Newfoundland: South Coast
08 June 2012
Newfoundland: East by Southwest
By Jim Hawkins and Ellie Adams
At the end of our third season sailing from Lake Superior to the Canadian Maritimes, we left our Baba 30 Meta Fog in Nova Scotia. Now, after three hectic days re-supplying we set sail for Newfoundland. Our plan was to visit the fjords of the southwest coast as far as the Burin Peninsula and then decide whether to return to Nova Scotia or go on east around Cape Race. An easy crossing of Cabot Strait in light airs to Port aux Basque did not prepare us for our baptism of "Newfie" fog. We called in to Traffic Control when ten miles out and again at five miles and two miles as we felt our way in.
As we turned into the harbor the fog magically lifted, and a band erupted in raucous music to the cheers of a crowd. We had fun imagining the hubbub was for us. But in fact, the week-long Port aux Basque "Coming Home" celebration had just begun. Simpatico from Michigan and Meercat from Florida, already at the wharf, helped us tie up. Simpatico, just returned from the fjords, shared their favorite places over a glass of wine. Meercat was as eager as we to get going. While waiting out contrary winds we enjoyed the traditional music and dance turning a fox trot ourselves one evening.
Our first harbor was Petites, which lives up to its name, absolutely the smallest, best protected harbor on this coast. The guide warns of a "sunker" in the entrance channel, sunker being the ominous Newfoundland term for an uncharted rock. Shockingly, there it was, immediately to starboard! The depth sounder, on the portside, read 15 feet! We missed it by a smidgin.
Petites is one of the old "outports", settlements of fishing families who peopled the coast for hundreds of years. Since the late ‘50s when Newfoundland became a province of Canada the government has been resettling these families to inland areas. With the crash of the Grand Banks fishery, the pace of resettlement hastened. The last of the Petites families left only a few years ago. Many structures show a spreading disrepair. The ghostly aura is muted as a few families summer there on six-month passes.
We hiked the trails, examined the old church and schoolhouse, talked with the summer people, and visited the graveyard laid facing out to sea. We tried to get a sense of what this isolated subsistence life must have been like.
In La Poile Bay we rounded Pig Island dodging fish net floats hovering over shallows described in the Guide. A small "reversing falls" behind Pig Island guards an opening to a hidden pool. At high tide, you motor a dinghy right in. At low tide, we donned our beach shoes and, stumbling, sliding, laughing our way, we hauled our dinghy "upstream," as it were. The reward was a bucket of tender, sweet mussels!
On our way out, the current grabbed us. Amid shouts of "Save the mussels!" we helplessly shot the rapids, losing an oar to the rocks. Fortunately, the oar shot itself out to us. Rowing with one oar had us going in circles while being swept into the bay.
Connoire Bay and its wide entry between cliffs, attracted us as the afternoon sun waned. Creeping our way into Billiard Cove trying to find the 11 feet promised by the guide, we slid gracefully onto a sunker. On our second try, we found deep water. But Billiard Cove itself was about as big as a billiard table. Losing our nerve, we backed out spending a quiet night anchored deep in the Bay.
Eventually, everyone seeks out Burgeo’s all-weather harbor, the only harbor in 150 miles served by both a travel-lift and a road. Dave and Fran were dealing with a blown engine as Saskatchewan rested on the cradle Dave had built by hand! And along with Morning Watch and Kathleen we watched as a grim murkiness slunk in. We gathered together each evening awaiting a weather window. A warmer gaggle of loquacious mariners does not exist!
We had not intended to visit the Ramea Islands, but when our tack took us near, we said, "Well, why not?" We rafted to a fishing boat near the front of the crowded public wharf. The "Ramea Days" festival was underway with more bands and celebrations. A walk in the warm sun to the lighthouse and around the edge of the main island was special.
The spectacular anchorage in Aviron Bay is strewn with waterfalls. The largest hurls itself off the cliff vaulting 500 feet to the bay. The feathery cascade sings a lullaby at night. We anchored deep in “The Pool” in 20 feet, gravel and mud with good holding. Surrounded by almost treeless sub-arctic barrens we felt as if we were camping in high mountains.
