Newfoundland: Tuning the Rig

Latitude 50° N. Longitude 56° W. Fourché Harbour

WE ARE MOORED in a ghost town. Near overgrown cottages skeletal dories lie beached upside down in the tidal mud. At 1900 hours we tied up at the only dock still standing, alongside a ruined factory across from the ruined village on the fjord’s east side. The moon had not yet risen. Under the cove’s steep wall the shadows were already deep. Vines emerged from the factory’s rusting boilers. Frost-heaved slabs of concrete were stained a deep red; casks and machinery lay scattered among wind-curled sheets of corrugated roof. It could have been Conrad’s Inner Station in Heart of Darkness, which was used to store ivory. In fact it had been used to butcher whales.

Throughout Newfoundland’s history most of the island’s population lived in villages like this one. There were at one time 1,300 of them, scattered along 6,000 miles of coastline. Few ever had 500 inhabitants. Most were inaccessible by land. Some did not have a cash economy until after the Second World War. In a typical “outport” everything sprawled helter-skelter. There were few if any streets, no town councils, and no town planning. Still, a certain uniformity was evident: nearly every house had frontage on the water, with a dock, a boat, and a platform called a flake, for drying cod.

What were people’s lives like? Quiet—a slow routine of fishing locally for cod and bringing it in to be salted. Of visits in homemade dorries to neighboring towns. Of austere worship in raw pews; communal laundry days and country dances; tea and turnips, and tobacco smoked in clay pipes called dudeens; songs and stories told by lamplight late into the night in lowroofed parlors. A saying of the old Newfoundlanders went, “Land is a place to cure fish.” Their lives were closely tuned to the pitch of the sea and the rhythms of the natural world. But early in this century those rhythms were broken, and the balance they had provided was lost.

With the coming of the First World War the sons of this Nursery for Seamen played a large role in the Allied merchant navy. When the war was over, many who had served chose not to return to the outports and moved on for good to Newfoundland’s capital city, St. John’s, or New York, or Boston. Gravely depopulated, heavily dependent on one resource—cod — Newfoundland was devastated by the collapse of world markets for that resource after 1929. Over the following two decades problems that had been chronic grew acute. In the outports, it was said, there was nothing but rum and poverty. Finally, in 1949, Newfoundlanders voted to renounce their dominion status in the British Commonwealth, and Newfoundland became a Canadian province.

From then on the decline of the outports was hastened by official policy. The new province’s economic future was seen to lie with pulp and paper mills, and massive hydroelectric projects. And it was argued that outports were no longer socially viable. Such small settlements, it seemed, were not money-making propositions; the harmony with nature—the almost unthinking maintenance of biological and social equilibrium that had sustained these communities for centuries—was gone. A vigorous “coastal resettlement program” drained the population into more accessible towns. Under pressure, people moved. What they found, in many cases, was a better livelihood. What they left behind was a way of life, and villages like the one where we were now moored: Williamsport.

It is not the sort of place you come upon by chance. Eight weeks before, I had sailed from Boston in an eightyyear-old square-rigged ship, the Regina Maris, bound for Greenland and the polar ice to study humpback whales. The expeditions goal was to track the animals that the Regina’s sister ships had once slaughtered to their northernmost range. Now the arctic summer was turning. Having run a census of the Greenland whales, we sought to compare that whole population with the larger one off Newfoundland. In the course of this work we had learned of Williamsport. As the mares’ tails that foretell approaching squalls appeared off the coast, we sailed through a “keyhole” in the thousand-foot-high granite cliffs, and proceeded up a fjord that grew progressively more still and dreamlike as the sound of the sea trailed off. Two miles in, the anchor was let fall in Fourché Harbour.

Whaling operations in Newfoundland employed a method dating back to the early part of the century. Whales were killed at sea by “catcher” boats. In some operations boats were then dispatched to bring in the floating carcasses; otherwise the hunting boat would collect the catch itself and labor up the inlet to its station, trailing several giant corpses. Small cargo ships docked at the pier to onload the processed meat, bone meal (for fertilizer), oil, and baleen.

From 1905 to 1915 about a dozen companies vied for the five kinds of large whales that swam in Newfoundland waters: blue, fin, humpback, sei, and sperm. Catches soon declined. By the 1930s few onshore stations remained, and from then on the average yearly take was small—around 200 whales for the entire coastline. Whale populations started to recover.

