by Dallas Murphy, with photography by Nick McKinney
We were 50 miles north of Prince Edward Island
on port tack doing six knots and change when John Kretschmer threw
a crumpled ginger ale can off the port side and shouted, “Man
overboard!” The pointers and the life-raft and ditch-bag
handlers leapt to our assigned positions. Steve, at the helm,
threw Quetzal to port, backing the genoa, then pinned the wheel
to starboard. We were hove-to in seconds. And there it was, the
“MOB” floating 15 feet away to port; not for a moment
had we lost contact with it, and now we were drifting slowly down
We had been discussing MOB retrieval
off and on since the previous evening, when John had assigned
our MOB responsibilities and explained his preferred method. “But
how does it work,” I wondered, “when, say, we’re
running deep down under the poled-out genoa?”
“The same way,” John
said. “You just hove to. You have to turn farther to back
the sail, but it’s the same principle. The beauty is you
never sail very far from the MOB.” Beautiful indeed. I’ll
never think in any other terms about MOB retrieval. This was one
of several valuable lessons I’ve learned sailing with John
on his beloved Kaufman 47.
The idea behind this present cruise
was to visit two places in the Gulf of St. Lawrence seldom visited
by American sailboats—Îles de la Madeleine, to which
we were heading when the soda can went overboard, and the coast
of Quebec near the Labrador border. Then we’d round the
north coast of Newfoundland to St. John’s. Crewed by John
Kretschmer regulars, this was a kind of make-up trip for another,
far more ambitious cruise John and I had been planning for almost
a year: from Newfoundland up the length of the Labrador coast
to its end at Cape Chidley, across Hudson Strait and into Baffin
Island’s Frobisher Bay to the Inuit town of Iqaluit at the
head of the 200-mile-long bay, the stuff of dreams for those of
us lured northward since childhood. But we’d reluctantly
scrapped the idea for practical reasons of time, money, wear and
tear on Quetzal, and because, as John put it, not exactly kidding,
his wife Tadji would likely divorce him if he disappeared for
a month into northern mists. Deb, from Eugene, Oregon; Bruce,
a forester from British Columbia; Ron, a retired electrical engineer
from Chicago; Steve, a manufacturer from Cincinnati; Nick, a transported
Canadian now producing and directing documentary films in New
York; and I, a writer from New York, had all signed on for the
Baffin Island trip, despite what might have been our best interests.
But none of us viewed the present cruise as a consolation prize;
we were going sail Quetzal to some of Maritime Canada’s
most exotic coastlines.
ÎLES DE LA MADELEINE
There’s this string of unique
islands lying in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence 70 miles
north of Prince Edward Island that most people in the U.S. and
few in Canada have ever heard of. I was one. As John and I planned
the shape of the cruise, I had suggested we bypass them to spend
more time on the appealingly empty Quebec coast and in Newfoundland.
Man, was I wrong.
The southernmost island, Havre-Aubert,
hove into sight, a humped smudge on the horizon as John, from
below, announced Captain’s Hour. Only a raging gale, blue
water over the deck, forestalls that Quetzal tradition. Drinks
are passed aft. The helmsman, who happened to be me, is served
first (we’d been hand steering since the autopilot went
on the blink), then the others in the cockpit from aft to fore.
Before the crudités and Canadian sausage came topside,
we’d sailed into a fog bank. Havre-Aubert vanished, and
the wind died to a trifle. We rolled in the genoa and started
the motor. Then, suddenly, I was wildly off course, compass card
spinning…. I’m a reasonably competent boat driver,
and I’d had only a sip of rum, honest. I tried to follow
the compass back on course, 120°.
“Wrong way,” said John
with a questioning glance at the, uh, helmsman.
In windless fog there was no sailing
reference but the compass. That’s usually enough, and I
was getting back near course, had her at 90° turning toward
120°—until the compass went careening off in the other
direction. Huh? Mortified, I asked Steve, who happened to be near
the wheel, to steer, and as he passed me, he patted my shoulder
to say, “Don’t worry, old man, you’re probably
not losing your mind.” Gratifying.
But he couldn’t control her
either, Quetzal snaking around her course, wherever that was,
as the compass card danced randomly.
“You know, come to think
on it,” said John, “the cruising guide says compass
anomalies have been reported in this area.” I was much relieved
to learn I wasn’t the anomaly, and Captain’s Hour
proceeded unmarred by further magnetic disturbance. Then the fog
lifted, the fickle wind resumed, and landfall excitement bounced
around the boat as we broad-reached for the entrance between Île
d’Entrée and Havre-Aubert in falling light.
