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Summer cruising guide

Down East Circle Route is a 2,400-mile loop around New England and the Canadian Maritimes

Down East Circle Route is a 2,400-mile loop around New England and the Canadian Maritimes

If you embark on the Down East Circle Route, you’ll cruise with the currents, in favorable winds, and during the best time of the year (summer) through historic, unspoiled areas, according to Capt. Cheryl Barr, author of “A Complete Cruising Guide to the Down East Circle Route.”

“That’s why this cruise is great for both experienced and entry-level voyagers,” says Barr. “Any sound yacht equipped for Intracoastal Waterway cruising can do the Down East Circle Route.”

The 2,400-mile loop around New England and the Canadian Maritimes proceeds up the Hudson River, along the Erie Canal to Lake Ontario and through the Thousand Islands, and down the St. Lawrence River to Montreal, Quebec City and small villages. It then coast-hops around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, around Nova Scotia and across the Bay of Fundy (in August, when winds are favorable and fog is less, according to Barr), then down the New England coast.

“This could be the voyage of a lifetime,” writes yachtsman Ted Hood in the book’s foreword. “As the Down East Circle Route is so close and relatively easy to accomplish, my advice to you is ‘go for it.’ ”

A certified welder and scuba diver, Barr holds Yacht Master Offshore and Powerboat certificates from the Royal Yacht Academy (United Kingdom) and a marine biology degree. She has more than 25 years sailing experience, has served aboard research vessels and megayachts, and has trekked throughout the world.

Barr researched the loop aboard two vessels: the 50-foot Jack Gilbert-designed trawler Marita, and the 71-foot steel Herreshoff schooner Road to the Isles, which she and her father built. Barr says you can do the route under power or auxiliary sail as a leisurely summer adventure, or take several summers to complete it by storing your boat en route.

The 200-page guide (Yacht Pilot Publishing, 2003) covers marinas, anchorages and ports, as well as attractions, marine mammals, and Canadian cruising how-tos. It contains 200 charts and photos, and tips on currents, weather and navigation.

The clockwise route — championed by her father, Capt. Don Barr, former skipper of Canada’s tall ship, Bluenose II — begins in New York City. “You quickly leave the concrete jungle behind, as the Hudson River becomes fjord-like and cloaked in the baby greens of early June,” Barr says. “Around West Point and Storm King Mountain the cliffs come right down to the shore — spectacular.”

At Albany, you cruise the Erie and Oswego canals west to Lake Ontario. “The fixed bridge heights and water depths are greater than if you transited Lake Champlain, and you visit the Thousand Islands and Montreal, both must-sees,” she says.

Canal traffic in early summer is light, and there’s free dockage at the ends of each lock, according to Barr, who cruised this section in Marita with Dick and Bunny Nakashian of Pocasset, Mass.

“Many towns sponsor festivals on their revitalized waterfronts,” she says. “Often grocery stores and restaurants picked us up and delivered us to the boat for free. We’d tie up in the afternoon, sightsee in the long evenings, leave in the morning and not miss anything.”

Cruising the Thousand Islands is best on weekdays, for the region is a major tourist destination.

“In the St. Lawrence Seaway we were old hands at locking through, though Bunny was very nervous at first,” Barr says. “When yachts lock through, big ones tie along the walls, small ones raft. We chit-chatted with the boats alongside, and we’d often see them again.”

“[You’d] have to be dead not to enjoy Montreal,” Barr says, citing the festivals, French pastries, cosmopolitan atmosphere, cultural activities and 4,000 restaurants. Montreal is multinational, so nearly everyone speaks English, according to Barr.

“Quebec City, the only walled city in North America, is different — so Old World,” says Barr. They tied up in the Port of Quebec Marina in the historic district, where Barr says you’re safe from the current and 18-foot tides.

Along the Gaspe peninsula lie small, remote French villages, each with a cathedral that glistens in the sun. “They’re remote, but you can always find a place to stay, get provisions and walk around,” she says.

After the cold Gulf of St. Lawrence waters, Barr appreciated the Northumberland Strait between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. “Some say it’s the warmest salt water north of Virginia,” she says. “And PEI’s capital, Charlottetown, is a nice change after the rural Gaspe.”

The Down East Circle Route locks through Canso Canal, which separates Nova Scotia from Cape Breton Island, and enters the Bras d’Or Lakes through St. Peter’s Canal. Most sailors agree with Barr that the lake’s clear waters (in central Cape Breton) offer spectacular sailing and scenery.

At the yachting center of Baddeck, where Alexander Graham Bell summered, you can rent a car to travel the Cabot Trail around Cape Breton Highlands National Park and to the Fortress of Louisbourg, the reconstructed 1744 French capital of New Canada.

“When you head the 280 miles down the craggy east coast of Nova Scotia near the end of August you’ll find minimal fog and winds swinging into the west or even northwest,” Barr says. “This is the cruise’s most remote section. Aboard Road to the Isles, we often anchored with loons.” Quite a change from Halifax, the hub of the Canadian Maritimes and a favorite of Barr’s, who grew up in nearby Mahone Bay.

“South of Halifax you’ll find a lot more yachts,” she says. “It’s greener, warmer, has more little villages, and more big bays with islands — comparable to [Maine’s] Penobscot Bay.”

From Lockeport it’s 270 nautical miles to Cape Cod, says Barr, who recommends continuing to Yarmouth if sailing to Portland, Maine (170 nm), or Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island (100 nm).

“New boaters might prefer to cross the Bay of Fundy and coast-hop down the New Brunswick coast,” she says. “Then you’re into Maine after Labor Day, when the crowds are gone.”

This summer Barr is doing research for her new guide of Cape Breton Island.

“This is a great job,” she says. “I get paid for sailing some of the most beautiful waters in the world.”