Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Need to Know Info to Travel the St. Lawrence for the First Time: Prep, Errors in Guides and Charts, Hazards, Fuel and more

2010 08 25
Summerside PEI

This post is only of interest to those who think they might sail out the St. Lawrence for themselves or those who  like to sail their armchairs to cool destinations.

What Do You Have to Have?

Critical: charts, tide tables, sailing guide, jerry jugs for fuel

Recommended: Chartplotter with current data mapping, sailing directions, Tidal Atlas for the St. Lawrence

What We Took (that allowed us to survive)?

We took the following:

  1. Full set of electronic charts from Canadian Hydrographic Service at a cost of $75 which we viewed on our laptop.  We have two laptops, both fully loaded with charts and plotting software in case the chartplotter fails.  For all you old fogies who are redfaced with apoplectic indignation over our choice of electronic charts: Just Get Over It.  All the other dinosaurs are already extinct
  2. The tide tables from CHS for the St. Lawrence River and the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Maritime Provinces,
  3. Standard Horizon Chartplotter with CMap data chip
  4. St. Lawrence Seaway Pleasure Craft Guide (free)
  5. Cruising Guide: St. Lawrence River & Quebec Waterways from Cornwall to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in English and French.
  6. CCA Crusing Guide to the St. Lawrence (available online at no cost).
  7. Jerry Cans for 20 gallons of diesel.

Each of these items suffered disadvantages and some suffered critical mistakes in their information

If we had had the money we would really have liked to have the Tidal Atlas for the St. Lawrence River.  Tides from Quebec City to Tadoussac are just about impossible to predict and the Atlas simplifies this task immensely.  At $50 per tidal area it was just too rich for our blood. 


There are no chartbooks for the St. Lawrence.  Buying all the CHS charts for the entire trip is very very expensive.  The information is the best available but at $20 a pop you will spend at least $300 to $400.  

Your better choice is to buy the DVD with the charts and learn to read charts on a laptop.  Or print the charts out from your computer before you leave home so you have both printed and electronic charts. 

Tidal Atlas

Going downriver as we did there was no real need for a tidal atlas, a pictorial representation, hour by hour, showing the expected tidal current in the river.  It is an amazing piece of work.  From Quebec City to Tadoussac tidal current predictions take a lot of work and are not intuitive.  The Atlas makes the job easier. 

The atlas is, however, $50 per area covered and very pricey.

If we were attempting to move upstream we would pay the money gladly. 


The CMap data chip for the St. Lawrence is useful but HAS SOME SERIOUS OMISSIONS.

  • The tides on the St. Lawrence are stupidly complex.  So complex the Chartplotter gives consistently and dangerously incorrect tide data.  Often our CMap based Standard Horizon used the wrong tide station and usually there was no interpolation.  Using your chartplotter for tide data on the St. Lawrence is playing Russian Roulette.
  • Sailing into Riviere aux Renard late at night, long after dark, we found the entire bay had been walled off with 12 foot high breakwater.  It was not on the CMap chart.  We are not blaming Jeppeson Sanderson, publishers of the CMap data but this is a huge omission and if we had not been informed from other sources (the guide) about the wall...  As it was the breakwater provided much needed protection from a persistent swell and we entered Rivier aux Renard specifically to use its protection. 

Not using Navionics we cannot comment but from what we have seen CMap is generally a bit sharper than its competitor.  We would expect the same comments would apply to Navionics based chartplotters.

Use a chartplotter.  You would be braindead not to.  Just keep your situational awareness up by using all the resources at hand. And never never never use the chartplotter to predict tide unless you are on a tidal station and even then only after making sure your plotter has selected the correct station.


There are 3 guides to assist in sailing out the St. Lawrence:

  • The one we used "Cruising Guide St. Lawrence River & Quebec Waterways from Cornwall to the Gulf of St. Lawrence" is the only one to provide information from the western Quebec border all the way to the Bay of Chaleur.  It is terse and contains some errors.  It shows, Port au Saumon, Port au Persil and Saint Simeon as viable anchorages and they are not remotely usable by any keelboat we could imagine.  This guide also does not identify numerous small bays (or Anses) which provide good protection from wind and current with good mud and clay bottoms.  You must look for yourself on the charts.  They are easy to spot.