Four large islands connected by
sandbars (“tombolos” in technical lingo) form the
30-mile-long, hook-shaped archipelago. The fifth, Île d’Entrée,
forming the starboard side of the entrance, is the only one unconnected
to the rest and inhabited by English speakers, most from Scotland.
Roughly dome-shaped, fronted by red sandstone cliffs and topped
with rolling green meadows, grazing sheep, and fruit-colored homes,
the island seemed to glow in the soft, falling light. None of
us had ever been here before, few of us had ever heard of “
the Maggies,” as someone in P.E.I. who’d never been
there had called them, but it was clear we were somewhere special.
Still, we still had to find the harbor at Havre-Aubert (the islands
carry the same name as their main towns), eight miles east of
Entrée and dead into the freshening breeze. It was dark
as we picked our way through the tricky entrance flanked by sandbars
where gulls and cormorants waded, so we anchored out for the night.
Early next morning we docked at
the sweet little Club Nautique, the best and really the only small-boat
harbor in the islands, where locals sat around under the portico
drinking cappuccino and speaking French. After showers and shore-side
breakfasts, we strolled the main-street galleries, craft stores,
and mostly tasteful tourist emporiums, each housed in charming
Acadian architecture. But this isn’t exactly a tourist town.
It was a perfect day in August, and there were a lot of us out
and about, but there appeared to be a healthy and young population
(it’s easy everywhere to distinguish locals from tourists)
interested in the arts and in being Madelinots, of which there
are 13,000. This would be a place worth getting to know, but you
give up leisurely visits traveling by sailboat on a schedule;
it’s a willing compromise for the sailing, for the boat
While the others chose different
means of transport to see what they could see of the Madeleines
(we stopped calling them “the Maggies”), Nick, Ron,
John, and I drove the dinghy across the channel, dragged it over
the sandbar, and hiked over the grassy hook-shaped sand spit to
reach the ocean beach. And this wasn’t just any beach. It
was, I’m convinced, one of the finest in North America,
certainly ranking with Fire Island or the Coast Guard Beach on
Cape Cod. Perfect white sand that squeaked when you walked on
it (because all the sand grains, I later learned, are uniform
in size and shape) with high, grassy dunes behind and very few
of what Melville called “water gazers” even on this
exquisite, cobalt-cloudless sky.
As we reconvened on Quetzal for
Captain’s Hour, the captain of the little tour boat Le Navigateur
II crossed to dock to give us enough mackerel fillets for everyone
we knew. He introduced himself as Robert. A casting-agency salt,
born and raised right here, Robert told us, tapping his temple,
that he knew “the—how do you say in English?...The
holes. Where they live.” The tour-boat operator next door
later told us that Robert has some kind of knack. “When
nobody else does, he catches.” Incongruously, Robert also
sells insurance. Robert, Nick, and Bruce reverted to French, the
more useful language in these islands, and I lost track of the
The next day we drove a rental
car north to buy big-scale charts of the Quebec coast and other
needs in Cap-aux-Meules, a busy town built around the ferry terminal
(regular service from Montreal and P.E.I.) and to see more of
the Madeleine geography. I’ve never seen anything quite
like it, this sandy incongruity in the rockbound north. Linked
by those tombolos, the inhabitable islands were formed by ancient
uplifts of sandstone tinged red by iron oxide that glows as if
with its own internal illumination, especially in low-angle sunlight.
Battered by surf and wind, the soft red sandstone is constantly
eroding, forming complex fissures and deep caves in the cliff
faces. The iron oxide is merely a thin covering over quartz, and
when erosion wears away the iron, it leaves that pure white sand
we found at Havre-Aubert and elsewhere. The plateaus atop the
islands are well populated, but the neat clapboard homes painted
in bold primary colors fit without offense into the wild, windswept
The higher dunes and sand spits
are covered in exotic vegetation, sandwort, beach pea, bayberry,
black crowberry, starflower, and something called poverty grass.
Bogs laced with channels that made me long for a kayak—and
time—have formed and matured on the larger spits. Parallel
dunes have created shallow lagoons linked to the open sea by narrow
channels, which would also have been a delight to experience from
North of Île du Cap-aux-Meules,
the lagoon between Dune du Nord and its parallel associate Dune
du Sud is nature’s gift to kite sailors. An itinerant coterie
of kite sailors had gathered at the lagoon, camping in trailers,
cars, and tents so as to miss not a moment of nature’s other
gift—wind. We envied them their wind as we stopped to watch
svelte, serious men and women skim across the water at, what,
20 knots? More? From a distance their kites looked like extravagantly
plumed tropical birds. One area of the lagoon is reserved for
the experts, the other for fledglings. Alas, we were also skimming
over the Madeleines. Maybe I wasn’t alone among us in longing
to somehow participate physically in the alluring environment.
