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20 July 2014

Vive la France!

Sunday July 20, 2014

The Hills are alive with the sound of..."Hello...hello?"

30 July 2014
Wednesday July 30, 2014
Isles des Morts, South Shore, Newfoundland and Labrador

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of…”Hello…hello?”

On this trip, Eric and I have gone for days without seeing a soul. The south shore of Newfoundland is populated primarily on the very west tip of the province in Port aux Basques, then some outports in the middle, then go all the way over to the Burin Peninsula, which has a few small towns. This is the outcrop that forces you south as you head around those two fingers to get to St. John’s. There really is not a lot in between these places, and in the outports, they don’t have to count past 99 when they do a census. There are only highways that reach Port aux Basques in the west, Burgeo - east of there, and Harbour Breton. A few towns on the Burin peninsula are connected by a highway - including Fortune, which has the ferry to St. Pierre and Miquelon. Everyone in the middle uses the ocean as their road. Each outport usually has a concrete patch for a helicopter. Other than that, it is a seemingly vast expanse of mountain peaks, valleys, ponds, streams and countless bays to anchor in.

The geography of the south shore of Newfoundland is mind-blowing in all its depth and contrast. Eric is surprised there hasn’t been an IMAX film produced here. The fjords, countless waterfalls, massive blocks of rocks with patterns, shapes and layers would make a geologist pass out from awe. The Avalon peninsula apparently has the world’s oldest fossils. Day after day, looking at all the fjords and peaks around me, I wish I knew more about geology. They don’t call it The Rock for nothing. And it isn’t just one or two places that make you gasp; day after day - everywhere we turn a corner, we are faced with another frame of scenery that would have had Ansel Adams thinking he should have brought more film.

Only pictures can really show what it’s like here, and our pictures don’t do southern Newfoundland justice. That’s why an IMAX filmmaker should check it out. You could also easily film a historical movie here. Without any modern landmarks, your mind quickly wanders and imagines any time in history. Peter Blunden, our sailing friend from Halifax, likens it to Jurrassic Park. It does seem prehistoric. When I look past the fjords into the green, high distant hills and mountain tops, one after another, all I can imagine is Mel Gibson and his Braveheart army charging down the hills on horses.

It’s even kind of creepy when we enter a small harbour entrance 400 feet wide, with 800 feet of rock straight up on either side. I feel like I am somehow going to be absorbed into the landscape, never to be seen again. The water is also amazingly deep. It is common to see 300 feet straight below you on the chart entering bays and harbours. I’ve seen points on the chart very close to land go from 125 feet to 2,000 feet pretty quickly. Despite the fact that the main goal in boating is to avoid hitting anything, we had the opportunity to take Mad Dash’s bow right up to the edge of a waterfall with 37 feet of water straight below us. It was an odd experience, with so much rock right in front of us.

It’s the kind of remote here where there are no published guidebooks written to aid you in your exploration of the south shore. Not even a Lonely Planet guide! My 242 page Frommer’s Guide to Newfoundland and Labrador has two pages covering the central “south coast” or “Coast of Bays” area. The only thing to go on is one cruising guide, a wire-bound book put together by the members of the Cruising Club of America, and it’s very good. Then you just talk to people and cruisers, gathering local knowledge. You can tell it’s not an often travelled area when you get credits to information on certain anchorages like this one on White Bear Bay from the CCA guide:

“CREDITS: Charles Bartlett was here in 1953, Carl Lundgren in 2000. The cove between Bear and Deer Islands was reported by Sally Richards in 1988 and Edward Karkow in 1997.”

It’s the kind of solitude here that makes me want to be extra careful about everything. Like paying special attention to avoid stubbing toes or tripping - which can be easy if you don’t pay attention to cleats; or not holding onto something properly in rolling seas. If Eric goes out in the dingy checking water depth after anchoring to make sure the boat doesn’t hit a rock while swinging through the night, or goes off in the distance to check out a waterfall, I feel compelled to make sure he has the hand-held, waterproof, floating VHF radio or at least a walkie talkie (and obviously life jackets, which are mandatory if the Coast Guard checks up on you). And for the record, if you end up hearing us on a walkie talkie channel, my handle is Spot and Eric’s is Spot Remover.

