The Washington Post
Bay of Spirits: A Love Storyby Farley Mowat
In 1957, Farley Mowat shipped out aboard one of Newfoundland’s famous coastal steamers, tramping from outport to outport along the southwest coast. The indomitable spirit of the people and the bleak beauty of the landscape would lure him back again and again over the years. In the process of falling in love with a people and a place, Mowat also met the woman… See more details below
In 1957, Farley Mowat shipped out aboard one of Newfoundland’s famous coastal steamers, tramping from outport to outport along the southwest coast. The indomitable spirit of the people and the bleak beauty of the landscape would lure him back again and again over the years. In the process of falling in love with a people and a place, Mowat also met the woman who would be the great love of his life.
A stunningly beautiful and talented young artist, Claire Wheeler insouciantly climbed aboard Farley’s beloved but jinxed schooner as it lay on the St. Pierre docks, once again in a cradle for repairs, and changed both their lives forever. This is the story of that love affair, of summers spent sailing the Newfoundland coast, and of their decision to start their life together in Burgeo, one of the province’s last remaining outports. It is also an unforgettable portrait of the last of the outport people and a way of life that had survived for centuries but was now passing forever.
Affectionate, unsentimental, this is a burnished gem from an undiminished talent.
I was inside my vessel painting the cabin when I heard the sounds of a scuffle nearby. I poked my head out the companionway in time to see a lithesome young woman swarming up the ladder which leaned against Happy Adventure’s flank. Whining expectantly, the shipyard dog was endeavouring to follow this attractive stranger. I could see why. As slim and graceful as a ballet dancer (which, I would later learn, was one of her avocations), she appeared to be wearing a gleaming golden helmet (her own smoothly bobbed head of hair) and was as radiantly lovely as any Saxon goddess. I invited her aboard, while pushing the dog down the ladder.
“That’s only Blanche,” I reassured my visitor. “He won’t bite. He’s just, uh . . . being friendly.”
“That’s nice to know,” she said sweetly. Then she smiled . . . and I was lost.
–From Bay of Spirits
From the Hardcover edition.
The Washington Post
In this ruminative memoir, Mowat chronicles the disappearance of a way of life in Newfoundland and the chance encounter that brought him the love of his life. As a young writer in 1957, Mowat decided to travel on a tramp steamer among the small fishing villages known as outports that dotted the Newfoundland coast. These outports were the home of hardy and colorful fisherfolk of Basque, English, Irish and French descent. Government policy and the depletion of the regional fisheries by huge commercial trawlers were slowly forcing the locals out of their centuries-old homes. Mowat enjoyed the area so much that he bought a schooner for further exploration. Soon afterward, a young woman fleeing the overeager attentions of an amorous mutt stumbled on board his ship and romance quickly followed. Mowat and Claire Wheeler spent the next decade sailing in the rocky bays, thick fogs and sudden squalls of the region. The author of 40 books, mostly on nautical and adventure themes, Mowat has a deep understanding of the sea and the natural world. His observations of the outporters are equally perceptive and provide a fascinating window into a little known corner of North America. In this tender elegy to a lost Newfoundland, Mowat shows an amused tolerance for almost everything except the human greed that has inexorably destroyed his adopted home's cultures and environment. (May)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
In the late 1950s, best-selling author Mowat (Never Cry Wolf) began exploring the southwest coast of Newfoundland and the French overseas communities of St. Pierre and Miquelon, off the Newfoundland coast. Enchanted with the cliffs, coves, fjords, and small coastal communities called outports, Mowat seeks to capture the colloquial language of the inhabitants, whose lives have been shaped by the sea. He writes of the schooner Happy Adventure's inaugural season when he traveled to St. Pierre and met his future wife, Claire Wheeler, with whom he explored various outports. Many of these outports have disappeared through government-encouraged consolidation and the collapse of the timber and inshore fishing industries; inhabitants of Rams Island, for example, "launched off" their houses and floated them downriver. Other explorations take the couple to the uninhabited Middle Goblin Bay (rumored to shelter goblins); archaeological sites of the Tuniit/Dorset culture, Norsemen, and Basques; the Bay Despair (Bay of Spirits); and Burgeo, the Mowats' first home. Crammed with natural history and vivid descriptions, this is recommended for public libraries.
— Quill & Quire
“Bay of Spirits clips along like a pirate ship on high seas. . . . It is an engaging read by a wonderful raconteur, as relevant today as he ever was.”
— Globe and Mail
“A page-turner of a storybook, crammed with geography and history, sea creatures, tales and yarns.”
– Kitchener-Waterloo Record
“Farley Mowat writes as a good helmsman steers — with easy skill, admirable precision, and the authority of a sailor in his element.”
— Nicholas Monsarrat
- McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
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- Random House
- NOOK Book
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- 6 MB
Read an Excerpt
Such was the nature of the creature that lay awaiting me at dockside when I disembarked at Port aux Basques. Already laden to her marks, the SS Baccalieu was noisily blowing off surplus steam, which veiled her black hull and white-painted upperworks.
