The drama of high seas and good comradeship reward travelers who brave the rigors of the tiny steamers serving Newfoundland’s remote communities

FARLEY MOWAT March 19 1966


The drama of high seas and good comradeship reward travelers who brave the rigors of the tiny steamers serving Newfoundland’s remote communities

FARLEY MOWAT March 19 1966


The drama of high seas and good comradeship reward travelers who brave the rigors of the tiny steamers serving Newfoundland’s remote communities


IT WAS 3 A.M. and the darkness was total as the S. S. Baccalieu headed through a raging sea straight toward a wall of cliffs along the south coast of Newfoundland. The wall was not quite solid. Somewhere ahead of us was a slit in the cliffs, guarded by a set of vicious reefs. There was no lighthouse, no foghorn, nothing to guide us as we drove in on a howling sou’easter.

Captain Riggs, standing in the green glare of the radar scope, spoke quietly:

“Port a leetle.”

"Port it is, sorr.”

"Steady as she goes.”

"Steady, sorr.”

Clinging to a handrail and peering into the impenetrable murk. I could see nothing at all, but I felt the vessel's motion begin to ease. The great seas had gone and we were in calm water. With never a glimpse of the land, and running at full speed for steerage way. the ship had threaded the needle and gone charging into a cleft in the mountain face that was not as wade as she was long.

Captain Riggs turned toward me, grinning wickedly.

“I think we must have made it, leetle man.” he said.

There was only his word for it until the darkness was broken by the flare of a gasoline lantern tied to the mast

of a dory laboring toward us in the teeth of the wind. Minutes later two stewards clinging to the end of the lowered gangway had snatched a woman and her child out of the leaping boat and swung them to the deck.

They were hardly aboard when the telegraph rang for full ahead and the Baccalieu began to drive out through the invisible gap into the winter sea.

Asleep in their bunks, the passengers were blissfully unaware that Grey River now lay behind us. Most of them would not have been impressed. for most of them were Newfoundlanders. But it was perhaps as well that the pair of tourists in one of the deluxe cabins had not been on deck to watch the manœuvre. They w'ould surely have believed both the ship and they were doomed.

THE BACCALIEU and her sister ships the Bar Haven and Burgeo are working ships — desperately hard-working ships — but they do have space for a few' tourists who may w'ant to see some of North America’s most magnificent land and seascapes and share life aboard the coast boats.

Every Friday one of these boats starts west (“up-bound” they say) from Argentia for Port-Aux-Basques. And every Saturday a sister ship starts east, “down” the coast, from

Port-Aux-Basques to Argentia. In a direct line the distance between the two ports is two hundred miles, but following the deeply indented coastline the distance is thrice that.

Fn route the ships stop at fortyseven outports. One or two of them are large enough to boast that they are towns, but most are no more than a handful of brightly painted wooden houses clinging in haphazard disarray to the feet of the great sea cliffs.

The names of these hidden outposts of humanity form a strange litany. Fox Roost. Rose Blanche, Grand Bruit, Parson’s Harbour, Pushthrough. Gaultois, Coombs Cove, Belleoram, Rencontre. Harbour Mille, Fortune . . . Men have had roots in these places for as much as two centuries, and each of the little outports has a nature of its own, like miniature Greek city states. Yet all are linked and bound together by one thing they hold in common. “The Steamer,” they call it.

The steamers have, since Confederation in 1949, been run by the CNR. They are small — around a thousand tons — Scots-built, and still steamdriven. They are delightfully old-fashioned, with dark woodwork and stained-glass panes in their saloons.

When the approaching steamer sounds her whistle, the wharf (if there is one) suddenly sprouts a mushroom

growth of men, women, children and big black water dogs. “Steamer’s in!” someone shouts, and all hands grin in expectation. Once more the world has come to the outport’s door.

THE STEAMER MOORS or, when there is no dock, stands off in the stream surrounded by a cloud of skiffs and dories. Her cargo booms go to work and out come all the things men and women cannot make or raise for themselves — crates of hens, barrels of molasses, bundles of lumber, mailorder stoves . . . and a myriad nameless things. And most important of all, off comes the mail.

For anyone yearning to take an outport cruise, it is absolutely imperative to make reservations, and these should be made at least two months in advance, for the summer season anyway. (Especially in 1966, w'hich is “Come Home Year” in Newfoundland, when expatriates are expected to return in large numbers to their native island.) In any case, accommodation on the ships is strictly limited. Each of the ships has four to six two-berth deluxe cabins and these are as comfortable and roomy as those on many ocean liners. Then there are the first-class cabins — two, three and four berths. You can book an entire cabin, or, if you want really to become a part of life aboard, book a berth and let the fates choose your cabin-mates.

The voyage is scheduled to take six days up and six days down, and the fares are ridiculously cheap, thanks to government subsidies. First-class passage including a bunk is $48 one way and $96 for the round trip. A deluxe cabin costs an additional $15 each way. as do three-berth deck cabins. Two-berth cabins arc $13.10 extra. All meals (and there are four of them every day) are included.

The meals are true Newfoundland: gargantuan and simple but always good. They include such specialties as fried cod tongues and fish and brewis (pronounced brooz). “Lunch” is served about 10 p.m. each night so that you don't go to bed hungry.

Life aboard is so informal as to be a distinct shock to Organization Man. The whole ship is yours to explore, with the exception of the bridge. Nobody but a brash idiot would think of going on the bridge without permission from the skipper, but permission is easily obtained. After a day or two aboard, even /

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Aboard ship time turns back a century

the Mainlander (for that is what Canadians are) will find himself one of the family.

I said that reservations are vital; it is also vital to make them at the right place. Have no truck with your local CNR offices on the mainland. They do not seem to have a clue about the coast-boat services. The only sure way is to write direct to the CNR Ticket Agent, Coast Boat Services, St. John’s, Nfld. But remember that things move at their own pace in Newfoundland. It is advisable to allow a couple of weeks for an answer to be received and it is wise to list at least one alternate sailing date in case the voyage you wish to take is already booked.

There is the problem of getting to your embarkation port. If you wish to make the east-bound voyage, you must arrive in North Sydney (by air, car or rail) on a Friday and cross the Cabot Strait to Port-Aux-Basques on one of the CNR ferries. This will be either the Lief Eiriksson (an unusual spelling but the CN’s own), which leaves at l l a.m. and arrives at PortAux-Basques at around 5.30 p.m. Newfoundland time (half an hour earlier than Eastern Standard Time), or the M. V. William Carson, which sails every midnight, arriving at about 7 a.m. Newfoundland time. Both ships offer deluxe and first-class accommodation and you should bespeak reservations on them at the same time you make your coast-boat reservations. The basic fare is five dollars one way or nine dollars return.

If you prefer to travel “up” the coast (west-bound from Argentia), you should fly to St. John’s in time to catch the Friday noon boat train leaving for Argentia.

One point I cannot overemphasize: this is Newfoundland and schedules are made to be bent, if not completely shattered. Your boat will never sail before her appointed time, but she may very well sail ten or twenty hours late. Don’t let it worry you. Sooner or later she will reach her destination. But do not count on disembarking

at the scheduled hour. You may, if you have fair weather and there is not much cargo to handle, get there a day early, but it is just as likely you will be a day late. Furthermore, do not waste time trying to find out from anyone, even the skipper, what is going to happen next, or when. Nobody ever knows and, if the truth were told, nobody cares. Once aboard the steamer, relax and enjoy it. You have stepped back about a century.

The choice of seasons for the voyage is yours. If you want to experience the full majesty and fury of the North Atlantic, and come to some understanding of the lives of seamen and of men who live beside the sea, then travel in winter. The sight of the great sea cliffs white-iced by storm spray to a height of two hundred feet above the booming surf is never to be forgotten. Neither is the glimpse of a little dory some six or seven miles from shore in the winter dusk, with a single human figure hauling his trawl in an immensity of nothing.

But even in summer, bring sweaters, heavy walking boots, and a good raincoat. Leave your bathing suit at home —the northern sea seldom gets much above fifty degrees, and is often a chilling forty even in summer.

Finally, if you’re inclined to the theory that a drink or two provides against the rigors of cruising, remember to bring your own. The boats are, alas, bone dry. I recommend bringing an extra supply, since there is nothing like a tot of rum to make a Newfoundlander your friend for life.

Other cruises available in the Newfoundland and Labrador area are: Lewisporte - St. John’s (5 days); St. John’s-Corner Brook (7 days); Lewisporte-Corner Brook (8 days); Placentia Bay (3 days on west run, 2 days on “Bay” run); Port-Aux-Basques-Ramea (I day); Lewisporte - Baie Verte (3 days); St. John’s-Nain (11 days). These are all one way. Interested parties should write to the CNR Ticket Agent, Coast Boat Services, St. John’s, N