  • The annoying thing about this guide is that it is available in French at a list price of $14.95 or English at a list price of $29.95.  The french language edition has bettter charts and descriptions.  Could  you imagine if someone in Ontario tried that?

  • The CCA Cruising Guide to the St. Lawrence is available online and supplements the Guide we used.  It is marginally informative but the first time you do a voyage every bit of information is welcome.

  • There is a trawler guide available from an outfit in Mahone Bay.  We could not get it in time for the trip.  They sell only by snailmail or through retail outlets you have never heard of in cities where you are not present.  It costs $44.95 and I fear it will tell you about all the marinas.  Trawler folk are like that.  Not much anchoring goes on in a trawler or any other powerboat for that matter.  Also trawlers typically draft much less than a keelboat and as a sailor I would be suspicious of their information.    The publisher of the book who may be very nice irritated me by telling me "We do not do pdf and are unable to do so".  For an author and publisher to say such a stupid thing reinforces my concerns over the usability of the information for sailors.


Good quality diesel is available but after Quebec City the marinas that carry diesel can be very far apart. 

  • Buy diesel wherever it is available.  At Saint Anne des Monts the marina sold diesel which had to be jerry jugged down a steep ramp.  The marina diesel storage tank was 55 gallons and filled your jugs using gravity feed.  Meredith carries 70 gallons of fuel when filled including 20 gallons we carry on deck just for the St. Lawrence.
  • Take Jerry Cans because you WILL need them.  Even at marinas where there is diesel you cannot 
  • always get to the fuel pump except at high tide or at all.  We have jugged a lot of fuel.

Usual brands are Sonic, Gaz o Bar and Total and all fuel supplies have been clean and fresh.  

Prices we have paid range from $1.03 at Chandler on the Baie de Chaleur to $1.25 at Saint Anne des Monts.   

Language and Attitude

This is a special section for some those grumpy old anglais who still resent the very existence in Canada of Quebec and its distinct society.  These people are a dying breed and when they finally die out will not warrant even a display at the Royal Ontario Museum, along with the rest of the fossils.  However, just in case they want to tour Quebec by boat and really just because I like to pokedusty dirty old fossils I offer this.

Language is not an issue.  Our trip to Cuba cured us of any hesitation to just jump in trying to communicate in the language of our hosts.  Generally people could tell we were struggling but struggling for good purpose and were supportive as could be.  Our efforts seemed to encourage good will in our hosts and between their broken english and our very broken french we made out just fine.  

Not all Quebecois speak English and to hold the contrary belief is uninformed.  One night in Chandler it took us 20 minutes to order pizza and a chicken dinner. By the time dinner was ordered both sides of the counter were doubled over in laughter.


There are sufficient marinas along the St. Lawrence and the price is very good.  Usually the tariff is $1 per foot including hydro and water.  Often you must pay for showers at a rate of $1 for 4 minutes of hot water.

There is a hazard however:  Many marinas are intended only for shallow draft power boats.  Many cannot be entered by a keelboat even at high tide.  Many more can only be entered during the period typically from 2 hours before high tide to 2 hours after.

The marinas we used all had floating docks so dealing with tide was not an issue.

Plan your marina stays carefully.


Until Quebec City tides are not an issue.  At Quebec City the tidal difference is  17 feet between high and low tide.  A lot of water moves up the St. Lawrence to produce a 17 foot tide and where the river narrows the tidal current picks up.  There are areas in the St. Lawrence where, if you do not choose your times wisely, you can find the combination of outflowing river current (0.5 to 2.0 knots) and ebb tide (add another 5 knots and some places more) can produce a total current of 8 knots.  

My boat does not go that fast.  

Tides from Quebec City to Tadoussac are very difficult to predict accurately.  Rich people would use a tidal atlas which would greatly simplify the proces.

Cell Phone Coverage

We use a Wind Mobile phone which has great rates and good service.  However Wind Mobile uses Rogers towers and there do not seem to be any on the entire Gaspesie.  From Quebec City to Summerside PEI we had no cell phone coverage.


Any night you stay at a marina you will enjoy decent fast interPublish Postnet. 


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