Whale-watching in Quebec
Practical Boat Owner|September 2021
Liveaboards Belinda Chesman and Kit McAllister mix culture with cetaceans as they cruise Canada’s great St Lawrence river
Belinda Chesman and Kit McAlliste

City-hopping along a river holds lots of unexpected pleasures for a cruising boat, and our voyage from Montreal to Gaspévia Quebec City had plenty of surprises in store, including some spectacular wildlife encounters.

It was summer 2019 and we’d just transited the St Lawrence Seaway from Lake Ontario to arrive in Longueuil Marina, across the river from Montreal. Our destination was the Gulf of St Lawrence and the east coast of Canada. From Montreal, we’d be running downstream in the great St Lawrence River.

There were few yachts in the marina, and the red ensign on board Quilcene, our cutter-rigged Bowman 40, marked us out as rare visitors. This prompted the local river police to check us out, a friendly process as our papers were all in order. Wearing shorts and sunhats, they looked cool in their fast RIB. Sunhats were essential as it was July and Montreal simmered in a 40° heatwave.

The marina predominantly hosted motorboats, from which emanated the unmistakable hum of air conditioning; the only time I’ve envied that type of cruising comfort! We were melting.

A ferry runs regularly between Longueuil and Old Port Marina in the heart of Montreal, so when at last a spectacular thunderstorm brought cooler, clearer air we hopped aboard for a spot of sightseeing.

It was apparent, as the ferry punched through the swirling waters, that Quilcene couldn’t have bucked the current to get there; channel markers were straining at oblique angles in the rushing river and the only boats able to get upstream to the Old Port at that time were powerful motorboats.

Our first impressions of Montreal were a little disappointing; restaurant and café decking lined the narrow streets and waiters hovered trying to attract customers, detracting from the charm of the picturesque Old Port.

However, things looked up when we ventured further into the city and found the ‘Music Zone’ in Place d’Armes. This shady square hosted jazz, folk, and regional music concerts daily; a relaxing spot to sit and enjoy the show with cooling ice cream.

Some of the finest buildings in Montreal line Place d’Armes, including Basilique Notre-Dame. Chinatown was a must for lunch, lots of delicious dishes on offer, then back to the ferry via the lovely old market building.

Leaving Longueuil and Montreal behind we followed the shipping channel as the St Lawrence River winds its way north-eastward to Quebec City, anchoring out of the current for a couple of nights in the pretty Sorel Islands.

It was still very hot, so it was great to take a swim in the cool clear water. From the Sorel Islands, we crossed the vast shallow lake of St Pierre, where buoys mark a dredged channel deep enough for us and the big ships.

Trepidation at the rapids

Downstream of the Seaway locks in Montreal St Lawrence is subject to increasing tidal influence and we used the ebb tide and currents to our advantage; care is needed in areas where the river narrows as the currents are very strong and often reach speeds of 7-8 knots; more in high flow years.

The pilot book advises on the best time to leave ports and anchorages and we adhered to it religiously. A tidal stream atlas was indispensable as we could see where and when the fastest flow was expected.

Still, it was with trepidation that we approached the Richleau Rapids, a narrow section where the navigable channel is only 0.25 miles wide and large boulders lie outside the channel marker buoys.

We’d read about yachts attaining speeds of 12 knots through this section, and were concerned about controlling our course, especially if we should meet a large ship in the channel.

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