Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Hurricane Fiona, our Waterloo

The original title of this post was Privateer, soon changed to Vector Homecoming. But that has been overtaken by events, as they say in some circles. I promise I will get to the privateers, and Vector's entirely-without-fanfare homecoming, but not before I delve into the title I finally settled on, and especially because many have asked us if we will be safe during Hurricane Fiona. (Short answer: yes.)

Anyone who's read more than a few posts here knows that I can be pretty darn wordy. Today will be worse, because I am going to start with a digression that I think is, nevertheless, important to the story line. It's from a time before Vector, or even Odyssey, the 40' bus we lived in for a decade before moving aboard Vector. A time when we would escape our everyday working lives by riding our big touring motorcycles on long trips for a weekend, or maybe a week.

Vector secured at West Head Harbour, Cape Sable Island, where we will ride out Fiona.

On one such trip we found ourselves in Las Vegas, Nevada, and, not being gamblers, we occupied ourselves with the other things sin city had to offer. That included a number of amusement rides, including roller coasters, of which we are both big fans. I'm acrophobic, a not uncommon phobia, but I'm usually able to tough it out on tall amusement rides like big coasters and Ferris wheels such as the one we recently enjoyed in Montreal. I somehow made it through a career in telecom that sometimes involved being on antenna masts or other tall structures, and I've even challenged myself with a 200' rappel into a cave.

And so it was that while in Las Vegas, after dinner on the top floor restaurant of the Stratosphere Tower, as it was known back then, which did not bother me in the least despite being some 1,100' above the street, we decided to ride the roller coaster on the roof. After all, I love roller coasters, and the view from dinner was perfectly lovely.

Privateer monument in Liverpool honoring the vessels and crews who captured American ships. The names of the privateer vessels are inscribed at the base.

We got in the carriage and pulled the safety bars down, just like a hundred other roller coasters. A whoosh of air as the brakes released, and we left the station. And at the first turn, looking out into a thousand feet of nothing between me and the streets of Las Vegas, my eyes slammed shut, my entire body clenched, and I exerted a death grip on the safety bar. I only hoped the ride would end before I died. My relief a few minutes later, as Louise, whose eyes were still open, assured me we were coming back into the station, was short-lived, as they simply let the train through for us to go around the whole thing a second time.

I am an engineer. I have great confidence that this roller coaster is safe. I can look at it from every angle and realize that even if something came loose and a car left the track, it could not launch itself over the edge of the roof. I know at an intrinsic level that I had a much higher chance of dying on the thousand-mile motorcycle ride to and from Las Vegas. But none of that mattered one iota, just as the safety record of air travel does not matter to someone with aerophobia. The amygdala has taken over, and rational thought is powerless to overcome it.

Even the playground here is privateer-themed.

This is an "amygdala hijack," and I bring it up because Louise suffers from this kind of involuntary response when the boat gets into certain kinds of motions under some sea conditions. When you ask your doctor what to do about an amygdala hijack, the first thing they will tell you is to avoid the triggers, if possible. If you are acrophobic, avoid heights. Aerophobic, take the train. Claustrophobic, don't go into small places.

For us, this means staying out of the sea conditions that impart the specific motions that trigger the response. When we encounter them while already at sea after forecasts prove to have been inaccurate, we'll take a bail-out option that we built into the plan, or change course or speed to alter the motion if possible. But sometimes you just have to close your eyes and grip the safety bar with white knuckles, your body flooded with cortisol and adrenaline, until the train gets back to the station.

Monument to a lost trawler and crew in the local cemetery.

I'm never getting back on that infernal rooftop roller coaster as long as I live. But Louise keeps going out to sea on Vector. Part of what makes that possible is that she does the weather routing -- we don't go out until she is comfortable that the sea state and wind forecasts support a passage that will not involve these kinds of motions. That's been a challenge all through Canada, where the forecasts have been neither as granular nor as accurate as what we've been using elsewhere, and particularly here on the Nova Scotia coast, where the conditions are perfect to create those triggering motions.

This has made for slow going all along the Nova Scotia coast, and to a lesser extent the Northumberland Strait before it. That's seldom a problem for us; we have no schedule to speak of (other than winter is coming), and we actually enjoy spending a little extra time in the small towns and even the remote anchorages in such a scenic place. We're happy to hole up someplace until conditions on the outside improve and we take the windows as they come.

