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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!

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