Time And Tide

By Tux Turkel

A region infamous for outsized tides also brims with history.

Photo of Tux Turkel

It was a couple of hours before high tide as I backed my 17-foot Polar Craft bowrider down the sandstone beach into Passamaquoddy Bay. Timing is everything in this stretch of New Brunswick, Canada, where tides range up to 28 feet. I figured I had the situation covered. But the beach had a very shallow incline and, even with the water well past the trailer's wheel hubs, we couldn't budge the boat off the bunks. Normally, there'd be time for contemplation. But as I stood there considering my options, I could see the saltwater rising steadily toward the rear tires of my tow vehicle. Soon it would be up to the brakes. Quickly, we put down the swivel jack and disconnected the trailer from the car. Then I drove to higher ground. In a few minutes, the water was high enough to float the boat. We pulled the trailer up the beach by hand and re-hitched it to the car.

Trailer boating can call for decisive action when you're dealing with some of the highest tides in the world. With the water level rising or falling the height of a house every six hours or so, the shoreline in Passamaquoddy Bay is always on the move. Passamaquoddy Bay is a protected bay on the western edge of the Bay of Fundy, which separates New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. It's a wild, wind-swept place of remote islands and big, cloud-specked skies that create a backdrop for forested hills and red sandstone bluffs.

Just finding a good place to launch a boat can be a challenge. Once afloat, the threat of rocky shoals, dynamic tides, and changing weather demands special attention. Preparation is critical because services are few and far between. Boating in the bay means topping up the tank en route and maybe toting a spare gas can or two. Don't look for a dockside gasoline pump; there isn't one. And yet, boating here offers unexpected pleasures. The hub of this region is St. Andrews by-the-Sea, on the U.S.-Canada border, 130 miles from Bangor, Maine, and a few hours up the coast from Acadia National Park.

Photo of whale watching tours in the Bay of Fundy.Whale watching tours in the Bay of Fundy. (Photo: Tux Turkel)

St. Andrews is a charming resort community, dripping with the history and architecture of the British Loyalists who fled America and the New England colonies in 1783. It offers the best of both worlds. Morning could find you launching at the ramp in St. Andrews' active harbor and searching for migrating whales in the Bay of Fundy. By afternoon, you could glance at the harbor while playing the back nine of the Algonquin Golf Course. A spouse might be touring Kingsbrae Garden, a 27-acre estate garden considered one of the best in Canada, or checking out the shops and galleries on Water Street. At sunset, you might be enjoying drinks at the Algonquin Hotel and studying the menu for a gourmet meal.

Ups And Downs Of The Trip

My wife Amy and I and our young son Zachary have spent a few summers exploring Passamaquoddy Bay, first in a 16-foot Starcraft bowrider, and later in a 17-foot Polar Kraft. These sturdy, aluminum boats are well-suited for poking around the islands and sheltered coves. They're tough enough to drag onto a rocky beach, and light enough to shove when outgoing tides threaten to ground us. Size is a mixed blessing, however. Newcomers to the area are surprised to arrive at the ramp around low tide and see the ocean more than a half-mile away. Deep-draft boats will have to wait until the top of the tide to launch at one of the area's few public sites.

Photo of Tux and his boat boat on Minister’s Island in Passamaquoddy BayTux's boat waits on the mudflats of McCann Cove for the tide to come back in, and he stands with his boat on Minister's Island in Passamaquoddy Bay. (Photo: Tux Turkel)

During one trip, we launched at a shallow beach used by local fish farmers. Boating here means making accommodations for fish farming, which is a multi-million dollar industry in New Brunswick. The cold, fast-moving currents of the bay are ideal for raising Atlantic salmon, and the coastline is dotted with large, floating pens. We gave a wide berth to the yellow warning buoys that mark the perimeter of the pens, and the underwater anchor lines that hold the enclosures in place. Our destination was Hardwood Island, at the north end of the bay. Irish immigrants who came to Canada during the potato famine in 1850 were forced to live in quarantine on Hardwood and neighboring Hospital Island. Many died of hunger and disease. A Celtic cross on Indian Point in St. Andrews that commemorates this history faces the islands. Strong southwest sea breezes are common during summer afternoons. To move across the bay toward our destination, I had to carefully zigzag into the swells to avoid taking the sea broadside.

Photo of salmon pensSalmon pens. (Photo: Tux Turkel)

We finally arrived at a sheltered beach on the north side of Hardwood, out of the wind. This island, like others in the bay, features towering red bluffs that drop into the sea. Wind and weather continually erode the soft sandstone, creating caves and steep gullies. We enjoyed a picnic supper while waiting for the wind to die. The breeze tends to ease around sunset, but on this day it was still huffing as the sun began to settle on the forested hills. I was worried about being caught in the dark on a falling tide, and not being able to get back to the ramp. So I set a course north toward some salmon pens, then spun the boat south to try to keep the bow into the wind on the return trip. That made the ride a little more comfortable.

