On August 11th Peter Bojanic and I set out from Hubbards in Saint Margarets Bay to circumnavigate Nova Scotia. It was the first time we had ever paddled together. By Ed Martin.
Peter and I had met the previous October at the Sea Kayaking Cornwall Annual Symposium. We stayed in touch and it emerged that Peter wanted a partner to paddle round his home province of Nova Scotia. I also wanted to do an expedition but didn’t have a partner and lacked the confidence to paddle alone. By the end of January we had formed an unlikely partnership and committed to do the trip together in August and September. We allowed 50 days to complete the 900nm journey.
I started paddling in 2015 so had relatively little experience in a kayak. I am however, an experienced sailor and have also covered thousands of miles on long-distance cycle trips so I felt that I still had a lot to contribute to our partnership. Peter is a BCU 5 star paddler and it was re-assuring for me to know that he would have the skills to help me out if I got into difficulty.
On the day of our departure we were blessed with perfect blue skies, a flat sea and a light following breeze and it felt good to be finally underway. We stopped for ice-cream at the iconic Peggy’s Cove and ended our day at East Coast Outfitters in Lower Prospect where we were treated to lobster dinner. Over the next few days, we encountered more challenging conditions but I felt myself settle into the rhythm of expedition life.
During that first week, Peter and I were learning how to operate as a team and although it didn’t feel like the most natural partnership, I still felt confident that we would find our feet. It was encouraging to notice that we were paddling at similar speeds and I was glad that we had both committed to buying the same boat for the trip – a three-piece Rockpool Taran 16’.
By the end of the first week, I felt stronger and more relaxed on the water. Peter, however was struggling to sustain the distances we needed to cover each day and was clearly affected by the discomfort of expedition life. We were consistently falling short of the mileages necessary to complete our journey as planned. I was frustrated because I felt we should be capitalising on the favourable weather. During one discussion about our progress, Peter suggested that if we failed to make it round in the time we had available, he could finish it bit by bit the following year. This was shocking to hear and it was a comment I was unable to forget. I had made considerable sacrifices to do the trip and I was determined to complete it.
By the end of week two, a number of factors led me to make the difficult decision to continue the trip alone. I was very anxious about the prospect of a solo journey and very aware of the increased level of risk. I was disappointed that Peter and I had failed to develop a strong partnership and I was concerned about the impact my decision would have on him. In the end though, despite my efforts to encourage and support Peter, I really felt that I had no choice.
After Peter and I separated, I paddled on for hours without stopping and eventually landed just after sunset. It had been an emotionally draining day and as I paddled, my thoughts settled and I knew I had made the right decision. The following morning, I launched into choppy conditions and paddled towards Sydney Harbour. I needed supplies to continue the journey alone. In particular, I needed a new iPhone (mine had died a couple of days earlier), gas and some more food. After an unpleasant couple of hours of paddling in strong winds, I landed at South Bar. Soaked and exhausted, I walked up the lane and came across a man sat in this yard in the sunshine. I approached him and told him that “I’ve had a really shitty few days and I could use some help”.
Ralph Allen told me to take a seat and his wife Doris brought me home-made blueberry muffins and coffee. Ralph took me into town to try and buy a phone. In Walmart car-park, we bumped into his son Trevor who insisted that he help me find a better deal. Twenty minutes later, he had found a nearly-new second-hand iPhone in the local classifieds and shortly afterwards and 150 dollars later, it was all sorted. My phone was my life-line for weather information, navigation and communication and essential to my trip so this was a great relief. We quickly sorted gas and some food and I spent the afternoon re-organising gear and preparing for my onward journey.
The next day I was on the water at 6am. I paddled out of Sydney Harbour carrying two weeks supply of food, enough fuel to last the rest of the trip and three days supply of water. I had a $10 road map of Nova Scotia in a map case on my deck and Navionics navigation software on my phone. The feeling of freedom as I watched the sunrise that morning was a powerful experience. I wanted to challenge myself and find out what I was capable of so I pushed hard in challenging conditions. In the end, I covered 80km that day and I began to recognise my own ability. The atmosphere of the journey had been transformed from being stressful and frustrating into something joyful and rewarding and with every paddle stroke my contentment grew.
I continued on round Cape Breton Island and the landscape became more and more beautiful. The coastline in the North of the island has long stretches of intimidating cliffs which give way to deep bays and inlets with beautiful beaches. This part of the province is abundant with wildlife and in some of the more remote areas, it has the qualities of an unspoilt wilderness.
As I paddled further, I was able to judge my speed more accurately, navigate with greater confidence and identify dangers beneath the surface by reading the water. The more time I spent in bigger conditions, the more faith I developed in myself as paddler and in the Taran as an out-standing sea-boat. It was interesting to notice how much my skills developed after I went solo. The feeling of vulnerability you get when you paddle alone becomes a very powerful stimulus to make very considered decisions. You really pay attention to your environment and the changing weather conditions. You become acutely aware of the potential dangers and learn to identify which risks are worth taking and which risks carry unacceptable consequences.
The people of Nova Scotia were a real highlight for me. It seems there is something fascinating about a lone kayaker paddling into some out-of-the-way place. People feel like they need to come and find out more about the flotsam they’ve just seen washed up. As such I never had to wait long before someone would approach me and start chatting and I never once felt lonely. Many of these harbour side chats ended up leading to a meal, a shower or a bed for the night and on many occasions all three. I met some wonderful characters along the way and got some incredible insights into the lives of the locals.
