Expanded History – Chapter Eight
|Chapter Eight-The Canadian Cruises, 1993 and 1994,
1993, South Coast of NewfoundlandWorking part-time at the Lab meant I worked full-time for autumn, winter and spring and took the summer off for sailing. The goal in 1993 was to cruise Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Is, Cape Breton Is and the south coast of Newfoundland. We left on July 5th, which allowed me to enjoy the festive holiday activities in Bellport. On board beside myself were Ben and Paul. Heading down the bay under power we had our first crisis; the transmission acted up and the boat slowly lost way. We managed to tie up to a dock in Babylon, just north of the Robert Moses Bridge and there I discovered a cap was loose on the transmission and the fluid had escaped into the bilge. The unit had been overhauled the previous winter and obviously a mechanic had been careless. The boat was rather large for the dock we were tied to and we started to attract interested sightseers. One of them was nice enough to offer a ride to a service station on Montauk Highway and I returned triumphant with a few cans of transmission fluid. That fixed things and we sailed off to the Cape Cod Canal. Abeam of Block Island we were stopped and searched by the Coast Guard. This has happened to me several times since then, I think they always have to find some deficiency; this time I could not lay my hands on a current radio license, although I knew I had one. The officer in charge was just about to cite me for this when I pointed out I had not actually used the radio. He conceded the point although it is better not to be a smartass. We refueled in Provincetown, always a fun stopover, and sailed directly to Halifax. After customs clearance we could not find a slip in Halifax and tied up in Dartmouth, on the other side of the harbor; not a problem, there was frequent ferry service.The most fascinating spot was the Maritime Museum and the story of the gigantic explosion of December, 1917. A French ship, the Mont Blanc, collided with another ship in the harbor narrows and caught fire. She was loaded with 2,500 tons of explosive and carried a deck cargo of benzene. When she blew it was the biggest man-made explosion until the atom bomb in 1945. Halifax was leveled, 2,000 peopled died and the destruction was so widespread it was days before the full extent of the disaster reached the outside world. The museum has a large exhibit devoted to the incident; there are harrowing tales of the residents wandering around in the wreckage of their homes in the bitter cold. We stayed a couple of days, Paul returned to work and Louise joined the boat.
Our next stop was Louisbourg, until a few years before a small fishing port. In the 18th century it was the most powerful French naval center in the New World; from there many raids were conducted on British settlements to the south. Finally the British managed to destroy the fort and naval facilities with a colonial army from Boston. Two centuries passed, then the coalmines, which had been the economic mainstay of the region closed down. The Government came up with the imaginative idea of rebuilding the fort as a tourist attraction using unemployed miners. Archeologists found many artifacts, which could be used as patterns in the reconstruction, and a full set of plans was discovered in Paris. It is now a wonderful place to spend a day; students in period costumes tend the bars and restaurants and musicians strum their instruments in the streets. When we were there Disney was shooting a movie and the extras in their period gears added to the atmosphere.
From Louisbourg we sailed directly to the French islands of St Pierre and Miquelon, tying up at St Pierre. At times we had three reefs in the mainsail on this windy passage. While Ben and I tried to fix a leak in the hatch of the aft cabin, which dripped water on my bunk, Louise took a tour boat to Miquelon. We enjoyed the French cooking and were amused as we sat in the restaurant to see the same drivers pass the place in their cars time after time; the island is so small there is really nowhere to drive to. Our next stop was Fortune on the south coast of Newfoundland. After clearing customs we did a little shopping and in an old-fashioned chandlery we bought a packet of ship’s biscuit. Later when we came to sample them we found they were literally hard as rock, even when soaked in hot soup. We headed west, gunkholing along the coast, stopping at Brunette Is, Hermitique Cove, Grey River and Baie d’Espoir. The locals were very friendly and usually dropped by for a chat as we lay tied up to the government wharf. On the remoter capes we often spotted bald eagles. We sailed by ominous cliffs in the Lampidres Passage, myriad waterfalls cascaded from the tops. We often had difficulty anchoring safely as the water was so deep, in one spot we cruised slowly cruised up and down looking for shallower depths and finally anchored on an underwater hill with 120 ft under the boat. The shores abounded with birds, much to Louise’s delight, she is an avid bird-watcher. We saw puffins, guillemots, razorbills and ospreys, as well as the bald eagles mentioned earlier. At times we tied up to the rotting docks of abandoned villages, often they were outports, that is, only accessible by sea. Now the only inhabitants were in the overgrown cemetery.
