Force of Nature

A circumnavigation of Newfoundland includes fjords, whales and wilderness
Author:
Updated:
Original:
_DSC0085-1

My wife, Nancy, and I had always treated Newfoundland as one of those places to see while on the way to somewhere else. For years, we had cruised along the west coast of Newfoundland aboard our Mason 44 Frances B, sticking to the western side of the island as we headed for the shores of Greenland or Labrador. To us, the Newfoundland route was like a scenic highway. There were great views, but we’d never taken the time to head off at an exit and see what else lay beyond.

By the time we left our homeport in Savannah, Georgia, last May for our annual summer cruise, we’d done Greenland three times and Labrador eight. We needed a new adventure. Newfoundland’s total coastline, if you count all the bays and such, is about 10,000 statute miles. I started reading about the island’s north, east and south coasts, which promised fjords and villages that differed quite a bit from the humongous mountains and tremendous cliffs we were used to seeing in the west. We thought it would be interesting, kind of wild, to circumnavigate Newfoundland for the first time.

To avoid bad weather, our plan was to arrive in early to mid-summer. Ideally, you want to get there at the end of May or beginning of June so you can be gone by the time the weather turns in September. We weren’t that early, but we did get lucky and hit the sweet spot on timing. It was early July when we put Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island in our wake and pointed the bow of our boat toward the southwestern corner of Newfoundland, with Isle aux Morts as our planned landfall. The Atlantic lifted and dropped gently under our hull, and warm temperatures made the cruising pleasant. The fog, infamous here, vanished under a blue sky as we powered through the channel between the Ramea Islands. Caribbean-blue waters were translucent enough to see rocks a few fathoms below.

Fishermen from St. Bride’s chase cod under the cliffs of Cape St. Mary’s.

Fishermen from St. Bride’s chase cod under the cliffs of Cape St. Mary’s.

We navigated into Grey River, with green hills to starboard and a tiny village near Jerts Cove to port. Farther on, La Hune Bay’s fjord was all drama, with high rock walls rising into dark clouds, and waterfalls tumbling from the murk above. While Newfoundland can look foreboding, the truth is that it’s set up for good cruising. Much of the island is still natural and rugged, but there are lots of harbors where a boat can stop if you don’t feel like going on. Even in the smaller ports, you can find spare parts and mechanics who work on the local fishing fleets. Wi-Fi and cellular usually work, too. Even in the small towns, as long as there is a road, a truck will come and deliver your part.

Brimstone Head rises over busy Fogo Harbour on the north shore of Fogo Island.

Brimstone Head rises over busy Fogo Harbour on the north shore of Fogo Island.

One of those ports is Fortune, a harbor where we stopped on the Burin Peninsula. It felt tiny but offered most things a visiting yacht might need, including a lesson in pre-cruise provisioning. Apart from St. John’s on Newfoundland’s east coast and Corner Brook along the west—where you can get everything—you’re not going to find much more than prepackaged noodles and canned goods. If you want something better for the galley, bring it with you. We were able to pick up fuel here, too. With our tanks topped up and the forecast promising clear weather, we rushed out toward Cape St. Mary’s, where there’s an ecological reserve and the most accessible seabird rookery in North America. Its colony of more than 20,000 nesting gannets was an irresistible attraction. We floated under cliffs that appeared to be covered with snow as white birds carpeted the rock stacks. All around us, gannets plummeted from great heights to feed on capelin, which are small fish that resemble smelt. The scene was frantic, with local vessels chasing cod while whales and birds fed.  

From St. Mary’s, we cruised up the east side of the Avalon Peninsula, from which the nearest shore is the coast of Ireland, 3,000 miles away. The seas stayed down and visibility was good. These were perfect conditions to explore the islands of Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, where we watched puffins race to the sea and back, and flocks of fluffy white kittiwakes float near Great Island. Rows of black-and-white murres and guillemots occupied the cliff ridges, making for a jagged skyline. Every so often, thousands of birds would rise simultaneously and blur our view of the land.

Bright summer plumage make puffins the most conspicuous seabird species in Newfoundland.

Bright summer plumage make puffins the most conspicuous seabird species in Newfoundland.

St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, came into view as we negotiated the Narrows, an appropriate name for a passage flanked by steep cliffs. From there, we headed northwest and discovered an entirely different aspect of Newfoundland. In the port town of Bonavista, the wooden clapboard homes are restored and charming. Cliffs around Cape Bonavista Light look down on breaching whales and flocks of breeding puffins. Jerry Mouland, the Bonavista harbormaster, was happy to share his portfolio of photographs, showing puffins and icebergs. A taxi driver told icy tales of seal hunting. It’s surprising, how friendly the people are—and they’re just as curious about you as you are about them. Competing with their fantastic stories can be hard: Their fathers were chasing seals over the ice and going between icebergs to fish. They’ll even sometimes give you fresh fish as thanks for a good conversation. That’s a real boon in a place where most freshly caught fish is bound for distribution plants.

The vast waters of Notre Dame Bay stretched ahead to the west. The shoreline is torn into endless sounds, bays and coves, combining wilderness with working harbors. And between towering headlands hide cozy bays, such as Harbour Round. There, we filled the freezer with halibut steaks from a friendly long-liner captain and took to the hills for a walk.

Hills on Long Island allow great views onto the shores of Notre Dame Bay.

Hills on Long Island allow great views onto the shores of Notre Dame Bay.

A few weeks after we first arrived in Newfoundland, the eastern shores of the Great Northern Peninsula rose from the Atlantic like battlements. They were split by remote fjords and not charted all that well. While navigating Great Harbour Deep, our chartplotter was three-quarters of a mile off; we found that, throughout the cruise, we needed about 15 paper charts as backups. In some places, the coverage was excellent on digital plotters, but in the more remote areas, it wasn’t reliable. If you ever cruise up this way, think of the charts the same way you think about your favorite foods: Bring extra.

On the last day of August, we tied up in Port Au Choix on the northwest coast. A breakwater surrounds a basin with a floating dock for pleasure craft, so it’s a choice place to wait for the end of contrary winds. And that’s exactly what we needed to do. We stayed there for seven days—the longest we had to wait for a weather window the whole summer—but the time flashed by thanks to nature trails near town. While out walking the northern shore, we met caribou picking at patches of green. The moose on the cliffs kept their distance.

A female caribou on the northern shore at Pointe Riche near Port au Choix.

A female caribou on the northern shore at Pointe Riche near Port au Choix.

Easterly light winds made the passage to the southwest end of Newfoundland easy, and finally, we crossed the Cabot Strait. After sailing 1,300 miles around the island, it was time, in the last days of September, to run south and, eventually, back toward home.

Our fellow cruisers sometimes believe we’re crazy, traveling to these northern destinations. They think of Newfoundland with apprehension, when I think it’s filled with excitement. You can cruise to Maine and go from there; with all the modern aids to navigation, there really is no challenge. Sure, you can go the other direction and cruise the Bahamas or Caribbean with everyone else. Nancy and I have done it, and it’s fantastic. But this is more extraordinary—especially if you take the time to see everything that Newfoundland has to offer.

Stocks of cod are on a slow rise after decades of disastrous decline.

Stocks of cod are on a slow rise after decades of disastrous decline.

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue.