and with a bit of help we got settled in our slip, and finally all was calm. We could plug in, replenish the batteries and get warm. And try to figure out what was happening with our motor.
We had only planned to stay till the current was in our favour again, but that was several hours away still. Too long for us to be offered the special rate, as it turned out. The wind was still strong, but would be calmer the next morning – and so would the river. If we had to pay the same rate as if we were staying the night, well, we might as well stay the night. So we did.
It was a comfortable night and we slept well. We woke to all the signs that it had been cold outside – wet windows and moisture on the cabin walls above the deck, the places we had not insulated. So we dried up, dressed warmly, put the boat in travelling mode, and by seven o’clock we were pulling away from the dock. It was much easier with no wind and a co-operative motor!
The water was calm, the entrance to the marina was clear (the work boat that had been blocking it was now on the other side of the wharf), a fisherman was sitting peacefully with rod and reel. There was wind enough to sail almost as soon as we nosed out into the river, and we made good time to the Rapids and then through.
We had thought we would stop after that, but the wind was from a good direction and sailing was comfortable. So it made sense to keep sailing for the rest of the day. We motor-sailed a few times, either because the wind dropped off, or we needed to stay out of the way of larger traffic in a narrower area, but all-in-all it was one of those days that make you glad you’re out on the water.
Richard spent the day at the tiller, coaxing as much speed as he could from the boat. I played back-up, wrote up the log, helped in the cockpit when needed. By six that evening we had sailed past the beautiful Sanctuaire Notre-Dame-du-Cap and were dropping anchor off the Marina de Trois-Rivières, settling in for a peaceful night.
A good thing that night was peaceful, since the next day and night couldn’t be described the same way. In the morning the wind was picking up as we set off toward Lac Saint-Pierre. High winds were forecast; it was one of those times when travelling would be hard, but anchoring would be harder – so we decided to press on.
We didn’t feel the full force of the wind while we were in the narrower part of the river. But as we came out of the shelter of the river banks into the lake we found ourselves in at first twenty, then thirty knots of wind, with higher gusts. And it was on the nose, so we had to tack back and forth across the path we wanted to travel, sometimes in the channel and sometimes out of it (this is one of the times we were very glad we had our chart plotter). Tacking, as every sailor knows, makes the journey about twice as long. At least in our boat. All signs pointed to a long transit.
As the wind built Richard tied in the third reef in the mainsail. At that point we were really glad we’d decided have a third reef point put in over the winter! And he stayed on the helm, trying to keep us in the shallower water where the current was less as much as possible. Of course the current and wind were less of a factor for the ships that passed us, and many did. Cargo ships, tankers, cruise ships – we watched for them in the daylight, and for their lights passing the channel markers at night.
That night we saw lots of lights. Lac Saint-Pierre is a shallow lake, with a lot of islands and structures in it, and a lot of keep-out buoys. And during the day we saw what looked like small, rocky islands with birds nesting or resting on them – those were outside the channel, unmarked. Still, the darkness was lit by many range lights and buoy lights and lights marking structures to be avoided.
Being a shallow lake it’s choppy when the wind blows hard. The chop was worst in the middle of the lake, and we looked forward to the relief of being in a more sheltered area. At last, early the next morning, we approached the larger islands at the other end of the lake. The chop began to die down though the wind remained strong. The gusts were strong enough to put the rail in the water from time to time. Richard ended up sailing the boat like a dinghy, letting the sail off whenever we heeled too far.
Then, finally the wind started to die down. Unfortunately, it died down at about the time we found ourselves facing a strong current against us. Richard decided to take out the third reef, to give the boat a little more drive and keep us moving forward. That meant he needed to wake me up, since I had fallen asleep a few hours before. Perhaps if I had been more awake things would have gone better? Or if Richard had been less tired?
Or if the motor had not been hot. We had been sailing briskly all night, and that meant that our prop was turning and producing current to recharge the batteries. Which produces heat. Which, we thought, must have affected the motor. Because once more it wasn’t giving us the power we needed.