An outport that had not been deserted was Francois, built precariously on pilings in a mountainous bowl abutting the sea that cut off all land communication. Louise, always ready for a new sensation, persuaded a local fisherman to take her cod fishing in his skiff. He seemed very dubious about taking a woman, but it worked out fine and she caught three cod by jigging, one of which of course we had to eat. From Francois we sailed to Ramea Island, a remote place several miles off the coast. Two preteen girls, Jennifer and Jackie, stopped by several times. They were fascinated by the boat, especially the home port painted on the stern – ‘New York’. I suspect life was very dull on Ramea, and they were already figuring out how to get off it.
Ramea was as far west as we planned to sail in Newfoundland and we made a passage to Prince Edward Island, tying up at Charlottetown were I had friends, Eileen and Glynn, I had met while living in Canada in the 1950s. After a few days of sightseeing we sailed through the Canso Passage to the St Peter’s Locks and into the Bras D’or Lake. On the way to Barra Strait Ben and I took the dinghy ashore to harvest some mussels. At the Strait we tied up to a reconstructed Highland Village which depicted how the early Scots immigrants had lived, including animals in the living room. From there we sailed to Baddeck and spent some hours at the museum devoted to Alexander Graham Bell. Our next anchorage was Maskell Cove, where we visited a friend of a friend, Diana, who had a house there. We met her mother who was a fascinating person, her father had been the last Governor of Finland when it was still under Russian domination. Some friends we had made in Prince Edward Island, Gerald and Susan, were also there on their boat with their children, who were learning to play the bagpipes. We endured a recital. In the morning we enticed Louise to take a dip in the cold lake waters, she stayed in longer than I expected. Making our way west we anchored at Petit de Grat, which is a French speaking Acadian village and then made our way up the Liscomb River for dinner at the Lodge.
Louise left us in Halifax and Ben and I sailed via a few ports on the Nova Scotian coast to Portland, Maine. We cruised to Freeport and my daughter Brenda and friend Katie joined us for a few days. Dodging the thick lobster trap floats we sailed to Jewel Island and then to Admiral Peary’s old home on Eagle Island. In thick fog we tied up at Bailey’s Island and then returned to South Freeport where Brenda and Katie left, and we were joined by Shoel and Nancy. We sailed to the artist colony on Monhegan Island and spent a night at the tiny village of Port Clyde, were there is a charming, old-fashioned grocery store. We endured a buggy night at Ebenecook then sailed to Boothbay via Townsend Gut and then turned west to the Basin and Sebasco Harbor. The next day we lunched at a nice dockside restaurant on Bailey’s Island, now sadly closed, and returned to South Freeport via Cliff Island, Nancy returned home from South Freeport.
The three of us sailed Fiona to the Isle of Shoals and then to Provincetown. We transited the Cape Cod Canal in the dark and anchored at Sippican just after 1 am. Our next stop was Block Island but a complication was Hurricane ‘Emily’, which was spinning a 100 miles south of Block. The wind was touching 25 knots in the harbor but we called the tender service on the radio and went ashore for dinner. The operator assured us the tender would run until 11 pm but when we got back the tender was securely fastened to the dock and on enquiry the barmaid in the ‘Oar’ restaurant told us the operator had caught the last ferry to leave that night for Rhode Island. We were stuck ashore! She suggested taking one of the numerous inflatables tied up in the dinghy dock, saying the owners were all away and would not be back that night. So we got one started and returned to the boat, intending to launch our own dinghy and return it in the morning. But about 2 am there was a furious rapping on the hull and a very irate sailor was demanding to know why we had stolen his dinghy. It was very embarrassing but Shoel is a psychologist and I let him smooth the feathers of our visitor. We had a good sail to Fire Island Inlet on the wind left by ‘Emily’ and returned home on Labor Day weekend without incident. It had been a really good cruise which left me with a yen to see more of the Canadian Maritimes.
