A Foggy Entrance to St. Pierre

I’m writing from the yacht club wharf in St. Pierre, the last remaining outpost of France’s once sprawling New World empire. At one point in time, it stretched from Newfoundland to the Mississippi. No more.

We’re in St. Pierre & Miquelon, a spectacularly rocky, wind-swept archipelago about ten miles south-southwest of the Burin Peninsula on Newfoundland’s south coast. This is France proper. Not French-Canadian, but French. And very much so. Where the architecture of homes and businesses in Newfoundland was rugged and utilitarian, in St. Pierre it’s colorful and charming. Some folks speak English, but not much, and not many. Coffeeshops and tea houses line the quiet, colorful streets, and for a town of only 6,500 inhabitants, there is a disproportionate number of boulangeries and fromageries. The town is backed by green and grey rugged, mist-shrouded hills. The climate is too harsh for all but the hardiest of vegetation, and there are very few trees. On a hike yesterday, Mia and I stumbled upon cloudberries, the rare, fiery-orange and deliciously juicy berries that grow only in specific sub-arctic climates. In Sweden, they’re called ‘fjällen’s guld,’ ‘the mountains gold.’ The place is captivating.

This is the second time Mia and I have sailed to St. Pierre. Exactly five years ago, to the day, we staged here on Arcturus, our Allied Seabreeze yawl, our last stop before jumping across the Atlantic to Ireland. Clint was with us then, his first proper sailing passage, save the four-day charter we did in New Zealand when I first met both him and Mia. Mia and I had only just gotten married then in Sweden a few weeks before. The voyage was our de facto honeymoon, but we didn’t really consider it that at the time. It feels special being back here now, and thinking how much we’ve done in the time between. It’s surreal, actually.

Clint helping tie the docklines on Arcturus in St. Pierre in 2011, en route across the Atlantic.

Our landfall this time on Isbjorn was surreal. The passage south from St. John’s was uneventful, save for the fog, which we’re all getting more and more comfortable with. Save for a brief hour or two along the east coast that first day, and a brief stint of star-studded sky on Dan and Doug’s final watch the night before our arrival, we were fog bound for the full 216-mile passage. And really socked-in, visibility never exceeding a few hundred yards at best, a few hundred feet at worst. It was a mostly light-air passage, with lots of motoring.

Doug at the helm on a rare moment of clear skies shortly after leaving St. John's. It wouldn't last!

The way the watches worked out, David & I had the landfall watch, the 0300-0600 watch on Thursday morning. Mia had piloted us, under power, to within four miles of the sea buoy outside the main channel into St. Pierre harbor, with no sign of anything in sight. The night was particularly dark, despite a tiny crescent moon poking out behind the thick layers of fog. The sea was mirror-calm, with just a slight swell running from the south. I took the radar watch while David drove Isbjorn the last few miles towards St. Pierre.

The cruising guide we have for Newfoundland mentioned a .2nm inaccuracy in the GPS positions on the charts in these parts, so I was very wary of a blind arrival, given the myriad rocks and islets surrounding the entrance to St. Pierre. But we had radar to confirm our position, and for the first time in my career, we used it in earnest. As David steered us towards the sea buoy marking safe water, I watched closely on the radar to pick out certain landmarks and confirm them on the GPS. The sea buoy and another west cardinal mark marking an outcropping of nasty looking rocks showed up clearly on the radar, and their range and bearing matched precisely with our position on the iPad, which we use for electronic navigation with the iNavX app running Navionics charts. I also kept a plot on the paper chart. All three of our positions jibed with one another, so I felt safe at attempting the entrance in the dark and fog, completely blind. That the wind and seas were calm was helpful.

