Quebec City to Tadoussac – Running with the Tides

Leaving Quebec City

We broke the trip from Quebec City to Tadoussac into two segments, starting early on Wednesday, July 19. Quebec City marks the real beginning of the St. Lawrence tidal estuary. Tide charts were suddenly an important factor in our travel planning and Julie double- and triple-checked our route and plan. We needed to leave Quebec City two hours before the peak of high tide so we could surf downstream as the tide dropped later in the day.

The tides as we passed by the eastern end of Ile d’Orleans increased to 3-4 knots in our favor, image from the Canadian Atlas of Tides and Currents, volume 3

The marina in Quebec City has an inner harbor and an outer harbor with a small lock between them to regulate water levels in the inner harbor. We spent our last night in Quebec City docked in the outer harbor because our departure would be before the lock opened for business. Joining us in the outer harbor was S/V Momentum, a sailboat based in Quebec City. Julie consulted with Simon, Momentum’s captain, for some local insight. He advised we depart 15 minutes earlier than planned.

As suggested by Simon, we left the dock at 6:15 a.m.—moments behind Momentum. Our destination was Cap à l’Aigle (Eagle Cape) 72 nm distant, pronounced “cap a leg”. Cap à l’Aigle was our only marina option before Tadoussac as other marinas along the way were either too shallow for Gaviidae at low tide or did not have slips large enough to safely dock a 50-foot boat.

Sailboat Surfing

There are two route options when leaving Quebec City and heading east on the St. Lawrence River – the northern side of Ile d’Orleans or the southern route. We chose the northern passage as the southern route is the primary shipping channel. No need to play with big shipping traffic when you have an option not to!

We surfed the ebbing tide and fast currents with intermittent wind abeam and motor sailed at nine to eleven knots most of the way under hazy skies. Our normal cruising speed is around six knots, so we were definitely benefitting from the river current and the tides!

Simon took a picture of us from distance – the haze was due to the fires in northern Quebec

Black Smoke

St Lawrence
Passing La Malbaie on our way to Cap à l’Aigle

Once we left the protected waters behind Ile d’Orleans, we were back sharing the water with the shipping traffic. At one point we opted to cross over the shipping channel and ramped up our 71-horse diesel engine to stay out of the way of an oncoming container ship. Black smoke suddenly blew out from the exhaust! We quickly backed off on the throttle.

Our puff of smoke was enough to catch Simon’s eye and he slowed down until he could see that we were still underway. We later figured out it was just the engine burning off some carbon with the sudden acceleration of RPMs. The St. Lawrence is not a place you want to have engine troubles!

Cap à l’Aigle

Along the way, Momentum zigzagged from one side of the wide river to the other. Simon was covering far more distance than we were in the process, but we were never able to catch up. We learned later that he was following the currents for the most optimal route. Local knowledge! We arrived at Cap à l’Aigle midafternoon and tied to the last available slip at the mouth of the harbor. We found out later that Momentum arrived almost an hour ahead of us and Simon said he saw Beluga whales!

Simon shared a bit more of his knowledge and gave us the web address for the St. Lawrence Global Observatory that publishes data about the tides, currents, whale sightings and more. They also have real-time data for Navigation that proved very useful in planning our future routes.

On to Tadoussac and the Saguenay

St Lawrence
Cap-au-Saumon lighthouse – small compared to the massive cliffs above

The second day was a more reasonable 40 nautical mile cruise to reach Tadoussac. Again, timing the departure was critical and Julie consulted with Simon. She had estimated that we needed to leave at 0845. Simon advised 0815, or whenever we saw a bunch of boats leaving. Like us, several boats were leaving for Tadoussac the next morning. We were underway at 0820 and arrived a little over five hours later. Along the way we sighted numerous “gray” things in the water that turned out to be whales, probably Fin Whales as their dorsal fins were small and far back.

Our destination, the village of Tadoussac, is located at the mouth of the Saguenay River, where it empties into the St. Lawrence. As we approached buoys marking the shipping channels into the Saguenay, we could see bright-orange enclosed boats, a couple of sailboats and smaller power boats racing pell-mell around the Saguenay estuary and out on the St. Lawrence.

Every so often a boat would suddenly stop and hold its position or slowly drift for several minutes before racing off to another place. This motley fleet was out searching for whales and dolphins that inhabit these waters. These native seagoing mammals, including the popular St. Lawrence Beluga white whales, are fulltime residents of the lower reaches of the St. Lawrence and Saguenay. Just inside the mouth of the Saguenay River is a deep-water fjord that serves as an important habitat for the “melon-headed” St. Lawrence Belugas. That fjord is a major draw for whale watchers and ecotourists like ourselves.

Short Cut

Along the way we were able to keep pace with Simon and Momentum, now that we knew his St. Lawrence cruising secrets. Seeing that Simon took a shortcut that we had read about in one of the many cruising guides we were consulting, we followed his path and cut across a wide swath that would not be an option at low tide. We arrived ahead of the many boats that had departed Cap à l’Aigle that morning, and we were all converging on a very small marina. It was clear that the marina was accustomed to this afternoon onslaught and they politely asked each boat to stay in the main bay until summoned by the marina.

Per instructions radioed from the marina, we initially tied up to the second end dock. Then the harbormaster came along and redirected us to the end dock on the first pier. The real problem was the marina had very few slips for a 50-foot boat and they could not find the reservation we had made. Size-limiting slips and lost reservations were a recurring problem for us along the St. Lawrence. The harbormaster informed us we could tie up on the end of first dock end for one night, but an even larger seasonal rental was expected to arrive. The next morning, he moved us into the next slip in. He also said we could have the same slip on our return the next week from our planned cruise up the Saguenay.

St. Lawrence Sailors

We saw Simon later that afternoon and thanked him for his guidance and for sending pictures of us underway. For Simon, sailing to and from Quebec City to Tadoussac is just what a sailor does with a week of holiday. We have a new-found respect for the sailors that ply these waters – they use the tides and currents to their advantage when traversing in either direction!

July 20, 2023 487.1 Nautical Miles 48°08.324’N  069°42.951’W

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