Newfoundland: Notre Dame Bay
08 June 2012
Newfoundland's Notre Dame Bay
Jim Hawkins and Ellie Adams
A version of this document was published in Sailing, Nov., 2007.
Anticipating our second sailing season in Newfoundland, we returned to the Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club in Conception Bay near St. Johns. Two seasons and many hundreds of miles before, having just arrived on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, we met Peter Watkins as he was delivering a yacht to Notre Dame Bay. His enthusiastic descriptions of his home sailing grounds convinced us that if we got anywhere near the Bay we would have to go.
During a hectic week in mid-July we re-supplied Meta Fog, our Baba 30 cutter, and made necessary repairs while being buffeted by a weather system, unusual for the time of year, which was to hector us off and on all season. It quickly became clear that getting to Notre Dame Bay would take longer than expected. The Bay lay 200 miles away on the northeast coast. We would grab short weather windows, jump to the nearest harbor and wait for the fog or the gale or contrary wind to abate.
It is possible that, while waiting for weather, we hiked as many hours as we sailed working our way slowly north, but almost every walk brought us into contact with Newfoundlanders, every meeting a story in itself. When we finally turned the corner from Twillingate and set our sights on Lewisporte to the southwest, the wind backed--of course--and came right on the nose along with the by now almost obligatory rainy blow.
Retreating to Puzzle Harbor we experienced for the first time one of Notre Dame Bay's hidden treasures. We were glad to have been detoured here by the weather. Anchor down and alone, we slept well, and no hiking! Finally, after much determined short-tacking against the continuing strong and gusty southwest wind we arrived in Lewisporte. Grinning, beaming really, through his great beard, Peter handed our lines, delighted to welcome us at last. We felt almost as if we had come home.
Now the spectacle that is Notre Dame Bay lay before us. For hundreds of years the people who lived in the small villages sprinkled across the many islands were separated and joined only by water. They lived a mercantile and subsistence life based on fishing. Most of the islands remained unpopulated, some temporarily occupied with fishing camps in summer. Roads were much later extended to the outer ends of the long peninsulas. After Newfoundland became a province of Canada in 1949 a resettlement program was initiated which has resulted in de-populating many of the villages that remained accessible by water only. Later, over-fishing eventually resulted in a cod-moratorium. The residents could not even catch cod for themselves! Ever more people left the area.
For the sailing cruiser, however, Notre Dame Bay was a dream-come-true. In relatively close proximity lay a plethora of bays, remote gunk holes and stunning anchorages. Local watermen knew all of these places in their bones, of course, but nothing had been written down. In the middle of the 20th century, members of the Cruising Club of America began recording sailing directions for the coasts of Newfoundland including Notre Dame Bay, but only a few locations mostly on the ocean edge of the Bay were described. Not until 2006 did the Cruising Guide to Notre Dame Bay appear, prepared by avid local sailors and an optimistic chamber of commerce.
God's Pocket is aptly named, the entry described well in the Guide. To call it a gunk hole seems almost too prosaic, perhaps even a little irreverent. Anchored alone in four fathoms in an oval shaped pool, we could have rested comfortably while a hurricane passed overhead. We climbed the high rock walls surrounding a place that, even with another name, would have evoked reverence. Gathering blue berries on our way back to the boat, we felt truly blessed to be able to tarry here a while. .
One anchorage captured our hearts completely defining for us the very essence of this wonderful cruising ground. The cove is hardly more than a niche in the backside of the island we affectionately call Island 25, because the chart labels it as 25 feet high and it is otherwise nameless. The cove hides at the bottom of Little Northwest Arm in New Bay.
As we peeked around Island 25 the nearly perfect, round pool revealed itself. Perhaps 75 yards in diameter, placid in spite of a 20 knot breeze, the snug pool invited us to stay a while. A ramshackle fishing shack slouched awkwardly ashore. A stash of lobster pots rested nearby waiting to be put to work in season. The shack and the pots were appropriate reminders of the many roles these waters serve.
