Monday, 30 May 2016

Atlantic fringes: Scotland to Labrador and Newfoundland


Iron Bark and I spent the winter of 2014/2015 in the Outer Hebrides in Stornoway and had a fine time of it. Stornoway Harbour is safe and convenient, the people outgoing and the music excellent. Iron Bark quickly became part of the local scenery and we had some grand ceilidhs aboard, with Friday night a regular event. 
Stornoway ceilidh  on Iron Bark - the fiddler is Jim McWhirr

One Friday I counted eighteen people with nine musical instruments (and gallons of whisky) in Iron Bark’s saloon, quite a crowd on a 35ft boat. It is seldom that a stranger is so completely accepted into a close-knit community as I was in Stornoway and it was with regret that I said goodbye in the spring.

Iron Bark dried out for antifouling in Stornoway

Winter lingered late and the mainland hills were snow covered when I crossed the Minch to Loch Broom in April. Through late April and early May I wandered south through the Hebrides waiting out spells of bad weather at anchor and making the most of the good spells. It was an easy, unrushed time, pottering between empty anchorages without seeing another yacht until south of Ardnamurchan Point. 
On 20 May I crossed the North Channel to Rathlin Island to take part in a maritime festival. Rathlin is a bit like Stornoway; you need to spend a few days there to appreciate it and to be accepted. The locals were friendly, the music good and the poteen abundant so I stayed there two and a half weeks.
Rathlin music
My destination for the summer was Labrador. A westward passage across the northern Atlantic is never likely to be easy; the obvious route is to stay well north and hope for less headwinds and contrary current at the price of some unpleasant weather and perhaps ice. After waiting out a series of westerly gales, I sailed from Rathlin on 8 June. There was a high pressure over Britain that I hoped would bring a northeast breeze but it brought nothing but a calm. It took two days for us drift and finally motor clear of the Irish coast to beyond the 100-fathom line. There was no wind there either, but we were clear of fishing boats and no longer shuttling back and forth with the tide. For three days we lay becalmed with fulmars paddling circuits around Iron Bark before a north wind got us moving. A week after leaving Rathlin I finally had enough sea room to ride out a gale.
Atlantic track with diamonds at noon positions 
In our second week at sea we made slow, steady progress close hauled into moderate or fresh headwinds, with a day and a half lost while hove-to in WSW7-8. During this we lay comfortably under deep-reefed mainsail with our escort of fulmars paddling in the slick Barky left as she drifted slowly across the wind. A few days later there was short-lived gale from the southeast, a fair wind, which we ran before under bare poles. Neither of these gales was more than inconvenient as they barely reached F9 even in squalls and there was ample sea room.

The third week at sea brought more fair winds than foul and we made good 636nm aided by a weak favourably current. Any lift from a current is welcome, but this current was cold and brought a thick, dank fog that made everything in the boat damp, including my bedding. Generally I do not light the heater at sea but on this occasion regretted having only half a sack of peat in the fuel bin. There were pilot whales about, often accompanied by common dolphins, to brighten the dull days. The pilot whales ploughed along sedately behind Iron Bark while the dolphins zigzagged ahead, chirping through the hull.
On 26 July, 600 miles east of Labrador, we crossed the line marking the extreme limit of icebergs. There is little chance of seeing ice that far out and even less of hitting any so I sailed on into the fog keeping only a desultory lookout by day and none at night, but radar would have been a comfort. Six days later, 75 nautical miles off the Labrador coast and 135miles from the intended landfall of Strawberry Harbour, the fog lifted briefly to show an iceberg. Although this was the first I had seen, there had undoubtedly been others hidden in the fog.
Ice in sunlight is a lovely sight
......but frightening when it looms out of the fog

