Between the Granite Planet and the Deep Blue Sea

Thu 8 Sep 2005 16:38

8th September 2005. From the Atlantic, between the Azores High and Hurricane Maria.


Dear All,


We last wrote to you as we arrived on the south coast of Newfoundland and we are now in the middle of the Atlantic; on our way, via a bit of a detour, to the Azores.


Our cruising in Newfoundland has largely concentrated on finding the best weather-window to make the Atlantic crossing, and we have spent a lot of time loitering between the laptop and SSB radio picking up weatherfaxes. But this has left us also with some good opportunities to explore a little of Newfoundland’s impressive coastline. Newfoundland is often referred to as the ‘granite planet’, or simply ‘the rock’ by Canadians and it is easy to see why. It is quite different from the rest of Canada that we have seen, with monolithic mountains of grey granite, scrapped over with a patchy layer of vegetation and streaked by enormous veins of white quartz. Our first walk ashore on Isle aux Morts, named for the number of shipwrecks on the torturous rocks and shoals just out to sea, was completely delightful. A mixture of tiny pine trees, heather, bogs, lakes, great granite slabs and beautiful shining quartz. Quite like another part of the world we could mention! It would be easy to see the Scots and Irish feeling at home here. Robert was again installed in the backpack and was very happy to be carted about, even when my foot went through the moss thigh-deep into a stinking bog.


From Isle aux Morts we dotted our way along the coast, stopping at the small fishing villages on the way. They have been devastated in the past decade by the moratorium on fishing and each village, large or small, has the derelict remains of a fish processing plant. It was quite common to be able to walk right through a village without seeing a soul. In one village the other industry, a gold mine, exhausted its resources at exactly the same time as the fishing died.. The villages are beautiful nonetheless, with brightly coloured shingled houses and small dories tethered to the little boathouses that cluster along the shore at each sheltered harbour. At Rose Blanche Harbour they are making a concerted effort to attract what few tourists they can. The dramatic old Victorian lighthouse on the headland was left to ruin and replaced by a cheap modern light before Newfoundland joined the rest of Canada in 1949. But the local people, along with a Scottish stonemason, have restored it to its former self and opened it as a museum. The last lighthouse keeper lived in this tiny granite structure with his wife, sister and fifteen children. The mind boggles!


But we needed to refill the fresh water tanks and so had to move on. Rose Blanche has a ‘boil order’ on their tap water in the summer and so we went in search of something better. We did not find it at Grand Bruit, where we were told “Yes, yes, you can drink the water”, but on further questioning it was revealed that even the locals boil it. This tiny village is only connected to the rest of Newfoundland by ferry and helicopter as the road system has never made it this far. The name, which means ‘great noise’, refers to the large waterfall that cascades into the head of the harbour. Many of the villages along this coast are similar, but the level of depression is evident when you here that in some places the ferry service is being withdrawn for lack of custom. We were shown round the tiny privately-run museum, which gave a good impression of what life must have been like for the pioneers who fished for cod from these remote places. We were rather surprised to discover that all of the photographs were taken by a Fred Ingram. It seems that Ingram is a very common name around here.


On again in search of drinking water, now to the small town of Burgeo. Here they have good water, but not this week as they had been digging-up the pipeline and so had placed a ‘precautionary boil order’ on it. We spoke to the town councillor who showed us the chlorine level data and, as it was around 1.8ppm as opposed to the usual 0.03ppm, we decided to take the risk. It was peaty brown in colour to say the least, and tastes of a delicate blend of chlorine and mud, but hasn’t done us any harm yet. We boil it for Robert in any case. We had never anticipated that Newfoundland would present this problem.


We were shown around the coastguard boat which is based here and were able to copy some of their charts which we hadn’t been able to buy. The charts of this coast are mainly from Admiralty lead-line surveys done between 1850 and 1880 and are among the worst we have used on the whole voyage. The local fishermen don’t even bother with them. We did our final shop at “Ingram’s Food Mart.” Mr. Ingram who owned it was very pleased we were also Ingrams, and pointed out that the cashier was an Ingram too, although no relation.  In fact, it turns out that in this small town of roughly 1500 people, about 50 households are called Ingram!


After using the internet to check the progress of Katrina (which was at that time just about to devastate New Orleans) and seeing if our weather-window was opening, we set off to anchor in the wonderful shelter of Long Reach. Here we had a fantastic walk ashore and climbed Richard’s Head, the highest point around. It was not very high but was a tough and steep scramble through very dense bush. Just perfect. The only problem were the black flies, which did not really bother Peter or me, but really went for Robert as we ate our picnic at the top and drew blood in an alarming way when they bit him. I guess his skin is just thinner and more delicate than ours. However, the tough little lad didn’t seem to notice, although we did decide to curtail a barbeque that evening.


