Saturday, 28 July 2012

Aboard Taniwha - Part 1: Québec City to Gaspé

Taniwha is a 50-foot racing yacht built in the 1980s, one of the last racing boats built of aluminium before carbon-fibre became the norm. The boat has been based in the Detroit area for a few years, and is now embarking on a big adventure.

Taniwha's Kiwi owner Nick, and his Australian partner Michelle have been mostly based in the UK over the last few years, and have recently been spending more and more time in Sassy, near Detroit, working on preparing Taniwha for the high seas. Their mission: to sail to New Zealand!

Slipping the lines at Québec marina

A Taniwha is a sea-monster in the Maori tradition, and is known for being sometimes ferocious and sometimes benevolent and protective.

While I was waiting in Québec, Nick and Michelle were sailing Taniwha across Lake Erie, through the Welland Canal (past the Niagara Falls), across Lake Ontario and down the St. Lawrence River. I was following their progress (click here to view!) as they passed by many of the same places as me: Toronto, Kingston, Montreal, Trois Riviéres.... It was late on a Sunday evening, 22nd July, that I heard that Taniwha had arrived in Québec. I went down to the marina the next day, and was welcomed aboard. At the time, Annili, a German girl I had met in Toronto, was also in Québec City, and having heard from me that the boat could do with some extra crew, she decided to join us too.

Québec City disappears over the horizon

For a couple of days, we were passing along the buoy channels that guide tankers and container ships along the St. Lawrence River. Our main navigational tool is an application on an iPad that plots our course over zoomable digital versions of the navigational charts of the area. This is so indispensible we have come to call it "The Oracle".

A cargo ship looms as Nick checks his bearing and Michelle consults "The Oracle" 

Calm evening at the first night's anchorage

The first night, we anchored in calm weather off to the side of the channel. We slept peacefully, but were suddenly woken at 3am by choppy waves, and a strong wind blowing us towards the shore. So we set off, and it's a good thing we did: for the next hour or two, we were heeled right over, with just a smallish foresail, in a wind that was 35, gusting up to 45 knots! The wind died down throughout the day, and we passed amongst several pods of belugas, around the area where the fresh and brackish waters of the river mix with the salt water of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Looking out for belugas

Colour change where salt and brackish waters meet. The small white dot on the left is probably a beluga.
We anchored briefly in Tadoussac harbour where we saw some sort of whale slowly rolling its way around the boat, and took turns swimming off the boat in the cold waters.

Cold but refreshing!
We then found a more idyllic anchorage in a rocky bay just around the corner, where a seal inquisitively wandered around, and dragonflies preying on small flies got lynched by angry mobs of the smaller insects.

The following day, the wind was light, but we followed the St. Lawrence river eastwards, gradually losing sight of the north shore, as we followed the south shore.

 In the evening, after some wing-on-wing sailing and a beautiful sunset, the wind dropped totally, so we motored through the night, and in the morning, we popped into the small town of Sainte-Marie-les-Monts to shower and replenish the diesel.

Annili enjoying a peaceful morning on deck

Motoring into Sainte-Marie-les-Monts

Setting off along the coast of the Gaspé Peninsula, the fun really began. A bit of wind appeared, then dropped but not completely, so we decided to try out one of the spinnakers we have aboard.

We raised the spinnaker successfully, but no sooner had it filled with air, than the halyard unclipped, and the spinnaker fell, looking very like a slow-motion film of a balloon bursting, into the water. We dragged the spinnaker from the sea, and decided that we would leave the halyard aloft and send one of us up there to fetch it the next time we were in a port.

 The next thing we tried in order to capitalize on the light winds was to lower the foresail and raise a larger one. But as the foresail came down, the top of it got stuck on a piece of fabric - part of the letter "S" from the boat's red identification letters had detached itself from the sail, and stuck to the forestay, which prevented the sail from lowering. So we raised the sail again and had a think. It was clear that at some point, someone would have to go aloft to remove the sticky "S", and whoever went up might as well get the spinnaker halyard back from the mast top on the same journey. It was also clear that we could not do this while in a port if there was any wind at all, as the foresail had to be unfurled to get at the fabric, and wind would make the boat want to sail, which in a port is not a good idea. So the answer was that since we currently had light winds and calm seas, now was the time for action!

I volunteered to go up the mast. Nick equipped me with a harpoon-type implement cobbled together from a boathook, a knife and a bit of duck tape. He also provided a harness; I provided my own helmet (accsnowb). I looked, according to the crew, like some kind of surreal superhero. And I felt like one too. Nick hoisted me up on another halyard, while Michelle kept the boat on course, and Annili was the official photographer. On the way up, it was clear that I could barely reach the "S": even by hanging onto a mid-forestay and reaching forward with the harpoon, I could only scratch at it, with not enough leverage to counteract the strong adhesive.

So I went up to the mast top to retrieve the original halyard. It was beautiful up there! As I got further up the mast, the horizon opened up and the seascape widened out, allowing me to see much more than from deck level. Also, as I went up, the wind picked up, so by the time I got to the top we were sailing along pleasantly. Nick realized I was enjoying it so much that he left me up there for a while.

I eventually made the reluctant decision to come back down to the deck. On the way down, I went forward again to have another crack at retrieving the red "S". Nick rigged up yet another halyard, further forward than the mid forestay, so that I could pull myself further forward still. I also lengthened the harpoon to get even more leverage, but even with this configuration, and standing with my two feet balanced on the mid-forestay, the "S" was stubbornly resisting the knife. The only way I would be able to tug it away from the forestay would be by hand. And to get my hands on the forestay, I realized I would have to play the superhero move. I aimed my hand at the forestay, and in a leap of faith, pushed my whole body through the air, lunging to grab at the forestay - and it worked! It was a scary but essential bit of corporeal spatial engineering, and I could now hang off the forestay with one hand while I pulled the sticky fabric off with the other. And that was that!

