With the harbour in Charlottetown still solidly frozen and with at least two of the nearly five metres of this winter’s snow still on the ground it is hard to imagine that there are just four months until the start of this year’s premier sailing race in the region. Faced with declining interest and the need for a new race format the Northumberland Strait Yachting Association (NStYA) has torn up the schedule and developed a whole new approach.
Club-to-club Strait racing goes back some eighty years when there was competition between boats heading for the annual regattas of the Yacht Racing Association of Northumberland Strait. However it was not until 1964 with the inauguration of the annual Shediac to Charlottetown Race that there was a formal entry on the race calendar. Over the years that race ran on a number of formats – day race, night race, a reversed course of Charlottetown to Shediac and while interest continued for many years, with over 100 boats competing in some races, the most recent period has seen diminished participation. Most sailors saw the race as a rite of passage and it was a source of pride to have taken part but by definition a rite of passage happens only once. However, at least one skipper had been in the race fifty times and many others can count their participation in more than a score of years. However, with the recent exception of a peak in the 50th anniversary year, the number of boats had steadily declined. Last year, the race was canceled owing to storm damage at the Charlottetown Yacht Club but as well there was a distinct lack of interest. Other NStYA races in the region were also facing challenges. Many of the races in the program had become little more than club races open to visitors while the cross-strait races such as Shediac – Summerside and Pictou – Charlottetown were also suffering from low participation. It was not just the NStYA races that were suffering as regattas and club races also saw reduced numbers on the start line. Blame could be attributed to aging skippers, the need for larger crews, time pressures and boats that seemed unable to sail beyond the harbour mouth.
At the same time new races such as week-long Race the Cape, (with a huge amount of public funding) centred on the Bras D’or Lakes and the interest generated by the one-time 150 Challenge a two-leg race from Charlottetown to the Magdalene Islands and back to Souris in 2014 suggested that a different format to the plethora of NStYA races in the harbours of participating clubs, on a seemingly bi-weekly basis, might generate more interest.
The Strait Challenge is actually a series of four races linking the clubs active in Northumberland Strait inter-club racing. They are all day-long races with an average length of just over thirty nautical miles. Some follow the routes of traditional NStYA races while the course for others is new. They will have the usual spinnaker and white sail classes but in addition there is a cruising rally which will follow the fleet without the pressures of actually racing.
Leg 1 beginning on Monday 27 July follows the course of the traditional Shediac – Summerside race beginning at the Pointe du Chene Yacht Club and a quick start to the Shediac fairway buoy. From there depending on winds and currents boats can follow the rhumb-line, head for the Island’s Acadian shore, or skirt along the New Brunswick coast before striking out for the Summerside fairway and then up the narrow harbour channel to end at the Summerside Yacht Club – total distance of about 33 nautical miles. Celebrations at the SYC to follow.
The next morning the longest leg of the race begins as boats leave Summerside Harbour and passing the fairway buoy head for the imposing Confederation Bridge leaving the Seacow Head Light to port. With tidal currents of up to four knots navigating the narrow Abegweit Passage provides an element of strategy and a knowledge of current patterns. Keeping out from the Tryon Shoals the boats head around the reef at the west of St. Peter’s Island, down the St. Peter’s Island shore to Spithead Buoy then into the narrow harbour mouth of Charlottetown where the finish of the 47 nautical mile leg is off the Charlottetown Yacht Club. Charlottetown is the site of a lay-over day and boats will be able to take part in the regular Wednesday evening in-harbour race.
On Thursday it is a quick (we hope) trip almost due south to Barrachois, home of the Barrachois Harbour Yacht Club . Sailing through Hillsborough Bay and leaving Spithead to Starbord the course for Leg 3 is set to Amet Island, thorough Amet Sound with the finish line in Tatamagouche Bay. Although this is the shortest leg with just over 30 nautical miles as the seagull flies, it still promises a full day of sailing and the course crosses the tidal flow so there is one more factor to add to the course plotting. Knowledge of the tide is important here for another reason, not so much for the currents created as for the fact that the entry to the marina has reduced access at low water. There’s lots of water in the marina but one has to time when to enter and leave.
The final day of racing is Friday 31 July with the destination being the Pictou Yacht Club. Boats will leave a start line in Tatamagouche Bay and head down the Nova Scotia Shore for Gull Rocks which mark the entrance to Caribou Channel Leaving Pictou Island to port and close aboard the route of the Caribou – Wood Island’s Ferry the boats last major turning mark is at Pictou Road at the entrance to Pictou Harbour. Proceeding up the channel the fleet will finish the 33 nautical mile race just off the Yacht Club with the last social activity and presentation of awards.
The route down the Strait from Shediac to Pictou takes advantage of the prevailing westerly winds but experience on several of the legs suggests that periods of calm may be experienced and most racers, especially on the Strait between Charlottetown and Pictou have memories of “holes” when the wind blew everywhere around them but would not fill their sails – that too, is racing.
It will be very interesting to see if the change in format brings more of the casual sailors back to Strait racing. Some folks are just tired of the same race courses year after year and to actually compete in the Northumberland Strait Championship has traditionally meant a commitment of almost every second weekend over the entire season. Compacting the racing into a single week changes the level of commitment and has arguments both for and against. Yes, competing in all the races could mean a week of vacation time but it replaces having to take Thursdays and Fridays for delivery for every race and is probably less of a commitment overall. Opting in or out of legs is also attractive for those with less time or interest. Travelling with a fleet and having social opportunities at all of the yacht clubs may bring back some of the camaraderie that marked the beginning of the Association. I especially like the idea of the cruising rally which can be a good introduction for those who would like to do more sailing but don’t want to be out in the Strait alone.
As always, this requires a commitment on the part of the Clubs themselves. In the recent past arrangement for starts and finishes at some clubs have left something to be desired and while several clubs hare noted for their hospitality others pretty much ignored the racers. Besides boats, skippers and crews the Strait Challenge will need the whole-hearted support of the Clubs across the region, and even more importantly a dedicated cadre of volunteers. Also needed are champions to promote the race in each of the five yacht clubs involved.
What ever your role – skipper or deck fluff, racer or cruiser, race finisher or bar-tender (or bar attender), mark your calendar for 27-31 July and tell your friends. It promises to be a great week of sailing.