Around Newfoundland

From Ocean Navigator #82
May/June 1997
Circumnavigation is a concept that fascinates the voyaging sailor. There is a sense of satisfaction from going around something and returning to the point of origin from a different direction. By doing so, you have proved, in a way, that the maps and charts are right: that the world really is round, or that Newfoundland is an islandas Cartier discovered in 1536 as the first European explorer to sail through Cabot Straitand not an appendage of the North American continent as others had until then surmised.

After several seasons of conventional cruising in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and Florida on our yacht Leonore of Sark, we decided that it was time to circumnavigate something. But there are not many interesting places on the East Coast of North America that you can circumnavigate. The eastern U.S. can be circumnavigated by way of the St. Lawrence and Mississippi Rivers and the Great Lakes, but this is a voyage more suitable for a power boat. Then there are the islands of Cuba and Newfoundland. We settled on the latter for the summer of 1996.

For reasons that we find difficult to completely understand, Newfoundland is not a popular cruising destination among American, Canadian, or European sailors. Yes, it is hardly a winter destination for sun seekers, and it is a bit far from major population centers such as New York/Boston, Toronto/Montreal, and London. (From Port-aux Basques on the southwest corner of Newfoundland the great circle distances are 595 and 620 miles to Boston and Montreal, respectively, while the Irish coast is about 1,600 miles from St. John’s.)

Newfoundland boasts, however, a coastline of more than 2,000 miles (including those of its eight large bays) with great variety and immense beauty. There are many hundreds of anchorages and wharves where one can enjoy total privacy or discover the unique character of Newfoundland’s inhabitants and their culture. Newfoundland is clean, not polluted. Wildlife abounds on land and in the sea and the air. As more and more virtually indestructible fiberglass yachts crowd the traditional cruising grounds, it seems likely that more sailors will seek less traditional but higher-quality destinations such as Newfoundland.

Sailing literature provides limited guidance for the voyager in Newfoundland. There is the helpful Cruising Guide to Newfoundland, published by the Cruising Club of America, essentially a compendium of the experiences of individual yachtsmen in Newfoundland anchorages, and the guide book Coastal Cruising Newfoundland by Rob Mills, which provides information about wharves and anchorages based in part upon data from the 1986 edition of Sailing Directions for Newfoundland. But there is nothing comparable to the superb Cruising Guide to the Maine Coast by Hank and Jan Taft. There is little or no analysis of natural conditions for the yachtsman who might reasonably ask for example, “If I circumnavigate Newfoundland, which way should I go? Clockwise or counterclockwise? And why?”

After reviewing the literature, it was apparent that we needed local knowledge to fully answer this question and to otherwise plan a voyage of circumnavigation. So in March 1996 we boarded Air Canada in Newark and flew up to St. John’s for eight days of investigation. We checked into the Delta Hotel and began making telephone calls.

We easily obtained the advice of friendly, interested Newfoundlanders, much of it very good. The best came from local yachtsmen: Carl Robbins, former commodore of the Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club; Gus Etchegary, former senior executive with the Newfoundland fishing industry (who himself circumnavigated several years ago aboard his 37-foot C&C sloop with his wife Kay); Art Andrews and David Murphy, both of whom have sailed extensively in Newfoundland and operate charter schooners in the summer months; and later Harry Anderson of Port-aux-Basques, who is especially knowledgeable of south coast conditions. The fishermen we consulted were locally knowledgeable but lacked perspective with respect to conditions around the whole of the island. The Coast Guard referred us to these private yachtsmen. Their comments, combined with published information from several sources, is incorporated in the analysis that follows.

The logical starting point for a circumnavigation of Newfoundland arriving from Canada or the U.S. is Port-aux-Basques, which is on the southwest corner of the island. Port-aux-Basques is only a day’s (70 to 90 miles, 10 to 15 hours) sail across Cabot Strait from Cape Breton and can be reached without an overnight passage. We assume that the circumnavigator has budgeted enough time in one summer (or two or three summers) to include the south coast of Newfoundland within his itinerary. This is recommended, since the south coast has some of the most spectacular things to see on the island, including several of its most dramatic fjords. We also assume that the circumnavigation takes place during the summer months from June to September.