The British regulars are still here among the loyalists -- all the fireplugs are dressed as redcoats.

That calculus changes dramatically when a hurricane is headed our way. And suddenly there is a very pressing schedule where none had been before. Fiona is currently forecast to bring 45 knot winds to this part of Nova Scotia, and while long-time readers know that we've weathered a dozen tropical storms in this boat and winds of 70mph, there are just some places you can not be during those kinds of winds. And so it is that I brought the boat around Cape Sable, known as the "Cape Horn of Nova Scotia," without Louise on board.

The forecasts supported this one window to get around the cape before seeking shelter from Fiona, which, at the time, was forecast to hit Nova Scotia as a Major Hurricane, with the cone of uncertainty extending as far west as Halifax. And while it looked very much like we would be able to do the passage together like any other, with Fiona bearing down, the possibility  of turning back if the going got too rough was just not an option. With at least one forecast showing steep seas, we opted to have her travel comfortably overland, a distance of less than seven miles, while I took the boat around the cape some 24 nautical miles to the exact same destination.

At Fort Point Lighthouse park they've built up the seawall, I assume due to flooding. The rocks go right around the tree.

At the beginning of this post I promised to catch up on the much more mundane goings-on before Fiona reared her ugly head. When last I posted here, we had just returned from dinner in Liverpool, hoping for a quiet and comfortable night. Unfortunately, no sooner had I hit the "publish" button on that post than the wind shifted to hold Vector sideways to the incoming swell, causing her to roll at her resonant period. That can be a recipe for a sleepless night, and so with only light winds forecast, I took our emergency/kedge/stern anchor out in the dinghy, set it, and then used the dinghy to push Vector back in line with the incoming swell while Louise took in the rode at the stern and secured it on deck.

In this orientation the swell imparts only a gently pitching motion, which is not resonant and thus self-amplifying, and is much more comfortable than the roll. This is the very first time we've deployed this setup, a fairly small 35-lb Manson Supreme shackled to 100' of 1/4" braided Dyneema® rode. It worked surprisingly well, considering this is a very small anchor for a boat of Vector's size, and the rode is a poor choice of fiber. This combination was selected because it is the most holding power that Louise can lift and heave over the rail by herself, and we deemed that a requirement for an emergency anchor that might have to be deployed while I was unable to leave the helm.

Cannon at Fort Point with Vector in its sights.

Wednesday turned out to be one of those days when the weather router declared outside conditions a no-go, and so we just stayed put in Liverpool. I took the dinghy ashore to explore the town a bit, which has a rich history. An influx of loyalists escaping the American Revolution swelled the town's population, and in the War of 1812, privateers from Liverpool captured numerous American ships.

When I was not exploring, I was beating my head against the wall trying to get one of the two plotter/sounders for the dinghy working. The current one quit a week or so ago, and the old one I had replaced on account of a broken connector, but kept as a spare, was also not working. We don't need the plotter, but we rely on the sounder for probing shallow anchorages or docks before bringing Vector in. Sadly, both seem to suffer the same problem, dead backup batteries, and I have no way to source the solder-in batteries here.

She looks rather alone in the Mersey. That's Brooklyn in the background, whose marina was far too small for us.

During the day the winds clocked around 180°, and we found ourselves hanging mostly from the stern anchor, so we let it go with a buoy attached and let the boat swing all the way around. I went out in the dinghy to try to recover it, but the dinghy was not powerful enough to pull it out -- that's how well it was set. We just left it with the buoy, planning to raise it later with Vector.

At dinner time we returned ashore together for dinner at the Privateer Inn, part of which is the former home of famed privateer Joseph Barss, captain of the Liverpool Packet, which captured 50 American ships before succumbing to a much larger vessel. Dinner was good and they had some nice drafts.

Louise reached into the fridge for a beer and came up with this sealed but empty can, right in the middle of a boxed 12-pack. Note the tiny hole at the bottom. Nine Locks offered to send a replacement but we have no place to receive it.

We came back to Vector to find her once again rolling with the swell, the wind having died down. With the other anchor already well set, we weighed the main anchor, drove the boat around to the other side of it and dropped the hook, then brought the second rode back aboard to the stern. A little fussy, but it worked and it was easier than pulling it up and setting it again.

