I think I mentioned earlier that we had acquired another boat? A big old ex-fishing vessel, the erstwhile Fundy Explorer was gifted to us because her owners (the GC’s young cousin and his business partner) were, I’m sure, too embarrassed to actually accept payment for this mouldy old scow. My clear vision of her peeling and scabby exterior was overcome by my first impressions of her interior …. why was I not suspicious of the fact that the GC and the Genie first took me on board at 11 at night after several drinks and a good dinner? Certainly in the dim light of her cabin she looked actually quite acceptable …. kind of cosy and welcoming. At 55 feet she has a beamy and comfortable galley cum banquette seating area behind the helm and a cursory look below revealed six bunks and a toilet but I didn’t notice that the Genie, who was doing the tour, carefully didn’t turn on the lights and in the glance of a torch it all looked really quite feasible. And she was free. This could be fun! No sails to worry about … I started to fantasise about trips to Miquelon; barbeques on board in the summer at the quayside with our friends … and didn’t the Shaolin take his boat to Newfoundland to go shopping? Hey; according to the GC we could fit our car on this thing; freedom, English speaking people and Costco were suddenly only a few hours away!
Cold hard daylight showed me that she was mouldy, wet and decrepit. She had sat unused in the Port for goodness knows how long; she was out of insurance and registration; her roof was leaking (and god knows what else as well) and the entire interior was covered in black mould; varying only in its depth and blackness. The GC assured me however that her engine was in good order, and I know that’s the most important part of the boat, right? To say nothing of the fact that she came with a prime quay side position right next to the ferry terminal and only 100 meters from the house. So, fuming and cursing I donned rubber gloves and began to boil water, after opening all the cupboards and filling several garbage bags with practically everything I found on board.
Several hours of scrubbing away resulted in something that I was at least reasonably happy to breathe around but as the roof still hadn’t been fixed the next rainstorm brought in more moisture and I went on strike. I’m not coming back till you’ve stopped the leaks, I said. I’m not wasting my time like bloody Hercules in the stables of Augeas without a convenient river to divert to do my work for me. Consequently I didn’t step back on board for around five or six months, till the beginning of last summer. By then the GC was happy with his caulking; he’d taken her dry to clean her bottom of the yards of weed that she’d accumulated over a couple of years of inaction and he’d managed to install an ancient stove to dry her innards. He was still aghast at my insistence that he burn the mattresses on the blackened bunks (I will win on this one!) and I still refused to go below, citing the possibility of pregnancy from proximity to those dreadful things, but the main cabin was in pretty good shape and I’d even made him Roman blind curtains and new cushions for the banquettes from the floral curtains I’d removed from the living room. She looked quite presentable, and after a final wash down of the soot that had accumulated from the old stove (well, at least it wasn’t mould!) I agreed to take her out to Ile aux Marins for the afternoon.
Another alcohol fuelled evening with the Genie persuaded the GC that she should be renamed the “Pinball Wizard” – more a homage to the skills of her captain than anything else. Of course this also required that we download and watch The Who’s ‘Tommy” … an exercise that reminded us all only too painfully of what the 70s were really all about and thanking our lucky stars that we were young enough then to bounce back from its worse excesses …
The GC had already taken her over to Newfoundland while I’d been in Germany; a boy’s own trip with one of his old friends (who apparently fell down the hatch into the engine room – it’s a hole in the floor of the main cabin and broke a rib but that’s another story) and they slept on board; a fact that he still bangs on about, while I tell him that he is absolutely DREAMING if he thinks I’m going to do that before the aforementioned mattress bonfire. We left the dogs at home and consequently had a pretty good trip. He recognised this and in my weakened state (read; a nice couple of bottles of rose with my friend the Sylph) managed to persuade me that repeating this experience with the van on the back and the dogs in tow all the way to Newfoundland would be a wonderful and exciting getaway.
I don’t know what it is about me but I appear to have a complete lack of imagination when it comes to executing manouevers like ‘we’ll just load the van on the back’. Why do I not envisage that what this means is that we need to build a wooden ramp to get up and over the 12′ square wooden beams that line the dock specifically to stop cars from driving over and into the ocean? And that the fact that he has been talking about building wooden tracks to get the car on board means that he will actually have to back the car along a pair of wooden tracks (read 15 cm wide planks) suspended over a meter of water before he actually gets onto the back of the boat? And that we will have to bring the boat stern in – a manouver that means tying her off from the front to hold her into position at a 90 degree angle to the dock as she’s usually moored alongside and that this means that the whole manouver has to be performed at high tide which is the only time that the deck will be at the right height to do all this … WHY did I not actually envisage all these things? My only excuse is that not in my wildest imagination did I consider that he would seriously entertain such lunacy. Sigh. I have no explanation for what ELSE I thought might happen, but it kind of wasn’t this.
So at around 1 am the night before our departure (because that was the time of the high tide!) we set an alarm; got out of bed and he went down and told me to be ready to come help. By the time I got down there I saw that he’d done this crazy ass thing of bringing her in stern to alone (of course) and that he was busy putting up the ramps and getting the car ready. I obeyed various shouted commands bur seemed to be fairly ineffective as his technique with me is basically to shout instructions and then do the job before I’ve managed to understand what it is that he wants to do. Which kind of suits me fine because then not only do I not break my nails but I can’t get into trouble for doing the wrong thing. I don’t mind being abused for doing nothing, that works for me just fine.
