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Circumnavigating Newfoundland

My husband and I sailed around Newfoundland during the summer of 2015, aboard our Fast Passage 39. Cat’s-Paw IV is a cutter rigged double ender with a cut away fin keel and a huge skeg rudder. She is a good ocean going vessel and was up to the task of sailing around Canada’s tenth province.  If you are planning such a voyage, I would suggest to make sure your radar is in good working order, you have some source of heat onboard and that you have lots of good warm, foul weather gear aboard.  I am talking about mitts, toques, floater suits, plenty of warm socks and make sure your gear is waterproof.

It's cold here!

It’s cold here!

We started out on the southwestern tip of the province, in Port Aux Basque and sailed the Island clockwise, heading up the west coast, across the top, down the east side and halfway across the southern shore before we headed back to our home base for the year, Sidney NS. Our trip started on the twenty-second of July, having heard that we shouldn’t start much sooner due to the preponderance of fog. We probably shouldn’t have left it so late, but summer comes slowly to Canada’s east coast due to the cooling influence of the North Atlantic.

The west coast has lots of lovely anchorages, each within a day sail of each other for the most part.  We used the cruising guide for Newfoundland and Labrador, published by Cruising Club of America.

In Codroy, one of our first stops, I got the idea in my head to attend a folk festival that I had seen advertised.  When I went ashore, I was lucky to witness a shot gun wedding. There were four fellows standing in a field opposite the church and the moment the bride and groom appeared, the guns were booming. The couple were middle aged, so it was not a wedding of necessity as it might have been in the old days but it is a tradition in Newfoundland, an Island that is full of quirky goings-on.

The Bay of Islands, further up the west coast, just west of Corner Brook is a gorgeous spot.  We sailed into the area at dawn and the towering granite cliffs appeared out of the darkness as the sun rose behind them, it was magnificent.  We tied up at the fishing wharf in the smallest of harbours.  A buddy asked us if we would like a ride anywhere and we rode into Corner Brook along one of the prettiest roads I have experienced.

Gros Morne

Gros Morne

The winds were blowing up the coast as we headed for Gros Morne National Park. Fishermen were out jigging for cod as we sailed by. We passed many abandoned fish camps along the way.  Before the cod moratorium in the late 70’s, the men would take the boats out to the camps and fish for weeks at a time. Their catch would be collected on a daily basis by a bigger boat and the men would head home once in awhile to see the family.  In the National Park we found a great anchorage by a camping area. The water there was the best Barry had ever tasted.  We went on a couple of scenic hikes and were able to replenish our larder in Rocky Harbour, the town at the entrance to Gros Morne park.

We continued up the west coast and visited every national park or historic site that we could easily access from the water.  Almost at the top of the Island is Port Aux Choix, where the oldest known settlement of aboriginal peoples in Newfoundland has been discovered.  The area had been inhabited by the nomadic tribes that lived in Newfoundland and the Inuk from the north.

We decided that we wanted to cross over to Labrador in order to visit the former Basque whaling settlement in Red Bay.  Our crossing of the Strait of Belle Isle was shrouded in fog. We saw a big contact on the radar and wondered why a large ship would be almost stationary in the middle of the Strait.  As we anchored, the dense fog was being blown away and through the wisps we spotted a baby iceberg in the bay.  Then it dawned on us the rather large contact on our radar was probably the mother berg!!  The museum in Red Bay is excellent and offers a glimpse into the past and how Basque whalers lived in the Sixteenth Century.

When we headed south, once again crossing the Strait of Belle Isle, (I love saying that, because it is one of those geographical features I had to memorize as a kid and place on a map) we set out for Anse Aux Meadows, the site of a Viking settlement in the year 1000, over 400 years before Columbus made his voyage. We spotted two big icebergs out in the channel and motored close to get photos.  I managed to snag some 10,000-year-old ice that had calved off and broken into manageable shards, and had a very cold Cuba Libre later that day!  It was unbelievable to see the icebergs at this time of year, usually they are only visible in May and June but this year because so many more are calving off the icecap in Greenland, due to global warming, and the fact that we were experiencing the coldest July in 20 years, all the stars were aligned, and we got to experience something few others do.  It was a brilliant sail afterwards, with the Strait filled with humpback whales feeding.  They were breaching, blowing and sky hopping all over the place, what a perfect northern day on our boat! Those Basque whalers knew where to go to make lots of money back in the 1600’s.