The Guide warns of an uncovering rock "at the throat of the main cove". Arriving at high tide, we could not see it. In spite of the Guide's directions, we lost track of the deep water and bumped it, or one of its cousins. Startled and a little embarrassed, we fortunately slid off easily. We spotted the tickle to starboard of Island 25 and gradually turned toward it. Skirting the island to port, we turned slowly toward the anchorage. Suddenly, there it lay, the small cove, serene and secure. A bold escarpment rose reassuringly in the background.
After anchoring, we busied ourselves until after mid-tide falling. Then, we set out in the dinghy to gather wild mussels from a bed on the far side of the island. In beach shoes and swim suits, we dropped over the side thigh-deep in the cold water quickly picking a bucket of large wild mussels. On the way back we explored the cove finding two to four fathoms of water right up to the shore all around.
Relaxing in the cockpit later, we felt embraced by the blanket of deep green firs surrounding us. A cluster of aspen, rare in this area, shimmered in the afternoon sun. As the day faded to evening, the individual firs receded into a nearly black mosaic, while the aspen, growing proudly brighter, accented the scene. As the breeze died, it summoned the intense quiet of remoteness. A dinner of mussels steamed in a white wine, tomato and garlic sauce, accompanied by parmesan pasta, salad and a glass of wine, further saturated our senses.
By now, of course, additional elements of modernity have begun to appear in this island paradise. Causeways have eliminated many ferries and opened up some islands to easy auto travel. Summer people have found the area and have begun to enjoy the same access to nature and relative remoteness which all of us sailors also crave. And perhaps the ultimate symbol of change, free high speed internet is available in every settlement. So it is not the same rustic place it was even fifty years ago.
Fishing is now a highly regulated industry, the seasons and quotas of crab, lobster, etc., and, yes, cod are scientifically established. The gap between the regulators and the fishermen seemed as large as ever as judged by the complaints from the watermen. But the cod fishery has recovered enough that residents are now allowed a personal fishing season during which each family member can jig limited numbers of cod for their own use. Once again flaked cod are being hung out to dry, in the "modern" style, on the family laundry line! And more modern yet, the dried cod would be wrapped in plastic and kept in the family freezer.
In Leading Tickle, we tied up at the fish plant to re-supply our water tanks. Uniquely, it is the only plant in all of Newfoundland processing salt cod. Compare that to the history when every family in every harbor made salt cod their business, literally, from catching the fish to processing the critters. The process is highly labor intensive. One group of workers removes the back-bone. Then others, sitting on the floor surrounded by white mountains of rock salt, scooped great handfuls of the stuff and smeared it onto the flaked cod. Shrink-wrapped pallets of cod five feet high overflowing with salt were loaded on semis for cold storage, eventually to be shipped to Europe and Asia.
The Little Bay Islands lay an hour's ferry ride from the nearest mainland road. About 75 people call it home year 'round plus perhaps 25 more who summer there. The fish plant seemed in good repair and has had a run of good business for several years. But the residents worry. If the plant should close for some reason, would the ferry keep coming and would the power company continue to supply electricity? Already, the general store is boarded up leaving only a combined convenience store and bar. Perhaps, as in so many of the "outports" only a few summer stragglers--and sailors--will come here.
Shortly after we tied up, Chris and Burt on Figgy Duff came in from Labrador where they had suffered the same unusual weather that had dogged us. Then Roger, who keeps his Southern Cross 31 in the harbor, invited us all for rum and cheese at his summer cabin. Roger regaled us with sea stories while Chris and Burt spoke animatedly about returning to Labrador next year.
Challenging sailing, great hiking and many warm encounters with Newfoundlanders including with our friend Peter were more than enough to class this cruise as one of the best ever. The weeks in the Bay itself only added to the pleasure. And now the first full-fledged storm of the fall, come early, was forecast to arrive in a few days, so reluctantly we decided to return to Lewisporte to haul Meta Fog for the winter. Back-tracking through God's Pocket and Puzzle Harbor, we savored the thought that we are not yet done here. We have only begun to explore the magic that is Notre Dame Bay.
