Saturday, 24 September 2011

Alca i, Hopedale Run, Labrador

Summer in Labrador 2011

Chance is a strange mistress. Last year, we planned to spend the summer in Labrador on Blackthorn with Hannah but ended up in St Anthony for 6 weeks for medical reasons. This summer was to be a land based one taking Pearl the bus to the Rockies.
Then in May we were introduced to Walter and Karen Adey by mutual sailing friends (see  and invited to join them as volunteer crew (i.e. unpaid) on their research vessel Alca i (Great Auk) which was to spend the summer in Labrador and the Quebec north shore diving for coralline algae and sea urchins. It seemed too good an opportunity to pass up; we would get back to Labrador without dragging Blackthorn back up the east coast.
So we agreed to join Alca i at her winter berth, ashore at Englee Newfoundland, and help prepare her before Walter and Karen arrived two weeks later at the end of June. We were collected at St Anthony by Wade Saunders, employed by the Adeys as engineer. The three of us spent the next ten days checking and fixing the complex systems on the boat as well as repairing a crack we found in the hull.
Englee is an isolated fishing community at the end of the road but the local store had all we needed – new water pump, hot water bottles, oilskins – to be ready by the time the Adeys arrived.
Alca i was launched successfully in spite of our concerns over the ropey launching Travelhoist so Walter and  Karen found her floating happily in the launching slip.
Alca i was not the only sailing vessel afloat there; Kuan Yin, a 32 foot Tahitiana steel ketch, had also overwintered there and had been launched shortly before us. Her skipper, Dennison Berwick, plied us with tea and became a good friend. He has an amazing story to tell – happily he is a writer as well as traveler, more at He was planning to head further north than us to Okak in Labrador if the spare parts he was awaiting turned up.
The two divers, Thew and David, both with Laval University in Quebec, arrived at the start of July so we headed to Quirpon (pronounced Carpoon) at the northern tip of Newfoundland to provision, as it is close to the metropolis of St Anthony with its choice of two supermarkets.
The divers tested their gear there. Thew was on the previous year’s trip so was not shocked by the water temperature. David was less experienced and became fond of the hot heat pack in his drysuit. Diving got even tougher further north as the water temperature at 60 feet could be as low as 34f (2c).
Wade and divers
On 5th July, we crossed the Belle Isle Strait to Labrador with sail set, making 10 knots in 20  plus knots of wind. First stop was Spear Harbour, a settlement of a few houses, where Wade pointed out the house he was hoping to buy (around C$4000 his top price). It became a running joke that Wade would know someone wherever we went, a cousin or shipmate or a boat that he and his brothers had built or owned as well as everything about the places. We were never disappointed and it was a reminder of what a tight knit community he is part of.

Wade's arctic char catch
Our next stop at Punchbowl gave as a lovely surprise when the Hannah came into view as we approached the dock. We were weather bound the following day so caught up with Mick and Bee and their summer so far – we had last seen them in South Carolina in February. Now they were heading north to the Torngat National Park at the far end of Labrador. We shared dreams of further cruises together.
Jackie with Mick and Bee, Punchbowl
Our time together was too short as we had to move on to avoid further slippage on our diving programme. We left Hannah with whales spouting alongside her but she was soon out of sight as we ploughed on at 9 knots. We had a long day’s run of around 130 miles to get north of Cape Harrison which brought home the advantage of a large well powered motorsailer – you get there quicker.  It set us thinking that we might need a different type of boat to get as far north as we want – early discussions!
Now the diving began, typically three dives per day. We settled into our routine, launch the dive boat, put the gear aboard, heat packs and hot water for the divers. We saw that we were on a working rather than pleasure cruise with occasional opportunities to get ashore on some of the many islands along the coast.
We got some fabulous views of bays with bergs aground, parts of the huge Pieterman ice island which had been breaking up along the Labrador coast. This island broke off in Greenland in 2010 and was originally 100 square miles. All summer, we saw flat bergs a mile or more across. The biggest remnant was east of Belle Isle when we returned south and even larger than it.

The diving along Hopedale Run was very successful and produced the largest and so oldest specimen Walter had collected. We were always watching the weather as the best diving was on the outer islands and so more exposed to wind and swell. In between we spent  a few days in Nain and Hopedale, both Inuit communities with no road access and limited facilities.
Huskies and flies, Nain
We had a unique dining experience in Nain. We used the local ‘hotel’ for laundry and wifi and we also ate there. We ordered, waited for a while and eventually food started to arrive. As more plates arrived, they had less and less on them. Robin’s food did not arrive at all. When we asked why, it turned out the kitchen was running out of food but the waitress could not bring herself to tell us. All done in a friendly way though. We enjoyed Nain and Hopedale, where we walked around some more, talking to the stone carvers and buying the odd carving. On the way to Hopedale, we had met up with Hannah again in company with Andante. A happy evening spent with Mick and Bee was more like our usual cruising life and we talked of coming back to the north on a bigger boat with more speed.
We continued to get good specimens around Hopedale but it got tougher further south. We spent a few days at Battle Harbour, more touristy than anywhere else on the coast but attractive and instructive on the cod fishery that died at the end of the 1980s after hundreds of  years  fishing. Wade had told us that 20 million (yes, million) tons of cod were landed in the late eighties along the Labrador and Newfoundland coast. Fishermen were surprised when the fish disappeared and the fishing moratorium was introduced in 1992! We saw lots of evidence of how extensive the fishery had been and how summer camps were suddenly abandoned.
Smokey Tickle

We headed back to Quirpon to reprovision then carried on to the Quebec shore. The coast was interesting enough, especially Harrington Harbor with its boardwalk roads, the last English speaking community on the coast. We also enjoyed Ouapitagone run behind Cape Whittle which sheltered us for a few days. Ashore there were masses of bake apple berries (cloudberries or knotberries) which Wade picked for us and for his freezer.
Boardwalk road, Harrington Harbour

West of Cape Whittle, we were in French speaking Quebec. From Nashquan to the west, there was a coast road so we were back in tourist land. We visited Havre St Pierre (great restaurant), Anticosti island, devoted to deer hunting and forestry and no decent harbor and Riviere au Renard, an out and out fishing town.
Decision making,crew hike, Riviere au Renard

The divers were leaving the boat at the next harbor, Gaspe, and we left the boat with them. It all happened quickly as we had a difference of view with Walter. We agreed that it was best for us to leave so found ourselves ashore in Gaspe, several days short of the end of the trip. Overall we had seen and learnt a lot on Alca I and had generally had pretty good weather looking at the pictures. We concluded that we are better off on our own boat.
Three days later we were back on our bus in Pennsylvania by way of Montreal. It had been an interesting time and made us realise how much we value our time on Blackthorn - next post from Blackthorn when we rejoin her in November. For now we are taking Pearl the bus up to New England for a bit of hiking.