The next day we transited the Canso Strait which divided Nova Scotia from Cape Breton Island (but no more, a causeway was built later) and sailed through the Northumberland Strait to Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island. Here Dick felt a little peculiar and a doctor recommended he leave the boat and return home because of unusually high blood pressure. Ben and I scouted for a replacement but when it was time to leave we had found no one. On the way out of the harbor we were boarded by the Canadian Coast Guard. One of the sailors was a young student, Joe, who was working for the CG for the summer. When I explained our predicament he was tickled by the idea of circumnavigating Newfoundland and got permission from his supervising petty officer to join us for a month. First time I ever shanghaied anyone from the coast guard. We waited patiently at anchor for the coast guard cutter to bring back Joe with his gear. When he was safely aboard we left for an overnight sail to Isle Madeleine in the Gulf of St Lawrence. We tied up at the wharf by morning but left before nightfall, nevertheless, the dock master clipped us for a day’s mooring fee. At most Canadian Government wharves tie-up is free for a few days, but I was in French Canada flying a US flag – an Anglo.
The weather was very variable; during the night we reduced sail to the third reef but by the afternoon of the next day we were motoring and by midnight we were in thick fog. We made a radar approach to the dock at Bonne Bay. Once tied up, a grizzled character introduced himself as George and lubricated by two stiff rums gave us the story of his 30 years sailing on that coast. The next day we moved to Port au Choix.There was a very plain restaurant on the unpaved main street that served hearty home cooked meals. We also enjoyed a small museum devoted to the aboriginal inhabitants of the region. The first humans appeared some 9,000 years ago but a dominant culture was the Dorset Indians (or Eskimos) who were apparently superseded by the Beothuk Indians about 2.000 years ago, judging by the exhibits they were very fond of red ochre. These were the Indians that greeted the first Europeans, perhaps that is why we now refer to all Indians as ‘Red men’. The lady in the museum told us archeologists were excavating a Dorset culture site out of town. Later we walked over, there was no one there but the trenches were in place, marked by a grid of string. We ran under sail in fog to our last port on the west coast of Newfoundland, St Barbe , and then crossed the Belle Island Strait to Anse au Loup on the Labrador coast.
On the rocky beach fishermen were drying thousands of small fish called Caplin on wooden racks called flakes. One of the fishermen induced us to try a few fish fried in his shack; very salty. We also ate a local berry called Bakeapple. When the wind dropped it was very buggy, not surprising considering the attraction of the drying fish, I guess. When we sailed to Red Bay we encountered our first substantial iceberg, which was aground at the entrance to the bay. Red Bay was a destination for Basque whalers in the 16th century, they arrived every year for about 60 years, by then there were no Bowhead whales left, the sad story of most whaling. There was an excellent museum, a centerpiece was an exhibit culled from a Basque whale ship called the San Juan which apparently stayed too long only to sink in a winter storm. The crew camped in the buildings on shore on Saddle Island but were not equipped to survive winter and died one by one. Some graves have been excavated, although the bodies are long gone, the thick woolen jerkins that they wore have survived. When the ships came out each summer they were ballasted with red Spanish roof tiles, many of which still littered the shore. The lighthouse keeper on Saddle Island, Henry Fowler, gave us a tour of the interesting archeological sites on the island. Red Bay is the end of the coastal road, going further north is only possible by boat or snowmobile in winter. Our next stop was Henley Harbour, where a Canadian Fisheries vessel gave us some good advice on sailing to Battle Harbour. The little dock there was dominated by stark black cliffs of basalt which had crystallized into large hexagonal columns. When we got to Battle Harbour we circumvented several icebergs at the entrance and tied up to a wooden trawler. The small village is built on an island – Battle Island, in fact. At one time it was the most important place in Labrador but the permanent population disappeared long ago. It was the center of the salt cod industry; merchants from St Johns built huge warehouses where fishermen traded for the staples to survive the winter such as flour, molasses, cloth, etc. The warehouses were being restored when we visited, they had been built by shipwrights, they were massive with heavy knees that supported the beams that carried the second story.
