This year, in addition to the Annapolis to Newport Race and the upcoming Around Long Island Regatta, I decided to sail Sedna, my Hunter 45cc, in the Marblehead to Halifax Ocean Race. Since growing up in Western Canada (and avidly reading Farley Mowat) it has been one of my long-time goals to sail around the Canadian Maritime provinces in general, and the rustic Nova Scotia coastline in particular.
The 365 mile ocean race is considered one of the oldest ocean races in the world, with a history that began in 1905, predating the Newport Bermuda, Fastnet and Sydney Hobart Races. The race originally started as an informal competition between the Boston, Eastern and New York Yacht Clubs run sporadically between 1905-1939 and then biennially since then. The race starts just outside of Marblehead, MA (near Boston) and runs 260 miles across the open ocean of the Gulf of Maine before rounding Brazil Rock (a shoal off the southern tip of Nova Scotia) and heading 105 miles up the rugged – and often foggy – Nova Scotia coastline to Halifax.
One of the things that make this ocean race unique are the fast currents that flow around the tip of Nova Scotia and into the Bay of Fundy which is home to one of the largest tidal ranges in the world – up to 54 feet! Miscalculate the tides around Brazil Rock and a boat can find itself being swiftly sucked up into the Bay, bringing a quick end to the race.
This race was several years in the wishing stage for me, and I was very excited to finally make it to Marblehead this year for the start of this classic ocean race. Adding to the excitement was having my younger brother, Martin join me after many years of inviting him on my various ocean sails. Although not a sailor, he is an avid adventurer, spending many years sea kayaking and hiking on the coast of British Columbia. Also racing with Sedna was Susan Paul and Owen McDermott.
The weather forecast on the day of the race looked generally good with fair winds and clear skies expected for most of the ocean crossing. The only concern was that the winds were expected to eventually turn light to variable which added to the stress of navigation and tactics. Following the rhumb line from Marblehead to Brazil Rock is the shortest course, but if the wind dies and the current begins to flow into the Bay of Fundy, then we could get quickly swept up into the Bay, and it’s race over. If we head further south, it adds extra distance to the race, but lessens the chance of being swept into the Bay of Fundy.
All in all, it was a great trip across the Gulf of Maine with clear skies day and night. What made the trip particularly spectacular was all the aquatic wildlife we saw. Dolphins, whales and sunfish were in abundance, and at one point my brother and I counted at least eight whales in a 15 minute span. What a beautiful sight!
The award for the most unusual or unique sight though, goes to the giant ocean sunfish. Prior to actually seeing these fish, we would often see fins break the surface and appear to lazily wave at us. Not seeing ocean sunfish before, I had no idea what to expect. Needless to say I was quite surprised at how odd they looked. These sunfish were between five and six feet long and it seemed as if half of their body was missing after the dorsal fin. The one pictured came up to within 10 feet of the boat and just hung around with us for about half an hour.
As we approached the southern tip of Nova Scotia the fog began to build and before too long, we were surrounded by what could only be described as pea soup fog. At times it was even a challenge to see the bow of the boat. Adding to the stress, we had to pass through a fishing fleet off of Cape Sable and only a few of the boats showed up on AIS (Automatic Identification System). The others had to be found with radar. Fishing boats do not often trawl in a straight line, but instead make a series of turns which make it a challenge to avoid.
Despite the fog and cold, it was a good 110 mile run up the southern coast of Nova Scotia with southerly winds of around 15-20 knots and four foot swells. As we approached Halifax Harbor during the night the fog finally lifted, unfortunately, the wind also died just 10 miles from the finish line. With 3-4 foot swells left over from earlier and no wind, the boat rocked from side to side with the sails either hanging listlessly or banging to and fro every time the boat was rocked by a wave.
Feeling frustrated by the lack of progress we were making to the finish line, I decided to try to use my spinnaker in the light to non-existent winds. That was a bad mistake!! After hoisting it from the pitching bow, the boat rocked again and wrapped the spinnaker around the jib and forestay. Another roll and a puff of wind to partially fill the spinnaker and it wrapped around again even tighter. Ugh!!! It took 45 minutes and having to cut the dousing line to finally free it. But, what a relief to see the spinnaker finally drop down to the deck!
The rest of the night and next morning was a painful crawl to the finish line as the wind remained light and the current began to reverse its flow, threatening to sweep us back out to sea. But, we persevered and finally crossed the line after 365 miles racing across the open ocean and up the foggy, rugged coast of Nova Scotia.
P.S. Having the distinction of being the last boat to cross the line, Sedna was the proud “winner” of the ‘prestigious’ Cook’s Plate. This trophy is presumably given to the last boat to finish as the cook on board has to work the longest. When asked if I was happy to receive this award I answered unequivocally “Yes!” It was my first Marblehead to Halifax Ocean Race, a race I have wanted to participate in for many many years, and I had not only successfully completed it without ending up in the Bay of Fundy, but had done it with my younger brother, Martin.