Category Archives: Shediac-Charlotetown Race

“A Friendly Invasion from the Sea” The Challenge Labatt Canada 1984

It seems like not so very long ago but already the newspaper clippings have yellowed and begun to fade. Not so the light in the eyes of those who participated in what was, at the time, an amazing event. They reminisce about the month of days and nights afloat in one of the biggest sailing events in the history of Northumberland Strait – the Challenge Labatt Canada of 1984.

The event was astoundingly audacious. Take ten of the most modern tracing yachts being built in North America, give them to ten crews representing each of the provinces and race from Toronto, down the Saint Lawrence, through the Gulf and Northumberland Strait to a finish line in Charlottetown. Ostensibly the event was to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s voyage but in reality to was just one helluva great excuse for a race.

Such an event could only have been dreamed up by a brewery – in this case Labatts. This at a time when “Labatt 50” was one of the best-selling beers in the country. The sailing partner was C&C Yachts who furnished 10 new fully equipped one-design 35-foot boats as sailing billboards for Labatts.  The month-long race which began on 23 June 1984 consisted of six legs – Toronto to Kingston, Quebec City to Rimouski, Rimouski to Riviere au Renard (on the north shore of the Gaspe), Riviere au Renard to Gaspe (Ile Bonaventure Race), Gaspe to Shediac, Shediac to Charlottetown. The longest leg was the 350 mile Gaspe to Shediac section. The Shediac-Charlottetown leg followed the traditional night-race route down the Strait and was one of the shortest legs. The series was scheduled to end in Charlottetown on 21 July 1984 .

While some crews were the same for the entire race the P.E.I. contingent rotated through the race with seven to nine members joining for specific legs.  The fact that the individuals had not always sailed together as a team was offset by there being fresh crew to combat the fatigue experienced over the long race.  The P.E.I. crew was almost all from the Charlottetown Yacht Club and drew from a pool of experienced racers who had participated in local, regional and national competitions in boats of all sizes. Many were veterans of the Round the Island Races. They included Gordie Beck, David Stewart, Terry McKenna, Peter Mellish, David Mosher, Hugh Paton, Bob Pinkham, John Rankin, Donald Scott, Percy Simmonds, Robert Midgley, Ron Stewart and Peter Williams.

The P.E.I. crew made a tactical error in the first leg and had an eighth place finish in the first leg but in the next two legs managed fourth and fifth placements. They finished eighth in the Ile Bonaventure leg.  They had a great race in the Gaspe-Shediac leg and grabbed a second place finish as over 200 spectators turned out 2 a.m. to watch the boats cross. For the final leg coming home to Charlottetown skipper Peter Williams had the following crew: Dave Mosher, Dave Stewart, Ron Stewart, Bob Pinkham, Hugh Paton, Percy Simmonds, and Peter Mellish.

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Boats rafted up after the race. Charlottetown Patriot 21 July 1984 p.1

Because the event built on a number of local races many legs had additional yachts participating. The last leg incorporated the Shediac to Charlottetown race, then in its 20th year.  In addition to the 10 Labatt boats, an astonishing one hundred and four local and regional yachts participated in the final leg!

The start from Shediac was at 6 in the evening and the record for the passage was about 12 hours. Spectators were told they could expect the first boats at sunrise in Charlottetown. However brisk south-west winds and a clear night saw the speedy C&C yachts smash the record and begin arriving a full three hours ahead of time. The Quebec boat was first to finish and was followed closely by Nova Scotia. The first six boats finished within minutes of each other.  The Island boat was only four minutes back of the leader but was the fifth boat to finish. For the series overall the Islanders were awarded fourth place behind Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and Quebec. They had been tied in points with Ontario but were given the win as they had beaten Ontario in the last leg of the series. Through the day the rest of the one hundred plus boat fleet sailed through the harbour narrows and finished off the Charlottetown Yacht Club .

The land side of the event was an important one for the Charlottetown Yacht Club. It was estimated that the event brought upwards of 1000 sailors to Charlottetown along with many more families, friends and spectators. The waterfront was thick with masts, outnumbering even the busiest 19th century days of wood, wind and water. Gordie Miller was chair of the hosting committee which included liaison with the Canadian Coast Guard, City, Province and the Charlottetown Yacht Club. The Club had re-built the west wharf and put in facilities including building 70 floats to accommodate the more than 100 boats that arrived as part of the race. The awards were presented at a special event a the Confederation Centre of the Arts by federal Minister Charles LaPointe representing the Governor General, PEI premier Jim Lea and Lt. Governor J.D. Doiron.

It was the biggest and most prestigious sailing event ever to take place in Charlottetown and there has been nothing like it since. Those who participated will never forget it.

I was fortunate to be entrusted with a file of news clippings preserved by one member of the Island crew.  Thanks to the efforts of Chris Brittan and others there was lots of local press coverage and the reporting was also carried elsewhere.  The file of clippings with lots more details can be accessed by clicking on Labatt001. This is a large file in pdf format and will take time to load. You will also need a pdf reader such as Adobie.

The Challenge of “the Strait Challenge”

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Route of the Strait Challenge

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.

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Leg 1 – Shediac to Summerside

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.

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Leg 2 – Summerside to Charlottetown

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.

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Leg 3 – Charlottetown to Barrachois

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.

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Leg 4 – Barrachois to Pictou

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.