That feeling reemerged when we
stopped at the one of the islands’ major attractions, the
beach adjoining Havre aux Maisons. Here red limestone cliffs,
their caves and crenelated faces, climb 30 feet directly over
the white-sand beach, and in places little waves lapped at the
base of the cliff. On the wall of an eave-shaped cave, John scratched
“Tadji & John” in the soft rock and ringed it
with a heart. Aww. Sweet. He’s not such a crusty old salt.
We turned around at the tip of
Dune du North, planning to visit Île de la Grande Entrée
aboard Quetzal later that day, and we still had provisioning to
do, the charts to acquire. It’s 25 miles from the Club Nautique
to the harbor on Grande Entrée, and maybe there was time
to catch enough of the kite sailors’ breeze to please Quetzal.
There was; we sailed fast in flat water in the lee of the islands,
reached the harbor and tied alongside the commercial wharf shortly
after Captain’s Hour.
There was nothing here for yachts,
none of the Club Nautique niceties. This was a fishing port, period,
fishing being the base of Madeleine economy, tourism a close second.
Here tourism was absent. Every slip was filled with fishing boats
rigged for trawling, long-lining, scalloping, and crabbing depending
on the season. That night a string of cars drove along the wharf.
Had they come to see the strange sailing vessel from away, or
was this part and parcel of the evening’s entertainment?
A salty guy in a pickup with his dog (named Al Capone) stopped
to chat, told us that the lobster season had just ended and the
bottom-fishing season was about to begin.
We’d had only a fleeting
glimpse of this multilayered string of islands in our two-day
stay, but now it was time to go. There were other seldom-visited
landfalls to make, first in Quebec.
After rounding the sprawling shoals
off Pointe de l’Est, we pointed Quetzal’s bow a little
east of north toward for an isolated outport called Harrington
Harbor, 200 foggy miles away. John likes to go. His business,
after all, is ocean passages, but even in the proximity of coasts,
he likes to go. Fine by us; that’s why we sign on. Ron,
for just one example, has made seventeen voyages with John, including
two Atlantic crossings. Quetzal is a goer as well. You can see
speed in her sweet lines, narrow beam, tall rig, and sleek, low
topsides. Everything aloft and alow is shipshape and simple, the
evolution of several hundred thousand sea miles. When you get
John talking boats, particularly his own, you benefit from listening.
Speaking of Quetzal’s topsides, he points out that every
inch above the waterline requires three inches of keel to compensate,
but the obvious price to pay for low topsides is a wet deck. “She
can be a submarine in heavy weather.” And you pay the cost
of a narrow beam in the currency of diminished space below. Quarters
were close with seven aboard, but nobody cared about that—you
just say “excuse me” a lot as you pass—because
Quetzal is a sailing boat. She’s old-fashioned in design,
John says, compared to the modern trend toward wide boats that
carry the beam aft to the transom.
“There are fine modern boats out there, don’t get
me wrong, and they’re faster than Quetzal, some better built.
But they don’t track as well.” His long experience
tells him that the most important attribute of an ocean boat,
more efficacious than speed over the long haul, is tracking ability.
“Quetzal makes almost no leeway.”
Among other valuable things I’ve
learned from John is the efficacy of a poled-out genoa. It solves
the cruiser’s problem of downwind sailing because, unlike
asymmetrical spinnakers, you can sail as deep as you please and
still have the headsail in clean air unimpeded by the main. The
forespar pole, stowed vertically along the forward side of the
mast, is easily lowered on the inboard track, and with the outboard
end clipped to the genoa sheet, all you need do is rig the fore-
and after-guy. And if you need to reef, all you do is roll in
some of the genoa. I wonder why this configuration isn’t
more widely seen on coastal cruising boats. Anyway, all sails
need wind to make sense, and we had only a dribbling SW. It would
be a long motor trip.
“Hey, look,” said Ron,
no hands on the wheel. “The autopilot is working.”
When John came topside, we told him Ron, the engineer, had disassembled
the entire system in the cockpit, found the flaw and fixed it.
He knew Ron; it was possible.
To complete the route by the 29th
of August, we needed to maintain six knots average, wind or no
wind, but the breeze hung around 10 knots apparent from astern.
