Come sail away

As a sailor with a passion for competition, Judy Lugar wasn’t used to wishing the wind would quiet down. But conditions during the Nautel Laser World Championships on Nova Scotia’s St. Margaret’s Bay sometimes felt tough. Still, Lugar took it in stride. In the summer of 2009 it was about staging the race, not competing. She was one of the organizers behind the largest single-class sailing event ever held in Canada, which brought 500 top sailors to the province.  

Sandor Fizli

Lugar grew up on the Bay, and as a member of the host, the St. Margaret’s Sailing Club, she put her own fitness training second to her organizing work. “I view St. Margaret’s Bay as my backyard,” she says. “I knew some of the masters sailors, and I wanted them all to have a really good experience when they came to play in my home waters.” The 48-year-old got a kick out of competing in the masters’ event for sailors over age 35, despite sometimes being “thrown around by the wind.” Lugar was also one of only 20 women in a field of 300 competitors. “I was pleasantly surprised by how well I survived,” she says jokingly. 

Brian Todd of Glen Haven, N.S., one of Canada’s three national coaches, says the competitors appreciated the East Coast friendliness. “A number of athletes, including the winner, Paul Goodison of Great Britain, said this was one of the most enjoyable place they’d ever sailed,” says Todd. “The people here are friendly.” 

Messing around in boats is an integral part of East Coast life, and there’s much to celebrate. Enthusiasts can enjoy tiny islands off Nova Scotia, the rocky coast of Newfoundland, peaceful hideaways on the Saint John River system, or sandy beaches on Prince Edward Island. “The waters are clean, the wind is good, and there are exciting places to explore,” says Todd. “Some places feel like the last person there was a pirate hiding his gold a hundred years ago.”

On the water people entertain friends and business clients, whether it’s on a keelboat, a motorboat, or the deck of a yacht club. Many enjoy “gunkholing,” a boater’s term for exploring a little-known location. Others paddle across quiet lakes in canoes or kayaks.

For lifelong boater Bob James, 71, the St. John River system is the gunkholing capital of the world. “It’s the only place I know of in North America where you can have hurricane-force winds on the river and turn into a little channel, run the bow into the mud, tie up to a tree, and it’s flat calm,” he says. “You can raft up with friends and have a good time until the wind dies down.” 

Sociability is central. The appeal of boating life attracts many, says Peter Lawrie rear commodore of Canada’s most easterly yacht club, the Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club in Conception Bay, N.L. More and more Newfoundlanders are getting the sailing bug; as a result, new marinas are being built and existing facilities upgraded. “The camaraderie is a big part of sailing’s allure,” says Lawrie. “And the freedom of being on the water is also attractive. 

It helps that on the East Coast, sailing is accessible. Many people enjoy waterfront living and can have their own moorings. For those who have to pay, the region has numerous clubs charging reasonable fees (there are nine clubs in the Halifax area alone). Particularly inexpensive are the local clubs, such as St. Peter’s community marina in Cape Breton. These clubs can charge less because they often have less property and infrastructure to maintain. 

Being a non-profit helps keep costs down at St. Peter’s, according to Gerry Gibson, the manager of the club, which is owned and operated by the local Lions Club. Tourism is important to the little community on the Bras d’Or Lake. “We want people to spend money here,” he says. “The club makes life easy for boaters; for example, by arranging that the local grocery store deliver orders.”

Two-time world champion and former Olympic sailor Sandy MacMillan says Nova Scotia is one of the easiest and most affordable places in North America to keep a boat. Another plus: there are few legal or physical barriers to cruising East Coast waters. Some islands are privately owned, but in general boaters have free access to coastlines, coves, and inlets, which elsewhere might be off limits. 

MacMillan, who is president of Halifax-based North Sails Atlantic, a retailer of sales sails, riggings, and marine products, believes governments and recruiters should cast more of a spotlight on the region’s recreational waterways. Newcomers and former residents alike could be enticed here by campaigns that emphasize the lifestyle. “This is one of the best places to own a boat in the world,” he says, “but sailing [here] is not really talked about much.” 

Although sailing is relatively affordable, it’s an important contributor to the economy. In 2005 a report released by trade association Discover Boating estimated the region’s revenues from recreational boating at around $460 million. And the 2009 Nautel Laser World Championships generated $6.6 million of economic activity for Nova Scotia. 

Every few years, the Tall Ships Nova Scotia Festival brings a parade of international sailboats and welcome dollars to the area. “The Tall Ships celebrates the traditions of our seafaring past and maritime culture,” says event director Leanne Strathdee. “It’s also an excellent economic generator.” The last Tall Ships in 2009 contributed $32.8 million to the economy and attracted 94,000 out-of-province visitors. More than 40 ships visited seven ports during the 10-day event.

Preparing the St. Margaret’s Sailing Club to host the Nautel Laser World Championships required an investment of $1.5 million, almost half of which came from government. The upgrades in infrastructure have left the formerly unassuming club with an impressive two-storey race-management centre, a new breakwater, and docking. The Canadian Yachting Association recognized the event as the 2009 Regatta of the Year. Now there’s talk of bringing more major events to the region, including the World Laser Radials, perhaps as early as 2013. 

MacMillan was a key player in the Nautel event, including acting as the voice behind the on-water radio station during the race. Like the participants, he appreciated the event’s sophisticated technology; the radio was created by Nautel, the event’s title sponsor. A global leader in producing high-power radio-frequency products, the event worked with a scoring team from the nearby Lunenburg Yacht Club to allow race results to be posted from the water and uploaded directly to the event website. The radio station was streamed on the site, and people from as far away as New Zealand listened in. “They wowed the laser guys,” says MacMillan. 

It was the first big event Nautel, whose headquarters is located in Hackett’s Cove on St. Margaret’s Bay, had been involved in. “There was an interesting confluence,” says Peter Conlon, the company’s president and CEO. “Nautel was turning 40, and it was the 40th anniversary of the creation of the laser by Canadian Bruce Kirby, who even attended the championships.” It was a big event for the company. “We provided lots of volunteers,” says Conlon. “It fostered a sense of pride in the Nautel family.”

According to Judy Lugar, that pride now extends to the entire community. “We recruited hundreds of volunteers—really, the whole community rose to the occasion in style,” she says. “Water has that effect on people; it brings them together, which is partly why East Coasters love it here.”

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