The Undiscovered Country -- Newfoundland, 5/97
In April, I was told that I would be heading out to Newfoundland for work. I didnít know much at all about the place, so I started doing a bit of research. Hereís what I found:
Facts on the Rock
Exactly 500 years ago (June 1497), Captain John Cabot made landfall. What he found was a large, beautiful island with the surrounding waters teeming with fish. He dubbed the island Newfoundland. Fishing has been the largest industry, but it is being supplanted by forestry and now mining. Newfoundland has been a Canadian Province since 1949. It has its own time zone, 1 hour and 30 minutes ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Most of the people who have settled here were colonists from the UK. Newfoundland is the most eastern point of the North American continent. The place is affectionately called "the Rock." The Titanic went down just to the southeast of Newfoundland near the Grand Banks, a victim of a run-in with a large iceberg. The place names on the island are sometimes hilarious, with towns like "Heartís Desire", "Come by Chance" and even "Dildo."
Just for s#!ts and grins, I checked out the Scripps website for the water temps in that area. The isotherms were color coded, but it was white all around Newfoundland. Peering down to the legend, I found that white wasnít a temperature, it was ice! Man, oh man, it was going to be one of those trips.
(Ten) Locals Only
I was hoping to do a bit of bodyboarding after work, so I sent feelers out on the Internet asking about the place. I was fortunate to get responses from several people who knew surfers out there, or had heard of its potential. However, I finally struck gold, getting a response from a local named Craig Dobbin, who cordially invited me to hook up with him.
On my free weekend, I drove down to St. Johns, the capital of Newfoundland, to meet him. Unfortunately, Craig was playing Mr. Mom that weekend, taking care of his two little boys. That was alright because it gave us the opportunity to really "talk story" and find out more about each other and our respective cultures.
Craigís been surfing for about ten years now. He and a few of his buddies try to get out a couple times a week. They surf most of the year, though winter can be a bit challenging with the occasional ice floes surrounding the coast.
Can you imagine being the first generation surfer of an entire state (or province, in this case)? The way Craig and his friends find surf spots is by looking for waves as they drive near the shore or by taking notes as they fly over the coastline. Thereís no one to tell them where to go and what conditions are favorable. They are true surf pioneers. Can you imagine?
Craig said it was years before he even had to look over his shoulder to see if someone else (besides his friends) were taking off. He guessed that there were maybe ten regular surfers in the area!
He showed me a video that some traveling surfers (from Florida?) made of Newfoundland surf. I was pretty impressed by the quality that the place could have. But when Craig pulled out some of his own photos, thatís when I was blown away. One of the faded images showed a pristine point breaks peeling endlessly, and another showed a powerful left point. I started drooling.
More tidbits of information: Being in such a remote place, all his surf equipment has to be bought elsewhere and shipped in. There are no surf shops around where you can pop in and buy a bar of wax, much less a surfboard. Craig said that most of the fishermen here probably donít know how to swim. I guess itís so cold, that even if you knew how, you wouldnít last too long anyway. The traveling surfers that come through are mostly from the East Coast and Caribbean, but they are few and far between.
I had the pleasure of meeting a few Newfies on a previous trip to Canada, and they, like Craig, possessed a contagious and genuine friendliness. The aloha spirit is alive and well on the Rock.
Session 1 -- Bight Me
After several days of brisk northeasterlies, coupled with a bit of rain and fog, the sun finally came out with the winds switching to light westerlies. Using the local wind conditions, I surmised that the conditions would be right for some decent surf. It was time!
After work, we headed north to a spot called Windmill Bight. It was a very picturesque drive through a landscape breaking into the spring season. There are literally thousands of ponds, streams, rivers and lakes speckled across the island, with quite a bit of fish in them (Iím guessing, just by the amount of fishing gear around). The land looked very "frontiersy" , with lots of pine trees and scrub land between sparsely populated towns.