I had resolved to keep a proper watch after seeing the first ice but it was a cold, tedious job in the fog. That night, for the first time, I hove-to for fear of ice. Iron Bark forereaches at about a knot when hove-to so it was still possible to hit something, but the low speed reduces the chances of a collision and improves the odds of surviving one. It was still foggy the following morning when I let draw. That day I saw six icebergs and more probably lurked in the mank. By 1700 it was obvious I could not make Strawberry Harbour before dark so I hove-to for the night. The entrance to Strawberry Harbour is narrow, crooked and of course unlit; it is not one to attempt in the dark. The harbour itself is well protected with good holding but limited swinging room.
Within an hour of heaving-to the wind had increased from SE6 to gale force. The poorly charted, rocky coast was 15nm to the southwest, too close for safety if this wind backed at all. I dragged the storm staysail forward and got soaked hanking it on and hoisting it. The water was cold, unsurprising given the amount of ice around. I crashed off towards deep water under storm staysail and deep-reefed mainsail with the wind just forward of the beam. As the wind was now SE9, this put a lot of strain on the gear but the alternative was risk being jammed against the coast.
Three hours later in the last of the daylight and with 30nm of sea room I was preparing to heave-to for the night when a large iceberg with a train of bergy bits appeared close ahead. Stopping near that lot was not an option so I sailed blindly into the darkness for another nerve-wracking hour before heaving-to. When I went below the temperature in the cabin was 2°C, but it was a haven of warmth and quiet compared to the cockpit. Keeping watch was pointless as visibility was nil so I dozed fully dressed. If we hit something there would not be time to pull on boots.
By morning the wind had eased to SE7 and visibility was about a mile with no ice in sight. Closing the coast in those conditions had no appeal so I remained hove-to for another 24 hours. On the morning of 4 July we set off for Strawberry Harbour, now 62nm away, under reefed mainsail and working staysail in SE6 and, inevitably, fog. Several times during the day we had to dodge ice that loomed out of the murk. As I closed the coast the wind increased to gale force and the fog thinned. I deep reefed the mainsail then, when an island two miles off Strawberry Harbour gave a little protection, handed it and closed the harbour under staysail and motor. 
The entrance to Strawberry Harbour looked horrible but I had no desire to turn back into the fog and ice offshore so dropped the staysail and went in under engine only. At times the motor was barely able to hold Iron Bark’s head into the wind as we crept in against gusts funnelling down the entrance channel. Once inside I let the anchor go on the minimum scope I though feasible. It held, but bullets of wind from the surrounding hills sent Iron Bark sheering dangerously close to the harbour’s rocky shores. As quickly as I knew how, I stocked and set a second anchor to reduce our swinging arc. Then, between gusts, I launched the dinghy and rowed out a warp with a chain sling and got it around a rock. Once safely moored in the middle of the harbour I went below and lit the heater using the last of the Irish turf.
The passage from Ireland to Labrador had taken 26 days. It was straightforward until the last three days, but those days made up for the earlier ease. Ice, fog and a rock-studded shore are an unpleasant mix at any time; in a gale they make a fearful combination.
Strawberry Harbour in flat, misty light
Strawberry Harbour is a lovely spot, uninhabited and named for the colour of the rocks rather than any profusion of fruit. The land is too bleak for that. Ashore there were still snow banks in protected nooks and it was too cool for mosquitoes to be a nuisance. To seaward half a dozen icebergs were in sight whenever the fog lifted enough to see anything. I spent several days there enjoying the pleasures of port as offered in Labrador - all night in, unlimited firewood for the labour of cutting it and water for the labour of hauling it. 
On 9 July I motored to the village of Makkovik to clear customs.  The police in Makkovik called the Canada Border Services in Goose Bay who immediately ordered me to sail there for an interview. I demurred at sailing 250nm to windward in fog and ice with a gale forecast, backed up by the Makkovik Mounties and together we eventually prevailed. The CBS have no procedure for clearing a vessel at ports other than those serviced by one of their offices. As there are no CBS offices between Goose Bay in Labrador and Prince Rupert in British Columbia, separated by thousands of miles of Canadian administered coastline, this allows considerable scope for bureaucratic silliness, some of it dangerous.
Labrador is a big place and the sailing season is short. The choice is either push hard whenever the weather permits to cover as much territory as possible or choose an area and investigate it in detail. This year I wanted to do the latter and hoped to explore some of the maze of uncharted, uninhabited bays on the mid-Labrador coast between 55°N and 57°N.
With the advent of GPS, pilotage in a surveyed channel with a known datum has become simple even in poor visibility, but nosing into the unknown requires good visibility, moderate winds and patience. My first foray into the blank part of the chart failed. The weather was fair when I set off to look at the unsurveyed part of the Bay of Islands, but the fog rolled in as I groped my way across six miles of unsurveyed water with one eye on the depth sounder and the other staring into the murk. The uneven bottom suggested unseen hazards close by but I saw none. The bay I had hoped to use as an anchorage had a rocky shoal in its entrance but the fog was too thick and the wind to strong for me to leave Iron Bark untended at anchor while I sounded ahead with the dinghy to find a way around it.  I retreated towards Roses Island where I knew there was a safe but unsurveyed anchorage. I drew a chart with soundings of Iron Bark’s track across the Bay of Islands but discarded it as misleading; there were almost certainly unseen rocks close to her path.
The southern approach to Roses Island along Lillian Island Tickle follows a line of soundings on the chart. Soundings are a rarity in this area and usually indicate a safe channel at least a cable wide, hence my shock when I nearly hit an uncharted barely-covered rock almost on the line of soundings. The rock is on my sketch chart.

