21 July 2011 | Hare Bay, South coast of Newfoundland
We’re anchored in the westernmost arm of Hare Bay, named for the rabbit-like head and two long ears at the top of this six-mile long fjord. We entered in dense fog, only able to see the whitewater of waves crashing in huge explosions of spume at the foot of the cliffs to either side. Once we passed into the half-mile wide inlet, the fog started to lift, and by the time we reached the head we found ourselves in bright sunshine with water temperatures of 74 degrees, 15 degrees warmer than on the coast. This part of the coast, from Burgeo east to Bay D’Espoir, consists of narrow inlets that run for miles straight inland, flanked by fractured granite cliffs that rise hundreds of feet on either side. The scenery reminds us of Chile and feels as remote and isolated, yet we are less than a week’s sailing from New York City.
John Cabot is credited with discovering Newfoundland in 1497, only five years after Columbus chanced upon the “New World.” But the Vikings had been here 500 years before, and Basque fishermen had been fishing the rich waters long before Cabot put his “New Founde Lande” on the map. No one knows exactly how long those fishermen had made the trip from Europe to this island and back – the location of such a rich fishery was a commercial secret, and the Basques were not pleased that Cabot shared the location of a place where codfish could be caught simply by dipping a basket over the side. In Cabot’s wake came the settlers who built their tiny outports along the imposing coast. They were a mix of French, Basque, Irish and Scottish fishermen and the place names and language of Newfoundland reflect this heritage to this day.
Newfoundland has managed to retain both its early place names with their humor and their poignancy as well as a regional accent and vocabulary that can be all but impenetrable to outsiders. On our first visit to the east coast in Newfoundland, we visited or passed by God’s Pocket, Seldom-Come-By, Hearts Content, Ireland’s Eye, Cupids and Ferryland among many others. Along the south coast this summer, we’ve amused ourselves with imaginative names like Sots Hole, The Ha Ha, Mickle’s Tickle, Squid Hole, Gallyboy Harbour, Devil Bay, Goblin Bay, Bad Neighbor, Pushthrough, Fishes Nose Point, Rotten Row, God Bay, Pink Bottom, Hares Ears Point, Deadman Cove, Pink Bottom and Mosquito Harbour.
In many cases, French names have been corrupted until no self-respecting Frenchman would be able to understand the spoken version. These include Franzway for Francois, Gran’ Brit for Grand Bruit, Galtus for Gaultois and Bay Despair for Bay D’Espoir. This last is a particularly twisted corruption as Bay D’Espoir means Bay of Hope. Just as amusing as these corruptions are the words only heard on this coast, words we have no hope of understanding except by context or through an able translator. These include the following south coast vocabulary:
BARASWAY – A corruption of the French barachois meaning a shallow inlet.
BLOW-ME-DOWN – A high cliff that generates katabatic winds in gale conditions.
BYES – A corruption of “boys;” used to punctuate just about every other sentence in a conversation and to apply to anyone male younger than about fifty years old.
LOP – Swell.
SCREECH – A potent combination of rum and molasses, the rotgut drink of Newfoundland SCREECHED IN – To be made an honorary Newfoundlander by catching a codfish and kissing it on the lips after drinking an appropriate amount of Screech.
SUNKER – The perfect name for a boulder just below the surface capable of ripping the bottom out of an unsuspecting boat.
SWALING – Sealing. In the spring, before the cod started to run, the fishermen took their schooners up to the pack ice for seals and seal pups to get them through the last of the harsh winter.
TICKLE - A very narrow channel that “tickles” the side of the boat as it goes through.
YOUNG FELLAS – Anyone too old to be a bye seems to be a young fella.
Farley Mowat captures the Newfoundland vernacular very well. Here’s a poignant snippet from A Whale for the Killing:
“’Twas a winter fishery them times, and hard enough. The Penguins lies twenty miles offshore. They’s nothin’ more’n a mess of reefs and sunkers, featherwhite with breakers in any kind of breeze, but the foinest kind of place for cod, and herring too. We’d row out there on a Monday and stay till we’d finished up our grub
“They was t’ousands of the big whales on the coast them times. Companies of them would be fishing herring at the Penguins whilst we was fishing cod. Times we’d be the only boat, but the whales made it seem like we was in the middle of a girt big fleet. They whales never hurted we, and we never hurted they
“And I’ll tell you a quare thing. So long as they was on the fishing grounds along of we, I never was afeared of anything; no, nor never felt lonely neither. But after times, when the whales was all done to death, I’d be on the Penguin grounds with nothing livin’ to be seen and I’d get a feeling in me belly, like the world was empty. Yiss, me son, I missed them whales when they was gone.
“’Tis strange. Some folks says as whales is only fish. No bye! They’s too smart for fish. I don’t say as what they’re not the smartest creatures in God’s ocean Aye, and maybe out of it as well.”