So we motored most of the day. Come Captain’s Hour, about
1800, John set the watches. Though there’s always someone
at the wheel even when on autopilot, there were no fixed watches
during the day. At 2000, the night watches began, and with John
standing a solo watch, we could cover the night in two-person,
three-hour watches. This felt like luxury for those of us used
to four-on-four-off aboard distance-race boats, and Steve and
I got lucky this time, on the 2000-2300 watch. By dark, wind had
come in at 14 knots apparent, and with the genoa poled out she
was doing a solid seven knots to everyone’s delight. However,
it’s an undependable breeze, that prevailing SW in these
latitudes, and this one didn’t last through the night.
A wet, woolen fog had settled in
by the time the second watch, geared up for a cold night, came
on deck. The radar was doing its good work; we were crossing the
shipping lanes to and from the St. Lawrence River, but even so,
if you stare too long into the murk, your eye conjures objects
from their absence, container-ship bows looming over ours. We
talked a lot this foggy trip about how it must have been in pre-technology
days, with no position fix beyond dead reckoning when who-knew-what
was bearing down on you. On this night the shipping lanes were
empty; we were alone on the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
By mid-afternoon, the fog had relented
enough to sight the coast of Quebec 20 miles off. By Captain’s
Hour, the breeze had petered out again, and insects were coming
aboard, a bad sign for conditions ashore. But bugs, like fog,
are a fact of cruising life in the north. We universally preferred
This is a crazy coastline, it became
clear on approach, ragged bays and deep fjords, granite islands,
skerries, and a lot of sunkers, no more order to it than broken
glass in the alley. A place just east of Harrington Harbor is
called Bay of Rocks. The town is nestled securely behind two glacier-scoured
islands; the course of the Laurentian Ice Sheet is everywhere
imprinted on this coastline. Harrington’s web site says
that “intellectuals from Montreal” have gravitated
here for the “solitude.” Approaching the town dead
slow, we looked for dockage and intellectuals. There was plenty
of the former on another industrial wharf. A father, son, and
dog fishing from the head of the wharf couldn’t tell us
anything conclusive about the depth alongside. John took her in
at a slow-walk’s pace feeling for the bottom. Finding none,
we put the lines over—and plenty of fenders. Hard commercial
wharfs “padded” with topsides-disfiguring tractor
tires are another fact of life in these latitudes. Bring big-time
The harbor accommodated about two
dozen fishing vessels identical in everything but hull colors,
and every slip was occupied because here as well the lobster season
had just ended. There’s a curious, universal quirk to fishing-boat
design in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and in Newfoundland. Their
bows are high and sharp, the bridge is of normal size, but the
stern portion seems to have been lopped off 10 feet from what
should have been the transom. They look like toy boats by a maker
who didn’t care much about realism. We speculated for a
long time on why, but it seemed a hard question to pose here in
Harrington Harbor: “Why are your boats so damn stubby?”
We bought some stuff (Captain’s
Hour) from one of the two little general stores next door to each
other. The lady behind the counter told us that this had been
a busy season for visiting yachts. “You’re the fifth,
m’ love,” she said, in English, in Quebec. Why? Turns
out the entire population hails from Newfoundland, which is why
Harrington Harbor looked like it had been dragged en masse over
the ice from west of Burgeo.
Outside, a wiry man with ocean
weather etched in the folds of his face sat on his ATV (there
are no roads, only boardwalks). He said, “Yes, my people
is from Newfoundland. Long while ago, b’y. I was born and
raised right here.”
“Where in Newfoundland?”
I asked. He told me, but I didn’t get it, sounded like he
was chewing on his words, as Newfoundlanders sometimes do. I asked
again, but still didn’t understand. Probably an abandoned
south-coast outport where the provincial government, unable to
supply essential services to towns on that rough, roadless coast
was, and still is, paying residents to go elsewhere. With a nod
at those from away, he kick-started his ATV and clattered off
over the boardwalk into the fog. We followed for a walking tour.
Clapboard houses the color of fruit—orange, lime, apple,
persimmon, and peach—all barnacled to the naked pink granite.
The fog was moody, and the town felt faintly melancholy, but then,
we were from away, way away, and the people we met on foot or
passing slowly on their ATVs all appeared content, even cheery;
isolation seemed to bear lightly on Harrington harbor. Maybe only
the intellectuals felt lonely.