I spent a night in the Roses Island anchorage and sounded it for a sketch chart, then two days of fair weather allowed me to sail 100nm to Tom Gears Run, with a night in Shoal Tickle along the way. The area around Tom Gears Run is lovely and I intended to spend a week or two exploring the blanks on the chart around it. Initially I anchored in a well-protected cove on Tikigatsiak Peninsula that Annie Hill and I found and charted in 2002 but it had several black bears apparently permanently resident on its shore, which inhibited my daily walk. I shifted camp to a less attractive bay, but without bears.
Tunungayualok Island (unpronounceable to we kabloona), which forms one side of Tom Gears Run, is indented by a large unsurveyed bay named, equally unpronounceably, Nuvudluktok. From a hilltop I could see the entrance to Nuvudluktok was nearly closed off by a moraine bar but there appeared to be a channel on its southeast side. The next day was calm enough to take Barky around to the bar and leave her at anchor while I sounded with the dinghy to find a way across. Then, following the channel I had delineated from the dinghy, I took Iron Bark into Nuvudluktok and spent two days exploring and charting it. Nuvudluktok is a land-locked lagoon with deeply indented shores providing a new view around each headland, numerous seals, a trout-filled lake and two attractive, well-protected anchorages. If it were closer to a yachting centre, Nuvudluktok would be a celebrated cruising destination; as it is, a few Inuit skin boats and Iron Bark are probably the only vessels to have ever been there.

I quickly fell back into the familiar routine for investigating an uncharted area. Each evening I drew an outline chart of the area I wanted to look at the next day, usually an enlargement from the appropriate chart. An image from Google Earth would be better but is beyond Iron Bark’s technical capability. The main part of the survey is done by motoring slowly along with Barky, recording soundings as I go. When we get to a shallow or narrow section, I anchor and row ahead to sound it from the dinghy then continue on with Iron Bark. Each evening I transfer the day’s work to a fair copy of the sketch chart, write up the notes and prepare a working chart for the next day.
I have two new gadgets that make things easier. One is a hand-held echo sounder that makes sounding from the dinghy easy. It lets me get the depth before the dinghy loses way between oars strokes without having to deal with a lead line that habitually tangles around oars, bailer and rowlocks while the dinghy drifts off station before the lead gets bottom. The other gadget is a chart plotter with an integrated depth sounder display. Its screen is too small for its advertised purpose but it allows me to quickly and accurately record the position and depth of soundings as I motor along with Iron Bark. With these new tools I can chart an unsurveyed bay in a fraction of the time that I would formerly have taken.
Iron Bark’s motor may not be large but it is extremely useful for this sort of work. It allows me to nose into dubious spots and back out when its gets too shallow, something I cannot do under sail. In less mechanised times such survey work was done from a cutter under oars with the main vessel safely anchored elsewhere, but you need a big crew for that.  Being single-handed has other limitations. With a second person aboard, one can keep the mother vessel standing off and on while the other sounds ahead from the dinghy. Alone, if it is unsafe to anchor and explore a difficult channel from the dinghy, it goes untried or uncharted, as happened in the Bay of Islands.
I spent ten days looking at the bays to the west of Tom Gears Run. Apart from two lines of soundings near a long-abandoned Moravian mission at Zoar Bay, the chart of the area is blank. I started with Takpanayok Bay, which I found to be free of hazards but with only one anchorage that would be tenable in strong winds. However Takpanayok does have a sand beach where a yacht could careen for repairs, something sufficiently rare in Labrador for me to mark it on the sketch chart. There is another large unsurveyed bay in the area called Tasiuyak. I tried to get into it but the ebb was running at eight knots from its narrow entrance so I left Tasiuyak for someone with a RIB with a big engine.