Just to be sure, David piloted Isbjorn directly towards the sea buoy. I wanted to be right on top of it to make sure our GPS position was accurate before attempting the harbor entrance. I’d woken Dan and Doug by then, who, in full foul weather gear, stood watch on the bow, straining their eyes through the fog to find that damned sea buoy, which should have been lit with a flashing white. It was, in fact, but we didn’t spot it until we were inside 1/10th of a mile away, and only just, as it blinked through the gloom. It’s bell was nearly silent in the calm water, faintly audible over the noise of our diesel only as we approached right up to it.

I woke Mia, who took up position at the nav table to guide us in. David remained on the helm, Dan & Doug at the bow, with me kind of roving around keeping tabs on everything. I had the handheld VHF clipped to my PFD on my chest and made ‘securite' calls every few minutes to warn anyone trying to leave the harbor that we were on our way in, completely blind. Mia navigated us from one channel marker to the next. Only a few of them were lit. By then, it was 0430 and the dark sky was starting to lighten ever-so-slightly in the approaching dawn.

Dan (left) and Doug (right), spotting on the bow as we entered St. Pierre in the fog.

‘I see lights at two-o’clock,’ announced Dan on the bow. Out of the gloom a row of yellow streetlights appeared off to starboard, the first indication that we were close to shore. We proceeded slow ahead, making about 3 knots into the channel. Each channel mark appeared only when we were about 1/10th of a mile away from it. The harbor has several man-made breakwaters to keep out the easterly swell to negotiate, each with lights on their outer ends. Having been here before, despite the time that had passed, was definitely helpful in giving us confidence in the gloom.

As we passed the final breakwater and entered the inner harbor, where the yacht club is based, the familiar wharf appeared out of the pre-dawn gloom. A few sailboats were tied alongside, including Oman Sail, a rig-less MOD70 trimaran that had pitch-poled on the Grand Banks in the recent Quebec-St. Malo Race (click here and here for the other news updates of this story). They were sailing in the same heavy weather that we’d escaped by diverting to Louisbourg on our leg north to St. John’s. The five-man crew were miraculously plucked out of the freezing cold water and safely rescued. Days later, part of the crew returned with a salvage tug and managed to locate the upturned boat out on the Grand Banks. By drilling holes in one of the outer hulls and filling it with water & chain, they righted the boat and towed her the several hundred miles into St. Pierre. She remains here now, being prepared to be loaded onto a freighter and shipped to France where her fate will be decided.

After a little ‘recce’ into the small inner harbor, we motored back out beyond the breakwater and dropped anchor in 20-feet of water, the smell of fresh-baked bread wafting out through the fog and finding our noses in the cockpit, a very welcome fragrance for our weary crew! I whipped up some hurricane eggs once the boat was secured, and by 0700 we hit the racks again for what we all thought would be a quick nap. Four hours later, we finally woke up! We moved Isbjorn into the wharf, taking the spot alongside the spot recently vacated by Fleur Australe, a very interesting-looking steel boat sailed by a young American couple bound for Newfoundland. The customs officers visited the boat shortly thereafter, stamping our passports to the delight of captain and crew alike. We’ve been here ever since, enjoying the French island ashore.

Panoramic view during our hike yesterday. This is facing northwest from St. Pierre - we passed through the channel between islands on Arcturus in 2011 en route into St. Pierre for the first time.

Tonight we depart again. Mia is currently baking a lasagne we’ll save for tomorrow night’s dinner offshore. She’s planning a pumpkin soup to eat this afternoon, and we’ll get underway around 1800. A small area of low pressure is forecast to move over St. Pierre today and clear out by this afternoon, taking the rain and fog with it. By sundown, we expect clear skies and north-westerly winds, a perfect weather window to head south and west towards Nova Scotia. Fittingly, it’s nearly an identical forecast to what we had on Arcturus, exactly five years ago when we set out to cross the pond. On that passage, we ended up at sea for 23 days, making landfall in Ireland in late August. This time, on Isbjorn, we hope to make Lunenburg in 3-4 days, where we’ll stage for the final passage back to home waters in Annapolis.