The Fish, The Fog, and the Fricking Seaweed that Plugged Our Water In-Take

The flora and fauna of this part of the world is spread out over a large area, which gives a lot of room for plants and animals. My Frommer’s guide says there are only 14 land mammals indigenous to Newfoundland. The moose was actually brought over by humans, and now there are 130,000 of them. Labrador has one of the world’s largest caribou herds at 50,000. Despite warnings of bears being nearby when we were in the outport of Francois (pronounced Franz-way), we didn’t see any, nor have we seen any other land animals. We have seen sea otters, dolphins up very close, seals and whales. Seabird populations here are enormous - 30 to 40 million visit the province every year. After years of yearning, I finally spotted my beloved puffin, which is the provincial bird. They are soooooo cute and a little bit smaller than the other seabirds flying around. Not blessed with with the best proportions or biomechanics, they unfortunately have to flap their wings a lot harder to keep going, as opposed to other big easy fliers like the seagull. Getting up-close photos of puffins, like dolphins, whales or other fleeting beasts is difficult, so don’t expect any National Geographic shots from me, where I camped on some poo-covered remote rock for two days patiently waiting for a burnt-out puffin to pose for me.

I am convinced the only reason why we see dolphins, whales, seals and seabirds is because they think we are a fishing boat. Fishing boats, with their usual array of dead smelly bait, trapped fish being pulled out of the water, and stuff that doesn’t pass muster being thrown back in the water, are natural magnets for all things hungry in the ocean. With our 200 horsepower John Deere engine running, I am sure we must sound like a fishing boat. So every so often a few dolphins, a whale or a seal pop out of the water, have a peek at us, take a sniff and then say to themselves, “Drats, it’s another one of those phony fisherman. Onwards Stanley, nothin’ to see here.” (One day we even saw dolphins jumping right out of the water, like an impromptu show and I asked Eric, “Why are they jumping?” Eric’s simple reply was, “For joy, silly.”)

Our trip though, has not been devoid of battles with nature. It seems it likes to clog important valves, hoses, pumps - basically anything that makes the boat work. In Grand Bank, we kept getting a P5 low pressure annunciator, shutting down our air conditioning system (heating and cooling). Eric, squeezing himself into the bowels of the engine department, (also known as the dog house) had to check the water intake for this system. Pulling out the strainer, Eric happily said, “Aha, you little monster - you’re the culprit!” (the polite version of what he said.) He pulls himself out of the engine room like a jack-in-the-box and I curiously go over to see what he’s got and reel back in horror! A big, gross, ugly jellyfish had miserably ended its life in our sea strainer.

Then, coming out of the narrow channel of Grey River into the ocean, surrounded by clumps of rocks, Eric realizes the engine temperature is getting too hot. This is bad. Eric, going through a mental check-list of all the things that make an engine too hot, like one of those long Apollo mission go/no-go checklists I saw at the Kennedy Space Centre, he decides to check the water intake. The engine gets cooled by sea water. So basically there’s a hole in the boat, the sea water gets sucked in through the hole, the water then passes through a filter, then goes through the thing doing the sucking which is called the impeller, then it goes through the engine, cools it down, then it gets spat back into the ocean. With the engine turned off, rolling around in the ocean, with clumps of rock near by, Eric had to lift up the engine cover in the pilot house - it’s a very heavy lid that stays up on its own, but taking no chances, Eric fastens the lid to the table with a line, then goes down into the engine room. He pulls out the filter and lo behold is a large clump of long, stringy green seaweed clogging up the lifeblood of our boat, like aerterial schlerosis. It actually had clogged up the hole coming into the boat and hadn’t even made it to the filter yet. Turning the engine back on, letting out a sigh of relief, I slowly watched the engine temperature decreasing. We had propulsion! We had steering!

And lastly, our pipes in our head got plugged. Eric says it’s the quadruple-ply cashmere, deluxe, pamper-your-butt toilet paper we get that just doesn’t break down well enough, like that sandpaper-esque, green, half-ply, enviro stuff we should be buying. So, after going through all the normal go/no-go Apollo checklist items on how to fix a plugged head, we were stumped. Then I remember, going back 8 years on Mad Dash classic, the old boat, we had poured down a bottle of Coke in the head to clear up a similar problem. The only reason we have Coke on board, is obviously for rum. Sacrificing what could have been relief for future man vs. nature stressors, I grabbed two cans of Coke, (Classic not Coke Zero - we need the extra special nasty stuff that cleans pennies) and poured it down the toilet. Waiting 4 hours including a very bobby and rolly hour at sea, we tried it again and heard the sweet sound of suction! Thank you Coca-Cola! You may not really be saving polar bears for all of your plastic I see in the ocean but you sure can clean a head.

