Belinda Chesman finds extreme weather when visiting the usually sheltered Havre Aubert Island in Quebec’s Madeleine archipelago
‘Don’t worry, we never get a hurricane up here’. We were moored in Club Nautique Les Plaisanciers du Hâvre – Havre Aubert Yacht Club, on Îles de la Madeleine looking for a weather window to cross to Nova Scotia.
The Madeleines are a dozen islands in the Gulf of St Lawrence, interconnected by sand bars that enclose large shallow lagoons.
The 36-mile long archipelago is shaped like a giant fishhook. Narrow entrance channels and dredged fairways allow access to the ports.
They are part of Quebec Province therefore the residents are French-speaking, although many are bilingual with English as a second language.
The islands are particularly beautiful with green hills, red sandstone cliffs, white sandy beaches and blue waters – at least the waters look blue when the sun is shining!
We’d made the 135-mile overnight passage from Gaspé to the Madeleines and landed at the pretty fishing port of L’Étang-du-Nord on the west coast of the islands.
The passage had gone well despite ‘lumpy’ seas in places and we’d averaged 6 knots with a 12-15 knot wind on our stern quarter.
We’d heard that the islands were ‘not to be missed’ and reasoned that from there it would be a shorter hop to Cap Breton, Nova Scotia.
L’Étang-du-Nord had not disappointed with its cluster of brightly coloured houses, fish market, restaurant, café, a couple of gift shops and a kite shop that advertises itself by flying a huge kite hung with coloured streamers high in the sky.
We loved the place immediately and spent a few days enjoying the scenery.
Tropical Storm Erin
While we were there the remains of Tropical Storm Erin passed through, giving us strong southerly winds that produced quite a chop in the harbour.
Tropical storms, even their remains, do not normally come ashore as far north as Canada so this was an unusual event.
However, it was early September and the Madeleines are very beautiful, so we weren’t unduly worried.
Pilot books told us that September would be a good time to cruise in Nova Scotia; we expected good weather and fair winds until the end of the month when we would put our Bowman 40, Quilcene in winter storage and fly home to the UK.
Wishing to see more of the islands we waited until the swells from Erin had subsided and set sail for Île Havre Aubert, to the south of the archipelago.
Leaving L’Étang-du-Nord via the marked channel we encountered a large swell rolling in, probably exacerbated as the waters around this coast are relatively shallow.
Quilcene climbed up the swells then dived down the other side, while we hung on and hoped she wouldn’t touch bottom; quite a white-knuckle ride until we reached deeper water and turned south.
It was a fine sunny day and we were making 7 knots on a broad reach as we approached the south-west corner of the islands.
Alas it didn’t last and our speed dropped to 3 knots when we hit a strong adverse current and choppy seas coming around the headland.
A natural haven
We battled on slowly and eventually had to resort to the engine as we approached the entrance channel to Baie de Plaisance, before motor-sailing along the inside of the south shore sandbar and into Havre Aubert as evening fell.
The pilot book describes Havre Aubert as ‘a natural haven protected from all winds’.
There’s a small fishing harbour on the approach, a small marina on one side and an anchorage in the bay opposite where we dropped the anchor and spent a peaceful night.
Next morning, we decided to go into the yacht club so we could visit La Grave, a small town on the 500m x 100m isthmus.
We were welcomed on the dock by manager Réal, who pointed out the facilities, gave us a key to the showers and told us that the café/bar at the head of the dock is almost always open – result!
La Grave is delightful. Former fishing cabins have been transformed into cafes, restaurants, a bakery, a fish market and a few craft and gift shops.
There are also a couple of small art galleries displaying the work of local artists, along with the Musée de la Mer.
We shared sundowners in the yacht club café/bar with locals who meet there for a drink and chat.
As visiting yachties we were warmly welcomed into the conversations, despite our poor grasp of the French language.
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We were having such a good time that we hardly noticed a blot on the horizon in the form of Hurricane Dorian which was currently battering the Bahamas many miles south of us.
However, we began taking it seriously when there appeared to be a possibility that Dorian might track across the Canadian Maritimes.
