Andy Schell shares his experiences after spending the summer of 2019 sailing Newfoundland’s rugged fjord coast aboard his Swan 59 Icebear
“Humpback, 300 metres. Hard to port, Tom!”
Icebear encountered her first whales in Cabot Strait, the deep passage separating south-western Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island on the far north-eastern corner of Nova Scotia. Earlier in the day we’d witnessed wild breaching by a couple of humpbacks in the distance, and ever since had kept a sharp lookout, hoping to spot more, and closer. This time I heard the whales before I saw them, as I heard a spout off to port over my left shoulder. I turned just in time to see a low dorsal slip beneath the surface.
Tom Harkin, retired US Senator and veteran 59° North crew (this was his fifth trip with us) heard it too, and put Icebear’s rudder hard over. At 79, Tom is our oldest crewmember, but as a former Navy F4 and F8 fighter pilot and lifelong sailor, he’s also one of our fittest, at any age.
Besides Tom, this particular crew was one of our most eclectic. At the other end of the generational spectrum on board we had Liz, in her early 20s and one of our youngest crewmembers. The crew also included Richa, an Indian citizen living in Seattle who was closer to my and my wife Mia’s demographic, while Jack was newly retired and looking to gain some offshore experience. Other crew Mike, Bill and Jeremy rounded out the team.
As Tom conned Icebear towards the spout, two humpbacks approached from about 100 yards off. We killed the engine and Icebear drifted becalmed, the water glassy.
The whales came to us. Gently and slowly, first one, then the second. Both were visible beneath the surface, their iconic white flippers curving deep underwater and turned fluorescent green by the colour of the cold, nutrient-rich northern water. Both humpbacks circled the boat in lazy arcs, diving beneath the keel in slow motion, then surfacing only feet away from the stern.
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The crew watched from the cockpit in stunned silence. The whales were close enough we could feel the spray from their spouts as they exhaled.
Mike, a hardy Minnesotan and an avid cold water swimmer, was the first to get in the water. I gave him my mask and he climbed down the stern ladder and slipped into the ocean to watch the whales play beneath him. He was only feet from two adult humpbacks, each about 40ft long, as they gracefully cavorted underneath Icebear’s hull.
The Rock is Newfoundland: Canada’s tenth and newest province, a massive island at the edge of the Atlantic and the eastern-most point of North America. The minute you make landfall (if you can see it through the fog), the reason for its beloved nickname becomes instantly obvious. The place is literally one giant wind-and-sea sculpted slab of granite.
For years Mia and I had tried to break into Newfoundland’s ‘fjord coast’ along its remote southern shore. Finally, in summer 2019 we had a risky opportunity to go for it on Icebear, our Swan 59, during a passage from Lunenburg to St John’s.
We had a schedule to keep and a gale was in the offing, but if we timed it right, we’d be able to explore the fjords for a few days, ride out the gale in a snug wilderness anchorage and round iceberg-strewn Cape Race in clear weather. If the timing was wrong, well, we’d blow up our whole schedule.
Inspired by the whales, I decided to head for the fjord coast. After three days we made landfall on the rugged, remote south coast of Newfoundland, navigating into a five-mile-long fjord at Hare Bay.
A deep, scary-looking low pressure was forecast to pass directly over Newfoundland and would make the next 250-mile passage around to St. John’s touch-and-go. If the low slowed down, we’d be stuck, and crew would risk missing their flights. But with sunshine in the immediate forecast, we took that risk.
The entrance to Hare Bay only becomes apparent as you close the coast. High cliffs line the shore for as far as you can see east and west, broken every few miles by deep fjords, reminiscent of Norway, just maybe a bit greener.
We motored in a flat calm into the fjord mouth after passing close by the humorously named Penguin Islands. Once inside, a south wind materialised and we sailed the final five miles into the Northeast Arm to a beautiful, amphitheatre-like anchorage at the head of Morgan Falls.
