A Yankee Notebook

August 17, 2015


BACCALIEU ISLAND, NEWFOUNDLAND – About an hour ago our fishing boat left the protected harbor of Bay de Verde, and right away pitched into a heavy swell and brisk wind. The helmsman turned into the waves and throttled back, while the two other members of the crew lowered a pair of four-inch diameter steel pipe booms – stabilizers, they called them – one on each side of the boat, and then lowered a welded steel paravane from each of them. These both pulled down hard on the booms, and the boat’s rolling became much more predictable. I still couldn’t stand up without hanging onto something, but I felt less likely to be pitched into the sea.

A flock of gulls materialized just to our left, screeching and hovering over a patch of sea that seemed to shimmer. “Capelin!” someone shouted, and a few seconds later, “Whale!” A big humpback, feeding on the capelin, surfaced for just a moment, blew, and slid out of sight. We swung left around the headland that protects Bay de Verde and headed northeast across the Baccalieu Tickle. “Tickle” is a Newfoundland term for the strait between two bodies of land. We rounded the southern tip of Baccalieu Island – massive red granite cliffs rising from the sea – and chugged into calmer water on its lee side. To the east of us lay the Labrador Sea; beyond that, at the same latitude, the next stop was the harbor of Brest, France.

Tony Doyle, the sixth-generation fisherman who owns the boat, has ferried our TV crew and a Canadian naturalist ashore to the island. They’re filming the gannet roosting cliffs, the puffins in their burrows, and a long-abandoned farm established many decades ago by solitude-loving Skipper Ned Walsh, who grew potatoes, fished, raided birds’ nests, and raised a family here, till a heavy storm blew away most of his buildings. From time to time I can spot the crew’s tiny figures in Ned’s meadow or climbing the crags by the gannet cliffs. Tony’ll pick them up around three.

Meanwhile, here on the idling fishing boat, nobody’s idle. There are only two or three days left in Newfoundland’s four-week “recreational” cod-fishing season, and no one’s letting a day go by. Each person is allowed five fish a day, and each boat a fifteen-fish limit per day. So out come the jigging lines – heavy-duty monofilament with a weighted lure at the bottom (think a Swedish Pimple lure on steroids) and four or five large hooks about a foot apart above it. The line is wrapped around a small rectangular frame that the guys can flip back and forth at an incredible speed to wind or unwind the line.

Over the side the lines go, sinking rapidly till they rest on the bottom, which here is about thirty fathoms. The fisherman “jigs” the lure up and down lustily, till he feels a sudden resistance. Then he begins hauling in the line as fast as he can, and eventually a codfish comes over the rail. He reaches into the gill cover and pinches an artery, which begins to bleed immediately, and throws the fish into a large plastic bin. Somebody keeps track of the number, lest they be over the limit.

Tony fillets (pronounced here just the way it’s spelled; none of your Frenchification) two or three fish and tosses the chunks into a smaller plastic bin. Ron, the almost unintelligible (to me) 450-pound (est.) helmsman, cuts a slab of fatback into cubes and tosses them into a pot on the propane stove in the tiny galley. Next he peels and throws in chunks of potato and onion. Opening a store-bought package of precooked, crinkly bacon, he breaks that up and adds it to the mix. Finally he throws in a mess of two- or three-inch bits of fillet and lets the whole chowder simmer. We’ll dine once the shore party returns and we’re under way again.

Damien, fishing farthest aft, suddenly shouts, “Whoa! Where’s the gaff?” He’s hooked a big fish, and can’t lift it out of the water by the line. Tony comes up with the gaff, and they haul aboard a hefty “mother cod,” which later weighs up as 36 pounds.

Damien’s about 35, I’d say, a father of two who pretty much exemplifies the lost generation of Newfoundland fishermen. Deprived by a fishing moratorium of the opportunity to take over his father’s boat and occupation, he had two choices: the “oil patch” of Alberta or the offshore oil rigs on the Grand Banks. He chose the rigs. He works several weeks on, and then gets several weeks off, and has apparently planned this time off to coincide with the recreational fishing season. I ask him where, in a community of traditional names, he got Damien. Turns out whoever named him had been commercial fishing in the Hawaiian Islands, and been impressed with the Roman Catholic missionary Father Damien (now Saint Damien), the “leper priest” who served the leper colony on the island of Molokai and eventually died of the disease himself.

This rings a little bell in my head: I’m on a “Catholic” boat. There’s still, even these days, a social divide between Catholics and Protestants in the outports: two churches, two cemeteries, and two affinity groups. Two different Irish whiskeys, too – Jameson’s and Bushmill’s – but they both seem to span the religious differences with very little notice.

Tony’s bringing back the shore party. The naturalist looks a little scruffy; he’s been digging by hand in a puffin burrow to show the camera what’s inside. We’re about to put the vessel in gear, open the throttle, and cruise around the rest of this solid-rock island that originally got its name – which means salt cod – over five hundred years ago from either the Basque or Portuguese fishermen who apparently preceded Columbus to the New World in search of fish that could be caught in baskets lowered into the sea. The gannets, serried on the cliff ledges, or the puffins, dotting the water or zooming by like cannonballs, could tell us for sure. But they aren’t talking.

Photo by Willem lange