Who’d a thunk it? Just off the Newfoundland coast sits a piece of France. Not French Canada, but actually France, with EU license plates, euros, 220 volt electricity, boulangeries, patisseries, metropolitan atmosphere, and Frenchmen (& women) everywhere. Quite a contrast with the rugged Newfoundland remoteness just across the water.
Two islands – Miquelon and St. Pierre – occupy less than 100 square miles not 16 miles off Newfoundland. These barren islands were passed back and forth between England and France for almost three hundred years, pawns in their centuries-long global conflict. The second Treaty of Paris in 1815 awarded the islands to France to which they now belong as a self-governing “overseas collectivity.”
Our arrival in St. Pierre followed a 12 hour sail south from Hare Bay begun at 1 a.m. under brilliant full moonlight. The wee hours departure was timed to make the most of a short window of favorable wind pushing us south. We tied up to the wharf at the Ecole de Voile (sailing school) and were soon boarded by Customs and Immigration officials who efficiently processed us into the EU.
Next, we were welcomed at the school’s registration desk where we booked a mooring and were oriented to island attractions. Most importantly, we were advised to get the island’s best boulangerie (bakery) by 8 a.m. or risk missing the fresh croissants. Priorities…!
Following initial reconnaissance on foot, we broke out the bikes and explored further afield. Cars rushed here and there, which seemed odd given that the town was perhaps 20 square blocks and the water’s edge not far beyond in any direction. But compared to Francois and Ramea, this was cosmopolitan. We took it in.
For decades, fishing was a way of life here. But as the fishing grounds became depleted the islander’s source of livelihood evolved. During Prohibition, St. Pierre served as the primary staging point for smuggling booze from Canada into the U.S. Folks did quite well during those years, but the end of Prohibition brought all that to a screeching halt. For the last thirty years or so, the largesse of “Metropole” (continental France) has sustained the islands. Tourism helps, but public works projects are the main engine driving the islands’ economy.
Not far beyond the city’s edge, nature prevails as it did in Newfoundland. The island is crisscrossed by a network of hiking trails accessing amazing scenery. We hiked to the high point to enjoy the view.
The day after our arrival, our friends Tom and Susan Sebring on Nomad arrived. We had last seen them in Baddeck on the Bras D’Or lakes. Like us, they had spent several weeks exploring Newfoundland’s southwest coast. Now, they were one of several boats accumulating in St. Pierre to wait out strong winds before jumping off for different destinations. A Danish boat was starting a two week passage to Scotland. Nomad and a Canadian boat were anxious to make the 330-nautical-mile passage to Halifax. As for us, we needed a break in the prevailing southwesterlies to drive west around Cape Breton to Prince Edward Island.
Tom watched his weather sources and, after two days of waiting, announced that he had confidence the wind and waves would work his way. He had conferred with the Canadian boat and for safety’s sake they agreed to rally to Halifax together. Perhaps a harbinger of things to come, the Canadian boat’s charging system wouldn’t behave just as their chosen departure time arrived, so Nomad shoved off solo. We wished them fair winds as they motored past our mooring, Tom shouting over the wind, “I’m scared.” Relatively new to cruising, this was their longest short-handed crossing to date.
On the second night after they left, we battened down the hatches to ride out a strong gale on our mooring ball. The winds came as forecast, reaching 45 knots near daybreak and whipping up steep chop even in the harbor. It was enough to flip the dinghy, which was secured by three lines to the transom. I cursed myself for not lashing it to the deck the night before. I hoped Nomad was well south of the storm.
A couple days later, I emailed Tom, asking for a safe arrival reply. None came. Finally, three days later, I got an email from him. Here’s an excerpt:
“Don’t know what our weather gurus were thinking, but we started off fine, but got headed as the wind backed in the afternoon and evening. Turned west when I came on watch in the AM but ran into increasing wind and seas. Had to heave to about 3 pm. Winds to 50 kts and 4-5 meter seas. Stayed hove to the next 36 hours though came about twice to control direction of leeway. Ended up about 25 miles from Sable Island, the next morning when we commenced motor sailing west under storm staysail and deeply reeled main…we were probably within 15 mi of the coast of NS at night, when we hit something that knocked us off autopilot and wrapped something on our prop…had to heave to again for the night with an 800 foot cargo ship 7 miles away pointed straight at us at 17.8 kts…called the CG, made a Securite call, and called the freighter…all ok, slept the rest of the night. Left us about 30 miles from Liscombe harbor in the AM with light winds and smooth seas…sailed in to shore and gingerly motored to an anchorage….”
As for Andrew and I, we were glad to have waited out the storm. One week after arriving, we left St. Pierre for a 250-nautical-mile crossing to Isle de la Madeline, Quebec. Neptune treated us well, as winds and waves were fair and relatively smooth, though there were a few bouncy stretches as we entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence off Newfoundland’s southwest corner. Forty-four hours after shoving off, we landed in Cap-aux-Mueles, greeted by more French, this time with distinct Quebecois accents. Our time in France was over.
We called 800-CANPASS to report our arrival into Canada to the authorities.