Battle was the first site of the Grenfell hospitals. Dr Grenfell was an Englishman who had tended the sailors on the North Sea fishing fleets. He was asked to investigate the conditions for fisherman early in the 20th century in Labrador, which at that time was a British colony. He was horrified; there was absolutely no health care available; if a fisherman accidentally broke a leg both he and his family usually starved to death in winter. He devoted his life to improving the lot of fishermen and ordinary folk, he started hospitals, orphanages and missions – he was a devout Christian. Life was very tough, in a booklet I picked up an incident is described in which Dr Grenfell traverses a frozen bay with a dog sled, but the ice broke up and he became marooned on a floating pan. To survive, he killed three of the dogs with his knife and skinned them to keep warm. He was drifting out to sea but fishermen who were sealing nearby noticed his predicament and managed to rescue him. In a biography he is quoted as saying that years afterwards he still agonized over killing the dogs, even though it saved his life. From Battle Harbour we sailed the few miles to Mary Harbour, where we tied up to another trawler. Sailors in that part of the world are friendly and think nothing of helping a boat tie up alongside, even though we were only a yacht. We had a nice lunch, visited the Grenfell Hospital and sailed back to Battle in the long evening twilight.
We sailed to St Anthony at the north end of Newfoundland. This town ultimately became the center of Dr Grenfell’s efforts and there is a large hospital there, but for me the attraction was L’Anse aux Meadows about 20 miles north – the site of the first and probably only permanent Viking settlement in the New World. A friendly fishing boat captain gave us a lift to the site in his pick-up. On the way he described the decline of cod fishing. A couple of decades previously the Canadian Government subsidized the construction of massive trawlers that scoured the bottom and ultimately destroyed the food chain. The government then announced relief for unemployed fishermen, but to take effect in six months. In that half year captains signed up all their relatives as crew so that when fishing was eventually prohibited families enjoyed a combined income from the unemployment pay that exceeded anything they ever made as fishermen. He said the most lucrative trade in northern Newfoundland was as an RV dealer- unemployed but rich fishermen were buying them by the hundreds and driving down to Florida for the winter. At L’Anse aux Meadows a large museum run by Parks Canada overlooks the stark bay where the Vikings settled for a few years about 1,000 AD. It is surmised about 150 people lived there including perhaps 15 women. It is now a World Heritage site; the remains of eight buildings have been discovered. Many artifacts have been found which conclusively link the site with the Vikings, the Sagas described the voyage to Vinland but whether Northern Newfoundland is Vinland is still controversial: grapes are mentioned as growing in the Saga story, but the place is a little cold for that , even though it may have been warmer a thousand years ago. Eventually the Vikings were driven out by the local natives, a fate that did not befall Columbus because in the interim up to 1492 the Europeans had developed firearms. A house has been constructed at the site to replicate the findings dug up by archeologists; we sat inside the gloomy interior for a lecture by a Parks Canada lady dressed up in a costume of the day.
We now day sailed down the eastern shore of Newfoundland, several of our anchorages were at abandoned outports, just as in the 1993 cruise. It was emotionally difficult to wander past the crumbling, mildewed buildings and not think about the effort people had made a decade, or a century, ago to hack a living from the harsh land and stormy sea. All to come to nothing. The tombstone inscriptions were very touching, especially for the children, who appear to have died by droves. On one island, which still had a functioning village, someone gave us moose steaks to try. The local fishermen were very bitter about the closure of cod fishing, and blamed seals for the collapse of the fish population. I hesitated to point out the seals were present long before the fishermen and the cod had thrived. We made out way past La Scie and experienced a tough beat to Twillingate. Here Joe left us; he thumbed a ride to Gander Airport looking for a plane to take him back to Prince Edward Island. Along this coast we saw large numbers of whales almost every day. I think they were mostly humpbacks, sometimes we saw one breeching; propelling themselves clear of the water and splashing back with a mighty thwack. On Fogo a friendly local couple invited us to their house, gave us coffee and rolls and entertained us with a wind-up phonograph. At Trinity the landlord of the inn was also a whale expert, in fact had written a book about them, when I mentioned I worked at Brookhaven Laboratory he suggested he should be invited to give a lecture – at a rather substantial fee. South of Trinity in Bay de Verde we were again entertained by numerous large whales. Tied up in St Johns we only stayed three days, just enough time to collect our new crew member from the airport, Ginny, do some food shopping, rent a car for local touring and then leave for the French island of St Pierre.
