We left Norfolk, Virginia on June 4th and sailed offshore to Burin on the southwest coast of Newfoundland. We subsequently spent the entire summer cruising along Newfoundland’s south and east coasts. This is an absolutely marvelous, but for some reason essentially untapped, cruising ground. The information on this page dates from 1999, so some things may have changed.
The local people are among the most friendly and generous we have ever met, being rivaled only by the Saints on tiny St. Helena in the South Atlantic. The coast line is studded with countless coves and harbors. The wildlife (whales, seals, birds) and icebergs make each day’s sailing picture book special. On our way up the coast we were the first boat of the season in each harbor and only saw one other cruising vessel.
The cruising is a bit challenging, but nothing a well prepared crew can not handle. The saying “if you don’t like the weather, wait a moment” must have originated in Newfoundland. You will rarely see a day when the winds blow from one steady direction, and you regularly see wind speeds range from zero to 35kts within twenty-four hours. So, your full collection of sails from light air chutes to storm jib will get used. The anchoring is also a bit different that the tropical routine. Many of the anchorages are 30-40 feet deep, and some 50 feet, so bring plenty of rode. The bottoms are often quite rocky with thick kelp. Our large Bruce worked flawlessly, but those with CQR main anchors needed to pull out their back-up fishermen anchors with some frequency. We found it useful to polish our ‘bow anchor dropped in deep water, back in, and tie stern lines to shore’ routine, as this allowed us to tuck into a couple special small coves. However there are endless numbers of anchorages where you do not need to stern tie to shore. Mussel farms have been springing up the past couple years, taking over many of the most protected coves, primarily on the northeast Coast. They are not indicated on the charts or sailing directions, so it would be useful to sit down with locals at the Lewisport yacht club and have them mark the locations of mussel farms.
Newfoundland can basically be divided into 5 areas: south coast, east coast (Conception and Trinity Bays), northeast coast (Notre Dame Bay), northern peninsula, west coast. Each area has a quite distinctive character. If you want to circumnavigate Newfoundland and see all the areas, the best way is clockwise. Our judgment is that the south (fjords and waterfalls) and northeast (hundreds of islands and coves, a bit like the BVI) coasts represent by far the best cruising areas and the west coast (few anchorages, frequent gale force winds) the least attractive.
Weather: In early June it was chilly with a water temp of 45F and we usually ran our diesel heater over night. During June and early July, from St. John’s North you will see icebergs. Icebergs can be seen into August in Iceberg Ally - the area from St. Anthony south to Twillingate. By early August we were often in shorts and T-shirts, although the water temp was still only 65F. You will probably want to be leaving by mid-September to avoid the start of winter gales. We only had two days of deep fog, once on the south coast and once on the northern peninsula, but we were told there was usually more fog on the south coast. Our radar was of course useful in these brief spots of fog, but we were surprised at how poorly it picked up the smaller (boat-sized) icebergs. Real gales seemed to blow through the straits of Belle Isle once a week, but more like once a month elsewhere. You can get continuous VHF weather reports all around the island, but the weathermen seem to have quite a difficult time predicting how the weather will develop.
The Canadian charts are the best and most inexpensive, but in places
they reminded us of charts of the South Pacific – e.g. “based on French
survey of 1854”. North of St. John’s many of the charts are basically
copies of old Admiralty charts and are .1-.3 miles off GPS positions. A
few have notations with lat/long corrections but most do not. We, like
most folks we talked to about Newfoundland initially made the mistake of
buying mostly mid-scale charts, thinking they would use a cruising guide
for anchorage details. Unfortunately, there is no real guide to the
area. The better strategy is to cover the cruising area with a few
small scale charts and then get all the harbor and large scale charts.
You need the large scale to see where it’s shallow enough to hit bottom
with your anchor but not with your keel. Once out of the harbors, its
reasonably clear of hazards and those are shown on the small scale
charts (the one exception to this is South and West of Fogo island where
there are so many rocks you need a mid-scale chart to separate them).
The Canadian Newfoundland pilot is reasonably useful, giving a better
indication of potential small boat anchorages than most pilots and with
photos of the bigger harbors.
Checking in is quite convenient, at least for American vessels. Basically you can make landfall at any significant town, but you might want to call 1-800-CANPASS beforehand just to check. Then when you arrive you call 1-800-CANPASS, give them some boat and crew info, and they will give you a cruising permit number all over the phone.
There is only one “marina” in Newfoundland, in Lewisporte with floating
slips, water, and electricity (to be put in next year). However,
virtually all towns have government wharves which are “first come first
serve”. Most of these wharves are free, but a few charge $.50CAN per
meter per night. In some areas these are crowded (.e.g. the east coast)
with fishing boats (it’s perfectly acceptable to ask if you can raft
alongside a fishing boat if there is no room) and in some areas
virtually empty (e.g. the northeast coast). There is water at many of
these wharves but it’s often from a fire hydrant size tap and you may
need to improvise a reducer fitting. North of St. John’s this water also
tended to be a bit brown with a high iron content. We jugged clean
spring water at Trinity and Twillingate.
The only place with fuel (& water) pumped at a dock is the Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club. Virtually all the towns have government wharves that are used by the fishing fleet, and you can arrange for a fuel truck to come down to the wharf if you need +50gal. If you need less than that someone will inevitably offer a car to help you jerry jug fuel from the gas station. It appeared the fishing fuel had a lower cetane rating than the gas station fuel and made some yacht motors smoke unless cetane booster was added.