Next thing I knew, he was in the van, with the drivers door open, backing it onto these two wooden planks – just slightly wider than each tyre – to get her on board. To say that I was close to hysterics would probably be putting it mildly. I can’t adequately describe how stomach churning it is to see the love of your life start to back up a van onto a wooden ramp which balances precariously between said ramp and the back of a boat; covering a gap of about two meters a meter and a half above the …. water. Then misjudging it slightly so that the wheels aren’t exactly aligned (as they must be, no room for error here!) and while you are screaming that they should WAIT until you are in position to guide them as they have requested, they drive forward, straighten up the wheels, throw it into reverse and gun it up and over … then stop in the middle to check that the wheels are indeed on the planks (which the starboard ones are NOT, quite!); judge that they are going to make it without actually driving off the starboard one and into the water and then complete the job and land on deck …. all before you have actually quite started hyperventilating.
Yup; it was stressful; for me anyway; he was just grinning like the maniac that he is and congratulating himself on a job well done. Since the van was now on board, we could go home to bed, with him telling me he had no idea what I was worried about; he had done all this a million times before and ignoring the fact that THAT was when he was like 18 years old so around two hundred years ago … like that made the slightest difference.
The next morning we loaded the dogs and our stuff and headed out. Now the St Pierraise go to Newfoundland a lot but they are all really cautious about the weather and the sea conditions, and let’s just say that this morning they were less than optional. Quite apart from the fact that both dogs were vomiting (even though, knowing their proclivities, I had refrained from giving them breakfast) we soon started pitching and rolling in one and a half meter seas. I was absolutely terrified; convinced that the van had us top heavy and that we were just going to roll over and perish … a fear that wasn’t actually alleviated by the fact that I was convinced that the van had shifted on it’s lashings.
It took around an hour of this to get to the lee of Green Island, when the swell subsided a great deal, and he assured me that when we reached the shelter of the Newfoundland coast it would be totally flat and fine. The fact that we hit even larger swells between Green Island and the lee of Newfoundland didn’t make me feel any better; by then I had sworn blind that IF we made it safely to land I would never step foot on this deathtrap again and would take the dogs and catch the ferry home. O me of little faith; you’d think that after all these years of exposure to the GC I would trust him at sea but somehow …. how he puts up with my histrionics I have no idea but he does.
We arrived in Newfoundland in a place rather confusingly called Fortune. I can only imagine it’s because it’s the only extant border between France and North America; apart from the rather imposing Customs building and the ferry terminal it’s quite an underwhelming little village. If Newfoundland is the end of the earth .. and believe me, it’s waaaaaaay out back …. then Fortune is far from it’s fundament.
The biggest problem with our arrival was that of course we couldn’t unload the van except by the same process as which we’d loaded her, in reverse, which also required the tide to be high, ie at 12 noon. The saving grace in Fortune is that there isn’t that enormous wooden beam to surmount, it’s a clear access, but that’s only because this is where the Aldona – the little freighter that plies between Fortune and St Pierre and which the GC sometimes captains when it’s regular skipper is on holiday – docks and unloads the cars that less privileged (or more sane) people send between the two. On this particular day, the Aldona was firmly in place and for a myriad of reasons was delayed …. and delayed … and further delayed. So while we waited, tied up to the Customs dock, the tide rose .. and then started to fall.
At last Captain Morgan was ready and pushed off; and we – now waiting tied up alongside some big fishing boats – were ready to get into place and unload. Had we not made it then we would have had to wait until midnight, wasting precious hours and raising the eyebrows of the Harbour Master who decided that if this should be the situation he would simply give us the keys to the dock rather than get out of bed!
The ferry was about to come in and accordingly the dock was swarming with St Pierraise ready to go home; including an enormous young man whom (of course) the GC knew. After a barrage of rapid and mostly incomprehensible (to me) patois, he took over the heavy work of the planks and the ramps and with a roar the GC ran the van UP the slope now caused by the fact that the tide had dropped several inches and we were no longer flush with the dock and over and onto terra firma. The fact that there was a six inch drop between the angle of the planks and the dock didn’t deter either of them; a few blocks of wood in place to soften the drop on the tyres and away they went. I told you these Gauls were crazy.
Of course that wasn’t the end of the exercise. NOW we had to go and put her away in the ‘marina’, with a strong wind blowing. Of course what THAT meant was that after fastening the front rope to the pontoon, I muffed the ‘spring’ in the middle and the rope at the stern, and the enormous bulk of PeeWee (as she is now fairly affectionately known) swung out into the middle of the waterway between the pontoons, perpendicular to the dock and heading for the boats moored on the other side.