We arrived in thick fog and anchored in the harbor entrance for daylight. During the day it poured and we left promptly after twenty-four hours for Cape Breton Island. Here we repeated some of the stops of the 1993 cruise – Baddeck and Maskell Cove. When I mentioned to Ginny that Louise had gone for a swim in the cove the year before, she was not to be outdone and also went for a dip. At the St Peter’s Canal, the southern exit of the Bras d’Or, we refueled but outside we encountered a wind up to 30 knots and headed for Dover harbor, tucked in behind Louse Head, for shelter. After a pleasant dinner at Liscombe Lodge we anchored for the night at Terence Bay, where we waited for gale warnings to be toned down a bit before leaving for Bar Harbor in Maine. It blew anyway, and we picked up a mooring two days later with the wind blowing 30 knots. Ginny left us here, we were joined by Tom, a cheerful ex-marine who had no knowledge of sailing but was eager to learn. Tom had struck up an acquaintance with a couple of young women, Pam and Cindy, he had met on the bus to Bar Harbor. We sailed to the cottage they were renting on Pretty Marsh Harbor and picked them up by dinghy for a sail on Fiona. As we lay at anchor I was fascinated to see an Osprey fishing, after a power dive it flew off with a fat fish wriggling in its claws. After a night at Little Cranberry Island we returned to Bar Harbor to collect Louise, a veteran of 1993 cruise.
The remnants of hurricane ‘Beryl’ were stirring things up offshore but we were fairly well sheltered in the islands of Maine and we day sailed to Long island, Isle au Haut, Merchants Row, Crotch Island and Stonington. Sailing through Fox Island Thorofare we lunched at Butter Island and picked up a mooring for the night at Rockland. After a night at Port Clyde we tied up at Boothbay, where I phoned Bob, a cruising sailor we had met a couple of weeks earlier at St Johns. He owned a house on the water and had strongly urged me to contact him when we got to Boothbay. We made our way to his place, which was near the entrance to Townsend Gut and picked up his mooring. During an informal party that developed at his place we noticed the wind had picked up from the south and Bob commented his mooring might not be heavy enough for Fiona. So Bob and I rowed out to the boat to shift to another mooring, but in the gathering gloom Bob had difficulty picking up the float with the boat-hook. I was concerned as we were on a dead lee shore and there were numerous lobster traps around, all I needed was to get a line from one wrapped on the prop shaft and Fiona was in deep trouble. Finally he got the boathook stuck on the mooring float and lost his grip on it. I asked him if there was room for the crew to sleep at his house and when he said yes I told to row ashore and I would see him in the morning. When he left I scooted up Townsend Gut, out of the wind, and anchored for the night in Hodgdon Cove, halfway through the Gut. I poured myself a stiff rum. When I went back in the morning to collect the crew, who had spent the night sleeping on the floor, I was not too popular. From Boothbay we sailed to Damariscove Island for lunch and on to Five Island Harbor for the evening. At Five Island a man rowed over to us, I thought he probably wanted to collect a fee for the mooring we had picked up – quite the opposite; we greeted us warmly and said the mooring was free for two nights. We spent our last day in Casco Bay with visits to Bailey’s Island, the Basin and after a night at Sebasco left for the trip home with Isle of Shoals our first destination. From there we followed a familiar route; Provincetown, the Cape Cod Canal and Block Island. We sailed all night along the south coast of Long Island with a mix of power and some sailing in the fitful wind. We tied up at Weeks yard on Labor Day; altogether a really satisfactory cruise.