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Finding France off the Newfoundland coast

Last year’s cruise drew some blank stares. Sag Harbor’s Ian Thomas and Cindy White had decided to sail to St. Pierre and Miquelon, a couple of dots in the Atlantic, 50 miles south of Newfoundland, where the government and language is French, and the currency is in Euros.

Photos by Ian Thomas and James L. Frankel

Every summer, Sag Harbor’s Ian Thomas and Cindy White look for an interesting new destination for an extended cruise on their Hylas 46 sloop, Nirvana III. Most of the destinations have been familiar to the friends who crew with them — Bermuda, the Chesapeake, Maine, Nova Scotia.

Last year’s cruise drew some blank stares. They had decided to sail to St. Pierre and Miquelon, a couple of dots in the Atlantic, 50 miles south of Newfoundland, where the government and language is French, and the currency is in Euros. To get there they would have to cross Cabot Strait, a daunting stretch of water with a tough reputation between Cape Breton and Newfoundland’s west coast.

Cindy and Ian work in Manhattan and spend weekends on the east end of Long Island. They sailed for many years in many boats before embarking on their ambitious trip Down East.

“We bought our first boat — a Clark 14-foot sailing dinghy in 1989 for $500,” says Ian. “That hooked us on sailing and in 1991 we stepped up to a 20-foot O’Day, and in 1994 a [33-foot] Comar, built in Italy.”

Over the years, they gained a great deal of coastal sailing experience as they poked into the nearby Peconic Bays, Block Island, Fishers Island and Connecticut harbors.

Sailing became their passion and they began dreaming of bluewater and a vessel that could take them anywhere they wanted to go. After hours of online research, visits to boatyards and boat shows, they decided on a Hylas 46 sloop, designed by German Frers, built in Taiwan and finished in Florida. Given a choice of keels, Ian selected the deeper, 6-foot keel, “An instinctive decision I came to appreciate over the next nine seasons while we amassed 25,000 nautical miles of sailing.”

A freighter delivered Nirvana for fitting out in Fort Lauderdale in the spring of 1997. Cindy and Ian and a few boating friends from Sag Harbor flew down to take the Hylas north to Long Island. On advice from the dealer, Ian asked Terry Connor, a professional skipper who was familiar with the Hylas and its rig, to join them for the maiden voyage.

“We had planned to stay in the ocean to make faster time, but when we heard reports of a gale developing off Hatteras, we were happy to duck into Morehead City, N.C., and follow the ICW north to Norfolk and the Chesapeake,” Ian says.

From there, Nirvana again went into the Atlantic and sailed uneventfully around Montauk and into Gardener’s Bay.

“By watching and talking to Terry on that weeklong trip, I learned more about the Hylas than I could have on my own in an entire summer,” says Ian.

The 60-hp Yanmar diesel on Nirvana didn’t need to be explained. As a youngster in Scotland, Ian had worked as an apprentice in a diesel engine plant.

Because Nirvana is now nearly 10 years old, Ian crack-tested the mast and turnbuckles for stress fractures before departing for Newfoundland. He cleaned the entire aluminum mast, sprayed it with red dye penetrant and coated it with white powder. From a bosun’s chair, he then inspected the surface from top to bottom with an ultraviolet light.

A thousand miles to go

On the morning of July 31 Nirvana departed Sag Harbor for St. Pierre and Miquelon about 1,000 nautical miles away, and soon ran into fog that stayed with her all the way to Cuttyhunk.

Once through the Cape Cod Canal they made a stop in Provincetown to pick up a replacement sail batten that a cousin of Cindy’s brought from Yarmouth.

“He’s now my favorite cousin,” says Cindy.

Leaving Provincetown they set course straight across the Gulf of Maine.

“We expected to moor in Shelburne on the southern tip of Nova Scotia, but arrived late and decided not to enter the harbor in the dark,” Cindy says. “So we sailed on to Halifax, logging 361 miles under sail and power with two overnights.”