The question, then, is whether to sail: 1) north out of Port-aux-Basques up the west coast; or 2) east along the south coast to begin either the clockwise or counterclockwise circumnavigation. The primary factors that may bear upon the decision are ocean currents, ice, wind, fog, the “Strait of Belle Isle effect,” and the “Hurricane effect.”

Ocean currents

The single most important factor in determining weather conditions in Newfoundland is the Labrador Current. It flows southward from the Arctic along the coast of Labrador, reaching northern Newfoundland near the Strait of Belle Isle, which separates Labrador from Newfoundland at its northern tip. The current is very cold, with temperatures in the 40s F even during the summer months. Part of the current enters the Gulf of St. Lawrence at the Strait, flowing mostly down its Labrador (northwest) side. Most of it turns left and flows southeast along Newfoundland’s northeast coast, then southward east of St. John’s and the Avalon Peninsula. Off Cape Race the current divides, with an eastern branch flowing south and east over the Grand Banks where it intersects the Gulf Stream. A western branch flows westward along Newfoundland’s south coast towards Cabot Strait and southwestward toward Nova Scotia and, ultimately, the Gulf of Maine. The impact of all this cold water upon weather conditions in Newfoundland is considerable, causing local meteorological instability, cold offshore temperatures, and fog.

The strongest ocean current is probably found off northeast Newfoundland, where speeds of up to 2 1/2 knots have been measured about 20 miles northeast of Fogo Island. Speeds of 1/2 to one knot have been more commonly observed with higher speeds at ebb. South of Fogo Island, towards the “mainland” of Newfoundland, currents have been measured at about 1/2 knot or less. The sets are, of course, predominantly east or southeast, clockwise about the island.

East of the Avalon Peninsula the set is south. Offshore its speed is somewhat more than one knot. Inshore the current is also generally south, and its speed is a function of the tide, strengthened by the southwest flood. Measurements on Ballard Bank, immediately north-northeast of Cape Race, have been in the range of 1/2 to one knot.

West of Cape Race the current sets west at an average speed of less than one knot, subject to the influences of wind direction and strength. Even at Cabot Strait, where there is a net outward (eastward) flow from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Atlantic, the current along coastal Newfoundland is west, into the Gulf. On the west coast the Sailing Directions report a slight northeast set between Bay of Islands and Point Riche. In the Strait of Belle Isle the set is northwest on the Newfoundland side and southwest on the Labrador side, with tidal currents being dominant here, as will be discussed further below.

Accordingly, ocean currents, determined as they are by the Labrador Current, support a decision to circumnavigate in a clockwise direction. Their importance to the circumnavigator depends in part upon the size and boat speed of his yacht. For a yacht of, say, 40 feet or less, a current difference of one knot (1/2 knot favorable vs. 1/2 knot unfavorable) might be judged to be significant.

Ice issues

Ice is a regular feature of Newfoundland’s waters during the winter, spring, and summer months. There are two kinds of ice: sea ice, which is frozen sea water, and icebergs (plus growlers and bergy bits), which are frozen fresh water. Both forms of ice are of interest to the circumnavigator: sea ice, because it might prevent passage of the Strait of Belle Isle if attempted too early in the spring; and icebergs, because one of the reasons for going to Newfoundland is to see them, and because only their smaller counterparts (growlers and bergy bits) are really dangerous. Icebergs can be enormous. Bergy bits are small bergs about the size of a house. A growler is even smaller, only about the size of a car. In each case, of course, about 90% of the ice lies below the surface of the sea.