Then, in 1939, a whaling station was opened in Williamsport by the Olsen Whaling and Sealing Company, with equipment transferred from an older station in the south. A few years later, two other, nearby stations were reopened. and the changing nature of life on land began to disrupt, perhaps irreversibly, life in the sea. Whaling without restrictions, the three operations took 3,000 whales from 1947 to 1951 alone. The Williamsport station was shut down in 1951, only to be used again by a Japanese firm in 1967. This time so many fins were slaughtered in so short a span that they were almost wiped out in local waters. In 1972 the station closed for good, and today, less than two decades later, it already evokes the timelessness of ruins. A fisherman whom I spoke with fifty miles up the coast said, “It was all different then. With the jigging and the whaling, there was work, and some to spare, for fifty families. A hustle and a bustle. Surely.”

THE SQUALL has come and gone. The sun is breaking through, and the woods along the shoreline glisten. I and several other members of the crew lower away in small boats and set out exploring.

Across the fjord from the factory stand the remnants of Williamsport proper: a ring of twenty or thirty cottages in various stages of collapse around Fourché Harbour. The horseshoe-shaped inlet is shallow and clear. Fragments of timber and oarlocks, fishnets and floats, are embedded in its floor. At either end of the horseshoe, like stained molars in an otherwise toothless jaw, stand two houses in relatively good repair. The prim gray cottage with chintz curtains and a bat roof is the home of an aged couple, two of the village’s three current residents, Wesley and Effie Randall; the oneroom shack belongs to a solitary fisherman named Pierce Caravan. Maybe they remained in their homes as others moved away, or maybe they appropriated the houses closest to the harbor’s mouth. Like many outports, Williamsport had been a village without streets: where would they lead? But something was required to get from house to house, so residents built “the road,”a boardwalk on stilts that ran behind each house along the shore. We set off on it gingerly toward the back of the harbor, watching for dropped planks and rotten pilings, peering through caved-in roofs and buckled door frames from which wild brush sprouts like coral from a wreck.

Beyond an arched footbridge next to a cemetery overgrown with wild radish stands a frame church with its doors and windows gone. Its signboard lies face down, ingested by raspberry thickets. Inside the building weatherbeaten pews encircle a central platform. Sunlight enters through the stovepipe’s ceramic collar. There are no religious artifacts or other signs of worship. Nothing at all to turn over, poke at, stumble on. The building was so austere, so modest, when in use that now, abandoned, it scarcely seems changed. Sumacs reach in through the windows. An alder pokes up through the boor.

Outside again, the trace of a path leads up and up, keeping close to a stream that can be heard but not seen. The recent rain is gurgling through the mulch and steaming off the foliage. The path rises on, past blooming fireweed and asters, speckled alders, black and yellow birches, rowan, scarlet mushrooms, shimmering ferns. High up it ends, suddenly emerging at a pool between two waterfalls.

As I watch my shipmates leap into the fresh, clear water, after fifteen hundred miles of frigid seas, and as I smell the sweet rot all around me, after two months without vegetation higher than my kneecap, I am overcome by gratitude, and led to wonder why.

On almost any day of this expedition I have felt every kind of emotion with a purity and intensity I rarely knew before. It makes me realize that in a city, if the environment is neutral—not too noisy, too filthy, too intrusive—then I think things are all right. But in fact a truce with our senses is not the same as an alliance. Though we may think so, we are not habituated to sensory deprivations. The absence of constant nourishment through the senses divorces us from nature’s rhythms, traps us in ourselves and in each other, makes us brittle and subjective, thins the blood. In the city sensuality is overemphasized and yet, paradoxically, is confined to certain types of relationships and situations. Here it is a ceaseless, wordless dialogue with patterns larger than oneself, a constant rinsing. Intimate, impersonal, this dialogue-sensation feeds the habit of perception, breeds deep feeling and clear thought.

Of course, the point is not really “here" or “there” at all but taking it with you, bringing it home. Is that still possible in a city, in our time? I don’t know. All I know is that now, this moment, in this spot, what I can see is radiant, and fresh, and strange. I approach it as if beamed down on another planet called, perhaps, the Past.

IN THE EVENING I walk down the pier, stepping over missing planks, to the factory. The sky is still twilit, but the fjord is swaddled in gloom. Pale wads of mist are forming on the water. A full moon, rising, is not quite visible behind the rock walls on the near side of the fjord, but the far side is burnished by a colorless glow, half dusk, half moonlight. When we docked, a few hours back, the ship’s cook jumped ashore to tie up the forward spring line. Then without a word he lowered his head and just kept walking, like an animal tracking a scent. I haven’t seen him since. But now, as I turn a corner, he calls to me softly, from above.

The cook and the engineer are sitting on the corrugated roof of the factory, beside a hole through which blubber was dropped into “cookers.” They aren’t talking. There is something like an aura or magnetic charge around them. When the cook does speak at last, he can’t look at me. His voice is like damp black cloth. “I have the strangest feeling,” he says. “Something in there keeps pulling me in.”

