We spent our first morning (July 24th) in Newfoundland strolling around Port-Aux-Basques and debating whether to stay another night, in the hopes that the fog would lift for our trip down the coast. At 1pm with our minds made, as the fog may never leave, we cast off our lines and alerted the Port-Aux-Basques traffic authority we were on our way. They replied back that there was no traffic within 5 miles of the harbour. Our way was clear!
Port-Aux-Basques operates a mandatory traffic notice system where all inbound and outbound vessels must report their positions when within 5 nautical miles. The entrance to the harbor is very narrow with large vessel traffic coming in and out, and there is a good chance of thick blinding fog and nasty winter weather. Once we cleared the brakewater we could see nothing, other than a lonely leatherback sea turtle swimming along. That is until the white of breaking waves on “sunker black rocks” some 17 miles down the coast. It was a tense moment, after some disagreement about where to enter the harbour, but as soon as we turned in and saw the brightly colored houses of Rose Blanch precariously perched on the rocks, literally hanging over the sea, we knew we had arrived!!
Our time here in Newfoundland, simply put, has been extraordinary! Not only is the landscape beautifully dramatic but the people who live here are the warmest and most friendly I have ever met. As we motored around the two bays that make up Rose Blanch harbor, looking for a spot to tie up, Winston Billard’s eye was caught by a sight that brought back memories of his youth. A wooden schooner coming in from sea. He was there on the old fish plant wharf to catch our lines and the following day we were guests at his and Verna’s house for dinner. Where to begin?…. How surprised I was to hear this man tell of fishing off his father’s schooner, launching dories, setting trawls and sailing up and down the coast. And then to learn that it was Verna’s father and uncle both shipwrights who built the schooner “Billard Brothers” and at lest six others not to mention a plethora of long liners and speedboats. If sailing Heart’s Desire is a tantalizing taste of the past, then she certainly worked her magic as a time machine and brought us to what was possibly the last place in the world to see the working schooners.
Less then a generation ago this south coast of Newfoundland was home to some 40 or 50 outport communities tucked up in every nook and cranny along the coast. While some were miles up the arms of a fjord, to be closer to the timber necessary for building boats, others were quite literally perched above the breaking surf to be close to the fishing grounds. These communities varied in size from just over 1000 people, most being a few hundred and some less then 50. Dories were the speedboats of today, carrying people from one community to the next or out to fishing grounds to set a trawl. 40‘ to 50‘ schooners sailed from some outports to the many banks along Newfoundland to launch dories of their own. Larger schooners plied the coast brining up coal, salt, timber and produce and carried away the salted and dried cod of the inshore fishery. It was a cottage industry made up unbelievably tough and resourceful people who supported this network of isolated yet interdependent communities.
Then in 1949 Newfoundland, previously part of the United Kingdom, joined Canada and things began to change. Some time in the early 1950’s the government began its first wave of resettlements in an attempt to consolidate the number of outports. From the start there were difficulties. Each community had evolved in size in conjunction with its resource base, so by suddenly increasing the population this balance was thrown off, leaving some people without employment. There were also benefits in the form of infrastructure, power generation plants where set up in some communities bringing them into the modern era. Then factory fishing took hold and huge draggers pulled thousands of tons of cod off the bottom. Factory fish plants were set up in a few communities and the populations flourished. Unfortunately, like everywhere up and down the northeastern sea board, the fish stocks then plummeted and in 1992 Canada imposed a cod fishing moratorium. Everything came to a screeching halt and those most hurt by it were the inshore fishermen. The story is the same everywhere with modern industry, that those least responsible for the damage done are the once who suffer the most. Without work the youth were forced to move away and the Newfoundland outport communities began to slide into decline. Now there are only 6 outports left on the south coast and in another decade there may be none. Every year it seems the provincial government offers more and more money in a buy out program to pull the plug on the power generation, cut off ferry service and relocate the people the urban centers. Some look forward to it while other work hard to maintain the way of life they grew up living.