Sea ice begins to form along the coast of Labrador in the fall. Coastal Labrador and the northern peninsula of Newfoundland, including the Strait of Belle Isle, are normally iced by January and are nearly always iced by the peak month of March. Only the south coast is essentially ice free. The west coast down to Port-aux-Basques and the northeast coast down to St. John’s are commonly subject to sea ice in the late winter months.

Retreat of the sea ice pack begins in April and normally has reached Labrador by the end of May. The rate of retreat is variable, however, depending upon the amount of ice formed over the winter (1995/96 was a winter with relatively little sea ice), the spring temperatures, and wind direction and strength. Easy navigation of the strait can begin as early as the beginning of May, but may be delayed by sea ice until late June. Practically speaking, there are never problems from July until the fall.

Accordingly, the counterclockwise circumnavigator should have no problem with sea ice, as he will reach the Strait of Belle Isle well after the beginning of July. The clockwise circumnavigator might have difficulty if he attempts passage of the Strait near the middle of June. However, this is not likely and can, in any event, be anticipated by checking the extent of sea ice formation beforehand (i.e., in May), by scheduling passage for late June (or later), and by consultation with the Canadian Coast Guard before departing for Newfoundland and again in Port-aux-Basques.

Icebergs originate mostly from glaciers in Greenland and migrate for up to three years before their demise in the Gulf Stream south or east of the Grand Banks, about 300 miles southeast of Newfoundland. The motive force behind their southward migration is the Labrador Current. Frozen in place by sea ice during winter months, icebergs become most numerous in northeast coastal Newfoundland waters during the months of April, May, and June and are least numerous from September to January. The frequency of icebergs crossing 48° N, the approximate latitude of Cape Bonavista, in the water near Newfoundland averages about 400 per year with a peak of about 2,200 (1984). There were few icebergs during the 1996 season because, reportedly, of the preponderance of strong southwest winds in May and June.

Iceberg watching (from a safe distance, of course) is a significant Newfoundland voyaging experience. You are likely to see more of them in the northeast coast in the late spring or early summer rather than later in the summer, which, arguably, favors a clockwise circumnavigation. But be careful. Growlers, especially, can be dangerous because they may be too small to pick up on radar. It is possible to cruise Newfoundland’s northeast coast expeditiously without sailing at night, which is advisable if there are bergs about.

Wind considerations

Newfoundland lies between 46° and 52°N, about the same latitudes as southern Ireland and northern France, and is within the region of prevailing west winds that dominate the midlatitudes of the northern hemisphere. During the winter a relatively stationary low pressure center off southern Greenland helps create prevailing northwesterly and westerly winds. During the summer, by late June, the anticyclone centered near Bermuda is at its northernmost position, giving rise to prevailing summer southwest-erlies. In the fall these become more westerly as the anticyclone weakens.

But these are not the trades. The predominant feature of weather in Newfoundland is that it changes very quickly. There is considerable variability of wind and weather patterns on a day-to-day basis as weather systems pass through or, indeed, originate in nearby areas.

Of course, if the wind always blew from the same direction, then the circumnavigation decision would tend to be independent of the wind. Either direction would involve the same amount of northing, southing, easting, and westing; that is, the same amount of upwind and downwind work. If one superimposes a southwest flow on the map of Newfoundland, one of the three legs, the northeast coast, should be favored in either direction for a circumnavigation, whereas the south coast should be favored by a counterclockwise circumnavigation, and the west coast by a clockwise circumnavigation. With constant southwesterlies, the circumnavigator would be indifferent to the wind in choosing his route.

In practice, the wind direction is hardly constant southwesterly. Indications as to variability are provided by the 1986 Sailing Directions for selected locations and by the wind log maintained by Leonore of Sark during the summer of 1996. The sailing directions data are summarized in table 1.

The south coast data show that winds with a westerly component are about twice as likely on much of the coast during the summer months as winds with an easterly component. The suggestion is that a yacht would tend to be headed into or close to the wind not more often than one day out of three heading east along the south coast. The counterclockwise circumnavigation is favored.