That evening, a fisherman suggested
we move the boat around to the other side of the wharf. “Bad
roll on this side, m’son.” We tied her to the high
wharf in the lee of the fish-processing plant and warned each
other to be careful climbing eight feet down to the deck over
slippery timbers. We liked that you had to be careful—and
the notion of going where few other yachts ever go. Mosquitoes
found us, so we went below, closed her up, and played Trivial
By noon, after watering from a
fish-plant hose, we were ready to seek the Quebec wilderness we’d
come for. We sailed eastward, skipping a 30-mile stretch of coast
for which we had no big-scale chart coverage, and stopped for
the night in a steep, heavily forested cove at the north side
of an island called Gros Mécatina. That name, Innu for
“large mountain,” spatters the chart, a mountain,
river, point, an island, and a bay. Cartier was here in 1535 on
the second voyage in search of the Northwest Passage to the East;
he’s the guy who sarcastically named those narrows in the
St. Lawrence River La Chine Rapids. And the region is not entirely
wilderness. The little towns of Gros-Mécatina and Mutton
Bay lie nearby, but no roads connect them to anywhere else. Deb,
Nick, Steve, and John dinghied ashore, but, slapping black flies,
they found no way to leave the rocky beach through impassable
thickets of alder, spruce, and fir. Even if they had climbed the
hill “for the view,” there would have been none in
the milky fog.
The fog still hung in the morning
air along with the bloodsuckers, so we got underway, sailing 35
miles east to an alluring spot John and I had noticed on the chart.
Jacques Cartier Bay, a fjord, winds sinuously deep into the Canadian
Shield, and at its end widens into a beautiful pool. Now this
looked like wilderness. By the usual combination of motoring and
sailing, we fetched the entrance with only a couple hours of daylight
remaining to reach that pool. Sailing Directions warns of uncharted
fish-trap nets and aquaculture structures in these bays, so no
night piloting. At 2200 rpm, we were doing over six knots past
ice-scoured pink and white granite rock close aboard on either
hand. Alas, there were signs of civilization, fish shacks, nets
and floats piled in front, but there were no people visible; besides,
we didn’t want to be fundamentalists about this wilderness
Here’s a secret about the
imperturbable Captain Kretschmer: Overhead power lines set him
twitching. I’m not saying this is irrational, just that
it’s highly unusual to see him display any manifestation
of anxiety. Some of us had witnessed the power-line phobia before,
kidded him about it. However, the high-voltage lines from Quebec’s
hydropower facilities set on towering sanctions atop the mountains
sagged as they crossed Jacques Cartier Bay. The chart offered
no clearance info. We slowed to a crawl. John stood on the transom,
craning his neck. His mast stands 74 feet above the waterline….
On the other hand, if Kretschmer was nervous, then shouldn’t
the rest of us be? We shut up and watched the lines slowly approach.
It’s a tricky call, but passing below, it looked like another
Quetzal mast would fit between hers and the power lines, so we
resumed kidding John.
Then the black flies attacked,
exacting the price of northern travel in blood. Having spent a
month some years ago at a small science station in NE Siberia,
where the bloodsuckers damn near ruined the experience, I came
prepared with a hooded bug shirt; so had Nick. But we evinced
no outward smugness, watching the others slapping and waving and
exclaiming. Mosquitoes reinforced the black-fly troops, but we
pressed on to the dead end of Cartier Bay. And it was worth the
The fog had cleared and the sun
had dipped to the mountaintops by the time we had the anchor set.
Buttery yellow light gleamed softly on the red rocks above the
tree line, and, cameras snapping, no one aboard wanted to be anywhere
else that evening, bugs or no bugs. Though we rushed to capture
it by camera, the sublime light lingered seemingly unnaturally.
Normally a boatload of talkers, we fell silent, watching. Ethereal
sunsets, particularly in the empty regions, induce introspection.
Then, battened down against the bloodsuckers, we scratched our
wounds while playing competitive Trivial Pursuit. Afterward, Bruce,
who had gone topside to use the overboard facilities, stuck his
head back in the companionway to announce that the night was bug-free.
The rest of us lined up to go topside to fix in memory this exquisite
Next morning we retraced our course
down Cartier Bay, about 15 miles, then picked our way through
narrow channels, some no wider than three Quetzal beams, amid
a welter of naked-rock islands, skerries, and ledges at the mouth
of the bay. The channel bent around a sharp point and gave into
a textbook fjord called Mistanoque Bay, but the bugs drove us
Now there loomed the question of
where to go next as John and I consulted the chart and counted
the days remaining. We had planned a stop at Red Bay, Labrador,
75 miles away, but that seemed to need modification, since we
also meant to stop at the old Viking settlement at L’Anse
aux Meadows, just across the Strait of Belle Isle from Red Bay.
