M/V ARGO CAPTAIN’S LOG
September 5, 2013
Newfoundland: We left Sydney Harbor at 0500 bound for LaPoile, a tiny fishing village on the south coast of Newfoundland 120 miles away. It is a 17 hour passage for us. Our route took us across Cabot Strait, one of the most challenging bodies of water on the planet. The Cabot Strait flows over the Laurentian Channel, a 1500 ft. deep trench gouged out of the continental shelf by the Wisconsin Glacier during the last ice age. It connects the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and further upstream the Great Lakes, with the Atlantic Ocean. A stiff current flows toward the sea producing its own waves, which can build significantly if the wind blows against them. This is the usual sea state during the summer when southeasterly winds prevail. Adding to the turmoil is the ocean swell, handmaiden of the wind. As the swells roll in they meet the current of the Cabot Strait and mix-master of wave action ensues. It is the strangest thing to behold; you could be standing on the bridge looking at a roller to come from starboard, then a wave from port lifts the ship and at the bow both waves crest in mass of confusion. Despite all our careful planning to select what we hoped was a safe moment in time, we knew that every moment spent here is a moment in potential jeopardy. Here you can feel and see the colossal forces that formed the planet. Here we know that for all the power that human beings have developed, and for all the profundity of our existence, we are only temporary inhabitants. However being within nature’s grip, no matter the danger, is exhilarating and makes one feel truly alive!
After we crossed over the Laurentian Trench and reached the Newfoundland Shelf the waves began to subside. As the sun set we could see the steep, granite cliffs of Newfoundland in the distance. After sunset we reached LaPoile Bay, a fjord with deep green water bounded by steep cliffs rising hundreds of feet above the sea surface. There aren’t any beaches or even rocks awash, no trees or plants clinging to life near the water’s edge, just walls of granite rising straight up out of the water. As we preceded a mile or so into the fjord, a small bay appeared to port. Here the mountains relented and allowed a little space on which humans could gain a purchase. This was the village of LaPoile.
Our first view was of a couple of incandescent lamps glowing in the cold fog over government dock. Here a couple of boats were tied up and on the lee side a small, black, well-worn steel ferry boat. The harbor here is very deep, so anchoring was not desirable although possible. We slowed the engine and allowed Argo to crawl toward the dock in the hopes of seeing someone. In a moment or two a muscular older man came onto the dock from the ferry’s pilot house. We yelled out for advice and he, now joined by a couple of other older men, motioned us to bring Argo back around the ferry. It was another spot requiring delicate maneuvering, but after moving Argo past a huge fender made of a bunch of shredded rubber tires with exposed steel threads and in between several fishing boats, we nestled her safely into her berth. Within a few minutes several old fellas were standing on the dock above us and looking Argo over (the tide was out and we were about 8 feet below the surface of the dock). They were all retired fisherman. They seemed to like Argo and marveled at her size and quality. One man, Captain Neal Adams, who was first on the dock to help us out, has sailed on Nordhavns and spends the winter in Stuart, Florida, and said he saw Argo on the dock there. What more evidence does one need that this is a small world?
LaPoile is perched on the slope of a mountain side near the bay. The town has no roads and the only path to the outside world is by ferry, which travels 35 miles to Port Aux Basque each day. Little clapboard houses about 1200 square feet in size dot the hillside, with concrete walks wide enough for two all-terrain vehicles to pass each other. Believe it or not, each of these vehicles has a license plate. The town is about 1/2 mile from end to end, with the walks like ribbons laced up and down the hillside. All the homes are meticulously cared for and nicely painted. Some have little gardens that have plastic elves, trolls, or geese to brighten them. The town has about 90 residents, down from several hundred a decade or so ago. Most are old. There are five children enrolled in the grade school, which covers grades 1 through 8 with one teacher. We were told by a middle-aged man we met, that when children reach the age of 15, they are permanently moved to a residential school in Port Aux Basque; after that they only see their families on holidays and during the summer. Then they go to college and leave forever. I felt sad to hear this. I thought he was going to cry when we asked him how he felt.
LaPoile is one of only a few towns remaining along the southern coast of Newfoundland. The fish are gone and there isn’t a future for the few children remaining. The population is getting old, but they can’t move because all their wealth is tied up in their homes or boats, which do not have any value.
