A rushed account of our trip from Provincetown up 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 the weather program we chose for the trip, updates that we can download at sea through the IridiumGo! Router device. We were chasing the wind, and the calms seemed to follow us. We ended up motoring a lot.
We left Wednesday, July 14, and arrived Friday, July 21, so 8 days. Enough time to go through the customary couple of 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 later that maybe it just has to do with the time of night, and once I started singing again the wind wasn’t so scared of me.
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 seems 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 ship crept into our 2 mile range. I watched as our paths converged, 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 came out excitedly into the cockpit. 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 moments later with 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 horn. Peter, however, could, and he awoke from his off-shift nap to give 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.
As the wind slowly tapered towards the end of one of my shifts, the boat crept. imperceptively around 2 knots. Lost in my daze of watch, I considered the engine, and then heard a loud whoosh from out in the water. A blowhole, of course, but deeper, bigger, 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 down. “Whales!”
“Oh, shit,” she boltied up, “Julien!” Dad emerged 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.
Birds tracked us the whole trip, however, sitting bobbing in the water, as they must for most of their lives. Some type of gull I assume. The water became colder, and the insides of the hulls 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 imagine them swimming skillfully under the water.
Oil rigs, also, had startled us as they crept in and out of the fog. We don’t have radar, and it was starting to feel a little sillly to be in the area of ice bergs and oil rigs without a chart saying where they were. Having not planned 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, but rocks don’t move..
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 are 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. So far our second shakedown cruise had showed 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 hear 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 enraging 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 clean out the tank.
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 bouys and who knows what else. I sat on deck looking and playing ukelele during my watch, and when my dad came on, we sat in the cockpit chatting about navigation. I worked on sewing cones on our series drogue, and he periodically checked the chart on his iPad.
Then we hit something, hard. I imagined a rock beneath our keel, and waited for the next hit. “Oh shit!” Said Dad, slowing the engine and running up forward, but then we watched the eight-foot tall, bright yellow weather buoy spinning away down the starboard side of the boat.
“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 to contribute. “That’s why you get 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. Not only that, but the anchor was still on the bow. We hadn’t gotten around to stowing it yet, and the metal crossbar was slightly bent, with a smudged of yellow paint in the middle. Our bouy plow!
Earlier that day, Dad had been bragging how he wore yellow New York cabbie paint as a badge of honor on his shitbox cars. Today he rushed forward to scrub the paint off before we went in to 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 two sets of ours had missed the bouy, and then I saw something emerging to port. Land, houses. The fog was lifting, for the first time in days. Slowly the veil pulled back, curtains parting on beautiful green and red cliffs, guarding a nestled harbor. And the smell of land again overwhelmed me, of soil and conifers. Fishing boats charged into the harbor, and a whale spouted by the entrance.
We motored in among massive tankers and rickety old fishing boats to the biggest town in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. Houses on hills, ships, tall banks and hotels. At 250,000 people, this town boomed when oil boomed, and has since dried up into 2-3 months of tourism and fishing. Inhabitants are kind, smiling people, country-ish in their interactions, with accents verging on Irish.
We nestled into a small pier, between walls of ships with their arm-sized dock lines, rafted up to another sailboat. The crew invited us aboard for dinner and dark-and-stormies made with ice berg ice the captain and his daughter had attained the day before. They told us tales of a record ice year, and I became nervous about not having radar. Dana balked at the suggestion, angry that we had come here at all, and set off the next day to gather information about ice bergs.
Yes, there had been nearly 10 times the normal amount of ice bergs, but they were fading fast, and we should be out of range if we don’t go further north…except for the ones that are a little south, of course. It is a risk that we are taking, it seems. Vigilant watches will help, and maybe not too fast in heavy fog? I’m not sure really, sometimes we try to comfort ourselves with reasoning but we can’t really be sure.
So, a couple days here, walking around, talking to the fine folk who stop by to ask about the boat, patienc with their good-hearted slow pace. “You’re not in New York anymore,” teased an old-timer who refused to take money for helping shuttle diesel. Dad and Dana snuck money on his boat later. Laundry, more groceries, not because we need them really, but because we’ve seen that we tend to boredom eat. Some luxurious meals treated by Peter who seems to just want everyone to be happy and get along. And we are ready to head out again, tomorrow, early, July 24, the day after the New Moon, a good day for starts, or restarts.
My next post will be from Ireland…or perhaps Iceland, you never know. May we have wind, but not too much, may we have following seas, good visibility, safe passage, inspiring wildlife. And most of all, may the chocolate supply last.