A rushed account of our trip from Provincetown, Connecticut to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Tomorrow morning we will leave early for Ireland, for real this time, and I will set this post for a week or so from tonight, so while you’re reading we will be hopefully 7-800 miles further across the Ocean.
We hadn’t intended to come so far north, but my father was following the advice of our weather program, updates that we can download at sea through the IridiumGo! Router device. We were chasing the wind, and the calms seemed to follow. We ended up motoring a lot.
We left Wednesday, July 14, and arrived Friday, July 21, so eight days. Enough time to go through the customary couple days of motion sickness, and get settled into or watches. Figure out what works best. I found that I like to go to sleep around 8pm, and wake up in time make a cup of tea (Yerba mate), a cup of soup or whatever leftover dinner is on the stove, and a few squares of dark chocolate. Then I sit from 11-2, looking out, writing, playing the ukulele if the engine is on and I won’t disturb anyone.
As we crept away from land, our wind fluctuated from mildly brisk to nearly unnoticeable. I found that as soon as I’d come on watch, it would start to waver and shift and eventually die to the point where I’d turn on the engine again. Thinking back to my long, slow Pacific crossing, I started to worry that I was a wind sucker, a curse on a boat. I reasoned that maybe it just has to do with the time of night, my customary witching hour watches. Sailors are not supposed to whistle at sea, so I just strummed and sang softly, and imagined that the breeze seemed to stir awake in response.
Along with the calm descended a dense fog, that filtered in and out for the first few days. By the second half of the week, it was pretty constant, thinning at times so you might see a half mile away, at times condensing and raining down little misty pellets, and at times hugging in so close that wisps of it seemed to pass between the cockpit and the mast.
We kept our eyes glued to the AIS ship tracking device, which would pick up the signals of a big ship many miles away. One afternoon a blip crept into our two-mile range. I watched our paths converge, and as I poked my head outside, heard a faint moaning horn.
“How far away can you hear a fog horn?” I asked, just as the blast came again, suddenly louder, prolonged, deep and surrounding. Amazing really, the ship must have been huge. “Should we blow ours?!” I asked, as my dad sprung up from below. He began rummaging in the aft lazarette. “Hey Dad, the fog horn is in the seat,” I said, but he ignored me and stood up beaming, holding an old conch, the tip sawed off, perhaps as old as my childhood. We took turns blowing into the shell, completely aware that the huge ship couldn’t possibly hear it’s bright, tinkling call. But Peter could, sleeping below. Woken from his off-shift nap, he gave us shit for the next hour.
Although I could not see the stars, the bioluminescents blared bright green with every surge of our boat through the waves, like a universe to parallel that above, emerald milky ways and planets. Most nights the dolphins would come to ride our wake, making themselves known only by their champagne cork exhales and their comet green streaks through the luminescence. Once I tried to shine my red light to see them and they vanished. Shy spirits.
One night, as the wind tapered towards the end of my shift, the boat crept imperceptibly around 2 knots. Lost in my daze of watch, in the slow decisions that come with calm weather, I considered the engine, sitting still with my book and blanket, when a loud whoosh burst from the water. A blowhole, of course. But bigger, deeper, like air brakes on a truck. I shined my flashlight, and was blinded back by the thick fog. Whales! I was equally excited and nervous for some reason, some vague sense of danger. Another puff on the other side of the boat.
“Dana!” I whispered into the dark cabin. “Whales!”
“Oh, shit,” she bolted up, “Julien!” Dad emerged from his sleeping bag and told us to turn on the engine, to wake them up. “They sleep at the surface and if we bump them, they could get aggressive, especially if it’s a mom with a baby.”
So we cranked the motor, a rude awakening for the slumbering beasts, but as we putted by, I apologized, “I hope you understand whales, it’s for your safety, and ours.” We heard them again a couple nights later, but still could not see through the fog. Dodging invisible giants.