Around noon we fired up the engines and pulled out for Grand Bruit, an abandon town about 13 miles east of LaPoile in another fjord. The town is distinctive for two reasons: it has a beautiful waterfall bisecting the town, and it is a ghost town. About twenty years ago the Canadian Government purchased all the homes and buildings in the town and resettled the residents in Burgeo, a town about 30 miles further east. After passing through the narrow opening to the fjord or bay, we tied up at the government dock in Grand Bruit. An old, seemingly lonely fisherman and his dog appeared and helped tie up Argo. He now lives in Burgeo, but he spent his life here raising his family and fishing for cod. He is allowed back to live in his old home and keep it as a cottage so long as he doesn’t make any improvements in it or maintain it in any way. In 1992 the village was purchased by the government, and each family was paid $95,000 for their property. During their lifetime, former owners are allowed to keep their former homes as cottages for a $5 registration fee per year. After tying up we got off Argo and walked around. The village had an eerie feeling. Houses were indeed closed, but some had their tables set as though waiting for their families to return. Signs of life existed, but they were from either twenty years ago, or from the “20 year homecoming reunion” that was held last year. Off on the south east side of the town near the cemetery we heard sounds of lumber being sawed. I asked the fisherman about the improvements being done, knowing that they are illegal. He told me a resident sold an ill-informed American the house before the village was abandoned. That poor family apparently bought the home for their retirement, only to find that everyone else had accepted the government’s offer and was moving out. The offer wasn’t extended to the Americans and they would be the only ones left there in a ghost town. Although it was a beautiful, sunny day, we felt uncomfortable and decided to head for Burgeo, 30 miles to the east.
Cruising east along the coast was beautiful. The sun was out and there were few clouds in the sky. The wind was only 10 knots, so the waves were pleasant and we had the chance to appreciate the grandeur and beauty of the Newfoundland coast. Newfoundland looks formidable from the sea. It rises hundreds of feet from the ocean’s surface like a giant plateau. The coast is treacherous, rock strewn and devoid of places to land in the event of an engine failure or other emergency. It
is spectacular to see in all its magnificence; high cliffs sculpted by the sea, carpets of green mosses and lichens on top, with dwarf spruce and birch trees bent by the wind clinging to rocky crevices . Looking at the horizon one can see smooth rolling mountains covered with what looks like grass, but is really a sort of bog of moss and lichens and full of biting flies and mosquitos. It is not a place for human beings. It is a place for caribou, moose, mink, badger, black bears and other wild creatures-we didn’t see any of these except a small mink running along a dock.
After about four hours of cruising we arrived at Burgeo. This is a main town along the coast with 1,500 residents. It was a lot like LaPoile, but with roads. It is connected to the trans-Canada highway two hours north of here. The southern coast of Newfoundland is about 275 long as the crow flies. The population of this area is probably no more than five or six thousand people. We were warned not to drive at night (of course there are no cars to rent, so no problem) as hitting a moose is a major hazard. Trucks have “cow catchers” on their front like locomotives do to avoid serious damage to them when hitting moose at night.
Coming into Burgeo was quit lovely. There are four or five miles of beautiful sand beaches along the sheltered coast. Apparently the water is warm enough for Newfoundlanders to swim. As we passed the little town we found a bay that was recommended to us, Long Bay. This was a beautiful spot with forest and granite features all around. At the head of the bay was purple granite mountains know as Richard’s Head. It took me a few tries to understand a “Newfy” who was trying to tell me the name of the mountain. Newfies do not pronounce “H’s”, so Richard’s Head becomes “Riserd’s ead. Once we got the hang of it, we could understand them. To get into the bay required passing through a very narrow and unmarked channel, but by using our fancy forward sonar we picked our way through the rocks and anchored for the night. I lit up the grill and Rebecca put on the Digby scallops. It was a wonderful day in paradise.
The next day it was windy and we decided to move to the town dock so that we could get off and walk about. After the tide rose in late afternoon we moved and tied up on government dock. We walked around the town, which was spread out over a peninsula. After returning to the dock we realized that we were the big attraction in Burgeo. Dozens of cars and trucks rolled by looking us over; many people stopped to ask questions and talk with us. One couple generously offered to take us on a car tour. We accepted and saw the whole town: fire department, hospital (2 doctors), school, closed fish processing plant (except for offal), and the harbor. One thing particularly interesting here and in other places was that just outside the town is a little RV camp. Many of the town’s people camp out here on weekends or even for weeks at a time during the summer to get away from it all. I can certainly understand that, but the camp is only 3 miles from town! For dinner that night I enjoyed a Deluxe Moose burger and fries.