I was all set to march up to the grocery store Thursday, 3/4 mile north, just past the Hank Snow museum honoring the home town country singer. But the morning check of the forecast said we had a shot outside for Shelburne, with an earlier option of Lockeport, so we weighed anchor to head outside. Once again we had to drop the stern anchor with a buoy, and after weighing the main we pulled the rode up, cleated it off, and I pulled it free with the boat. It came up with a huge ball of mud, well-buried. A great demonstration of how good these "super high holding power" anchors can be in the right bottom.

Another, slightly different regimental fireplug. The large connectors have been styled as backpacks, so the soldiers face away from the street.

The first few hours we had a good cruise, but seas began to build much greater than forecast in the afternoon, and  we started searching for an earlier bail-out than Lockeport, We ended up pulling into a small embayment with just the right kind of protection known as Little Port L'Hebert, which is not a port at all, little or other wise; even the few homes around the cove lack docks. We dropped the hook mid-cove (map), and had it to ourselves until after dinner, when a big cruising sailboat came in and dropped anchor a couple hundred feet away.

Friday we tried again to make Shelburne, but just a mile or so out of the cove we made an about-face and came back to wait another day. The sailboat left shortly afterward and never returned, but sailboats under sail have a very different motion than Vector, with more wind being better rather than worse. We had the cove to ourselves the second night.

Vector's birthplace. I only know it was in this group of unrelated buildings; I am guessing the white one with the large blue door.

Finally Saturday we escaped Little Port L'Hebert and made our way to Shelburne in fairly heavy seas. Things calmed down when we rounded Sandy Point, and then there it was up on the hill: Vector's birthplace. She was mostly built right here on Sandy Point in Shelburne, and likely launched at one of the enormous ramps in either direction along the main road. I'm fairly certain this is her first homecoming since leaving Shelburne some 19 years ago.

It was another full hour before we were in Shelburne proper, where we landed at the fuel dock at the Shelburne Harbor Yacht Club. The fuel we took on back in Brewerton, NY was just about gone, down to our last 40 gallons. I had figured it to bring us all the way back to the US, but an unplanned detour into Lake Bras D'Or, several false starts and U-turns, and running at higher RPM in some of the rougher sections to help the stabilizers all took their toll on the fuel reserve. More importantly, with just 40 gallons left in the belly tank, we had less stability and more motion than normal. When full that tank holds two tons of fuel, at the very lowest part of the boat, and the absence of that weight was noticeable.

The marina was very concerned about how much fuel we wanted. If we had "filled up," we would have completely emptied their ~1,200-gallon tank.

And so it was that we took on 1,500 liters, or just under 400 gallons, of diesel fuel at CDN$1.98 per liter, or about US$5.60 per gallon, just about what we paid back in Brewerton. The extra 2,800 pounds in the belly tank has made a difference in the ride, and I can stop sweating stretching the fuel back to Maine. After fueling we dropped lines and headed to the anchorage just to the north, where we dropped the hook (map).

We splashed the tender and I headed ashore to explore the town. The town landing was right smack in the middle of the annual Whirligig and Weathervane Festival (I kid you not), with numerous creators of the namesake items along with food vendors and the usual festival-booth suspects. I did not buy any whirligigs, weathervanes, or food items.

I snapped this sign after the festival had closed for the day. No idea what the moose signifies.

In addition to strolling the diminutive downtown area, I hoofed it up to the more commercial "mall" area to pick up a few provisions at the grocery store and some more beer at the package store before returning. My final stop was the yacht club, to see if any members hovering at the bar might have some advice about rounding Cape Sable. No one at the bar even had a boat, leading me to conclude this is a drinking club with some yachts, and not really a yacht club with a bar. As a side note, I could have tied the dinghy up here instead of the town landing, but they wanted a $15 dinghy fee, even after we dropped $3k at the fuel dock.

I dropped the provisions back off at Vector and we returned ashore together for a pleasant dinner at the Emerald Light Cafe, one of only a few restaurants in town. Shelburne is a bit off the main highway and does not see the kind of tourist traffic that has kept some of the other ports thriving even after the maritime industries have tapered off. This is another town where the loyalist roots and influence are plainly visible.

Vector at anchor in Shelburne Harbor.