Islands and ledges bisect the entrance to Fortune Bay. Literally hundreds of dolphins feeding in the resulting upwellings played with Meta Fog. And three huge humpback whales breeched repeatedly nearby. We could hear, see, and smell them blow. It put our importance and size in perspective and was a real gift.
We were short a couple of solderless connectors. Neither hardware outlet in Fortune Harbor had the right size. Shortly, an amiable man appeared out of the blue with connectors from his own supply! He would not let us pay, but accepted a tot of rum and chatted with us a while on board. We found this sort of spontaneous generosity everywhere.
We had planned a day-trip to St. Pierre by ferry, but the $85.00cn round trip seemed excessive. So we sailed there on a southeast wind left over from a fading offshore storm. The brightly painted homes and, of course, the French cuisine were irresistible. We hiked to the far side of the island on an ancient trail through the barrens while awaiting a fair wind to blow us east.
Arriving in Burin at dusk, we stumbled into Ship Harbor and discovered Reg. Reg lent us his large fender, kept us in ice, and helped solve an engine mystery. As just one of an even longer list of helpful deeds over the days that followed, one afternoon he and his wife Michele hailed us urgently. “Hop in”, they insisted, “We can get your gaskets in Marystown!” And so it went, we found the gaskets and enjoyed a donuts-and-coffee-treat to boot.
Moreover, Reg pulled us into the life and rhythm of the wharf. Even in the slow season there is activity all day and much of the night with working boats coming and going, off-loading fish, taking on ice and water. The wharf bustles with energy and comradeship. The fish are hauled up in large buckets, the buyer weighing and recording the catch. Then a transport truck rolls in and the huge boxes of fish get loaded on and carted off.
Speeding across the deserted barrens in a rented car on the fourth day of fog, we fled to Trinity where we morphed into tourists. The whole historic village is preserved and is, well, touristy, busses and all. We yanked ourselves out of one world and plopped down in another, becoming aware of how immersed we had become in the fishing community. Then the famous pageant started and we were right back in it. For three hours we were entranced by scene after scene "staged" in various parts of the village. With high energy, humor, pathos, the history of New Found Land came alive.
At last, a northeast wind thinned the fog and propelled us on a close reach to St. Brides across historic Placentia Bay where Churchill and FDR met during WWII aboard Navy ships when Newfoundland was still Britain's North American colony. We called in our positions to Placentia Traffic who relayed them to nearby ships. As we crossed in a steady rain, a cruise ship and two oilers popped out of fog patches astern. An incoming tide bucked against wind churning up square seas. Still, we made a fast, if wet, crossing.
After St. Brides two long back-to-back runs took us quickly past three major capes to gain the east coast. Rounding Cape Race symbolized an accomplishment for us, but not only the sailing of it. We often felt as if we were voyaging in a land far away. So we sipped a wee bit of black rum in celebration as we skirted the famous Cape. Then, slipping easily into Fermouse Harbor, we hid from a southeaster. Charlie's taxi carried us to Ferryland Harbor, summer home of Lord Baltimore and the ongoing excavation of a 17th century village, while the wind blew itself out.
Sailing toward Petty Harbor, we were elated to spot Coltrane on the horizon, the first sailboat we had seen in weeks, ending a sharp and sometimes lonely contrast with the community of cruisers we found on the southwest coast. The quaint harbor has been the setting of several movies. Even the teenagers who hang out at the dock had been extras.
From inside the harbor, the 10-mile sail to St. Johns looked like a piece of cake. But as we set sails, a heavy darkness collapsed upon us and strong winds kicked up. Working around Cape Spear, the easternmost point in North America, currents swept us in toward shore even as the Cape remained hidden in the gloom. The foghorn blasted right in the boat before we realized what was happening and tacked away.
Then, once again, just as we approached the harbor--poof! The fog vanished. The sight of a tug, heralded by St. Johns Traffic, was like a beacon showing us the way to the narrows. With permission from the Harbor Supervisor, we found room at the Pilot Boat wharf and Coltrane too!
We spent time with the crew of Coltrane, shopped on Water Street, walked to Quidi Vidi, enjoyed the Geo Center on Signal Hill, and relished saunas and showers at the combined YM-YWCA before sailing up and around Cape St. Francis to haul Meta Fog for the winter at the Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club in Conception Bay.