Saturday, August 13, 2022

Captain stuff

I'm making a departure from the travelogue today to talk a little bit about navigation on this trip. Other boaters will probably find this useful, especially if they plan on doing this trip themselves, and perhaps some regular readers might find it interesting, but if you're only here for the travelogue and photos, feel free to skip it. I will return to the travelogue in my next post.

Long-time readers will know that I've written here many times about the topics of navigation, pilotage, and driving the boat. I've touched on everything from anchoring to navigating inlets to playing the tides and even being aground. While I am always learning and there will probably be more, umm, incidents in the future from which to learn, with 41,000 nautical miles in our wake and over six thousand hours at the helm, we're pretty good at making our way around -- in the US.

This trip challenges us and moves us out of our comfort zone for several reasons:
  • We're in a foreign country (yes, really).
  • We don't speak the language in much of it.
  • The charts are different from what we are used to in the US.
  • The aids to navigation (markers and buoys, aka ATONs) are different from what we are used to.
  • Our towing insurance is irrelevant here and commercial tow companies are few.
  • We're operating on an insurance endorsement that limits our navigation and imposes deadlines.
  • The marine weather reporting is different and not as good as in the US.
  • There's a lot of big water with few safe harbors.
Being in a foreign country means things as simple as where we are allowed to discharge waste can consume hours. I posted the regulation for that in my last post, but an exercise for the reader might be to start with that question and see how long it takes to arrive at the answer. Another question is what, if any, is our obligation to comply with Canadian licensing and equipment regulations (answer: we are required to have a radio license, but we get a 45-day grace on an operator license, which we have anyway, and the boat itself is legal as long as it complies with flag state, meaning US, safety requirements).

Not speaking the language has challenged us in communicating with locks, marinas, harbormasters, and bridge tenders. A combination of luck, my decades-old high school (non-Canadian) French, and Google Translate has gotten us by. It's always a relief to be ashore, where we can fall back on gestures and puzzled looks and pointing at things, none of which helps on the radio. It's easier to pull up to a dock in the dinghy and ask about tying up than to call ahead and do it.

Our track. Inbound track, from the north, is at left, and you can see our path to the sea buoy ME and thence in through the markers ME3/4 to deep water at ME8. We found 8'. But if you look under the red ? you can see what looks like a better route with 14'. Outbound we took the ship channel, right, but you can see no buoys are shown. At far right (south) you can see the pair of range lights, with the dotted line showing their beam, that leads ships to the start of the buoyed channel. To know this is a buoyed channel you need to click on the little ! in a circle.

Today's post, however, is prompted more specifically by the chart and ATON details, which came to the fore yesterday and this morning. From Shippagan, many cruisers will make their next stop in Escuminac, which is a fishing port with a well-protected harbor and a pleasure craft dock. The entire harbor, however, is too shallow at low tide for Vector. With winds and seas out of the north, there is no lee outside the breakwalls such as we used in a couple of harbors along the St. Lawrence.

Our option was to enter Miramichi Bay and anchor in the lee of Portage Island, which looked very nice on the chart and the sat view. So while we were in Shippagan I spent some time sitting at the helm plotting our route into the anchorage and laying out the routes for the next couple of days. Sometimes when I'm up here by myself Louise will ask what I'm doing, and while she often answers her own question, the half-joking answer either one of us will give is "captain stuff." The expression comes from a meme, often accompanied by a photo of a boat or ship in some hazardous condition, that reads "everyone wants to be captain until it's time to do captain stuff."

We have three different charts for these waters. One is the official Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS)  ENC (electronic) chart, which we access on our tablets through the Aquamap app. Another is the proprietary-format electronic chart from cartographer C-Map which is installed on our main plotter, a PC running the TimeZero navigation software. Despite dropping US$250 on these charts, they appear to be little more than the CHS charts, but it's the only way to get them for our plotter. And lastly we have the charts from cartographer Navionics, on their dedicated tablet app, which use proprietary algorithms to meld the CHS charts with crowd-sourced soundings.

Just as in the US, some ATONs are clearly shown on the chart, but some are not. A small, hard-to-find note will indicate that there is a buoyed channel when the buoys are not shown. The reason for this is the same in both countries: certain rivers, inlets, and channels shift so frequently, sometimes month to month, that the buoys are constantly being relocated, and their position if shown on the chart would be out of date before the chart was even published.