I could easily have spent another day in Shelburne, and with perfect information about being pinned down by weather, we might have just stayed a week. But the very next morning we again had a decent window to move along, with any hope of getting around the cape before possibly being pinned down by a tropical storm requiring us to move along. And so at 8am we weighed anchor and steamed the full hour south to the ocean.

We only managed two hours in the North Atlantic before seas became intolerable, even though the forecast suggested we might have made the cape, and well short of our hold-short stop of Port LaTour. Instead we bailed out to the first comfortable spot, a small cove between a pair of conjoined islands known as Cape Negro Island, where we tucked in as far as we could and dropped the hook next to a catamaran already holed up there (map).

The Dory Shop, part of the local maritime museum. With, of course, whirligigs.

We ended up chatting with the catamaran, Grit, on the radio. He was single-handing to Cape Cod, and he actually left the anchorage at 4:30pm for that passage, just as the wind shifted. We only stayed another hour ourselves, as the shift in the wind meant we'd be pummeled in this anchorage. We enjoyed it the short time we were there, watching the sheep roaming the shores. The island once hosted an entire community with houses, shops, and even a hotel, all gone now, with the only inhabitants a flock of sheep and an automated lighthouse.

We moved only a short distance across the bay to Ingomar Harbour, threading our way through a narrow entrance into an anchorage more protected from the now easterly winds (map). Three other boats came in around the same time and anchored nearby, and we all discussed making for the cape in the morning on a favorable forecast.

In case we forgot it gets very cold here.

When we awoke Monday morning the other boats were gone, including a trawler-style boat the same size as Vector but half her weight. They were headed for the cape with about a two-hour head start. We weighed anchor after coffee to follow in their wakes. Alas it was not to be; as soon as I made the turn to the west around the south end of Cape Negro Island we found ourselves in steep four footers, and while things might have flattened out if we pushed through them for a couple of miles, that was not in the cards.

There was no way to turn around, and so we spent a miserable twenty minutes running along the south end of the island before I could turn north along the west side. It was too uncomfortable to anchor in West Cove on the island, even though it was out of the wind, and we ended up circumnavigating the island all the way back to Ingomar Harbour (map), anchoring some two hours and ten nautical miles after we left.

Our circumnavigation of Cape Negro Island.

We figured we might be spending the night in that anchorage, or maybe even a week until Fiona passes, but we were highly motivated to get to a safer place, and so when the winds and seas finally laid down enough by 4pm, we again weighed anchor for another attempt. We no longer had the correct current conditions to make the cape, even if we were willing to do it in the dark, but we could get to the last harbor just east of it, the Barrington Passage, which is no longer a passage because it has been bisected by a causeway.

We made it to the head of the harbor just at the end of twilight and set the hook in the dark as far in as we dared (map). It was a tenuous set over a rocky bottom but it was good enough for the night. In the morning we splashed the tender to sound out the very narrow, very shallow channel leading in to the more protected anchorage next to the causeway. You may recall the sounder is out on the dinghy, and so this involved a "lead line," in our case a lead diving weight on a 25' nylon cord marked at intervals. I marked the soundings on the chart app on my phone.

These rocks are called The Salvages. Those are actually fairly large breakers to the left of the lighthouse, reflecting the seas we were in right here.

Armed with soundings and at the requisite tide level we made our way through the tight entrance at dead slow; at one point I got far enough off soundings that we hit a rock with the starboard fin. The underwater camera later revealed some damage to the fiberglass fairing but not much else so we will just live with it till the next haulout. After extricating ourselves we made it into the little anchorage with no further issues and dropped the hook (map), very precisely to allow swing room all the way around.

It was a very comfortable anchorage and we had a great set in a sand bottom. But there was no way we could put enough chain out here to ride out 50mph winds, which is what was being forecast yesterday morning. The forecast for this morning said we could safely make it around the cape, but there was no guarantee we'd be doing it in anything that was not going to send Louise into a panic, especially after a week of ever-building dread about this particular crossing, fueled by horrific accounts by pleasure boaters ill-prepared for the task, or lobstermen who go no matter the forecast.

Vector in the very calm anchorage at Barrington Passage. Likely the largest boat that has ever been in here.

