An Afternoon 'Recce' to Mythical Sable Island

"It's like hearing about this legendary place, and not totally trusting that it's really there. Then when you see it for yourself, and it really does exist, what a cool feeling!"

Those were Mia's excited words this evening as Isbjorn ghosted along the beach just off Sable Island, that mythical sand spit at the confluence of the Gulf Stream and Labrador currents, 150 miles from mainland Nova Scotia. Even the Sailing Directions, normally straight and to the point, reserve a bit of hyperbole for the place. After explaining how the wild horses that Sable is known for got here in the early 1700's, it continues:

'...the settlement was never founded, but the island has been used as a haven for "wreckers" - thieves who stole from shipwrecks and murdered survivors...'

The crew was hankering for a swim, so we shipped 'Watson' - our Watt & Sea hydrogenerator - aboard to make room for the swim ladder and hove to for an hour's dip. Afterward, only twelve miles from the island, as close as I'd ever thought I'd be, we went for it, borrowing James & Marianne's (crew from the last leg to St. John's) term, and dog's name, for the little reconnaissance. A 'Recce.'

We approached from the NE, only after the fog cleared. The ocean was absolutely lake-calm in the lee of the 20-mile sandbar that is Sable. I mean flat calm, with not even a little breaker on the exposed shoreline. The Directions continue to talk about the myriad shipwrecks that surround this place and the dangerous breaking seas when the weather gets dirty. But that was far from our experience.

Isbjorn was immediately greeted by hundreds of seals. We hadn't seen any yet on this trip, and were thinking we wouldn't. They came in droves, their curious little heads popping up from the sea like so many prairie dogs having a look around. They look perpetually confused - as if they have not the faintest idea where they are once surfaced, so they take a look around, shrug their shoulders and bob back under the water.

As we neared the beach, we cut the engine to enjoy the absolute stillness. There was just enough wind aloft to allow us to ghost along at 2 knots under mainsail alone, running downwind parallel to the shoreline about 1/4-mile off. We sneaked in to water that shoaled to as little as 16 feet in places to look for horses. The crew, most of all yours truly the captain, were desperate to anchor Isbjorn and land a shore party in the dinghy. There could not possibly have been a better day for it weather-wise. Sable is 150 miles offshore, in a notoriously snotty part of the world, where heavy weather is common, calm usually means fog, and both situations mean no going near the island, never mind landing. But despite our luck with the conditions, the place is a Canadian National Park, and you need prior permission to visit, which we didn't have. We looked on instead with envy at the inviting sand dunes, ripe for exploration.

We found the horses, first in the binoculars roaming the grass-covered sand dunes. As we neared, they became easier to spot with the naked eye, lolling around in the tall grass and strolling onto the beach. There were lots of them, in groups of two or three, sometimes five and six. What a magical sight! Seals frolicking in the foreground, wild horses grazing the sand dunes behind and a flat, quiet ocean all around. We watched all this while we ate dinner. It was a welcome diversion from the monotony of last night's foggy, wet calm.

After dinner I went aloft to take photos. Wow! From the top of Isbjorn's almost 70-foot spar, I could see clear over the island to the south and for miles and miles to the north, with nothing but ocean in sight. I stayed up there for many minutes savoring it. On the way down I added some chafe protection to the synthetic backstay where the one upper batten on the big roach in the mainsail clips it sometimes in the calms when the sail is slatting. Good to have a little job done.

As I write, dusk has fallen. With a welcome break from the ubiquitous fog, we finally got to see a bit of sunset. With the dark dame the slightest puff of wind, so while Dan and Doug snoozed, Mia, David & I set the asymmetrical chute. We are ghosting along again under sail on a perfectly flat sea, making 5 knots in only 6 knots of apparent wind from the starboard beam. A most delightful ending to a magical day on the high seas.