The west coast data show, as expected, that winds with a southerly component are more likely than those with a northerly component, favoring the clockwise circumnavigation. However, the margin of preference is less than that for an easterly course along the south coast. The data for September even suggest indifference between the northerly or southerly course. Easterly, westerly, or variable winds occur a significant proportion of the time.

The wind log maintained aboard Leonore of Sark during the summer of 1996 is consistent with these conclusions. The log indicates that on the northeast coast there were southwest winds on 24 of the 44 days spent (55%) between St. John’s and St. Anthony. Winds on other days (45%) showed great variability with no significant secondary patterns. On the south coast, winds were of a predominantly western component about 50% of the days, of a predominantly eastern component 40% of the days, with the balance being either northerly, southerly, or variable. The easterly winds were more predominant in the region just east of Port-aux-Basques, as the Sailing Directions data indicate. On the west coast, winds with a southerly component and those with a northerly component were about equal in number (40% each), with about 20% either variable or easterly.

The conclusion is that a counterclockwise circumnavigation seems to be favored by wind patterns, but that the margin of preference is slight. You have a better than even chance of favorable winds on the south coast with a counterclockwise circumnavigation (with the reverse on the west coast), and on the west coast with a clockwise circumnavigation (with the reverse on the south coast). What is perhaps more important is the significant variability of wind direction within the context of predominant southwesterlies. On a long trip there will occasionally be opportunities to wait out the weather systems as they come through and ride the favorable winds as they emerge.

Fog coverage

Fog is a major feature of summer weather in Newfoundland, much as it is in other Canadian Maritimes and Maine. In each case the principal cause of fog is the cold Labrador Current. Newfoundland has the not necessarily well deserved reputation of being intensely foggy, principally because the Grand Banks southeast of the island, where the Labrador Current intersects the Gulf Stream with its warm, moist air, is one of the foggiest places on the planet, with visibility in July less than 1/2 mile 40% of the time.

Most Newfoundland fog forms when warm, moist air from the south flows over cold water. Thus, conditions for fog formation are best in the spring and early summer when the water is still very cold and on the south coast where the warm winds with southerly component are moist. These conditions can be the same at Belle Isle when warmer southerly winds from the Gulf of St. Lawrence meet the Labrador Current. By way of contrast, summer incidence of fog along the northeast coast is slight because the prevailing offshore southwesterlies, while warm, have been dried over land, whereas onshore winds having passed over the Labrador Current are too cold.

A major consideration, therefore, in circumnavigating Newfoundland is timing the south coast portion of the voyage to avoid fog. The Sailing Directions (1986) provide the statistics for selected south coast locations, and Belle Isle. These, plus data provided by the Bird Sanctuary at Cape Mary’s for that location, are given in table 2.

Thus, June and July are the foggiest months, followed by August, with a substantial drop in September. Both 1994 and 1995 were relatively low fog years on the south coast (Cape St. Mary’s) as indicated in Table 2. But fog returned to a more normal level in 1996 with 22 days of fog in July. These were 22 days during which the staff of the Bird Sanctuary were unable to go out and make bird counts from distances of three hundred meters or less!

Accordingly, fog strongly favors sailing the south coast later in the summer, preferably in September. This is serious stuff. Newfoundland mariners have reported spending a week or more on the south coast without seeing anything! The south coast topography is truly spectacularfjord after fjord along a rugged, mountainous shoreand should not be missed. Clockwise circumnavigation is clearly favored for this reason.

June and July can also be very foggy at Belle Isle just north of the Strait, but passage of the Strait is only a one or two day sail. If the Strait is foggy, one can await good visibility close by in Flower’s Cove or St. Anthony.

