Sailing Along the French Shore


Newfoundland’s West Coast (Photo – Wayne Young)


After a long, rough and windy night on the Cabot Strait, we catch our first glimpses of the Anguille Mountains, which are part of a series of mountains along the west coast of Newfoundland that make up the Long Range Mountains. The range represents the northern extremity of the Appalachian chain. The sun is still well below the mountains and it will not be visible for at least another hour. The winds continue out of the east, as they had done throughout the night. At 15:30 on Thursday, July 10th, 2008, we arrived in Stephenville, the largest community in Bay St. George, on Newfoundland’s west coast. We are aboard the sailing vessel Gallivanting which departed Toronto, Canada on Wednesday, June 4th, 2008.

East winds have a special significance on this coast. As the winds blow up and over the Long Range Mountains, the velocity increases and the much stronger winds blast down the western slope onto the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. With East winds, this “katabatic” effect is experienced to one degree or another all along the west coast of Newfoundland. Katabatic wind is the technical name for a drainage wind, where the heavier denser air drops down through the valleys and fiords. At the Southwest corner of the island, this effect produces the notorious “Wreckhouse” winds.

The coast is a rugged, mountainous, wild, and spectacular place. It also has a place in history. Jacques Cartier sailed the coast in 1534 and actually cruised into the Bay of Islands. Captain James Cook arrived in 1767 and spent the next 4 summers surveying the coast and creating the first nautical chart of the Bay of Islands.

On Monday, July 23rd, Gallivanting departs Port Harmon, near Stephenville. Before heading northward up the coast, we must first sail west out into the “Gulf” and around the Port au Port Peninsula. The winds are out of the east and near the coast they are very gusty and unpredictable. Where the cliffs are near vertical, so are the winds, sometimes hitting the surface of the water so hard that a blast of spray is created.

The coastline is spectacular and at times quite surreal. Although not a clear day, the sun sometimes pokes out of the low cloud. For the most part, the coastline is uninhabited, except for the occasional fisherman spending the summer. Viewed from the water, the lush vegetation would sometimes give the impression of a tropical island, but the cold damp air quickly reminds you that this is not the case.


Photo – Wayne Young


Bay of Islands

After several hours, we see the light at the entrance to the Bay of Islands. The name refers to several islands that are quite visible at the entrance to the bay. The more significant islands of Guernsey, Tweed and Pearl were named after three British navy ships by Captain James Cook. The inner part of the bay is long and narrow, and today is known as the Humber Arm. At the bottom of the Humber Arm you will find the city of Corner Brook.


Entrance to the Bay of Islands, Newfoundland (Photo – Wayne Young).


On the North side of the Bay of Islands lies a five mile stretch of water called the North Arm. Back in 1767, Captain Cook anchored his ship, the Grenville at the bottom of this bay.  In stark contrast to the lush vegetation observed earlier, the north shoreline of North Arm, is almost void of any greenery. The hillside is very steep and rises more than 1500 feet above the water.


Bonne Bay

A day-sail up the coast from the Bay of Islands is the entrance to another beautiful bay, aptly named Bonne Bay. Bonne Bay is the home of Gros Morne National Park, which has also been designated a World Heritage Site because of it’s remarkable geology. We arrive in the bay on July 26th, to a temperature of 25 0  Celsius. Using the wharf at Woody Point as a base, we were able to sail, watch whales and mix with the local people, all to the backdrop of Gros Morne and tablelands.


Bonne Bay, Newfoundland (Photo – Wayne Young).


Before returning to Bay St. George, we once again visit the Bay of Islands and anchor in a beautiful natural harbour at Wood’s Island. That evening, as the sun sets over the “Blow-Me-Down” mountains, we plan our sail back south, around the Port au Port peninsular and into Bay St. George.


On the hook at Wood’s Island, Newfoundland (Photo – Wayne Young)


Bay St. George

Although the west coast of Newfoundland has had many visitors throughout history, probably the most intriguing was Eric Cobham. In the early eighteenth century, Eric Cobham and his partner Maria Lindsay used the natural harbor at the bottom of Bay St. George as a hide-away in a campaign of plunder, robbery and piracy in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Cobham’s approach was to “leave no one alive”, which likely contributed to the fact that he was never caught. He eventually retired to France and became a prominent landowner and a respected member of the community.

As we approach Cape St. George, we get a whale’s eye view of Red Island, named by Jacques Cartier. In sharp contrast to the coast line, Red Island is almost entirely made up of a distinctly red sandstone. This small Island served as a fishing base in the Gulf of St. Lawrence for Basques fisherman during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Later, the French used Red Island as a fishing station until the early twentieth century. The French influence in Newfoundland is most significant in the Bay St. George area. Many French fisherman settled in the bay, instead of returning to France with the fleet. Under the Treaty of Utrecht, the French had fishing rights on the west coast until 1904. The coast became known as the “French Shore”. In the seventeenth century, Acadians, from Cape Breton also settled in the bay.


Red Island, Newfoundland (Photo – Wayne Young).


August 7th, 2008 was a beautiful day “on the water”, as they say in Newfoundland. With little or no wind, we were motoring between Cape St. George and Stephenville and enjoying the warm August sun. In the early afternoon, after noticing some activity off the starboard bow, we altered our course to investigate. As we approached the area, we observed two dolphins leap completely out of the water, as if they were “checking us out”. Shortly afterwards, we find ourselves in the middle of a large pod of White-sided Atlantic dolphins. At this point, we shut off the engine and enjoyed the wonder as they played around Gallivanting for the next hour. I must confess that I find it difficult to describe how it felt to be in such close proximity to these beautiful creatures. After a great show, they simply went on their merry way.


Atlantic White-sided Dolphins in Bay St. George. (Photo – Linda Ferraro)


After several weeks cruising this breathtaking coast, Gallivanting is ready for the return crossing of the Cabot Strait. Again the winds are out of the east and the passage to Codroy Island is very lumpy. Codroy Island lies off the Southwest corner of the island of Newfoundland and also has it’s place in history. This small island also served as a fishing station for the Basques and French fisherman during the sixteenth and seventeenth century.

On the 25th of August, 2008, Gallivanting departed Codroy Island for Cape Breton Island, in Nova Scotia. No doubt, there are many, who would argue that five weeks is not enough to fully appreciate the pleasures of cruising the island of Newfoundland.

I agree, but the five weeks were awesome.