My Rockpool Taran 16’ was exceptional in all respects and stood up to a lot of abuse. On a solo expedition, a boat definitely takes more punishment because at times you invariably have to drag it up beaches and over rocks. The Taran was fast and stable when fully loaded and would surf eagerly even in small wind chop enabling me to capitalise on down-wind runs. I could comfortably carry three weeks supply of food and fuel without impacting on the boats performance. The three-piece construction always felt rock solid and gave me the flexibility not only to fly my own boat out to Canada but also meant I could split the boat into three pieces to carry it up tricky shorelines. I did this a number of times and it meant I could carry each section up beaches without having to unpack my boat. I have definitely found my ideal kayak.
As the trip progressed, I became increasingly adapted to this nomadic life-style. I became better at living well with less. I searched out places to sleep which would save me the effort of putting my tent up. I slept in the back of a truck, I slept under a bridge, I slept in abandoned cabins, I slept in fishermen’s huts on harbour wharves. Several times I got chatting with lobstermen and was offered a bunk to sleep in on their boats. When I camped in remote areas, I would spend my evenings reading beside a camp-fire, skinny-dipping in phosphorescence or looking up at the stars and listening to music. It was easy to overlook the discomforts of this way of life and focus instead on the beauty of the natural environment.
After a month of paddling, I arrived at Tidnish Bridge on the New Brunswick border where I got a lift across to Aulac at the top of the Bay of Fundy. The Bay of Fundy has the largest tidal range in the world, currents are very strong and the tide-races can be extremely dangerous. I had been becoming increasingly apprehensive about this section of the trip and this anxiety was exacerbated by the stories I was told by locals. Nevertheless, I set out at 4.30am and headed out in darkness into the last of the flood tide to pick up the ebb to carry me West. After a nervy start, the sun came up and I found myself enjoying the favourable current and making good progress.
The following day, I made it to Advocate Harbour from where I planned to make the 10 mile crossing of the Minas Channel over to the opposite shore. I sought advice from some fishermen on the wharf and was told categorically not to attempt the crossing and asked if I was on drugs. I had studied the tidal atlas and the weather for the following day was perfect so I spoke to some other people to try and get a more balanced opinion. One guy described how you could get twelve foot breaking waves occurring in the race off Cape d’Or and insisted that the spring tides were huge at the moment. As he told me this I was looking over his shoulder at a perfect half moon and I began to realise that his advice was not to be trusted. Eventually, I spoke to a retired fisherman who gave me some sensible advice about when to cross the race and his suggestions tallied with my own calculations so I got an early night in preparation for a pre-dawn start the next morning.
I was up early and afloat at 6am. There was no wind and the sea was calm but there was thick fog and visibility was down to about 50 metres. Despite this, I knew that this was my best weather window for the foreseeable future so decided to go for it. I picked my way out of Advocate Harbour against the last two hours of the flood tide and picked up an eddy line close inshore to carry me down towards Cape d’Or. The locals had insisted that the tide would be running hard against me right up to the shore so I had given myself plenty of time to paddle against the flow. In the end, I just drifted down in the eddy and waited for slack water before crossing the race. Finally, twenty minutes before slack water, I set out into the fog and left the booming foghorn of the lighthouse at Cape d’Or behind me. The water was oily calm as I crossed the notorious tide race and a couple of hours later the opposite shore came into view.
The crossing of the Minas Channel taught me some valuable lessons. It taught me to have faith in my own experience and ability. I had done the research and picked my weather and made the journey safely in calm conditions without any dramas. That evening I posted on social media: “I could have done without the thick fog today but otherwise the crossing of the Minas Channel was a piece of cake…the moral of the story is to tune out scare-mongering bull-shitters and trust my own judgement”.
Fog was to become my nemesis for the remainder of the trip. It brought a new dimension of pressure and I was forced to make some committing crossings to avoid hazardous shoals close inshore. There was also a degree of time pressure if I was to finish in time to make my flight home. The combination of adverse conditions and time pressure reached its climax on my final day. The weather forecast was a significant under-estimation of the weather I experienced, the visibility was poor and I had agreed to finish at 5pm so that a press photographer could take some photos of me for a newspaper article.
I battled strong headwinds and a big confused sea as I crossed Saint Margarets Bay. It took me nearly four hours to make a 7 mile crossing but eventually the lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove appeared out of the gloom. I needed to get off the water and rest but the conditions at the harbour entrance were huge and there was no way I was going to be able to land. In the end I pushed on and made it to East Coast Outfitters at exactly 5pm. That last day was the hardest thing I have ever done and I knew I had taken unacceptable risks. I had put ego before seamanship and pride before sense and I felt like I had only just got away with it. Nevertheless, I had completed my circumnavigation in 47 days and it felt amazing.
My journey around Nova Scotia has become a defining experience for me. Paddling solo afforded me the opportunity to really challenge myself physically and I discovered that I’m capable of more than I ever imagined. Travelling alone also allowed me to meet more people and I experienced incredible generosity and kindness everywhere I went. It truly was an unforgettable adventure.
Now it’s time to start planning the next one…