One morning I was drifting down Tom Gears Run in light airs, shifting to a bay with a stream to do the laundry, when a yacht came around the corner, sensibly motoring given the lack of wind. It was Francis B, Nancy and Tom Zygler, friends who have done much enterprising voyaging without ever a fuss. We yarned for a while before they continued north. We met again several times during the summer for some pleasant evenings together.
Yarning with Francis B. Photo copywrite Tom Zygler
On 28 July, having achieved most of what I had hoped around Tom Gears Run, I sailed 39nm miles to Kauk Harbour, with a couple of miles of motoring when we lost the wind in a protected tickle. Kauk is uninhabited but stone tent circles and the more recent ruins of two cabins show it to have been occupied at least temporarily in the past. The harbour is well protected with wooded shores and a stream so I spent a couple of days catching up on the domestic chores of firewood, water and laundry, and of course sounded the harbour for a sketch chart. The evenings were still cool enough to appreciate a fire at night but on the few days the sun shone, the bugs were out in force. There are some good walks around Kauk Harbour with extensive views from the bluffs, but it is worth watching out for black bears.

On 2 August in light airs I motored 16nm north to look at an unsurveyed bay on Base Island that might offer a sheltered anchorage. I anchored off the bay and sounded it from the dinghy but found a shallow bar across its entrance, so prepared to return to Kauk. As I reattached the throat halyard to the gaff after using it to hoist the dinghy aboard, I discovered several fatigue cracks on the gaff jaws that rendered the mainsail unusable. With no mainsail and little wind, I motored out to the main channel. At that point the engine spluttered and died, leaving us drifting with the tide. Fortunately there was just enough wind to give steerageway with the jib as the water was too deep for anchoring. The engine problem was clearly a fuel blockage so I dived below and tore into the fuel system, leaping back to deck every few minutes to steer away from one or other shore. I was watching rocks not the clock so do not know how long it took for me to find which filter was blocked, replace it and bleed the system, but the tide carried us two miles before the engine fired. A few miles from Kauk the breeze freshened allowing me to sail in to anchor, watched by a bear.
In Kauk I fabricated reinforcements for the gaff jaws but needed a welding machine to finish the job. Fortunately we were only six miles from Nain, the northernmost village in Labrador, where I could undoubtedly borrow or rent one. With no mainsail and the water along the way too deep for anchoring, I waited for a quiet day before motoring to Nain. Thus do uncrowded waters make us cowards. A yacht motoring from its marina berth places greater reliance on its engine with no nonsense about bending on the trysail because the mainsail is unusable. By the time I had the repairs completed, I thought it time to turn south.
On 12 August I slipped on the icy deck, something I though unseasonable in such a moderate latitude (57°N). The summer of 2015 will be remembered in Labrador as exceptionally cold and foggy with an almost complete failure of the berry crop. In mid August the black bears, which should have been scattered inland gorging on berries to put on fat for the winter, were still looking lean and foraging along the shore. I doubt if many of this year’s cubs will survive the winter.
For three weeks I wended my way south, anchoring each night and where possible avoiding bays that I had previously visited. The weather remained unpleasant. I can haul on sheets and halyards while wearing mittens but cannot tie in a reef with them on and my hands suffered. The dominant summer wind along this coast is from the southeast. Not only is this a headwind when heading for Newfoundland, but it also brings fog, with visibility sometimes less than 100m. Consequently our progress was slow with a lot of motoring. Navigating in thick fog between the numerous rocks that stud the coast is difficult enough under engine when I can go hard astern if something looms up close ahead. Under sail, the risk of hitting a rock increases considerably. Without the engine I would have missed going into many of the smaller, more interesting bays.
Wyatt Harbour
My first stop was Wyatt Harbour, trumpeted in the Canadian Government Sailing Directions as ‘among the finest on the coast of Labrador’, but I thought it had too little swinging room if it should blow hard. The next night was back in Tom Gears Run at Tikigatsiak Cove in company with Francis B. There was a black bear with two cubs on the shore, and still no blueberries. I spent a night in Shoal Tickle and the next in Blind Mugford Tickle before pushing on to Meshers Harbour. Meshers Harbour is unsurveyed and has a rock ledge partially obstructing the harbour entrance. I anchored off and went ahead with the dinghy to find the way in. A gale gave me an excuse to spend two days in Meshers Harbour, which is well protected with good holding, surrounded by wooded hills and has a convenient watering stream. Water and firewood were low so I filled up on each then sounded the harbour for a sketch chart. Firewood is scarce in much of Labrador and there are surprisingly few good watering places, so I never let pass an opportunity to get either.
The southern part of Labrador is relatively well surveyed but there are still many small bays and natural harbours that are uncharted or inadequately covered by the Canadian Pilot or CCA Labrador guide. I tried to anchor for the night in bays where there was scope to make a useful addition to the pilotage information. The night spent in Webeck Harbour did not fall into this category. Webeck is a roadstead open to the north and unattractively exposed no matter how well it is charted. The next stop in Edwards Harbour was more to my taste. It is a landlocked bay with a narrow, reef-constricted entrance. Although there is a sketch chart of Edwards Harbour in the CCA Labrador guide, the best way around this reef is not clear. I sounded it and drew a sketch chart that I hope shows the best channel.

