Exploring NewfoundLAND

A brief moment of clear skies before Cape Race.

We cleared Cape Race on Tuesday morning. The sky was thick with fog and devoid of wind. Lightning struck in the distance and the thunder, a half-minute later, rolled on and on and on over the calm seas, a truly majestic sound, one we could appreciate as it was far enough away for comfort.

High-vis gloves help in the fog!

As we headed up the coast for the last 60-mile jaunt to St. John’s, things started to change. A thin crack in the fog offered a brief glimpse of the dramatic coastline just a mile to our port. The mists came and went, revealing brown-green hillsides and sheer grey cliffs jutting into the sea. We heard the foghorn of Cape Race Light though never saw it.

Fog clearing once around Cape Race.

Finally, around midday, with 40 or so miles to go, the weather changed for good. The fog lifted and stayed lifted and the first chink in the low layer of clouds opened up suddenly to reveal a blue sky filled with the puffy cumulous so common with the onset of fair weather. Almost as suddenly a westerly breeze tickled the water and immediately filled in at a gusty 15 knots, propelling Isbjorn along the coastline at nearly hull speed in the flat, sheltered water along the cliffs. Farther offshore, maybe 5 miles or so, you could see the heavy fog that remained over the Grand Banks. But we were in the clear.

And then the whales came out. We’d been surrounded by puffins and porpoises for quite some time, but the first whale sighting got the crew that much more excited. A spout off the bow, then another, and another! Before long, we realized we were surrounded by humpbacks. Literally dozens of them spouted on all sides of the boat, near and far. A few got close enough that you could hear their powerful breath. One swam directly underneath the boat, diving just as we approached from the south and sticking his huge tail clear out of the water, giving the crew one of nature’s most incredible shows.

Thar she blows!

This continued all afternoon and evening. We later learned that the capelin, a small bait fish, were ‘rolling,’ i.e. spawning, and this attracted all sorts of wildlife to the coast. That this was timed with such perfect weather made for what was honestly one of, if not THE greatest sailing days of my entire career. I’m prone to exaggeration, but this was truly something.

For 40 miles up the coast we were on whale lookout, virtually ignoring the puffins and other seabirds that flocked around the boat and would normally have been an exciting sight. The crew could hardly eat dinner, as there was always something to see. The rugged coastline would have been enough to hold our attention as we sailed along under the cliffs. 

We approached Cape Spear, the easternmost point on North America, just before sunset and just as the nearly full moon was rising to the east. The wind had backed around to the southwest enough for us to sheet the sails in and lay the course for St. John’s harbor close-hauled, burying the lee rail as we charged along the last 4 miles of our passage, way overpowered once clear of the shelter from Cape Spear, but having one hell of a time. Dave was on the helm while James feathered the mainsheet and Dan L. trimmed the genoa. 

The sun had already dipped beneath the hills to the west, but the sky was afire in yellow, orange, purple and pink as it slowly fell towards the horizon. Once clear of Cape Spear, a glance over my left shoulder revealed a sight as pretty as a painting, with the historic lighthouse ablaze in the evening light, the moon rising over the flank of land that dropped off into the sea, and Isbjorn charging ahead at full speed towards the nearly invisible crack in the cliffs that marked the entrance to the harbor.

We dropped the sails only once into the ‘Narrows’, and in the flat water of the harbor, now lit up before us, and followed the range lights into the wharf downtown.

Champagne toast on arrival into St. John's!

Newfoundland (pronounced New-found-LAND, I’ve repeatedly been corrected) has captured our imagination like few other places we’ve visited. Isbjorn has remained on the industrial wharf downtown, tied up right inside the whale-watching tour boats and only one block from infamous George Street, lined with pubs. We hit the summer weather here perfectly - daytime temps have been in the 70s, and the skies, until this morning, have remained clear.

Two of our former (and future) Isbjorn crew members - Greg B. and Dan S, who sailed with us in the Caribbean this past winter - actually live in St. John’s, and we’ve taken full advantage of their hospitality and local knowledge. Dan loaned Mia and I his Vespa scooter for a few days (which, incidentally, he bought in Toronto and drove ALL THE WAY to St. John’s, over 2,000 miles, in the course of a few days! Mind you, Dan is about 6’3” and 220 pounds…!) We scooted out to Cape Spear by land and explored the cliffs on foot that we’d only recently sailed under. 

Then Greg loaned us his car and his countryside cabin out in the coastal hamlet called Dildo (not kidding), about an hour’s drive west and situated at the head of Trinity Bay. Mia and I just returned from a magical weekend there, ‘luxury camping’ on an air mattress the second floor of the cabin that Greg is in the midst of renovating (we had to borrow a camping stove from Dan, as Greg has no kitchen there yet, and as the hot water wasn’t working, took bath’s in the 50-degree well water. Invigorating!). The place overlooked the ocean, which stood at the bottom of a steep hillside only a few feet in front of the deck where Mia and I had morning coffee and evening wine each day, watching the whale’s spout off in the distance. It’s impossible to describe the scenery up here - just get a look at the photos and you’ll see what I mean. 

Yesterday we drove to Bay Robert’s looking for an 8km hiking trail. We found it, and ran/hiked the entirety of it, my second run post-surgery (long story short, I’m fine). The scenery there was even more dramatic, as the trail wound it’s way out towards ‘Mad Rocks’, as the locals know it by.

Now we’re back into Isbjorn-mode. As I type this, I’m sitting at Dan’s kitchen table, just a short walk from where Isbjorn is tied up in the harbor. I’ve got the first of three loads of laundry in the machine downstairs, and am getting some much-needed wifi to update all the weather info and charts for the next leg. Dan L’s friend Doug is joining us on Leg 8, and arrived yesterday. The two of them have been exploring the local area. David, our third crewmember, arrives tomorrow afternoon. The plan is to depart on Tuesday morning, and knock on wood, the weather looks to be in our favor. It’ll be mostly upwind all the way back to Annapolis, some 1,200 miles as the crow flies. I’m happy we’ve got a thoroughbred boat that likes going to windward! But first we’ve got some fjords to discover on the south coast of Newfoundland, some 300-miles distant, and then hopefully a stop in French St. Pierre before sailing back towards Nova Scotia.

Stay tuned…