From its earliest days as a fur trading base for the Hudson Bay Company, Sept Iles evolved into a whaling station in the early 20 century, and today is an important harbour for the iron ore and aluminium industries which form the backbone of the local economy. It remains primarily a busy commercial harbour, with a shipping separation scheme at its mouth, bulk carrier terminals flanking both sides of the bay, a large aluminium processing plant on the western shore, whilst the centre of the bay is an anchorage for bulk carriers waiting to come alongside to load/offload.
Set against this backdrop, Sept Iles Harbour does not initially appear to have much to offer the cruising yachtsman, other than the fact that it is the only true all weather and all tide "harbour of refuge" for a yacht in the 400 miles of the St Lawrence River east from Quebec. The seven outer islands form a natural breakwater for the inner bay, while all 3 main entrance channels are wide, free of dangers, and could be safely entered by a yacht in most conditions.
The yacht harbour, which lies on the north eastern shore of the bay just to the north of the commercial and fishing harbours, is one of only a very small number of pleasure boat harbours in the St Lawrence River that a vessel drawing 2.0m or more can enter at all states of the tide. Once inside it offers perfect all round protection behind its high mole walls. Even if a strong south westerly gale were to make it dangerous to enter the yacht harbour itself, it would still be possible to find shelter by anchoring off the western shore of the bay.
The only possible hazards if approaching at night are a number of small unmarked, unlit buoys lying close to the approaches to the yacht harbour. It wasn't clear whether these were local racing marks, temporary mooring buoys or fishing nets/lobster pots, but a careful lookout is needed at night.
First impressions can be misleading, and you don't need to scratch too deep before you realise
Sept Iles has much more to offer than simply being a harbour of refuge You will not find a more welcoming yachting community than the Club Nautique de Sept Iles. The local club members were extraordinarily hospital and helpful, whilst their small marina which is run on a cooperative basis, has everything a cruising yachtsman could ask for - clean showers toilet and launderette, water electricity and WiFi on the pontoons, a deep water fuel pontoon, and very friendly and professional staff.
Like the harbour, the city is also deceptive. Not openly pretty or attractive and built in a rather sprawling North American grid style, one could easily miss out on its attractions were it not for the hospitality and help we we're given during our stay. Behind some outwardly unprepossessing no nonsense exteriors we ended up drinking the best coffee we have ever tasted outside of Italy, dining in the best informal French bistro style, and stocking up on provisions, the range and quality of which are the equal of anything we have yet found on this side of the Atlantic.
A visit to the recreated Hudson Bay Trading Post just to the north of the city is fascinating and well worthwhile experience. Built on the site of, and to the exact same plans as, the original post it provides an excellent insight into the early fur trade between the Hudson Bay Company and the local Innu hunters - and is quite possibly the only time in your life that you will get to feel and touch an ermine pelt - once you have done so you will instantly understand why it was largely the preserve of royalty to wear clothes fringed with ermine!
On a practical note whilst Sept Iles is most distinctly French, it is also a very North American city in the sense that you really need a car to get around it. There are a handful of good bars, cafes and eateries within easy walking distance of the marina, but for provisioning, getting to the chandlery and visiting the trading post, at the very least a bicycle is needed, if not a car.
Sept Iles does have a regional airport and a coach (albeit a 1,000km road journey) link to Montreal and is possibly the only place in the St Lawrence River and Gulf of St Lawrence east of Quebec where you could sensibly do a crew change.