She was not going to be crowded on this trip. Instead of her usual complement of a hundred or so passengers, she was carrying only seventy-five. Her blushing young purser, who was new to his job, gave me cabin B on the upper deck. It was a wonder of Victorian elegance gone a little shoddy: creaky wicker chairs, worn Persian carpet, etched glass in the alleyway door, and an enormous English “water closet” almost big enough to serve as a sitz bath.
I had barely taken all this in when the ship’s whistle let out a throaty roar and Baccalieu began to throb with the slow revolution of her great propeller shaft. I rushed on deck to find we were underway; but there was little to see. Night had fallen and the weather was chill and “thick-a-fog,” as a passing deckhand unnecessarily noted. Never mind. I retreated to the snug warmth of my cabin for a good night’s sleep.
It was not to be. At 11:30 p.m. a deckhand knocked hard upon my door to tell me the captain wanted me on the bridge.
Half expecting we would be taking to the lifeboats, I flung on my clothing, hurried across the bridge deck, and entered the wheelhouse — the holy of holies on any ship. A squat figure took shape in the darkness within and introduced himself.
“Ernie Riggs, skipper of this one. Heard you’ve been in the salvage boats out of Halifax. Thought you might like to help us take this old she-cunt into Rose Blanche . . . if we can get in. Nasty little place. Tight as a crab’s arsehole.”
I did not know if the captain was serious or not. There was certainly nothing I could do to help. The night was black as death and the fog almost too thick to breathe. Pretending I wasn’t there, I backed into a corner and watched and listened as Skipper Riggs and the helmsman took Baccalieu through a maze of reefs into an unseen and unseeable little harbour, then laid her alongside a wooden wharf that I never even saw until the lines went ashore and the fog-diffused glow from a lamp on the shore told me we were there.
I remained on the bridge most of the rest of that black night so as not to miss the succeeding episodes of Riggs Dares All — a harrowing life-and-death adventure in real time.
Coming in to La Poille two hours later, Riggs could not have been able to see much farther than the nose on his face. Furthermore, Baccalieu’s searchlight was out of order and her old-fashioned radar useless at close quarters. None of this seemed to concern Riggs as he paced rapidly back and forth, muttering to himself:
“Oh you she-cunt! Where’s she going? Narrow place this . . . very narrow place. Fucking narrow place. Can’t turn her here. Oh hell, s’pose I got to try.”
Then, as the end of a dock miraculously appeared about ten feet off our bows: “Never goin’ to make it. Lard Jesus, not going to make it!”
When people on the dock began yelling that we were going to make a hole in their island, Riggs stepped out on the bridge wing and shouted back:
“What’re you silly fuckers worryin’ about? We’re right as houses! Finest kind!”
With which he pulled the engine telegraph to full astern, and Baccalieu kissed the dock.
An hour later we continued on our way and, with the coming of a pallid dawn, Riggs turned the bridge over to the second mate and took me with him down to the saloon for breakfast.
“You’ll do, Little Man,” he said over his fourth mug of tea. “Long as you knows enough to keep your mouth shut when you’re ignorant, you’re welcome aboard of this one.”
Through our subsequent friendship he continued to call me Little Man, and to treat me with the affectionate impatience he might have shown a slightly backward son. I learned a lot about Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders from Skipper Riggs.
A ruddy-faced, burly lump of a man, Riggs had been born in the small settlement of Burin on the shores of Placentia Bay. He was as much a child of the sea as of the land. At the age of eight he had gone to the Grand Banks aboard a fishing schooner owned by an uncle. By the time he was twelve he had a berth as fo’c’sle hand, and at fifteen was fishing down the Labrador. At twenty he got his mate’s papers and signed on aboard an English tramp freighter to spend the next several years travelling the world and, incidentally, picking up some of the worst of the argot used by British seamen. In 1936 he became the freighter’s Master. In 1943 she was sunk under him by a German U-boat. After the war, so he told me, he decided to “settle down, so I married a maid from Fortune and, I supposes you could say, married the Baccalieu as well.”
His was hardly a settled life. He had managed to get home for Christmas only once since 1946. His working schedule consisted of two months aboard his ship, followed by a month ashore. When he got home he was often unable to sleep, only able to doze with one ear cocked for trouble. He seldom slept while on board because the ship ran day and night and he was usually on the bridge, and always on call.
Although he could, and did, gorgeously curse the world around him, and everything in it including his beloved Baccalieu, he never seemed to have a hard word for any of his crew, though he had no patience with shore-side management.
“I got to keep the old bitch going come hell or high water, into and out of places a duck would leave alone. Places there ain’t even room to change your mind, and do it any time, day or night, in any kind of weather. They’s got to be accidents, and there is. And when some damn fool thing goes wrong, the skipper gets suspension, whether he be at fault or no. But we don’t do it for they office fuckers in St. John’s. We works for the people on the coast. The thanks we gits comes from them. I believe there’s nothing on God’s earth they wouldn’t do for we. Or we for they.”
From the Hardcover edition.
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