Unless you’re lost at sea, all boat trips end. Shortly after
Captain’s Hour, John asked how we’d feel about pressing
on through the night, through the Strait of Belle Isle to reach
L’Anse aux Meadows about dawn. Fine. Of course.
“She’s a rugged coast,
b’y.” (a Bonavista resident)
Shortly after dawn, we anchored
at a little cove on the Great Northern Peninsula called Straitsview.
Most of us aboard had circumnavigated Newfoundland aboard Quetzal
in 2010, and I’ve been longing ever since to return to this
strange island, which, once visited, reaches out and grabs you
by the imagination and the sensibility and never lets go. Perhaps
because it’s a cold, foggy, rugged, as the man said, even
a treacherous coast and because life has never once been easy
for outport Newfoundlanders, the people are warm, friendly, and
almost unbelievably generous, especially when you arrive by sailboat.
(“You’ll be needin’ supplies, b’y. Here,
take my truck.”) Maybe the sailboat and the fact that we’ve
come by the ancient means of travel to see their island touches
them in some fundamental way, here where most everyone has lost
relatives to the sea. Or maybe they’re just congenitally
sweet. One of the two fishermen we met on the dock, both with
that typical weather-whipped face, offered us his car. “It’s
a fair walk to the site.” I wished we’d taken him
up on it, a fair walk indeed in an anomalous heat wave.
The Vikings-in-Newfoundland story
is fascinating and familiar. Suffice it to say that in 1960, the
Norwegian husband-and-wife team Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad went
searching for the “Vineland” of the sagas based on
their theory that the name did not refer to grapes, which grow
naturally no farther north than Cape Cod, but to “a land
of meadows and includes a peninsula.” A local man, George
Decker, led them to what he called an Indian mound that turned
out to be the remains of a Viking-style lodge like those in Greenland
and Iceland with artifacts, notably a spindle and bone needle,
indicating the presence of women in the settlement. Archeologists
found eight such dwellings and a wealth of artifacts reliably
dated to the year 1000 during five years of excavations. The museum,
run by Parks Canada, is successfully designed to fit smoothly
into the environment, and though the actual sites have been reburied
to preserve whatever artifacts remain, there is a tasteful reconstruction
of the Viking-era rock houses with sod roofs.
We straggled back to the boat,
Nick and Bruce hiking overland, Steve and I trying unsuccessfully
to hitch, since the plan was to get underway for St. Anthony,
on the other side of the Great Northern Peninsula, for fuel, water,
and supplies, b’y. Midafternoon, we rounded Cape Bauld,
a spectacular, quintessentially Newfoundlandic headland with a
lighthouse half shrouded in fog for picturesque effect. At 51°
39” N by 55° 25” W, Cape Bauld is the northernmost
point in Newfoundland, and looks it.
Ramshackle, down at the heels,
the government dock at St. Anthony, seems to have declined since
we stopped there for the same reason in 2010. Tonight it was silent
and empty except for the rusting hulk of a small freighter called,
interestingly to us, Baffin Bay, with a sign on the wheelhouse,
“Enter at your own risk.” Right. There was no dockside
fuel, and the water, we heard, was suspect. No one minded getting
in the wind early the nest day for Fogo Island at the east end
of Notre Dame Bay, 120 miles SSE.
When Captain’s Hour passed,
then dinner in the cockpit, and the first night watch was gearing
up, I sensed that end-in-sight feeling settle over the boat, that
is, unless I project. I think I felt it first as we rounded Cape
Bauld. We still told jokes (admittedly, their tenor sometimes
drove Deb below to read something decent) and old sea stories
and remarked on everything we saw as we sailed fast, but the energy
was different. We had just three days to reach the Royal Newfoundland
Yacht Club, where John would leave Quetzal for a couple of weeks.
The trip had to end, they all do, and just as a sense of excited
expectation pervades the boat at the outset, a subdued mood comes
aboard as the end hoves into sight.
“Whales!” Deb pointing
away off the port bow. Whale sightings always alter the mood.
We had seen minkes and humpbacks rolling and diving in the Gulf,
but we were late for whale sightings, the capelin run having come
and gone a month before. Now the whales were close aboard—they
were orcas, and they were really close. You could tell the male
by his towering dorsal fin about the size of a Laser sail; six
smaller dorsals probably indicated females or juveniles. What
were they doing, milling about in a small patch of ocean? Feeding?
Or was it just a social game?