The major provisioning ports are St. John’s, Lewisport, Twillingate, and St. Anthony. These ports have large supermarkets and hardware stores within easy distance of the harbors. The fresh fruits and vegetables are generally a bit disappointing, but everything else is readily available. Most small towns had convenience stores with basic canned and frozen goods but little fresh. Our AT&T cell phone worked in St. Johns but not elsewhere. We generally found a pay phone, but they tended to be less widely distributed than we had expected. By asking around we usually had no problem finding someone (convenience store office, marina office, museum office, island mayor’s home, etc.) who would let use borrow his phone jack to do some quick e-mails.
Newfoundland probably has more Travel Lifts per capita than anywhere else in the world and most significant towns have quite extensive repair and maintenance capabilities (diesel, metal work, wood work, etc) to service the fishing fleet. The fisheries repair facility in Triton harbor on the NorthEast Coast was suggested as having the best haul and service facilities.
Just a few specific harbor comments:
The entrance to St. John’s Harbor is quite narrow for the bigger ships that maneuver in this harbor. So, when approaching and leaving you should call “St. John’s traffic” on VHF 11 and they make sure everything stays orderly. “Traffic” or the Harbormaster may direct you to the wall in the Southwest corner of the harbor (Berths 6 & 7 on the harbor chart), either right on the wall or rafted on a fishing boat. This is a bit dirty, and there is a nicer small public floating finger pier (first come first serve, can take two boats at a time) at the northwest end right next to the pilot boat berth (shown on the harbor chart). There is a good Laundromat, the “Mighty White,” two streets in from this pier.
Trinity, on the east coast, was one of the richest communities in Newfoundland’s boom days of schooner fishing. It has a great natural harbor located close to good fishing grounds. Today it’s the only town we saw focused on and sophisticated about drawing tourism. It’s a pretty and cute town with historic houses, an open air dinner theater, tasteful gift shops, and nice walks around the harbor. The pier shown on the harbor chart as public is now owned by one of the restaurants/giftshops and they charged us $.50CAN per foot for dockage, electricity, showers, and water jugged from the kitchen (quite expensive by Newfoundland standards).
Along most of the coast there are many conveniently spaced harbors, but there is a bit of a gap between Bonavista and Fogo with no obvious harbours on the chart or sailing directions. We just made an overnight sail between these two. The locals make it two day sails by stopping at Lumsden harbour which is created by a couple of man-made breakwalls. You need chart 4560 to identify this. We are told it’s a bit tight with no room to anchor so you tie up or raft up to the wharf.
Fogo Island has a number of good anchorages on it. On the South side is Seldom Come-by, where you can tie to a pier with water, electricity, and laundry facilities. On the North side is Fogo Harbour, which is superbly protected in everything except a N gale. We sat out both E and SW gales here.
Little Bay Islands on the northeast coast has a perfect landlocked harbor. They are trying hard to attract visiting yachts and were just installing pay phones and a washer/dryer on the town pier when we were there. There are nice walks up to a look-out over the harbor and out to the lighthouse at the entrance. There is a small store where you can buy basic provisions, although if you place an order they can get almost anything delivered in a day or two. Exploits Island just a bit further east also has a very pretty landlocked harbor, but is a bit more remote without roads, or a store – just a bed & breakfast which runs its own launch into Lewisporte. Exploits harbor was particularly heavy with kelp and those trying to set Danforths and lighter (45lb and under) plows had some difficulty. The bottom was great holding mud/gravel once the anchor got under the kelp. Two other of the better little coves in the Northeast are Squid Cove in Triton Harbour (Chart 4592), between Quick Is and Gillespie Is in Fortune Harbour (Chart 4520)
On the Northern Peninsula there are quite a number of very pretty deep fjords. We were cautioned to be careful anchoring in them in westerly winds as the fjord walls act as velocity acceleration chutes, often tripling the wind speed. We initially did not take this to seriously until we entered Fourché. Winds outside the harbor were W 10kts, going up the fjord it built to 30kts, and was 20kts in the most protected cove (“NE arm”). It would not be nice to be caught in one of these harbors at night in a westerly gale. One day when it was blowing more strongly from the west, we went into Canada bay which looked like it would offer good protection, but it took us a while before we found a quiet spot tucked in a cove about two-thirds the way up Bide Arm. We initially tried Otter Cove which looked on the chart like a good spot but the wind there was ripping down into the water. These are magnificent anchorages so don’t let the winds put you off. Fourché, for example, has 800’ fjord walls with several small waterfalls rippling down, an abandoned outport, and the remnants of one of the last whaling camps in America. In the same area, Great Cat’s Arm according to the pilot was supposed to have a magnificent waterfall at its head but we were told by locals that a hydro plant had been recently built across the fall.
St. Anthony is the northern most town in Newfoundland. It has a great
natural harbor and is the center of the northern fishery activity. The
“Grenfell” dock that is shown on the current chart was apparently
knocked down 20 years ago. Today there is a floating dinghy dock in its
place, and the best anchorage is just off this dock. The folks inside
the green Grenfell building/museum immediately to the west of this dock
are very generous helping visitors. They let us use the phone jack in
their office for e-mails. Immediately to the east is a good supermarket.
We rented a car and drove up to see the L’Anse aux Meadows, a very well
presented archeological excavation of the only confirmed Norse village
in North America.