Francois is Atlantic Canada’s most remote out-port village, the farthest settlement from any roads, and accessible only by boat or helicopter. In its heyday, over 300 people called the village home. The location is insane - the village is divided in two by a rushing waterfall fed by a picturesque pond a few hundred feet above the houses, and situated on a rise above the water’s edge, where fishing boats and a ferry make fast to a wharf on the south side of the fjord. To the west, another beautiful floating dock can accommodate a handful of visiting yachts.
Above the village are staggering, vertical cliffs rising to 700-feet in sheer granite walls. A feature called ‘the Friar’ stands guard in the northwest, and after a heavy rain, waterfalls line the walls of the fjord on each side. The ‘streets’ are paved in hand-poured concrete and the locals get around on four-wheelers and snowmobiles, depending on the season. Only 60 remain in the village full-time, but they still maintain a school for the local kids - with just two teachers and six students, one of whom was graduating the 12th grade the week after we arrived. There is no pub, no restaurant or coffee shop, only a one-stop-shop for groceries, booze and hardware.
ICEBEAR arrived on June 22, and George Durnford greeted us on the dock.
“You’re the first yacht of the season!” he pronounced.
We soon learned that the ‘Durnford’ name is a common one in the village. George was 3rd or 4th generation Francois local, and he was proud to tell us that indeed his son remains a local as well.
“A lot of the houses of the folks who moved away are being sold to outsiders, people who want to come here and use it as a summer cottage,” George explained. “I don’t mind, they all seem to melt in pretty well. This one here,” he said, pointing to a white cottage built at the head of the dock, “belongs to a French guy I think. He joins us now and then for village events, but he keeps to himself for the most part.”
Later that evening, Tom came up with what he referred to as a ‘crazy idea’ and managed to buy 9 fresh lobsters from Eric, another local we met outside the grocery store. The largest pot Mia could find in the galley could only fit one of them, so Tom & Jack went knocking on George’s door. He happily loaned them two enormous stainless pots and Mia & Tom proceeded to create a feast of fresh lobster, some of the biggest any of us had ever seen. We didn’t clean up from dinner until 11pm that night.
We knew it’d be rough on departing Francois. That was the gamble with the low pressure from the other day. The strongest winds were on the backside, from the WSW. GRIB files and WRI were showing sustained gale force, gusting well into the 40s. Mia & I briefed the crew, who were to a person stoked to get some heavy weather experience. We’d have never departed with a new crew with that forecast, but they’d been on the boat a week and had gotten their sea legs in calm weather during the 450-miles from Lunenburg, so they were ready for a challenge. We rigged the staysail on the dock, stowed the dinghy and the last of the items belowdecks, set the third reef in the mainsail right there in the fjord, then stuck our nose out into the open sea.
The forecast was spot on. Once clear of the headlands south of Francois, the wind ratcheted up until it was blowing a steady 30 knots on the beam, gusting higher. The swell was bigger than expected, with the occasional 12-footer rolling under the boat. I’d have liked to have the wind a bit further aft, but we had no sea room - we needed to squeak between St. Pierre & Miquelon and the Burin Peninsula, a channel about 10 miles wide, and to do so meant beam reaching for the first forty miles, and during the strongest of the winds.
When we got into the lee of Miquelon, the seas eased but the wind howled. A steady 38 knots gusted down from the high cliffs on the north side of the island, and we were forced to come up 10 degrees or so to make it clear of a shoal off the SW tip of Burin. ICEBEAR flat out flew down the straight, making a steady ten knots under triple-reefed mainsail and staysail, pushing up over 12 knots in some of the higher gusts. I stood back at the helm coaching the crew on heavy-weather driving and getting sandblasted in the face as each wave sprayed over the windward rail. We took one big ‘dumper’ that filled the cockpit and soaked me and Tom.
The channel around Burin was about 12 miles long and it came as a huge relief when we were finally able to crack off and put the wind on the starboard quarter. Still gusting over 30, it suddenly felt like a summer day sail. The cockpit was dry and the sandblasting abated. Mia served up a hot and spicy bean chili to warm up the watchkeepers. Down below the boat was wet and cold with all the wet-weather gear getting soaked. Water temps on the south coast hovered around 7º, and the dry, cold westerly air couldn’t have been any warmer. The stars came out at 2300 after the sunset, and we had clear skies upon entering the iceberg limit.