Just southeast of Burgeo are the Ramea Islands. We set off with the intention of exploring them but, after a night at anchor and more internetting ashore in the hostel, we instead decided that the time was ripe for the trip eastwards. After a long motor, with a bit of fun sailing with whales and thick fog as we passed inshore of the French island territories of Miquelon and St. Pierre, and more motoring we stopped at Trepassey Harbour on the south side of the Avalon Peninsula, the south-eastern tip of Newfoundland, to top up with fuel and water. The water was worse than any we had yet seen, so brown you could barely see to the bottom of a bucket (and also with a ‘boil order’), so we topped up just our emergency cans. As for fuel, the only gas station didn’t stock diesel and a bowser would only come next day, so we bought 20 litres of a crabbing boat for a £10 note, and left at midday on 1st September.


Hurricane Katrina was by then passing well to the west of us and we left as her effect began to give comfortable southerlies, the right wind direction to give us a useful push off the coast. Our final trawl of the internet had shown tropical depression Lee dissipating quickly off Bermuda and tropical depression #14 still heading west for the Caribbean and likely to dissipate also. This depression did not even show itself on our best five-day forecast. Unfortunately, #14 was upgraded to hurricane Maria and re-curved very early, and it is avoiding her that is causing our detour to the Azores.


We made excellent progress across the Grand Banks, not catching a single fish, but finding plenty of the other commodity for which they are famous… fog. At one point a container ship radioed us to advise us we were on collision course, and at about one mile away we could only just hear her engines. The Croatian captain wished us a good trip and said proudly “I am skipper too.” Within two days the water turned from a milky turquoise to the deep grey blue of the north Atlantic and the temperature rocketed to 24˚C. But then the weatherfaxes began to show Maria threatening. She strengthened with winds of up to 110 knots and began to re-curve (the tendency that hurricanes have the veer northwards and eastwards). Our plan had been to get to the Azores before anything like this could reach us, and so that involved crossing ahead of its path; or otherwise sitting around in the Atlantic for a week until it passed, perhaps having to return to Canada to try again next year.


Crossing the bow of a big ship is always a nail-biting experience; continuously taking bearings on it to check whether you’re gaining or loosing, not sure whether the captain has seen you, whether it is now too late to cut round her stern, whether the wind will drop a notch just at the critical moment and leave you wallowing. Crossing Maria’s path was like this, but played out on a huge scale over three days, like a continental-sized game of chicken.


We hardened up and continued on our ear in winds 25-35 knots, setting our tiny No. 4 jib and with three reefs in the mainsail. Daily information of tracks and wind speeds from radio weatherfaxes, Alistair in London and the Toronto weather guru Herb have all helped and we have now definitely crossed even the most pessimistic prediction for her track. Having headed southeast we are now making for the island of Faial in the Azores central group, rather than the more remote island of Flores, and are intending to continue to make some southing until the wind freshens this evening. We should then have a fast broad reach and arrive in Horta on Sunday.


It has been nail-biting to say the least and Katharine for one has not enjoyed it in the slightest. We should now be around 300 miles from the predicted centre at its closest point of approach and at one point Herb was telling us that storm force winds would extend that far. It is now looking as though we’ll get less than gale force winds and all the sources seem to say that she’ll track further north than our worst fears. But we still haven’t even felt a puff from it yet and a couple of hours ago there was a red dawn, even though it was enhanced by dolphins leaping clear of the water in the bow wave and splashing down on their sides. And then of course there is Hurricane Nate is coming up close behind. We cannot wait to get into Horta!


Robert is at least taking all this comfortably in his little stride. He was six months old on the day we left Newfoundland and seems to be enjoying the trip much more than us, even if it has been stuffy, bouncy and at very odd angles for much of the time. We have created a little play pen for him on the port saloon berth, with his bouncer at one end (for settled weather), plenty of padding all round, toys and books piled up for him to choose from and a hammock of clothes and more toys overhead like a stuffed mobile. And his favourite toys; obviously the inflatable globe, a length of string and mummy’s glasses.


We were very sad that we have not had more time to explore Newfoundland. It is exactly the kind of cruising area that we like, small fishing communities dotted along an otherwise deserted coastline, with a perfect mix of small archipelagos to explore and large fjords to wonder at. Easy walking in places and bush scrambling in others. Waterfalls, lakes, wildlife, friendly people and not too many other yachts! But there is always another time, we will be back there someday. And that time with luck we’ll be able to take in Labrador and Greenland too which, I admit, would probably have been too much for this year.


But for now it is goodbye from us. Keep well everybody. And we wish our very very best to cousin Antonia and Ivan, who are getting married of Saturday. We sincerely hope that the weather is good for you all.


With all our Love,


Katharine, Peter and Robert



Happy Atlantic family 400 miles WSW of the Azores