In the quickest shore party we’ve ever assembled after a long passage, we sent a hiking team to the falls for an afternoon exploring the wilderness. The weather was so nice that we stopped on the hike back for a soak in the river, air-drying in the sun on the warm granite along the shoreline.
After a couple nights anchored deep in the fjords, we ventured back outside Hare Bay in search of an outport village. The fog was thick, and we proceeded downwind under genoa on ‘Instrument Flight Rules’, using the radar and chartplotter (which was exceptionally accurate) to navigate to the mouth of François Bay. Here we could only see the red buoy marking the entrance when within 100 yards of it. We made our way in using radar to gauge our distance between the high granite walls.
François, here pronounced ‘Fran-sway’, is Atlantic Canada’s most remote outport, the farthest settlement from any roads, and accessible only by boat or helicopter. In its heyday, over 300 people called the village home. More and more outports are steadily disappearing to modernity in Newfoundland, but François steadfastly remains and is a jewel.
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 colourful houses. It’s 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. At the head of the fjord a floating dock can accommodate a handful of visiting yachts, and despite Icebear’s 12ft draught, we moored bows to the shore only a few boat lengths off the gravel beach.
Above the village are staggering, vertical granite cliffs rising to 700ft and, after a heavy rain, waterfalls line the sides of the fjord. The streets are paved in hand-poured concrete and the locals get around by four-wheel-drives or snowmobiles, depending on the season.
Only 60 people live in the village full-time, but they still maintain a school for the local children, with just two teachers and six students. There is no pub, no restaurant, no coffee shop, only a one-stop-shop for groceries, booze, hardware and fishing tackle.
George Durnford greeted us on the dock. “You’re the first yacht of the season!” he pronounced. The calendar said late June.
We soon learned that the ‘Durnford’ name is a common one in the village. George was fourth generation François 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.”
Later that evening, Tom managed to buy nine fresh lobsters from Eric, another local we met outside the grocery store. The largest pot in Icebear’s galley could only fit one of them, so Tom and Jack went knocking on George Durnford’s door. He happily loaned them two enormous stainless pots and Mia and Tom proceeded to create a feast of fresh lobster, some of the biggest any of us had ever seen.
Around Cape Race
Jeremy Davis, one of the head forecasters at Weather Routing Inc (WRI), was on board Icebear for the passage to St John’s. Jeremy and I have similar backgrounds in that we’ve made careers from that which we’re most passionate about. As a kid, Jeremy’s day would revolve around catching the ‘Tropical Outlook’ forecasts on the Weather Channel and plotting hurricanes on paper charts he had strewn about his childhood bedroom.
At university he did a winter stint at the top of Mount Washington, one of the windiest places on earth, to experience first-hand what the weather instruments up there were telling him, to feel those crazy numbers.
But Jeremy was not a sailor, and I wanted to change that. After years of talking about it, we finally got him aboard where, like his Mount Washington stint, he could experience what a 10-12ft sea-state forecast actually feels like in a small boat, and how it affects our decision making.
This made for a unique experience for me, and the crew. Typically I download GRIBs and communicate with WRI via satphone email. But now we had WRI literally on board the boat with us. Jeremy and I nerded-out over the approaching low and our strategy around it, Jeremy briefing the crew around the saloon table on how the wind direction affects the fog in these parts, me reassuring everyone that 40 knots aft of the beam was a much different story than 40 knots on the nose.
To their credit the crew, to a person, were stoked to get some heavy weather experience. The GRIB files and Jeremy agreed: we’d see sustained gale force winds on the back side of the low, gusts well into the 40s, but likely with good visibility.
We rigged the staysail in a deceiving calm on the dock, nestled inside the protective cliffs of the fjord, stowed the dinghy and the last of the items below decks, set the third reef in the mainsail right there in the fjord, then stuck our nose out into the open sea.