One of the more surprising things we saw in this town was big, shiny, expensive pickup trucks with chrome wheels. These are owned by men who have found jobs in the oil fields in the western provinces. Newfoundland’s offshore fields are under development, but since they only have two platforms, the employment opportunities are out west.
The next three nights were spent at the beautiful fjords of White Bear Bay and Hare Bay which have no towns, and Grey River that has a little village. All of them were a little different and spectacular. At the risk of repeating myself, these bays are seven or eight miles deep, with shear granite cliffs rising hundreds if not a thousand feet or more straight up to the heavens. Many of the cliffs are faces of different mountains, so endlessly fascinating gigantic sculptures regaled the eye and imagination. At the end of the fjord are quiet grassy deltas formed by a river falling from the mountain pastures that pours into the bay. This is where we anchored. Here there is no noise, no sounds save for the shrill cry of a loon warning of a bald eagle looking for supper. We saw little wild life, no fish rising at dusk, no seals or other marine life. It is a vast, seemingly empty wilderness.
On two occasions we put our tender in the water and toured about. Surprisingly there are a few cottages built by locals for a getaway haven. We saw only three or four people during this entire passage. At Grey River Bay we came upon someone standing on their porch miles from anywhere. Here we met Ronald and Mary Ann Young. We steered over to say hello and they invited us to have tea with them. They were middle aged and they lived most of the time at the head of the bay in Grey River, a village of about 90 people like LaPoile. They had a little pine, clap board cabin of about 500 square feet. They come here to camp out during the summer. They told us that they had grown up together as children in Grey River, dreamed, and were later married. They have no children, only a cat. They admitted to not having any job skills, but make a living doing odd jobs, traveling to Nova Scotia or Ontario to pick fruit in season or care for the elderly in Grey River. Ron has macular degeneration.
Mary Ann heated the kettle on the hot plate on top of the microwave and when it was ready she proudly served us the cookies she had made: Rice Crispy-marsh mellow -Nutella delights. Delicious! They have worked very hard under adverse conditions to carve out their life. They felt very fortunate to have their cabin and its spectacular view.
One of the interesting factoids about these bay/fjords is the names given by Newfies to different places. Blow Me Down is commonly used to name a spot where the winds sweep over the mountains and down the cliffs at staggering speed. These are places we need to be very careful of when anchoring! There are also more humorous and ribald names, as well as practical names such as Halibut Island, or Fish Point.
Our next stop was the village of MacCallum. Like LaPoile it has no roads and can only be reached by ferry, which arrives at 1530 every after afternoon. It, too, is perched precariously on a slender slope overlooking a bay with small homes linked together by wooden boardwalks. Here live about 130 people. The town is dying because of the lack of fish, and what fish they catch bring prices too low to survive. One fisherman who moved back to MacCallum to quality for a potential government buyout of residents (at $250,000 per family subject to a
majority vote), told me that his cod quota was 10,000 lbs., but the fish broker would only give him 50 cents a lb. for his catch. He was told that people are not eating cod any more. There isn’t any demand. As we talked he told me that the feeder fish that are the principal food of the Atlantic salmon and the cod are gone; fished out. That is why there aren’t any fish up here anymore and they won’t come back because there is nothing for them to eat. They live on capelin and so do the Japanese among others. Japanese fish brokers are on every dock all over Canadian Maritimes with pockets full of money buying everything that swims and then flying their purchases back to Tokyo. After MacCallum we headed to Isle Saint Pierre, the last remaining possession of France in North America.
Isle Saint Pierre: Our passage to Isle Saint Pierre was a calculated risk. We knew that it could have been difficult as winds were expected to be in the 25 knot range and seas in the 2 meter range, but we got a lot more than we expected. The passage was 55 miles (8 hours) and for the first three hours we would be in open water subject to the full fetch of the sea, after that we would be sheltered by the Miquelon Islands. After about two hours the winds and waves started to build. Things were very uncomfortable with 8 to 10 footers hitting on our starboard bow. Argo was tossed up and then fell own into the trough of the waves. Green sea water flew over her. For four hours the wind howled at over 30 knots. Then we approached The Grande Miquelon Island and the shelter it provided. Wave heights began to subside as we edged closer to the island. The winds blew harder and the sea was in a tumult. Winds blew over 40 knots for an hour and reached a peak of 58.2 knots. We had planned on the shelter the islands could provide, but not the ferocity of the wind. In due course we made the harbor and tied up at the town dock. It was fun (because we knew the time limit we had to endure), but a little bumpy! There is a lot of satisfaction in completing a challenging voyage.