Two jobs done successfully, I was lowered down to the deck, ecstatic at the adventure of it all.

Yet another beautiful dawn

We sailed through the night, and early in the morning, Nick and I found ourselves surrounded by dolphins! They were in groups of 3 or 4, about 15 creatures in total, rushing through the top of the water.

It's a pair of dolphins! Honestly!

Michelle steers for the end of the cliffs
Nick checks the sails as we prepare to tack
After rounding the spectacular cliffs of Cape Gaspé, we tacked up the channel and went into the harbour, passing through crowds of gannets performing their kamikaze skydives into the water.

Final approach into Gaspé

Friday, 20 July 2012



After arriving in Montréal by train from Ottawa, I felt (to the greatest extent since arriving in Korea) that I had arrived in a foreign country. And yet I hadn't even crossed an international border!

It was clear from the beginning that French is the first language in Montréal, although English is certainly widespread, to the extent that the city is functionally bilingual. Suddenly Canada's insistence on bilingual cereal packets started to make sense. Even the "Stop" signs here are in French, which is more than can be said for France.

The French spoken here, however, is not the French I was taught at school.This is Québecois, and even after a month in the province, I cannot profess to be able to understand it perfectly.

In a similar way to Toronto, Montreal is a melting pot, but it has a different sort of quirkiness. There seems to be something of a grungy laissez-faire attitude that gives it a rebellious charm. There is copious graffiti, mostly very creative, which somehow makes the city feel loved and well-lived-in, like an old well-worn pair of jeans.

Montréal has a variety of architecture, and in many parts of the city, the sidewalks are marked with little metal strips which give the dates of the buildings on either side.

Many buildings have staircases leading to the apartments on different levels.

The Jazz Festival was in full swing when I was there - I wandered past a multitude of open-air stages with a variety of bands, and experienced a wonderful late-night jam session with the daughter of "the late, great Duke Ellington" as she insisted on calling him, and some high-energy saxophonists.

Three days was not nearly enough time to get a full appreciation of the city, but I found some interesting aspects of it, and was also there long enough to get caught out in a couple of heavy short rain squalls. 

Québec City

Québec City is a gem. I had been forewarned of its beauty by several people, and I have to say I agree. It is also very touristy. Whether it is touristy because it is a gem or it is a gem because it is touristy is unclear, but does not matter.

From the moment I stepped out of the station, I felt like I could be in a small town somewhere in France. The central area of the city is essentially a fortress perched high on a rock above the St. Lawrence river.

The day I arrived here, the town was setting up its summer festival, which provided many free and ticketed outdoor events throughout the city. In addition to this festival, there are two major evening sound and light shows - one is a presentation by Cirque du Soleil, underneath the road bridges that carry the highway down from the high part of the city to the low part; the other is a historic projection of images on industrial buildings near the harbour.

Québec is a city of distractions, but they seem to be mainly worthwhile distractions. One major drawback of the touristiness is that the busking options here are severrely curtailed: auditions happen in Spring, and the licenses apparently cost a large amount of money. There are street performances going on ALL the time, most of which are focussed on circus tricks and acrobatics with a lot of audience participation; there are also a number of musicians who, even with allotted time slots of one or two hours, were raking in heaps of cash from the plentiful stream of tourists.

Throughout all of Québec province, there is a conspicuous lack of Canadian flags. The flag of choice here is the Québec national flags: four fleurs-de-lys around a white cross on a blue background. Québec, although a part of Canada has been recognized as a nation within the country. In the past, there has been rather a lot of anti-Canadian feeling in Québec, but this seems to have settled down somewhat; this year's protests in Montréal and Québec City seem to be more focussed on frustration with the Québec national government.

Québec is the only city in North America to have kept its full set of city walls.

Like many old towns, it also has a full complement of narrow little streets and intriguing back alleys.

Trois Rivières

If Montréal is Québec's Toronto and Québec city is its Ottawa, then Trois Rivières is its Kingston. Rachelle from Saskatchewan, who I had met on The Canadian train bound for Toronto, was on a French immersion course in Trois Rivières, so I went there for a weekend to explore the town and practice my French. It is also totally francophone - which is why people go there for French immersion courses.

My French immersion started on the road, as I decided to hitchhike there. 

This gave me 4 hours of French conversation. My first lift was with an old lady from a small farming village, who had such a strong accent that I almost had to revert to smiling and nodding. My second lift came from a lady who used to be a French teacher, so made sure I understood everything she said. She was driving home to Montreal the long route, via the charming little village of Deschambault-Grondines.

 Trois Rivières is also full of interesting old buildings: it is supposedly the second oldest European-built city in Canada, and has cottages, barracks, and a variety of churches, seminaries and convents.


My transport back to Québec City was provided by Marc, Rachelle's French teacher. Thanks to his clear way of speaking, I was able to have a full deep conversation with him about Québec's history and politics, and the benefits of living in Lévis, the city just across the river from Québec. (Where else, said Marc, can you go out to a world-class rock concert and return home by ferry?)

Back in Québec City, my main activity became waiting. I was waiting for a boat to come along and whisk me away further East. As I waited, said boat was making it way from the Great Lakes down the St. Lawrence river, which gave me time to pare down my luggage and get back into a sea voyage mentality.