Once clear of the headlands south of François, 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 and Miquelon and the Burin Peninsula, a channel about 10 miles wide and dotted with rocks and skerries.
To do so meant beam reaching for the first 40 miles, during the strongest of the winds.
When we got into the lee of Miquelon, the seas laid down but the wind howled. A steady 38 knots blasted down from the high cliffs on the north side of the island, and we were forced to come up 10° to make it clear of a shoal off the south-west 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 by the helm coaching the crew on heavy-weather driving and getting sandblasted in the face as each wave sprayed over the windward rail.
It came as a relief when we were finally able to crack off and put the wind on the starboard quarter. The cockpit dried out and the sandblasting abated. Mia served a hot and spicy bean chili to warm up the watch keepers. Down below the boat was damp and cold with all the soaked wet-weather gear. Water temperatures on the south coast hover around 7°C, and the dry, cold westerly air couldn’t have been much warmer. But the stars came out at 2300 and we had clear, fog-free skies as we entered the ice limit.
Iceberg, right ahead!
The wind, after all that fuss, shut down completely around noon as we rounded Cape Race. Spotting ice in clear skies as we motored up the east coast of The Rock was one hell of a reward after the heavy weather. Having sailed to 80° North in Svalbard the year before on Isbjorn, our Swan 48, I was a lot more comfortable around ice, so when the opportunity arose we manoeuvred Icebear to within a couple of hundred yards of two of the bigger bergs we spotted along the coast.
The drone got us a bird’s eye view, and the crew stopped to admire the beauty of nature’s most striking sculpture. Both icebergs had rolled at some point in their decay, for the tops of them were pure white and smooth as marble, highlighted in spots by deep turquoise cracks where they’d broken apart and re-frozen during their lifespan.
The icebergs here are brought south on the cold Labrador Current from way up north in Greenland, glacial ice that calves into the sea and makes its way to the lower latitudes. The current was noticeable on the other side of Cape Race; the water temp dipped to 4°C and the air, despite the calm, still had a bite in it.
The approach to St John’s was familiar, having sailed into the metropolitan harbour back in 2016. Like the fjords on the south coast it’s not apparent there even is a harbour nestled in the granite cliffs until you’re right at the entrance. The Narrows, a tricky passage for big ships at only 61m wide, was big and deep enough for us to sail through.
Our second time moored along the harbour walls in St. John’s city was more satisfying than the first, having finally penetrated into the wilderness down south, and experienced first-hand its rewards.
The terrible odyssey of Howard Blackburn
This rock-and-fogbound coast that appeared so intimidating to us was salvation for one Howard Blackburn. Blackburn was a Nova Scotia-born Gloucester doryman, a cod fisherman on the Grand Banks, who’d signed on to the fishing schooner Grace L Fears in January 1883. That winter a terrible blizzard separated Blackburn and his dory mate from their mothership schooner. After two days his crew mate gave up the fight for survival, laid down on the floorboards of the open boat and died.
Blackburn struggled on. Knowing his gloveless hands would freeze, he lashed them to his oars and desperately rowed for shore. Five days later he made it, and villagers from a nearby outport nursed him back to health, although the frostbite took all his fingers and both thumbs.
But Blackburn’s story doesn’t end there. He returned to Gloucester a hero and opened a successful saloon. He went on to launch an expedition to California in search of gold, sailing westabout around the Horn to get there. Then, inspired in part by Joshua Slocum (they were contemporaries), Blackburn sailed solo across the Atlantic in a modified Gloucester fishing sloop, the Great Western, making landfall in England 62 days later. He went on to complete many more solo passages.
About the author
Andy Schell and his wife, Mia Karlsson, are the founders of 59º North, where they run offshore adventure passages on their Swan 59 Icebear and Swan 48 Isbjorn. They recently had a son, Axel, and have been riding out the COVID-19 pandemic in Sweden where they sail their family boat, a 1977 Norlin 34.
First published in the October 2020 issue of Yachting World.