Isle Saint Pierre is the last remaining French possession on North America, and it is French. Of course the people speak French, but everyone we talked with was happy in English. They sell all the French luxuries like perfume, wine, cheese and pastries. It was a welcomed culture shock after several months living in relative austerity. As we entered the harbor our friends Gus and Lyle Gialamas where standing in their hotel room looking out the window. They rushed down to the dock just as we arrived. I first met Gus on the dock in Dana Point when I was outfitting Odyssey. His boat was also named Odyssey. We have become very good friends. Gus and Lyle are the epitome of generosity. Gus is an orthopedic surgeon and Lyle is a nurse practitioner. Among other things Gus organized Project Rainbow, which for the last twenty years has brought teams of surgeons to remote and impoverished areas like Haiti to provide orthopedic care to the people. Today’s trip to Saint Pierre from Southern California was Lyle’s birthday gift to Gus. They love boats and are thinking about buying a Nordhavn, so this was a good chance for them to get acquainted with one. They planned to spend a week with us, so our itinerary, which is always weather dependent, was to stay in Saint Pierre for a day or two, then cross the Cabot Strait to Louisbourg for an overnight, then a night at anchor before tying up in Halifax. The total trip is about 370 miles.
Saint Pierre is a lovely spot. There about 6,000 people living there, and the town is spread across a sand and rock plain that rises several hundred feet to the top of two little mountains. We took a tour of the island, and found it most interesting. The town is large by the standards of Maritime Canada, and the buildings are reminiscent of France and the Basque region whose people settled the Miquelon Islands. It is a very colorful town, with all the buildings painted brightly in pastel colors. Across the bay is an historic village, rebuilt as it was in the time of Jacques Cartier, the Frenchman who claimed the Miquelon Islands for the French in 1536. Today residents make a living in tourism, agriculture and fishing, however agriculture is small in scale and the fishing industry is moribund. Cruise ships do stop by in the fall for a few hours on their trek around the Maritimes. We met several charming and very friendly people that we invited over for a cocktail on Argo. We enjoyed a lovely time with them and wished we had more time to spend here.
Nova Scotia: Saint Pierre was the first stop on our way south. Next was Louisbourg of which I talked about in last month’s installment. This was an overnight passage across a dangerous body of water. The weather forecast was for favorable conditions until the approximate time of our arrival in Louisbourg. We stayed two nights in Louisbourg waiting for the predicted storm to pass. Gus and Lyle toured the 18th century French fort there, but we needed to move down the coast so that Gus and Lyle could be in Halifax to catch their plane on Saturday morning. We left on the third morning and enjoyed a pleasant overnight passage south to Shelter Cove.
Late in the afternoon the next day we anchored in a little spot called Shelter Cove. That evening we enjoyed a lovely grilled steak dinner with nice French wine from Saint Pierre. Yet another front moved in that night and blew loud, hard, and cold. The next morning it was raining and still very windy, but the wind blew from the east. We knew it would be ugly, but we decided that since it was only a 50 mile run (7 hours) to Halifax, it was worth the potential discomfort of a bumpy ride. We decided to take Antivert or Zofran and sweat it out; we got underway at 0900. As it turned out the wind was around 30 knots on our stern and the waves, although they were big boys at 8 or 9 feet, pushed us along as smooth as silk. The wave moment was such that when one roller moved under the stern the other rolled off the bow in sync so as to leave us in a nearly flat state. It was great and we were making 8 to 10 knots at 1325 RPMS. In this boat and those seas, that was a miracle or at least a phenomenon of the natural world! Our 7 hour cruise turned out to be about 6 hours and we moored in Halifax next to the museum warship Sackville at 1500!
I have described Halifax to you in a previous log, and as nothing has changed I shall not repeat myself other than to say I paid a visit to the little French Bakery to show Gus and Lyle the Caneles that I mentioned before. Some things never change, thank God! They were delicious.
At this moment we are in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. We have been here five days waiting for a weather window to cross the Gulf of Maine, another piece of water that could be very uncomfortable. Tonight looks like the night that we will cast off and head back to the U. S. We are hoping to make New Bedford on August 7 and in time to see the Michigan/Notre Dame game on TV.
Thanks for checking in on us. I will post pictures of our travels as soon as I can get some bandwidth.
Wishing you and yours all the best.
Randy and Rebecca