The fog is a sensient being in Newfoundland. It can chase you into a harbour and then coat you with a damp thick layer of moisture that is insidious. And then everything stays damp until the sun reveals itself, which after days on end being swallowed by fog, it seems like you’ve taken a drug a la the movie Awakenings and you’ve forgotten what it’s like to look past 10 feet in front of you. The first part of our trip was riddled with fog. We were arriving in these spectacular harbours with the most stunning scenery with massive rock faces, waterfalls we could hear and distant hills and mountains in our imaginations. When the fog lifted in Sam Hitches Harbour, it was like having travelled from Calgary to Jasper with a blindfold on, then stay overnight in Lake Louise with your eyes closed and then voila, the curtains open and it stares you in the face! Now, near the end of our journey here in Newfoundland, the fog has returned. Sailing in fog is like being in a sensory depravation chamber - remember Altered States? I think I read that when I was 13. BEEEZZZARRRROOOO. Sailing in Newfoundland in fog is especially challenging, when I see warnings on the electronic charts that say,”Okay sailor, your still awake on your watch? Well, pay attention you moron, because the chart you are staring at right now is based on the British Admiralty Charts that were created 100 years ago. So buck up. Because the thick fog you are in right now, is hiding rocks and land and stuff that you may not think is there.” Yep, there are some remote parts in NL.

Thankfully the only time the charts were off was in Culotte Bay and the electronic charts had us sailing on a hill. We could also see all around us. The fog does certainly add ambience to an area though. It adds a certain mystique, like a French perfume (I guess that would smell like salt, fish and seaweed). In my heart I will miss you fog, thanks for the memories I missed!

Vive la France!

20 July 2014
Sunday July 20, 2014
McCallum, South Shore, Newfoundland and Labrador

We Made it to France and We Didn't Have to Cross the Ocean

Who knows if Eric and I will ever cross an ocean on Mad Dash. If we do, I might have to get a tattoo. Eric isn't a big fan of deliveries, which is essentially getting a boat from one place to another without stopping for a lobster roll and taking in a bit of scenery. Deliveries for me are a challenge. A challenge in sleep deprivation, concentration, and well, lets be frank, hygiene. If you are in rolly seas for hours, even days on end, really there is no stable opportunity to have a nice little shower, fix the hair and reapply the lip gloss. Our trip to St. Pierre and Miquelon from Halifax, a 48 hour journey at sea entombed in fog, was yet another one of those voyages where changing your t-shirt and putting on another layer of deodorant while holding on to something fixed, was essentially having a shower.

Day 1, we were in a cab en route to Pearson airport in Toronto, with my 69.3 pounds of duffel bags in the trunk, talking about Hurricane Arthur and checking its projected path on our iPhones. Our friend, Scott MacLeod, in Halifax, who had spent the last two years tirelessly planning the bi-annual Halifax to St. Pierre Sailboat Race, was undoubtedly pulling his hair out at this point. It was 5 days before the race. I mean, for God's sake, they were feverishly baking croissants in France for us, and stocking extra wine and unpasturized cheese! Arthur was becoming a Weight Watchers weather bomb! We were not officially registered in the race, but were tagging along. It was a perfect stop for us as we made our way to investigate the shores of southern Newfoundland for three weeks. (St. Pierre and Miquelon are only 25 km from the south tip of the Burin peninsula in NL).

Arthur, turned into a tropical storm and unfortunately wreaked havoc on the southern tip of Nova Scotia and dumped a lot of rain in New Brunswick causing a big floody mess. We were still on for St. Pierre though and continued with our preparations. The south shore of Newfoundland is spotted with small towns and villages, many of which don't have any roads and use the ocean to get around. From word of mouth, this meant I may want to stock up on foodstuffs for the trip. The day before leaving I was in the Superstore, deciding on produce based on longevity. For the record, in my days at sea studying the deterioration of many types of produce in our little fridge, zip-locked romaine heads, carrots, celery, radishes, apples and potatoes are all good bets for long trips.

I saw some French guys in the meat department pondering over that weird sandwich meat area next to the bacon, and guessed that they were from St. Pierre here for the race. I introduced myself to the crew of Ososoy as a fellow sailor, and told them in my basic French that there was a better deli area "a gauche de la pain". I remember in Beaufort, North Carolina, I was in the Piggly Wiggly, and all they had was that weird deli stuff next to the bacon and no other deli area. Back then, I felt like I was going to provision the boat with white powdered mini donuts and bologna that didn't seem to have a first name or a last name. (Beaufort is an amazing place though - with wonderful people and a Harbourmaster that lends out 1970's Oldsmobiles to boaters who tie up at the marina to get around town. Flash forward, I was able to see Eric at age 85, when I saw him put the Oldsmobile in gear with the large stick attached to the steering wheel - this is how we got to the Piggly Wiggly. By the way - I love saying Piggly Wiggly so much, that it is now frowned upon if you speak the words on Mad Dash). I did end up finding half price brie at the Superstore that day in Halifax, and I embarked on a goodwill mission for our visiting French sailors and delivered them the brie (and some leftover strawberry mousse I made for a BBQ the night before). This commercialized version of French brie was probably an offence to their tastebuds and maybe they used it as bait for fishing.