This of course evinced enormous roars from the GC and some futile weeping from me; without a bow thruster and only on a single engine this wasn’t a good situation to be in. He gunned the engine (an euphemism; it’s not exactly fast or powerful) and managed to get her straight enough to throw me a line; this time I was willing to sacrifice fingers to get this whole sorry show over and done with and managed to not only get a loop through a cleat but tie a knot to prevent her from drifting out again. Slowly but surely she came alongside. Moral of the story is that I was born to have crew. It’s not a role that I seem to be able to rise to particularly well … anyway, we were finally ready to experience Newfoundland.
I’m sorry to any Newfie reading this but I have to admit to being thoroughly underwhelmed. It makes me think of nothing more than that description of Earth in the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy; a short entry …’Mostly harmless’. Apart from moose (which can kill you if you are foolish enough to run your car into one) and the Newfie accent – think broadest Irish – there’s not much there that can actually do you any damage. But there’s not much there to go out of your way for, either.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s pretty, though the endless pine trees get a bit boring after a while. There are magnificent rivers and you can just imagine Daniel Boone types setting off on voyages of discovery and mink trapping. But for the rest of it … well … it’s not exactly memorable.
Fortune is a four hour drive from St Johns, the capital, two of which are on Canada’s National Highway which is cute, Google maps tells you it will take you 10 days to get to Toronto because basically Google is lost. That’s not such a bad thing. There’s a big service station on the corner of that highway, which has an enormous fibreglass moose that people have their photo taken with. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m an Australian. We have the Big Banana and the Big Prawn, so I understand the Big Moose. But in Australia those things are a kitsch joke, right? No one queues up to send Instagram photos of themselves in front of them! Or if so, only for a joke! But here we had tourists from Singapore (what on earth were they doing there anyway? lost?) TAKING SELFIES IN FRONT OF IT. Why? There isn’t anything else. Seriously. No, I don’t have a photo.
Look, we had a perfectly pleasant stay in St Johns, in a lovely air bnb where the dogs were really at home. We went out to dinner to all the recommended places and I have to tell you that the best meal in St Johns is to be had at a place called The Keg, which is a CHAIN (do you hear what I’m saying?) that serves fantastic steaks and seafood. Service is amazing too. It’s a big ass kind of old fashioned yet modern steak and seafood place; nicely done out with a great bar. And cracking food, with a great wine list and knowledgeable staff. More than can be said for any of the other supposedly good independent places we went to which I won’t name and shame, that would not be nice. But it’s hard to get excited about a place where the best thing is Costco … and here I’m really not kidding.
The weather was stunning when we were there and the GC took me up to Signal Hill; the old British fortification and lookout which gives you a stunning view of the harbour and the town of St Johns. We even met a Newfoundland dog who was extremely large, hairy and drooly. It’s like a baby version of Halifax, almost unnervingly so. Pretty; but … mostly harmless.
In a nutshell, Newfoundland reminded me of nothing so much as Australia in the 70s. Don’t try to get a meal in a small town after 6 pm, they are all closed. The food is also basically 70s Australiana; everything fried; lots of chips with gravy and absolutely nothing ethnic. There is a good farmers market in St Johns that serves a big range of food but it’s basically ethnic market food a la Sydney 1975. They have their own indigenous chicken chain, Mary Browns, which we were forced to eat at one night in Fortune (absolutely no other choice including cooking for ourselves!) Lets just say it keeps off starvation and we were never sick; but as food of choice it just doesn’t rate.
We did manage to get our hands on probably Newfoundland’s greatest product; a bottle of Crystal Head vodka. A project of none other than Dan Ackroyd, it’s not first flight vodka but it’s not at all bad and the bottle – a crystal skull – is absolutely rocking. Love it. My only souvenir of Newfoundland (well; apart from hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of produce from Costco!) Also if you do happen to be travelling there, probably the best clothes shop that side of Montreal is a totally unexpected big barn called Mercers. It’s in a place called Clarenville, between Fortune and Gander, a two and a half hour drive out of St Johns, and they told me they get a lot of business from St Johns which must tell you something. We turned up there looking for a new stove for the boat; and I was in seventh heaven. They stock Arcteryx sportswear; Ugg footwear; a fabulous Canadian brand called Bogs which are basically gumboots but the best paddock boots in the world and a huge range of ships chandlery and kitchenware! I bought my new Christmas pudding bowl there, for heavens sake! The place is a goldmine! Don’t miss it.
The other real find of Newfoundland was a B&B really close to Fortune. It’s called Abbie’s Garden, and it’s just gorgeous. Cute, comfortable, well appointed and with an absolutely stunning garden this is a little oasis of comfort and civilisation in pretty basic surroundings.
The way back home on the boat was a dream, warm sunny weather with seas as flat as a pancake. Dolphins and whales played around us, the dogs didn’t throw up and consequently I forgot all the pain and tribulation of the way out. Once home and unpacked, I prepared myself for the trauma of unloading the van once again but just as we began to set up for the operation in came the Jeune France from Langlade and before I knew it her captain and crew had thrown themselves in with the GC. As I watched aghast as the van pushed the planks upwards like a see-saw and then tipped downwards onto the dock with a thump and rolled triumphantly into safety, I heard the GC say “She’s so worried, I have no idea why!” to which Captain France replied; ‘Women … they just worry about nothing.”