Nick and John were conning her
toward the town of Seldom-Come-By on the south side of Fogo Island,
one of the largest off-lying Newfoundland, when the rest of the
mid-night watch standers came on deck to handle lines and fenders
at the same dock we’d used five years ago—in front
of the F. U. Trading Company. (You can imagine the quips and jokes,
as Deb rolled her eyes.) And we were greeted by the same friendly
lady, who ran the store and the charming little fishing museum
next door. She remembered us, she said.
Seldom-Come-By, usually shortened
to Seldom, actually means the opposite. It’s the last port
coming from the north before the “Straight Shore,”
a 20-mile coastline that isn’t straight at all, but it offers
few harbors to boats of any size. Thus, with a storm looming,
boats would “seldom come by without stopping.” (This
is the land of colorful names: Funk Island, Coffin Cove, Northeast
Nonesuch, Pandygut Tickle, Bad Bay, Swagger Cove; the best we
ever heard, however, came over the radio in 2010, a Coast Guard
request: “Will the pleasure vessel in the vicinity of Dildo
Bank come back with its position.”). We showered in pleasing
facilities, started a load of laundry, and walked into town for
what turned out to be the worst meal any of us had ever ingested.
To make food that bad requires painstaking, diligent concentration.
If, as some students of Newfoundland suggest, the future of the
island lies in tourism, then the “cuisine” needs serious
The modern history of Newfoundland
has been determined by two conditions: lots of fish—and
no fish. When Newfoundlanders say “fish,” they mean
cod. During the former condition, a kind of slavery prevailed
under the so-called Truck System devised by much-hated fish merchants
in St. John’s. The merchant sold the goods and gear the
fishermen needed on credit (“on tick”) and then bought
the fish from the fisherman. The merchant, another bred of bloodsucker,
fixed the price for the goods he sold and the fish he bought.
For dozen of generations, cashless outport fishermen lived and
died owing their souls to the company store. In 1951, factory
fishing, by Russians, Portuguese, Spanish, and, yes, Canadians
murdered millions of tons of cod. Foreigners were prohibited after
the advent of the 200-mile Economic Exclusion Zone, leaving the
way clear for Canadian factory ships to murder the stocks. In
the early 1990s, the fish stock totally collapsed. In 1992, the
Canadian government declared a ten-year moratorium on cod, but
still the stocks, particularly those inshore, had not recovered
to a sustainable extent, and the ban was reestablished. In 2011,
fishery biologists noted a glimmer of recovery, but far more slowly
then they’d expected.
Today, the once single-specie fishery
has diversified to include plaice, flounder, shrimp, scallops,
lobster, and snow crab. Radar, GPS, and steel hulls have eased
the mortality rate, but Newfoundlanders still live in a more direct,
confrontational relation to the natural world than any of us “from
away.” While some of the crew went off on a guided car tour
of Fogo—sights including Brimstone Head, a volcanic upthrust
that the Flat Earth Society has determined to be one of the four
corners of Earth—I walked to the Fogo Island Shipbuilding
and Producers Cooperative Society. Established in 1967, the Fogo
Coop is the wave of the future. The fish-processing operation
and the terms of collective ownership are so successful that a
documentary about it by Memorial University’s Institute
of Social and Economic Research, in St. John’s, has been
used worldwide as a model for community organization and ownership
in developing nations.
When the others returned from the
car tour guided by a gregarious local woman, having “driven
every road and path on the island,” they told us about the
future of Fogo as they’d seen it—tourism and art.
The story is that a Fogo-born woman who left the island and made
a “gazillion dollars” in tech or something has returned
to finance an artist’s colony, offering grants and housing.
We had heard about the fledgling project on our 2010 tour, and
now it seems to be in full swing. There is also a new five-star
hotel, rooms starting at $350, that Oprah is said to have liked,
perched on a rocky point near Joe Batt’s Arm. Nick showed
us photographs; we thought it a monstrosity, but who asked us?
And if it’s good for the people, who cares?
By the way, a phone call to our
friend Alan Creaser from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, an expert on
everything Maritime Canada, cleared up the question of why the
fishing boats are so stubby. If your boat exceeds 45 feet overall,
then you pay a much higher licensing fee; if you lop off 10 feet
of stern, then you don’t. Alan also told us that dirty weather,
35 knots of south wind, would arrive in Newfoundland waters in
48 hours. We meant to make one more stop in Newfoundland. With
no interest in making the passage into the teeth of a half-gale,
we beat it for Bonavista, 45 miles SSE of Seldom.