As we reached the coast, we were blown away by the view on the horizon--icebergs. What a trip! I couldnít wait to surf with icebergs.
We drove past many spots that looked rideable. The surf was good sized, but the waves seemed to break unevenly, with the whitewater sometimes flattening out and other times exploding into the sky. The bottom contour mustíve been pretty ragged.
We finally reached Windmill Bight, a small bay that actually had a bit of sand on the inside (a rarity in these parts). Unfortunately, the park gate was locked for the winter--damn! However, after scoping around, we found a dirt road that snaked towards the oceanís edge.
I knew it was going to be cold (probably in the high 30ís) and I knew I was "under-rubbered" (3/3 mil with 2 mil fin socks), but I just had to go out. I got into this focused mindset where I was dead set to jump in and catch a few, no matter what temperature it was.
But getting to the shoreline proved to be an experience in itself. The walk was made challenging by the spring thaw, making the path a squishy trod through stink, standing water. It wasnít pretty. Funny though, I was so set on jumping in, I didnít smell anything. My buddy, Lloyd, complained a bit, but he gamely trudged along with me.
The surf looked decent, with some sets going overhead. There was a peak that popped up in the center of the bay that looked appetizing, so thatís where I set my sights on.
Jumping in, I found that the water temp wasnít too bad. Once the appendages got to a certain coldness (unfeelingly numb), you tended to forget about them. The water had an unappealing brackish-brown look, with a distinctively run-off smell.
I had a really difficult time finding the peak, since it was so shifty. But I finally caught a couple of waves. Really nothing special--I just rode them in. At least I could finally say that I surfed Newfoundland, with icebergs! After 20 minutes of mostly bobbing around, I made my way through the rocky shoreline.
Back on land, I had to blaze a trail through some bog and brush back to the car. We actually spent more time going from car to shore and back, than we spent in the water. To make matters worse, I ripped a hole in my fin sock, leaving me very susceptible to cold water on future surfs.
It was a forgettable session in an unforgettable environment. Hopefully, Iíll get another chance at better conditions.
Session 2 -- Anchorís Aweigh
Well that second chance did arrive. After that same sequence of wind and weather patterns, with some snow thrown in for good measure (it was late May, for crissakes), the weather cleared and looked ideal to get outdoors again. So we made another trek up north.
This time, Windmill Bight did not look good at all. Although it was cleaner, the surf had dropped considerably, and had no push to it. We had to find another place to surf.
I remembered that Craig recommended a spot to the west called Anchor Brook, right by Deadmanís Bay (gulp... just like ESII). We drove and chanced upon a small point that had a stream emptying into the ocean on the inside. There were a few nice ones coming in, so we decided it was as good a place as any.
That wave was much more consistent than Windmill Bight. There was a shelf that kept boiling up, and we used that to lineup the takeoffs. Surf was in the chest-high level, with some fun ones peeling to the left.
Itís so different, riding with all that rubber "armament". I could not get the touch thatís so important to ride efficiently. I felt insulated, both literally and figuratively, from the environment. And yet, it was still a novelty for me to surf in cold climate. I guess its fun because I knew that Iíd eventually be heading back to warmer waters.
After about a half hour of fun rides, we headed back home. I had prickly cold feet, a slight ice cream headache, smelled like river runoff, but felt stoked just the same.
Aloha Means Goodbye
After spending two weeks on "the Rock", I started feeling like a full-fledged Newfie. I watched the Stanley Cup playoffs, spent my Loonies and my Twoonies, ate fried cod tongues and bottled moose, used vinegar as a condiment, and said funny things like "What yíat" (Equivalent to the Pidgin English "Howzit"). It was time for me to leave.
Newfoundland will never be one of those places overrun with people. The climate is just too harsh, with long, dark, cold winters. However, if you get beyond the obvious weather woes, youíll find a beautiful land with hardy, friendly people. The surf can be epic at times, but I think it will always remain an "undiscovered country."
Aloha from the Rock of the Atlantic,