I took the gift of a rare fair wind to make a 125nm overnight passage from Edwards Harbour around Cape Harrison to Penny Harbour. Between Cape Harrison and Quakers Hat Island, a distance of 20nm, we passed over 50 bergs and bergy bits plus innumerable growlers. By dusk we were 20nm south of Quakers Hat with only two distant bergs in sight so I took the risk of carrying on through the night rather than heaving-to and wasting the northeast breeze.

Penny Harbour
I spent a night in Penny Harbour, drew a sketch chart and left early the following morning in fog so thick that I saw neither side of its narrow entrance. Later the fog burnt off and we had a gentle, sunlit sail to Duck Harbour down a narrow channel glorying in the name Squasho Run. There were no ducks in Duck Harbour but I saw a bear and heard coyotes yipping and howling in the night. Duck Harbour was the last unsurveyed harbour that we visited on this voyage and the last place that I drew a sketch chart. The following nights were spent St Francis Harbour and Fox Harbour, both well charted. Fox Harbour is a village of 150 people and the first settlement I had visited since leaving Nain. From Fox Harbour we sailed overnight across the Strait of Belle Isle to Newfoundland and anchored in St Anthony Harbour on 29 August 2015, bringing this voyage to an end.
St Anthony is a town of 3000 with more supplies and services than I had seen since leaving Stornoway in April. Most things not locally available can be ordered in so I set to work provisioning and preparing Iron Bark for her next voyage.

This year’s venture started and finished on the Atlantic’s Celtic fringes with good company, good music and abundant whisky of quality varying from fine single malt to pretty rough poteen. In between we had an interesting ocean passage and two months exploring an intricate, uncharted coast. There was everything that first attracted me to voyaging in small sailing vessels; it was a complete thing’.


  1. Greetings from Stornoway - Christmas wasn't the same without you, we missed you! Great to read of your exploits since parting at Rathlin, we're just back form this year's visit and wanted to let you know how well remembered you are on that other friendly isle. So many folk were asking after you, especially Seaweed Sarah and the Armagh mummers! Haste ye back to the northern hemisphere dear friend x