While in Halifax enjoying the hospitality of the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron, Cindy searched for additional charts of waters to the north and east. Canada is updating its charts since many existing ones are based on British Admiralty work from the early 19th century, and Ian was told to expect inaccuracies. He says he was grateful he had brought along The Cruising Club of America’s guide to Newfoundland.

Ian also learned more about Cabot Strait. At 70 miles wide it’s the broadest of three outlets from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Atlantic, and is an international shipping route to the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes. A publication of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada commented that it is “one of the roughest areas in Atlantic Canadian waters and is exposed to very long open water fetches that can create big seas.” Cold water from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Labrador current mixing with warmer water from the seaway creates large eddies. Ian read that the waterway has a long history of maritime disasters, with the wrecks of more than 40 ships resting at the bottom of the strait.

Nirvana went on to Liscomb, further north on Nova Scotia, and then proceeded through St. Peter’s Canal into the Bras d’Or Lake where she anchored in French Cove. A couple of years ago National Geographic Traveler magazine listed the Bras d’Or (Arms of Gold) along with Norwegian fjords and New Zealand’s South Island as the most naturally beautiful destinations in the world.

Two channels and a canal link the Bras d’Or Lake to the Atlantic creating a unique combination of ocean and lake dominating the center of Cape Breton Island. The enclosed basin measures roughly 60 by 30 miles and deer, moose and eagles live in its surrounding, wooded hills.

On Aug. 7 Nirvana sailed to Sydney, Cape Breton’s major port, to top off with fuel at Dobson Yacht Club at the end of a long, narrow inlet. The dock attendant said the 46-foot Hylas was the “biggest boat we ever fueled,” according to Cindy.

There they met Ray Pierce, head of the Cape Breton Coast Guard.

“He was invaluable to us,” Ian says. “He described the currents, fog and sudden squalls that we could expect in Cabot Strait between Cape Breton and Newfoundland, and he later kept in touch every day by satellite e-mail.”

Pierce said 50-knot winds were common in the strait and advised them to go with the prevailing westerlies and head directly for St. Pierre rather than the nearer Port Aux Basques on Newfoundland. Nirvana could then work its way back in short sails along the southwest coast before returning to Cape Breton.

Ian believes they luckily didn’t run into the worst Cabot Strait can produce, but as their boat crossed the strait they felt occasional storm-force gusts, thick fog and conflicting currents from suddenly changing depths.

“We surfed down big following seas, hanging onto the wheel to avoid broaching,” says Ian. “As we neared the coast of Newfoundland, we took green water over the bow from breaking waves and heavy spray over the dodger and Bimini.”

They both stayed in the cockpit alternating two-hour watches.

“As if the weather wasn’t enough of a problem, in the middle of the night I saw a blip on the radar coming right at us,” Cindy says. She woke Ian, who was asleep in the cockpit

“We made evasive moves but the other boat seemed to alter direction too and stayed on a collision course,” she says.“I tried to raise them on the VHF but got no answer.”

In the last minutes they turned Nirvana sharply and a fishing dragger passed close by. They assume the crew was sleeping and had entered course changes into their auto-pilot.

“We had no trouble staying awake after that scare,” she says.

A St. Pierre welcome

Despite the conditions, Nirvana made a swift passage to St. Pierre running before the wind under double-reefed main. Accompanied by dolphins, seals and a curious whale, Nirvana arrived in St. Pierre at sunrise, covering 170 miles in 24 hours.

At the St. Pierre Yachting Center a member of the Coast Guard and a policeman took their lines and came aboard to complete entry papers. Cindy says they were very pleasant, and very French. They described the services available on the island of 7,000 people — 70-percent employed by the French government. They informed the exhausted couple that a tank truck would only deliver more than 250 liters (65 gallons) of fuel. Anything less had to be carried a quarter-mile in jerry cans. They decided they still had plenty of fuel and set about exploring St. Pierre for the next two days; they were relieved to be in port when a 50-knot gale blew through.

They found several good restaurants — French, of course — and a good bakery. They met another American couple, who had sailed from Marblehead, Mass., in their Sabre 36.