St. Pierre - Rocks, Fog and Fishing Collide with Chic and Style

I've got to hand it to the French. Situate them anywhere, even thousands of miles across the ocean from their geographical headquarters on a tiny island, so rocky and so raw, and they manage to make their lifestyle chic, sophisticated and worldly. Despite the relentless, damp, foggy, windy, harsh climate, they can walk down their quaint little streets with fresh pastries neatly tied in cute boxes with pink and green ribbons (really) and have their scarves tied ever so perfectly. (I will never ever master the art of tying scarves like the French - I hope someone on St. Pierre will someday take me to their secret scarf tying school and find me a scarf mentor.)

On a map, St. Pierre and Miquelon is essentially the period at the end of the North American continent sentence. Only 25 km from the southern tip of NL, they receive a ferry that leaves from Fortune, and regularly drops off mostly Canadian and American tourists; along with cruise ships that dock in St. Pierre harbour.

The locals are extremely hospitable, warm and friendly. Each boat in the Halifax St. Pierre race is assigned a local host - or "grand-pere/grand-mere", who take care of all your needs while you are visiting, along with providing a big dinner. Since Eric and I on Mad Dash, were not officially in the race (tag alongs!), we didn't have a grand-pere/grand mere but were adopted by Mike and Andrew from Sea Smoke's hosts Jean-Pascal and Frederich and Scott from Easy Company's hosts Denis and Natalie. As you can very well-expect, their combined BBQ dinner we were invited to, was outstanding! Really lovely people, who of course, can cook up a storm and master a BBQ like no other. There were snacks with wine, then more wine, then steaks, chicken, ribs, salads, more wine, then the CHEESE COURSE, which, frankly, was the Best. Cheese. Ever. And then the pastries. Multitudes of them - all delicious, creamy, chocolatey, flaky melt-in-your-mouth pieces of perfection. Then more wine, and some sort of sweet type of wine that I never got the name of.

Frederich gave me a tour of her backyard. She had a vegetable garden and a wonderful greenhouse (which a lot of them seem to have due to the lack of a long warm growing season) and showed me her potato, lettuce, rhubarb and tomato plants. She even had a small grape vine that was taking off by leaps and bounds - I think the French could grow grapes in the Antarctic given the chance. The thing is, is the island is basically all rock. There is no real soil to speak of. Where does Frederich get the soil? Well, it gets imported from France. She showed me an area where she had a bunch of small wind-swept pine trees where she told me about her plans to create an "orangerie" with chairs, tables and a bench. The way she described it to me sounded so beautiful and cozy, I could just imagine it all in its wonderful French style!

The rest of our visit on St. Pierre was fantastic. The cute shops, great restaurants, beautiful scenery (once the fog disappeared!) and fascinating history. Like most parts of this area of the world, its history seemed to follow a familiar pattern. Some guy in the 15th century, an explorer from Europe, who had more cajones than all the current world leaders combined, drifted off on a boat, never really knowing day by day in the open water if the ocean was suddenly going to come to an end and he would fall off the edge of the earth in what I imagine was envisioned as Niagara Falls on steroids. (*Note - the exception here is that the Vikings arrived in 1000 AD in L'Anse aux Meadows at the tip of Newfoundland, thus being the first Europeans to discover this area. Even more interesting is that archeologists found a burial mound of Maritime Archaic Indians from 7,500 years ago in L'Anse Amour in the Labrador Straits - the oldest burial mound in the world!)

So, the explorer finds new land, Europe sends more people to settle. They find the land harsh and go home. But more somehow arrive, make a go of it, build a fishing industry. Then the European countries realize that hey, there's a lot of fish out there. Then they fight over the newly settled territory for a couple of hundred years - finally come to a conclusion as to who gets the territory. Then there are a few more skirmishes. Meanwhile fishing continues. Eventually the area becomes over-fished. The fish populations dwindle to scary levels, so much so that the government says whoa, we've got to stop this for a while. The fishing industry is threatened, and fishing villages dry up and disappear or new ways of making a living evolve. For St. Pierre, public works provide a lot of jobs now. A new airport was built in 1999, a new hospital was just completed and a new power plant is in the pipeline. Tourism also helps.