Birds tracked us the whole trip, however, sitting bobbing on the surface, as they must for most of their lives. Some type of gull I assume. The water became colder, and the inside of the hull started sweating condensation beneath the water line. Watches became frigid, and we layered on all the clothes we had brought.
Cold water holds dense nutrients. I was pleased to see so much wildlife after my practically barren pacific crossing. As we rounded Cape Race I started seeing puffins floating and diving out of our way, delighted to envision them swimming skillfully under the water, as I’d seen at the aquarium in Monterey.
Oil rigs, also, had startled us as they crept in and out of the fog. We didn’t have radar, and it was starting to feel a little silly to be in the area of icebergs and oil rigs without a chart saying where they were. Not planning to come this way, we were lucky that Dad still had an electronic Navionics chart from a year ago, that could potentially get us into the harbor. It hadn’t been updated recently, but rocks don’t move, right?
Dad made his decision to stop in St John’s to refuel, since we had used nearly half of our 60 gallons. Dana was opposed, arguing that we were a sailboat and should just sail. I was intrigued to see a new part of the world, further north than I’d ever been. Peter was easy-going, indifferent. I think he was looking forward to a restaurant and hotel.
So far our second shakedown cruise had revealed that both water tanks and the diesel tank under the salon berths leaked up through their fill caps. Not a lot of water, overfilled probably, and Dad spent some frustrating hours taping up the diesel cap. Dana thought she smelled propane leaking here and there, but nobody else seems to notice much. Overall, nothing terrible.
But one night Dad woke with a start and a gut feeling to check the water separator in the engine, finding it full and backed up into the fuel filter. Several more diesel soaked hours changing fuel filters and hoses, followed by frequent checks showed a considerable amount of water in our fuel, presumably from the tank we filled in Provincetown. Even more reason to stop and refuel.
We slowed the boat for a night to make Cape Race in daylight, as we weren’t sure of our charts and the fog. Dana kept reminding us to look out ahead during watches, as there were fishing buoys and who knows what else. During my watch, I sat looking and strumming my ukulele absently. When my dad came on, I stayed in the cockpit, sewing cones on our sea anchor as we chatted about navigation. He periodically checked the chart on his iPad.
Then we hit something, hard, jolting our solid wooden world. I imagined a rock beneath our keel, and braced for the next hit. “Oh shit!” said Dad, slowing the engine and springing up towards the bow. But he stopped short to see an eight-foot, bright yellow weather buoy, spinning wildly on its axis. We watched dumbfounded as it slid away past the starboard side of our boat and silently back into the fog.
“That was on the chart,” said Dad. “I thought I was well clear of it. The damn thing was supposed to be a quarter of a mile away!”
Peter poked his head up, smirking. “That’s why you buy the update.”
Checking the front of the boat, we saw that we had hit dead on. Bullseye. The only bright yellow buoy in the middle of the big ocean, and we clocked it. Thankfully, due to procrastination, our anchor was still out on the bow. We hadn’t gotten around to stowing it yet. The metal crossbar was slightly bent, with a smudge of yellow paint in the middle. Our buoy plow!
Earlier that day, Dad had been bragging about how he wore yellow cabbie paint as a badge of honor on his shitty cars. A testimony to New York City traffic battles. Today he rushed forward to scrub the paint off before we went into a foreign port. No damage to the boat, hopefully the buoy is OK. A gentle wake up call. In the land of fog and icebergs we will have to be vigilant.
On the electronic chart our boat headed for the crack in the land that is St. John’s harbor. Dana was on the helm, extra eyes since our two sets had missed the buoy after all. Nothing but fog. But then my eyes squinted on a forming shape, something emerging to port. A dark line. Land, then houses. The fog was lifting, for the first time in days. Slowly the veil pulled back, curtains parting on beautiful green and red cliffs, a narrow split in the rugged shoreline, a natural gateway guarding a nestled harbor. The smell of land swept out to us and overwhelmed me, soil and conifers. Fishing boats charged into the bay, and a whale breached by the entrance, showing itself finally in a fanfare of spouts and tail flips. I smiled, excited. We’d come through the fog.