Side Bar 1: How to Get There.
From the East Coast of the United States, take the coastal route down east via Maine and Nova Scotia or go offshore directly to the Strait of Canso. Pass through the Bra D'Or Lakes or proceed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Sail up the west coast of Newfoundland through the Strait of Belle Isle turning south to Notre Dame Bay; or explore the southwest and south coasts rounding Cape Race turning north to the Bay. The Gulf can also be entered from the St. Lawrence River, of course.
Side Bar 2: Essential Cruising Guides
Cruising Guide to Newfoundland, Cruising Club of America, (Various retailers) $40.00US. Notre Dame Bay Cruising Guide, Lewisporte Area Chamber of Commerce, 709 535 2737 $49.95Cdn. Cruising Guide to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Cruising Club of America, (Various retailers) $25.00US.
Side Bar 3: Over-wintering Your Boat in Newfoundland.
Twenty-five marine centers, are scattered along the coast of Newfoundland. Each has a fifty ton or greater travel lift. In Notre Dame Bay, marine centers are located at Seldom, Durrell, Triton, and La Scie. The Lewisporte Yacht Club manages the Lewisporte marina with a thirty ton travel lift. Screw stands may be available at Lewisporte, but elsewhere you will need to build a cradle or have one built for you. Repair services are available throughout Notre Dame Bay from Coastalyachtservice@nf.aibn.com and in La Scie from Info@Canmar.ca. US boats will need a cruising permit and a work order for repairs filed with customs. We recommend that contact be made in advance with the site or sites where you expect to haul.
Air connections can be made through St. Johns or Gander International airports or Deer Lake. As a point of reference, a daily bus runs to Lewisporte from St. Johns in about five hours. Gander is a 30-minute cab-ride. Dear Lake is three hours from Lewisporte. See the Notre Dame Bay Cruising Guide for more detail on these and other matters.
Side Bar 4. Who are they, these Newfoundlanders?
On a Sunday morning early in our cruise, we had pulled ourselves together for a long walk to the mall in Carbonear. Literally, just as we were sticking our heads out of the companionway having no idea anyone was around, Ed hollered down from the wharf above, "Your ride awaits you." Ed and Regina were on their weekly date and decided to see who those folks were in the little sailboat from the U. S. At the mall, Ed teased, "You had better buy a Newfoundland flag or you'll have to walk back to your boat!" Of course, the flag now flies from Meta Fog's spreaders just below the U. S. Ensign. Then, they drove us around to their favorite haunts and asked us to dinner that evening.
We experienced that sort of warmth and openness not to mention generosity everywhere. Perhaps when you arrive in a small boat you become part of the 500 year tradition of the sea which ghost-like still seems to inhabit Newfoundlanders. Everyone here knows or remembers someone dear who went to sea in a small boat.
When we were delayed a day splashing Meta Fog and needed another night in a B and B, Doug waived the charges when he learned we were sailors heading north. In Salvage Mac brought us a jerry can of fuel without our asking and offered us his car so we could get to an internet café on a very rainy afternoon. In Brigus, a couple on their honeymoon and their friends adopted us on a long walk to a lighthouse sharing their stories. On one of our hikes, we shared a precious moment with a woman pausing in the midst of her daily run on the bluff where her grandmother's home had stood.
We were only visitors here, but we have been permitted to touch the heart of the people.
Side Bar 5. Newfoundland: Impressions from Seaward
There are few soft spots in the Newfoundland shore. Rocks are everywhere. Islands, large and small, rise straight out of the ocean. Beaches are mainly of stone and pebble. Trees often crown the islands rather than caress the shoreline. Only the fog softens the scene. Then, you emerge from the fog and the rock is again right there. We fly our bold red and white stripped jenniker to mark our spot amidst a seascape both majestic and intimidating. The jenniker says that we are here. We understand why Newfoundlanders paint their houses in bright colors.