Sailing fast over the bulging headland
at Cape Freels, turning nearly due south in open water for Cape
Bonavista, we beat the weather but not nightfall. The chart plotter
claimed that a green flasher marked the approach, but it wasn’t
there. (Lighted nav aids in Canada are lower and far dimmer than
in the States.) Now we had to find the obscure, unmarked entrance
hidden behind a sprawling rocky headland. Binoculars revealed
“Before the chart plotter,
I would have hove-to out here for the night,” John said.
Though we have paper charts, and actually mark positions on them,
John has gone almost exclusively to electronic navigation. He
says he practices the “concept of JET.” Just Enough
Technology. (There was not a single moment of navigational confusion
the entire trip.) John was singing softly to himself, as he does
when concentrating on something. I suspect he was thinking about
eschewing this night entry. We were trying to help, but the naked
eye was no use. The chart plotter knew best, and it led us in
with only mild anxiety.
Bonavista claims to have been Cabot’s
first landfall in the New World, and despite scanty evidence for
the claim, the town had built a replica of his ship, the Matthew,
which we’d seen on our last Newfoundland cruise, but it
was gone. The project found enough funding to build the vessel,
but not enough to maintain it, and the Matthew had fallen apart.
We found space on the floating dock near where the ship had been
five years ago, and after another dinner in the cockpit we walked
up the hill to a waterfront bar, played a little 8-ball before
heavy weather bore in on Bonavista. It was drizzling by the time
we returned to the boat. We woke up to a hard, gusty, strangely
warm wind from the south with driving rain. Geared up in full
foulies, boots, we waded to breakfast at the café adjoining
the bar, still riffing on that execrable pile of grease we’d
eaten in Fogo. Weathered in for the day, John did some speed-time-distance
calculation and announced that to reach the Royal Newfoundland
Yacht Club, our final destination, before dark tomorrow, we’d
need to bestir ourselves at 0400 and get going by 0430. He hoped
we didn’t mind. We didn’t.
After Captain’s Hour in clearing
weather, we walked around the harbor to an excellent restaurant
frequented exclusively by those from away, then to a gem of a
movie theater, the sort you might have found in small-town Vermont
in 1955, to see Mission Impossible, less of a gem. On the way
to dinner, I got John talking about his nav technique and about
JET. He pointed out that, while the chart plotter allows us proximity
to land, to do things we’d never do with GPS alone, for
instance the night approach to Bonavista and the rock-hopping
in Quebec, a new, stricter kind of situational awareness is required.
“I’m always thinking of bail-out strategy. Which way
do I turn to escape if, say, the engine dies or something else
goes wrong?” The talk led me think that I might be a little
insouciant about my own chart-plotter nav, but then southern New
England waters aren’t nearly as demanding as those we’d
just sailed. (“She’s a rugged coast, b’y.”
Yep, by 0430, we’d cleared
Bonavista Harbor in full dark, followed by a gorgeous sunrise.
But it was mostly a motor trip. Giving the string of sunkers and
glacial rubble at the mouth of Trinity Bay a wide berth, slipping
between Baccalieu Island and the high cliffs on the cape at the
mouth of Conception Bay, we sighted Cape St. Francis twelve hours
later. On our last Newfoundland trip, we’d happily docked
along the seawall in downtown St. John’s, but now, the offshore
oil industry booming, the waterfront is dominated by oil-rig tenders.
Since John meant to leave Quetzal for nineteen days, head home
to Ft. Lauderdale before his next charter trip, he’d picked
the Royal Newfound Yacht Club, a pleasant, unprepossessing place,
despite its fancy name, on the other side of the peninsula from
John performed his typical nimble
in on a crowded seawall, and after the lines went over, I did
a quick measure—we’d sailed 800 miles in fifteen days
to the delight of all aboard. We’d grown close in the tight
quarters, shared a special experience that now was ended. The
next day, we said our melancholy goodbyes and went our separate
ways. Maybe we’d meet again aboard this special boat, maybe
on another ocean. I’ll miss them all and Quetzaloo, as John
calls her, and John himself.
(A week after our return, I got
an e-mail from John saying that he was cutting short his brief
stint at home to return to his boat. Gusts to 60 knots of wind
was forecast for St. John’s. Good luck, Skip. Good luck,
Quetzaloo and all who sail in her.)
Dallas Murphy is an accomplished playwright, novelist, nonfiction
writer, and an eloquent spokesperson for the ocean environment.
Nick McKinney is an award-winning filmmaker whose latest film
is "The C Word." Both are excellent sailors and great shipmates