The Other Key West

A good place to gain some local knowledge about boating in Passamaquoddy Bay is Market Wharf, the center of activity in St. Andrews' harbor. There's a dinghy dock for the moored fleet, and commercial boats for whale-watching and sightseeing. On warm evenings, you'll find families strolling the wharf, gripping ice cream cones and cameras. They're lining up to experience a St. Andrews sunset, as the sky melts orange and red into the water. Think of it as a maritime version of Florida's Key West. At the end of the pier stands a shack that reads "Wharfinger." The daily tidal ranges are posted on the wall.

Photo of the harbormaster's, shack in St. Andrews helps mariners keep track of tidesThe wharfinger's, or harbormaster's, shack in St. Andrews helps mariners keep track of tides. (Photo: Tux Turkel)

Chances are you'll run into B.B. Chamberlain, the St. Andrews wharfinger, or harbormaster. The short season, June to September, and the small population make it hard to support recreational boating services, Chamberlain says. Sailboats are more common than powerboats in the harbor, and trailer boats are few. I asked Chamberlain if he thought the extreme tidal range was an obstacle. The tides, he responded, are more a point of interest than a problem. All it takes is a little planning.

Photo of Tux piloting a 16-foot Starcraft through Letete PassageTux piloting a 16-foot Starcraft through Letete Passage in New Brunswick. (Photo: Tux Turkel)

Planning led me to carry an extra gas jug when we trailered the boat to Letete, 25 miles around the bay from St. Andrews. A provincial car ferry connects the mainland at Letete with the fishing community of Deer Island, via an all-tide ramp that's next to the ferry terminal. This area, which separates Passamaquoddy Bay from the larger Bay of Fundy, is among the most striking destinations a boater could imagine. I almost discovered that the hard way. These waters are a confusion of spruce-carpeted islands, flanked by scattered ledges that may be partially submerged at higher tides. Standing waves rip through Letete Passage, and funnel those big tides between Passamaquoddy Bay and the Bay of Fundy. The combination makes boating here, well, interesting.

Don't Mess With The Ferry

I figured it would be smart to get oriented by following the ferry, which sails every half-hour. We watched the ferry depart. By the time we put in, all I could see was the ship's squared-off loading ramp, far in the distance. I got busy looking at my compass and chart, and the next time I looked up, darned if that ship's loading ramp didn't look closer. Too close. In an instant, both Amy and I realized the ferry was bearing down on us. I spun quickly to port and got out of the channel. As it turns out, there are two ferries and they shuttle back and forth. Being car ferries, they have loading ramps at both stern and bow. They look the same, coming and going.

Off Letete, we were thrilled to spot a school of dolphins surfacing alongside our boat. And I was encouraged to see some recreational boat traffic, as well as whale-watching boats from St. Andrews, on their way to the Bay of Fundy. We only just got a taste of this exciting area, when the falling tide and my ebbing gasoline supply suggested it was time to head back. Even with more gas, it's hard to hit all the highlights in Passamaquoddy Bay. One way to get a broader experience is to circumnavigate the bay by car, using the network of roads and ferries to move from Maine to New Brunswick's mainland, then across Deer Island and Campobello Island, and back to Maine. This circuit is called the Quoddy Loop. Don't forget your passport.

All the attention to tidal ranges and steep ramps may make a boat-toting visitor weary. That's where St. Andrews offers another welcome surprise. A few miles out of town is the water supply for St. Andrews, Chamcook Lake. This is a classic North Woods lake: deep, clear water surrounded by green, wooded hills. We were the only powerboat underway as we cruised across the lake on a windless morning. Our trip around Chamcook Lake was a nice way to end a boating adventure in St. Andrews. And the best part? When we returned to the ramp, the water was right where we'd left it. 

Tux Turkel is a staff writer at The Portland Press Herald in Portland, Maine. He has been exploring the Maine coast in small boats for 18 years, from his home base in Casco Bay.

— Published: August/September 2013

The World's Highest Tides

Twenty-eight-foot tides? Passamaquoddy Bay seems dynamic, until you head farther east in the Bay of Fundy, where New Brunswick meets Nova Scotia. There the head of the bay narrows and splits to form the Minas Basin and Chignecto Bay, where the tidal range can reach an incredible 50 feet. These are the highest tides in the world. Experts explain the extreme tide by calling the Bay of Fundy, "the world's largest bathtub." Two factors are at work in this 180-mile-long tub. First, the bay gradually tapers and turns shallow, which restricts tidal flow. Second, the natural rhythm of the bay is such that the time it takes for the water to fill is roughly the same as it takes for water to flood in from the adjacent Gulf of Maine. The combination of these two rhythms, called resonance, amplifies the tidal range. Scientists compare it to a child sloshing back and forth in a bathtub. Each wave is higher than the
one before it.


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