We followed its progress and predicted path on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hurricane website although locals reassured us that it wouldn’t come near; sure enough Dorian was subsequently downgraded several times so we relaxed a little.
However, we watched with growing horror as instead of heading out into the Atlantic, Dorian was upgraded again to Category 2 and apparently making a beeline for the coast of Nova Scotia and the Gulf of St Lawrence.
Our options were either to run for Nova Scotia or the Gaspé peninsula, both 24 hours away and in less than perfect conditions.
Both were also within the ‘warning cone’ on the NOAA hurricane website. Alternatively, we could stay put and hunker down until the threat had passed.
We felt like rabbits trapped in the headlights. After much agonising we decided to stay; if the hurricane hit we’d make Quilcene as safe as possible and find a place on land to stay.
The people of Havre Aubert were wonderful, they made us welcome and found us a B&B close to the marina if we needed it.
Someone even offered us the use of their car and they assured us that help was on hand should we need it.
On 6 September, with 24 hours to go before it reached us, Dorian was predicted to track across the Gulf of St Lawrence as ‘a hurricane force post-tropical cyclone’ – a hurricane by any other name – and the Madeleines were right in its path.
Although not as strong as when it pummelled the Bahamas, we were in the path of a hurricane!
The weather that day was strangely calm as we set to work removing the yankee, staysail and canvas, including the spray hood and bimini.
We lashed the sprayhood and bimini frames down, ensuring that no rope ends could come undone and flog.
The mainsail is fully battened and it’s quite a task to remove, so we wrapped the sailbag around with numerous separate sail ties and ropes, fixing the front sailbag zip firmly with a heavy-duty tie wrap.
We lashed the boom down securely, again ensuring that no rope ends could flog and come undone in the wind. We capped the dorade vents and lashed the dinghy to the deck.
Any loose items such as the Lifesling, danbuoy and boathooks were stowed below decks.
Kit removed the blades from the wind generator and fixed the solar panels down horizontally. We were moored to a fixed concrete dock at the end of the floating west dock.
Although the tidal range was only around half a metre, we were quite concerned about the possibility of a storm surge pushing the boat up on the dock.
In the café/bar that evening the approaching hurricane was the main topic – would it really hit? Which direction was the wind going to come from? How strong would it be? What about surge?
So many questions and just as many opinions.
The western sky looked ominous at dusk although there was little wind.
We tried to sleep that night but our heads were buzzing as we lay awake wondering what tomorrow would bring.
On the morning of the 7 September at 0500 there was an incredible red sky to the east as the wind began to rise.
The NOAA hurricane website showed that Dorian would make landfall at Halifax, Nova Scotia, then pass over Nova Scotia at the Canso Strait and move across the Gulf of St Lawrence close to the Madeleines – there was no escaping.
Réal, the marina manager came to tell us that he and a couple of others would help us to move Quilcene over to the floating east dock as a big storm surge was predicted.
He normally holds his counsel, but when I said “It’s bad isn’t it?” he just replied, “Yes, very bad.”
That was when I had a bit of a meltdown, I’m normally quite brave but I was really anxious and had to have five minutes to myself.
Quilcene was pinned to the dock in the now-strong wind but with the help of Réal’s skiff to pull it off, Kit, Réal and the others moved it to the east floating dock.
The bow was now facing east where the wind would first come from.
Later it would come from the west-north-west according to the forecast. I took a deep breath and we continued preparing for the storm.
We placed eight regular fenders on the dock side of the boat behind two fender boards and put a big ball fender at each end.
We doubled and tripled all the dock lines and springs and tied ropes across to the opposite dock to help hold the boat off.
Finally we closed all the seacocks and could do no more so we gathered up all our papers (passports, credit and debit cards, ships papers, insurance papers etc.), computer, tablet, phones, chargers, a couple of changes of clothes, put the washboards in and, with heavy hearts, left Quilcene to the elements.
Anxious wait for the hurricane to pass
One of the locals gave us a lift to the bed and breakfast, where Ginette our host could hardly open the door to let us in as it faced the easterly wind.
From Ginette’s house we could see the yacht club but couldn’t see Quilcene as the west dock with moored boats was in between.