Interestingly, one of St. Pierre's claims to fame, is that the island was the only place in North America to ever use the guillotine, and they only used it once. A guy committed murder in the 1880's so they ordered a guillotine from France, and had it shipped over. We saw it in the museum. The problem was that no one wanted to do the deed on the island. So they got the new guy on the island to do it. The whole town, including children, were forced to watch, to basically say - hey - you want to murder someone, this is what happens. Gruesomely, the guillotine didn't quite do the job and thankfully, the new guy had his fishing knife with him to finish it.

We left St. Pierre on a sunny morning and saw all of its angles without the weight of a blanket of fog. There were massive amounts of birds flying all around it's northern tip. And as I have come to realize, where there are birds, there are usually seals, dolphins or whales. And in this case whales. A lot of them. We could hear the water coming out of their spouts, see their backs popping out every so often while many different types of seabirds along with my beloved puffins circled around looking for leftovers. A nice parting cadeaux from St. Pierre.

Taking a Leap

Eric and I were crammed in the back seat of a mini-van that gives 1 hour tours of St. Pierre, along with two other couples. The French, whom I would define as a touchy-feely populous, I think have a different sense of personal space than what I perceive. Which may be a good thing, as the world would be better off with a few extra kisses on the cheek these days. The woman squished beside me was French (I was sitting in the middle just like I normally do on airplanes, like a sacrificial lamb, so Eric can have the window seat).

We are stopped at the top of a hill that overlooks the south shore of St. Pierre, a beautiful panorama of steep rocks, hillsides and pastures in the distance. The French woman turns to me and exclaims, "Ohhh, der is a boy - jumping, off de cliff!" Just as I turn to see what she is pointing at, very far down below, I see a dot of a human against the rocky cliffs jump into the churning cove below. Beside where the van is stopped there is a mountain bike and a t-shirt attached to it. The French woman tells the French driver what just happened and he says in English, "Out of my tirty years on St. Pierre, I never seen dat, ever..." He gets out of the van with one other man, the van is silent, and they go look for the boy to pop up out of the water. It is an odd angle from atop and they can't see anything. After five minutes the van driver calls the Gendarme (police) to report the incident and we carry on with the end of the tour. It's a bit odd, as we don't find out what happened to this kid. We can only assume that the gendarme are going to make sense of it all.

The next day we leave St. Pierre and head to Fortune, Newfoundland to start our journey on the south shore of the province. We knew that Larry, a Virginia native, from Dawn Treader, who was in the Halifax - St. Pierre race, with his hired mate, was taking a five day diversion to cruise the south shore of NL as well, and was clearing in with customs in Fortune and also heading to Grand Bank for the night. We see them come in at about 6:30 p.m. and they raft up next to us (as there is no where else to go - small harbour).

Being completely wined-out, cheesed-out and croissant-ed out from France, I lay down and feel the oncoming low pressure inside my head (huge winds that night!). Eric goes over to Dawn Treader for a few hours and chats to Larry and his hired hand, 20-year-old Wheeler from Minnesota. In my cheesy hangover-haze later I look up at Eric, who is back on board, who says to me, "Wait until you see this video Wheeler has, it is going to BLOW YOUR MIND!" Next morning, I make banana muffins and invite Larry and Wheeler on board for coffee.

Wheeler is a bright guy - he runs a small business for himself working on boats in Newport, RI in the summer and is off to university in Colorado in the fall. Larry, a long-time maritime lawyer, is strong-minded and I think has met his perfect match in Wheeler, who comes across as the kind of kid who can work in all types of situations. Wheeler brings out his iPhone and starts to show me this video Eric has been anxious for me to see. My eyes pop right out of my head as I stare at a Go-Pro video of Wheeler, jumping off a cliff in St. Pierre, popping up out of the 50-degree water with a big smile and turning off the Go-Pro camera. "Holy crap - you're the guy! We thought you were dead!", I said startled. Wheeler said the police showed up and said a bunch of stuff to him in French that he didn't understand, et voila, they parted ways and that was it. Wheeler did measure his risks in advance. He swam out into the frigid waters to check the depths and study the rocks. He carefully set up his Go-Pro and kept it running to catch the big jump. Although, he did say when he was jumping off the cliff, he thought to himself that he wasn't clearing the rocks as much as he thought he would.

I don't know why the universe spits out little coincidences like these. What is the purpose of knowing Wheeler's extreme sporting adventures? Do I think he's a bit nutty? Yes. Do I admire him? Yes. Maybe it's all about just taking one big leap and hoping that it all goes well.

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