I mentioned that the current was strong. The boat was being pushed around by it, and I struggled to keep it pointing in the right direction. Then in an instant it turned enough to jibe, and Richard, untying the third reef, was carried across the cockpit by the boom. Happily across the cockpit was as far as he went, not outside. The sail, partially untied, dragged across the hard top of our dodger, and found a couple of sharp edges as it went. Our hearts sank as we heard it rip.
We knew we didn’t have any more sail tape, having used the last of it on some small wear areas. And this was the second time our motor hadn’t responded as we expected and needed it to, and we hadn’t even got to the locks yet. We really needed it to work well there. It was all too much. Tired and discouraged, we began to talk about what would happen if we found we couldn’t finish the trip the way we’d planned. But before we explored those options too thoroughly we decided we needed to get some sleep, pause and take another look at the state of things when we were more rested.
We consulted the Nautiguide and the charts. There was a marina not too far from where we were – the Marina de Saurel, in Sorel-Tracey. It would be easy to get into, a safe place to sleep, and a good place to pause and consider what we should do next. So we got on the radio, arranged for a slip, and took shelter there. Then we slept – most of the day, and ten hours that night. And while we were awake we made some enquiries – to a friend, about his trailer built specifically for an Alberg 30; and to Scott at Electric Yacht about why our motor might have done what it did, when it did.
Our friend took the time to discuss trailering with us, costs and possibilities, where from and where to. He injected (as he usually does) a dose of reality and common sense into the discussion. Scott replied, and mentioned that the most likely cause for our engine behaving the way it had was that the gearing was wrong. Before this we’d never had reason to run the motor hard, so we hadn’t found ourselves in this kind of situation. But if it was geared wrong it wouldn’t be able to go up to what should be its maximum current draw. This would make it overheat more easily, because it wouldn’t be turning quickly enough to cool itself. He told us it would be best to use 45 amps as a maximum draw for the rest of the trip.
(A quick explanation, which you can skip if you’re not interested: When we look at our motor’s display it shows us the amps being used, the time left on the battery bank, the current voltage and the percent of discharge (how much of the battery has been used, as a percentage of full charge). Under other circumstances we would have expected to use 100 amps as a maximum, because that’s what the system is capable of for short periods of time with the batteries fully charged or close to it. That morning it would have been enough power for long enough to keep the boat into the wind and take the reef out of the sail.)
So we didn’t have full power. We could only use about half the power we expected would be available to us. Which was going to be a challenge at some other points during the trip. And there wasn’t much we could do about it until we were in Toronto. Which wouldn’t be for a while.
The next day we woke feeling more optimistic. There were the usual things to take care of: groceries (turn right out of the marina, left at the corner with the Poutinerie, and there’s a convenient grocery store), water, fuel, maintenance (especially checking to see whether the motor had moved while we were pounding through Lac Saint-Pierre – it had, a little bit). Then there was the sail repair to figure out, since there was nowhere handy to buy sail tape.
We ended up buying two rolls of white waterproof bandage, the kind you use to hold gauze over a wound. And our sail was certainly wounded. We used it on both sides of the sail, putting strips along the tear to hold the ripped edges together, working with the sail partly off the mast so I could reach it easily. And tucked under the boom so it would not lift in the wind as I sewed. Then I stitched across and across the tape and the rip underneath, to make sure everything would hold – not elegant, and not what I would normally do, but a workmanlike solution we hoped would last till we got to Toronto.
Finally, less tired, we took another look at our situation. We would keep the option of trailering the boat from some point before the locks to Lake Ontario in the back of our minds, but for now we would carry on. We had come this far. Surely we could finish the journey? At least we could try.
Finally, decision made, we could look around us, enjoy a shower, watch the birds and boys fishing from the breakwater that kept us sheltered from the river. After dark, Richard went through the charts again, looked at the chart plotter, read more about the locks ahead of us and worked on courses. Then it was time to go to bed before it grew too late, since we would be sailing again the next morning.
Sailing to Montreal, to the last anchorages before we began to work our way through those locks.
Written by Margaret Mair
Photos by Margaret Mair and Richard Mair