Strait of Belle Isle effect

The Strait of Belle Isle separates Newfoundland from Labrador. It is about 70 miles long, measured in a direction from southwest to northeast, and about nine miles wide at its narrowest. It is the single most dangerous spot on a voyage of circumnavigation for two reasons. First, winds are intensely channeled and tend to blow parallel to the strait from either the southwest or northeast at speeds that can be twice the speed over the adjacent ocean or Gulf of St. Lawrence. Second, tidal currents are quite strong in the strait. The net flow is decidedly from the Gulf into the ocean, particularly during the summer months, when an outgoing flow of three knots at spring tide is possible. Passing the Strait to the southwest with strong northeasterlies against this current, or with strong southwesterlies and current on the nose, is not desirable.

It is roughly twice as likely for southwesterly winds to occur as northeasterly in the strait. The Sailing Directions (1986) statistics show this clearly. Also, see table 3.

On our passage through the Strait we crossed northeastwards from Flower’s Cove to Red Bay, Labrador, a distance of about 35 miles, running wing on wing in southwesterly winds initially of about 15 knots. As winds strengthened in the strait to 30 knots near the Labrador coast, we took down the main and ran on the jib alone.

The next day we crossed eastwards to Cape Bauld (the northernmost point of Newfoundland), a distance of about 40 miles, with southwesterly winds of 30 to 35 knots in the strait (as against 15 to 25 knots forecast), on the starboard quarter. The timing of the passage was June 29/30. There was no fog.

The strait is not long, but its risks should be treated seriously. The least risky and most pleasant passage is likely to be from southwest to northeast, favoring the clockwise circumnavigation.

The hurricane effect

The incidence of tropical depressions in Newfoundland is not great. An average of about two or three tropical storms affect Atlantic Canada each year. By the time they reach that far north, their strength has usually dissipated over land or colder water, with the result that winds are less than hurricane strength. But gales or storms representing the last vestiges of original hurricanes that have come up the east coast of North America do track over Newfoundland waters.

During the summer of 1996 we experienced six gale warnings in three months, of which three were caused by tropical cyclones. Hurricane Bertha passed over Newfoundland in July, giving rise to gale warnings on the northeast coast, where we were securely docked. Hurricane Edouard passed 150 to 200 miles southeast of Newfoundland in early September, giving rise to winds of 25 to 30 knots on the Burin Peninsula, where we were again securely docked. Hurricane Hortense passed over Cape Breton, St. Pierre, and the Burin Peninsula in mid-September, giving rise to storm-force winds (50 to 55 knots) in Port-aux-Basques, about 100 miles from the storm track, where we were docked, albeit somewhat less than securely. We fendered vigorously all night without serious mishap.

The frequency of gale or stronger winds incident to tropical depressions is greater on the south coast than on the west coast in August and September. The circumnavigator is likely to end his voyage on one of these coasts at that time. But there are several first-class “hurricane hole” anchorages and wharves along the south coast, significantly more than along the west coast, where there is ample time to find adequate shelter from strong winds of any origin. The hurricane effect doesn’t particularly favor either the clockwise or counterclockwise circumnavigation.

We circumnavigated Newfoundland clockwise, the direction that is favored to a significant degree by currents, the seasonal influence of fog on the south coast, and the Strait of Belle Isle effect. Wind considerations and the hurricane effect seem relatively less important. Plan your voyage to pass the Strait of Belle Isle not earlier than the end of June, and pack ice is of incidental concern.

Icebergs will be more numerous on the northeast coast in late June and early July than later in the season. Viewing these glorious objects is one of the reasons that you’re there in the first place. They should not be a meaningful hazard if t are treated with appropriate caution.

Gus Etchegary circumnavigated clockwise, the direction favored by all the knowledgeable yachtsmen we met in Newfoundland. We would go the same way again. As far as all that fog is concerned, we experienced zero, repeat, zero days of fog on the south coast during the 25 days there from late August to mid-September, and only three during the 92 days we spent in Newfoundland.

It’s a great trip!

Dave Dillard is an investment advisor who has sailed his AMEL Super Maramu ketch in Israel, Venezuela, Maine, Labrador, and the Straits of Florida. Dillard lives in Nantucket.

By Ocean Navigator