Rocky Headland

Rocky Headland

Anse Aux Meadows had a number of places to visit to learn and experience the Viking culture as it was when they lived in Newfoundland.  We visited the replica of a Norse ship that was built and sailed over from Iceland. It was a huge open vessel and it made me shiver to think of those sailors out on the North Atlantic on a ship that had very little shelter. We rounded the north eastern tip of Newfoundland and were lucky enough to sail around two more icebergs.  We had to wait out the weather a few days in St. Anthony’s. Our trip down the northeast peninsula was highlighted by a visit to an abandoned fishing village. It was located at the end of a long fiord, that had steep high cliffs along the edges, with waterfalls tumbling down.  The houses were mostly in decent repair and there were a few fishermen who had brought their families back to town for the summer.

We stopped in at Crouse to visit the tapestry of the French Shore.  A couple of artists had dreamed up the idea of putting the history of the French Shore onto a tapestry. They got a government grant for it and did a lot of research.  Then a painting was done by the husband, and the wife picked out the colour of thread to be used and transposed the pictures onto cloth. Women from the area were paid to sew this masterpiece, and it gave employment to a very depressed region of the Province. The tapestry is displayed in a large room in a museum and it is wound about three times around the room, it is so long.  The history is depicted from the days before the white man, up to the present.

Savage

Savage

We truly enjoyed out visit to Fogo Island. There we had a retired principal, who knows the history of the area, squire us around in his truck.  He was brilliant explaining the Irish settlers in the area. They have been so isolated since their arrival that the inhabitants still speak with a broad Irish accent. Fogo Island is also one of the four corners of the Earth according to the Flat Earth Society. The locals have joined in the fun and signs cautioning you to be careful because you might step off the edge of the World adorn the walkway up to the top of the hill.  The principal explained why there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the streets in the fishing villages around Newfoundland.  The Province was settled when there were no motors for the boats, so in order to get out to the fishing grounds you had to sail.  The closer you were able to build your home to the fishing spots, the quicker you could get there, so most villages on the coast are built along the twisty, windy, rocky coastline.

The town of Trinity, about 100nm north of St. John’s, was the next highlight.  We stopped in here for a couple of days.  Back in the 80’s the town’s historians started restoring buildings that were important in the fish trade back in the Seventeenth Century.  Trinity was at one time the centre of commerce for the fishermen on the east coast.  English businessmen built and maintained grand houses on the backs of the fishermen, exploiting them in the same way as the coal miners in Cape Breton. Our guide for a “not to be missed” walking tour of town explained how in the 1960’s when he was a boy, ice came floating down the bay. There were seals on the ice, so the fisherman jumped at the chance to get some fresh meat. It was a beautiful day when they left shore and then a gale blew in.  Many were unable to row back against the wind, some had sense and let the wind take them across the bay, while others tried unsuccessfully to get back to their home port.  A body was brought into our guide’s village, the fisherman was frozen to death in the bottom of his dory. He, as a young boy, was allowed to see it because it was a part of life.

At the dock.

At the dock.

We did not have a chance to explore the big bay just north of St. John’s, because the season was coming to an end and we still had a good distance to go.  The city of St. John’s was a delight; we docked right in the harbour and were able to walk off the boat right into the downtown area.  Signal Hill is a great place to visit and the walk up the hill from the harbour is not for the unfit. If you get a chance if you visit, make sure you take in the geology building. It tells the story of the ancient ground that exist on “The Rock”. A visit to the park at the most easterly point in North America is also a must.

Our trip south from St. John’s and across the south coast was quick.  One day we got caught out in some bad weather and hove to for a few hours in the middle of the night, until the wind abated.  We did not visit the southwest shore as we had been there in the summer of 2014.  It is an area filled with fiords and small fishing villages, some alive and some abandoned.  If you only had a few weeks to visit Newfoundland, I would recommend you spend your time there.  While you are at it you can take a side trip to a small part of France and visit the Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon.

We spent six and a half weeks sailing around Newfoundland and we just grazed the surface of the Province.  There were a lot of areas where we could have dallied and spent many happy days getting to know the caring and helpful people that inhabit this Province. We anchored any place we could, but spent a lot of our time tied up to the local fishing docks, sometimes a nominal fee was charged and sometimes it was free. Finding fresh water and getting groceries was never a big problem, but usually led to  some interesting adventures.  We enjoyed picking the wild blueberries once they ripened up, near the end of our voyage.  We learned about varied history, the unusual geology and some of the unique culture of the Island. It is a great place to sail; just make sure you are prepared to face the cool, unforgiving waters and climate and you will find many wonderful places to explore and enjoy.