I suggested I could take the boat around on my own and she could get a lift the seven miles down the road and meet me. But that same building anxiety meant she did not want me out there alone, either, and, admittedly, there are certain risks to single-handing. And thus it was that I spent the rest of the day making phone calls and trying to find a local fisherman willing to ride along.

And here is where I must add my voice to the chorus of cruisers who will tell you that the people here will go to the ends of the earth to help a stranger. By dinner time I had four different skippers willing to ride along, several offers of rides or cars, the Coast Guard telling us they would be keeping an eye on us, and lots of advice about sea conditions and route plotting. I selected one of the four offers, and thus reassured, we went ashore at the dinghy dock and walked across the causeway for dinner at JB's Steak and Seafood, groceries, beer, and dinghy fuel.

This whimsical lobster and very pointy Adirondack chair are in the waterside park in Barrington Passage.

By this time, everyone in town on both sides of the causeway, who had already been seeing our boat all day, had heard the story (everyone knows everyone here), and on our way back a carload of lobstermen stopped us to chat us up about the whole affair. It was all very surreal.

We weighed anchor this morning at 8am to have enough tide to get back out the squeaky channel and dropped a lunch hook in deeper water, where I deployed the camera to inspect the damage. I was too wrapped up in phone calls to do it yesterday. And at 10am we tendered back to the dock, where we met Jason, my crew for the morning. Jason handed Louise his car keys and the two of us returned to Vector, decked the tender, and weighed anchor.

Screen capture of a murky video showing leading-edge damage to the fin.

As it turned out, the milder forecast was correct (well, other than slightly higher winds), the passage was uneventful, and it would have been no problem at all for us to have done it together. Sort of like keeping it from raining by bringing your umbrella. Better to have taken the needless precaution than the other way around.

We had not been entirely sure where we were going to take the boat once we rounded the cape, with a few options in mind. But in the course of lining up help, and in no small part on the suggestion of the Coast Guard, we ended up here, at the West Head Harbour (map), where we are rafted up (or shouldered, or breasted up, depending on whom you ask) to an offshore lobster boat, the F/V Atlantic Triumph. Lobster season is closed and the boats are idle, and no one is going out now until the storm passes anyway. Most of the harbor is breasted two or three deep.

Our new friend Eric in the Canadian Coast Guard SAR boat doing donuts around Vector off Cape Sable. These are the conditions we had, very benign for the cape.

Louise stopped in to the harbormaster's office when she arrived and they figured out where to put us and she texted me directions. The Coasties, who had done a few passes around us offshore since it was practice day with the SAR boat, helped tie us up when we arrived. After offloading a week's worth of fresh groceries Louise gave Jason back his car. No one would accept anything for their help, but Louise gassed up the truck before she arrived at the harbor.

When Jason first met us on the dinghy dock at Barrington Passage, he was carrying a bag with about two pounds of fresh tuna. Not only do they not accept anything... they bring welcome gifts. I cranked up the grill and we had grilled tuna steaks for dinner.

The view from our aft deck for the next few days.

Getting off the boat is a challenge involving climbing over rails, crossing a fishing boat, then climbing a straight ladder that is often 2-3' from the boat. There's nothing to go to, anyway, and so we'll mostly be right here on board until Fiona passes. We have four lines to Atlantic Triumph and another two all the way to shore, and a 30-amp power hookup, so we are all set.

I will try to post storm updates, as appropriate, on Vector's Twitter account. My next post here will not be until we cast off lines and are under way to points west. Of course, I should be more careful what I promise: I ended my last post by saying I would post under way to Shelburne, and we had so many short sea days and challenging conditions that I never managed to type under way. This might have been two or three much shorter posts had I been able to do so.


  1. What "adventures" you both have! Safe travels to you

  2. What a voyage(s)& great summer- cautious passage means survival in the Atlantic & connecting with the local fishermen,it is pretty hard to go wrong.Thankyou for bringing us up to date & sharing wit us.Fiona’s track is still unpredictable & so glad you set up to ride it out.All the best.A James

  3. We love all that you write - don't think you can be too wordy. Knowing you came out all right made it safe to read the whole thing. What wonderful people you meet!

  4. Glad you guys have weathered the storm, and glad to read Vector was briefly back where she was born.

  5. You have spun another great tale Sean. I am happy things worked out so well for you and good luck weathering out the storm. Yes, us Canadians can be a friendly lot!


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