“We kept in touch with them for the rest of the cruise, exchanging information along the way,” Cindy says.

The French are renowned ocean sailors and two single-handers were in the harbor; one had sailed from France and the other from St. Marten in the Leeward Islands.

The rest of the boats in the harbor were fishing boats, hauled on shore by hand-powered red capstans. The couple agree they found the island rustic but modern when compared later to Newfoundland.

On Aug. 11 Nirvana cast off for Sam Hitches Harbor on Newfoundland’s southwest coast, threading the narrow entrance in thick fog with Ian nervously standing off a cliff to port while Cindy in the bow shouted, “Go to port!”

Fog on the trip wasn’t quite as bad as expected — in all only six out of 28 days. August temperatures in Newfoundland were mostly in the 50s in daytime and 40s at night. They poked around the harbor in the inflatable and picked mussels for dinner.

“Thankfully the fjord was so narrow that Nirvana hardly felt a ripple when another gale roared overhead during the night — but it sure was noisy,” says Cindy.

They say they found the southwest coast of Newfoundland “awesomely beautiful,” with coastal barrens, forested hills and deep fingers of the ocean cutting through the cliffs and reaching miles into the wilderness. Small fishing villages, accessible only from the sea, are dotted along the crenellated coastline. Ian notes that aids to navigation are far less frequent than along the New England coast.

They found the people they met to be reserved, with a dry sense of humor and an eagerness to help. Casual bird watchers, they sighted razorbills, shearwaters, murres, kittiwakes, puffins, auks, and thousands of Wilson’s Stormy Petrels.

The next day they motored through 50 miles of fjords in the Lampidoes Passage to St. Albans, a town of 2,000 people, and spent the night in Macallum, another fishing village with boardwalk streets, docks made of log rafts and homes built on pilings over the rocky shore. They continued into Doctor’s Cove near Burgeo, then west to Little Garia Bay, finishing up on Aug. 15 at Channel Port Aux Basques where ferries shuttle to North Sydney.

Planning ahead for their return across Cabot Strait, this time they persuaded a tank truck to deliver diesel to dockside. Fresh water came through a 200-foot hose.

“We met Stan, a retired government employee, who took us sightseeing in Codroy Valley,” Cindy says. “And there was no charge for Nirvana’s dockage or the fresh water we took on.”

Throughout the cruise, especially in Newfoundland, Cindy and Ian paid extra attention to weather. Ian says Canadian weather forecasts were fairly accurate, although due to a rapid succession of lows they predicted only what was “likely” that day and an “outlook” for the following day. Weather fronts move quickly in the Atlantic Provinces and Ian says he gave great respect to any system below 564 isobars.

Fast sailing in strong winds

The couple saw a break in the strong winds and sailed close-hauled back to the harbor of Ingonish, on northern Cape Breton Island.

“The next morning we were hailed by a police launch sent by Ray Pierce, welcoming us back to Nova Scotia,” Ian says.

They spent two days revisiting the Bras d’Or Lake, and one evening feasted on mussels and oysters and sang with Ray accompanying on the mandolin.

From the Bras d’Or, Nirvana headed southwest back to Liscomb, then past Halifax and stopped at Sambro, dodging container ships along the way. The cruising guide said Sambro offered good holding ground, but during a southeast gale the voyagers tried three times to set the plow anchor.

“Finally, four guys in a powerboat saw our problem and bounced through the chop to lead us to a protected mooring,” Ian says. The men turned out to all be cousins and invited the couple aboard for cold beers.

“Two were fishermen, the others a boat dealer and a tourist guide,” Ian says. “The next morning they knocked on the hull and presented us with a gift of two pounds of haddock.”

On Aug. 21 Nirvana sailed to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, then ran a long, foggy leg all the way to the Maine coast with eyes on the radar. At 3 a.m. the moon broke through.

The rest of the voyage home in now-familiar waters unfolded without incident and delivered a satisfying end to this Sag Harbor cruising couple’s journey to find a small piece of France just south of Newfoundland.