As darkness fell we could see the spray and water from the bay being blown across the road.
The wind was wailing like a banshee and rain hitting the windows sounded like hailstones. Ginette said she was glad to have company during the coming hurricane and gave us dinner.
Checking the news on the internet we saw that Nova Scotia had 200,000 homes without power due to the hurricane.
Later the lights flickered twice and power on the island went off leaving us in darkness.
It was the longest night of my life as the storm raged and the walls of the house shuddered in the strong gusts.
Kit managed to sleep somehow (I’d always maintained that he could sleep through a hurricane!) but I sat downstairs reading my e-book to try and take my mind off things.
Ginette appeared now and then, checking around the doors and windows and mopping up water that had found a way in.
We were both frightened and we chatted a bit but couldn’t even make a cup of tea or coffee as Ginette’s house is all electric.
Emergency vehicle lights were flickering across the bay, but we couldn’t make out what was happening.
At 0500 the wind seemed to drop a little, so I checked the phone and was surprised to see that I still had a signal.
Using phone data I looked at the NOAA website where tracking showed that the eye of the storm had just passed over the Madeleines from south-east to north-west.
The wind picked up again from the west but the house was more sheltered from that direction and it was not so noisy so I dozed a little.
The aftermath of the hurricane
Morning light was slow to arrive but when it finally did we looked across to the yacht club and beheld a scene of devastation; the western dock was no longer in place.
The whole dock with around 20 yachts and motorboats still attached had broken loose and had been swept up on the shore.
A trimaran that had been on a mooring was beached along the shoreline, as was a yacht that had taken its chances anchored in the bay.
Part of the road outside Ginette’s house had collapsed onto the beach and the rest was covered with silt and seaweed.
Some of the channel markers were also washed up on the beach – still flashing!
Ginette had a pair of binoculars and we could just make out Quilcene on the eastern dock; she was still afloat, but we feared the worst.
Shredded sails were streaming from many of the remaining boats on the dock and masts appeared to be at odd angles.
We rang Réal and he said that no-one had been hurt – thank goodness. Some of the links holding our dock together were partially broken, and it was midday before we were allowed on to it briefly to look at Quilcene.
Sails that had been left on were shredded, one mast was snapped and the yacht next to Quilcene had partially sunk.
Miraculously Quilcene appeared to be OK. We couldn’t believe it!
On closer inspection the GRP on the bow had some damage; possibly from the dock despite all the preventative measures we’d taken, or maybe from the anchor which had somehow become dislodged and pulled out a little chain.
Also, the wooden toerail had a little damage in places and several ropes and fender lines were chafed.
But all in all it was nothing compared to damage sustained by many of the other boats.
Assessing the damage of the hurricane
Relief that everyone was safe and Quilcene was safe was mingled with sadness for the local people who’d lost their boats or had severe damage.
The café/bar, which doubles as a community hub and meeting place had been flooded in the storm surge.
Despite the shock of the devastation it wasn’t long before locals began arriving with mops and buckets to help with the clean-up.
They said it had been the worst storm in their history. The winds had reached a sustained speed of 130km/h (80mph) with gusts up to 150km/h (93mph).
We heard the hair-raising tale of two men who’d been on the western dock trying to secure their boats when it broke loose.
As the whole thing was swept past an inner dock, they somehow managed to jump across to safety despite the hurricane force winds.
Another yacht owner, whose boat was on the fixed dock at the end of the one that was swept away, had rowed out in his little dinghy during the short period when the eye of the storm was passing over and the wind dropped, and somehow managed to move his boat around to the other side to be in the lee of the wind and surge.
As soon as our dock was made safe and we were allowed to stay on the boat, we began the task of putting Quilcene back together; there was a forecast of fair winds to sail to Prince Edward Island and we knew that Havre Aubert Yacht Club would be busy sorting out the repairs.
Despite their own problems people came to help us with the sails and gave us lifts to the shop, the bank, and to collect our things from Ginette’s.
Just three days after the storm hit we bade a fond farewell and sailed away from these beautiful Islands and the people who’d been so kind and helpful throughout our stay.
We will return; the Madeleines really are a special place – even in a hurricane!
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