A different chart of the entrance, north-up this time. Hatched area is less than 6', and colors extend from 6' (red) to 12' (blue). White area should all be deeper than 12'. Once again you can see the marked channel appears to be the worst possible route.

Uncharted buoys did not seem to be an issue with this plot. I could see clearly marked on all three charts a "sea buoy" for the entrance to the bay, marked "ME" (which I think might be "Miramichi East/Est entrance"), and buoys marking the channel across the bar. But all three charts also showed that marked channel running right across a charted shoal that dries at low water. Meanwhile, all three charts show what appears to be a perfectly good, 14' deep channel just 3/4 mile south.

The temptation to plot the route into the bay across what appears to be a wider, deeper channel is powerful. And auto-routing software, which we do not use, such as that built in to the Navionics app, would surely route that way. But in 40knm of "captain stuff" and more than one grounding, you learn a few things. And one of those things is that sea buoys exist for a reason. They mark the safe entrance to an inlet, and should be the starting point for a run toward a marked channel.

I went to the Sailing Directions to see if there was any guidance. Unlike the CHS charts, which cost money, these are published by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and are free to download. No mariner should be cruising this route without them, as they are a wealth of information and contain numerous warnings. These are roughly analogous to the Coast Pilot books in the US (which are also required reading for mariners in that country) and can be downloaded here.

The page for Miramichi Bay shows two warnings (checkered flag icon) that both discuss shifting sand bars, and the book goes on to say that pilotage is compulsory into and out of the bay (we are not subject to pilotage), which itself is telling. That concerns the ship channel, which leads into the bay around a different shoal considerably to the south. A range leads to the start of the channel, where uncharted buoys take over.
From the Sailing Directions. Required reading in these waters.

On the assumption that what looks to be a good route south of the marked entrance is actually shoaled in, and the buoys do, indeed, mark the best route, I plotted my course that way, right over the marked shoal. A sailboat with a 7' draft that is about a week ahead of us posted on their log that they took this route and so no less than 9' in heavy seas at a 1"+ tide, and by the time we arrived that same couple had updated a hazard marker in the same spot on the crowd-sourced database saying the same thing. All of that gave us more confidence in the route.

As it happened we saw a minimum of 8' in the marked channel, right between the buoys, at a tide of +1'. We had a 2' swell, so that was probably a trough reading. Something of a pucker factor, to be sure, but I approached at bare steerage until I was across the marked shoal. Things got deep after that and we crossed a couple of tide rips on our way to our anchorage, which was calm all evening.

This morning we opted to leave via the ship channel, since the extra southing was not an issue. The buoys are completely uncharted, but when we saw they were labeled "MI" we knew we were in the right place, as the small-craft channel was labeled "ME." The ship channel carried no less than 20' (at low water) and we turned east just as we arrived at the entrance range. For a ship channel, the skinny spar buoys used here were difficult to see at a distance. But casually looking at the chart, you would be hard-pressed to know there was even a ship channel at all; only the entrance range gives it away.

There's really no telling what we might have found had we tried to take what looks like a better channel on the chart. But the Canadians seem serious about their ATONs, so with none in that direction, we did not want to find out the hard way. Perhaps one of our readers who's been through there might comment with what they found.


  1. I want to hear about crossing the reversing waterfall (rapids) when you get to St. John in the Bay of Fundy. It will also be interesting how you calculate scope when you have 40-foot tides. Safe travels.

    1. At the moment, it's unclear if we will go up into the Bay of Fundy at all; it depends on when we round the peninsula. But if we do, the St. Johns is on our list. We've been in the Bay of Fundy before, but not the most tidal section. We were confined to the US side. Covered in this and surrounding posts:

  2. Very much enjoying your voyage & adventure- “captain stuff” is a plus.Presently living on Georgian Bay in Ontario where navigation & common sense is a must but also lived & boated in the Bahamas where things on the water often got very interesting.Again,thank you for taking us with you.A James.

  3. Is the navigation made somewhat more complex by Vector's slightly deeper draft? Or are the margins generally so close that vessels with less draft would be equally challenged?

    1. Yes, it is our 6' draft that makes some navigation more complex. Many small-craft facilities and channels are made for vessels with less draft, and this is why we can't get into many of the harbors here.


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