In the past two months we have come to know so many humpback whales. In the bleakest seas they have rubbed against our hull in greeting. They have “bubble fed" beside the ship, corralling fish with “bubble nets” spun out of exhaled air. They have invented games, such as surfacing alternately on our port and starboard sides. During one such game, when I was climbing down a shroud, I turned to find that a full-grown whale had “spyhopped”—that is, risen almost vertically to get a better view of me.

To observe a forty-ton mass erupting through the slush ice, waterfalls trailing along its flanks and whirlpools eddying off its flippers, is to experience the engine of the natural world as frighteningly Other. But to have that engine turn and peer into your eyes, with a benign and speculative gaze, is to feel that perhaps the Otherness is not so other after all, to appreciate that you and it are looking at each other.

Humpbacks are known in scientific terms as an indicator species. If their numbers fall too low—if they as a species are in trouble—it is because the less sophisticated, less visible members of the food chain that supports them are in trouble too; the whole biological community is out of balance. In this sense the whales, at the top of their food chain, are like canaries in a coal mine; if they die out—if the ocean, overfished and polluted, can’t support these animals—it will ultimately not support us either. The Olsen Whaling and Sealing Company paid little heed to such considerations, to the larger patterns beyond itself. The company, in the end, became its own victim.

How can I convey what it feels like to sit on the feeder ramp—gouged, crosshatched, and scarified by flensing knives? Below, the concrete holds red puddles. Rust? Dissolved brick? How can I not imagine they are something else? Not see the great sad carcasses winched up, their blood cascading down the chute between my feet, the weed-choked courtyard walled in by blocks of flesh?

The moon is now high overhead. Shimmying down the main shed’s outer wall, I pry off a board with my marlin spike and step inside. Moonlight washes in through cracks in the roof and walls, falls here on a ten-foot-high cylinder, there on a circular valve, a trough. A large chute comes into view, angling toward a lidded metal pot below. The blubber would have passed this way. The skeleton, too, hacked into pieces by giant saws, and then boiled to extract oil. The oil ran from the cookers into various tanks, depending on the purity. Here and there on the floor I can see scraps of baleen, and discarded sacks stenciled


The factory is utterly quiet; even my breathing seems muffled by the dust, the heavy air. For a long time I feel nothing—and then I am intensely lonely. The space where I am standing gathers to itself, in sorrow, all that we have done to empty the world of our companions in it. It is said that humpback songs are “ghostly.” Well, this place is filled with ghosts: gigantic, innocent, unaccusing. Still, I imagine them saying, “Now that you’ve killed us, spoiled the water, denuded the land, now, now you decide it’s time to listen to our songs, to find out what they mean.” I have listened to those songs a dozen times. I want to hear one now. Or any sound—a snake, a bat, even mosquitoes. But there is nothing.

WILLIAMSPORT LIES well astern. The ship is bound for the southeast, tacking westward. A red sun is skewered on the bowsprit. The sky is pink, and finny, and the seas so dark they are almost black, except for the foam that slides along each crest like runny frosting.

On deck there is music: fiddle, concertina, recorders, and guitar, playing outport jigs and reels. Viewed from above, on the mainmast shroud, it seems suddenly so small, this little circle, making music, clustered on a floating stage, with the ocean darkening all around and the land behind dissolving into memory. Most of the faces of the people below are in shadow, individual features fading, chins and hair and noses lit by the red glimmer like heads around a hearth.

Looking down on this scene from my position aloft, thinking of Williamsport, I recall a recent incident on board when a fracture was discovered in the giant bottle screw into which a backstay fastens. This was serious, for the bottle screw, one might say, is an indicator machine; the counterbalanced tension of the stays is what holds up the mast, like guy wires on a radio tower. The ship’s engineer constructed a steel splint, which was then bolted on to the bottle screw. It would hold for a while. But it altered the tension on the backstay, and made it necessary to adjust the opposing stays (four on each side) by backing off or tightening other bottle screws with a monkey wrench that weighed ten pounds. This took a long time.

Only when we had finished with the mizzen did I realize that we had just begun—that the mizzenmast, in turn, was connected by other stays to the mainmast, the mainmast to the foremast, the foremast to the jib boom, and so on. A single web distributed the tension over every inch of rig; no part, even the stoutest mast, stood on its own; the whole thing held together thanks to counterbalanced stress, so that a change in any single part affected every other.

As the boatswain eyeballed the fore topmast and hung by his hands from a stay to test its give, I asked how he’d learned to do what he had just done.

“This? It’s just”—he paused—“routine.” He tightened a bottle screw one quarter turn.

“What do you call it?”

“Tuning the rig.”

Now, as I step on deck to join in my shipmates’ music, the Regina indeed seems like one great instrument, with her fretted shrouds, the chord of her sails, her belaying pins like tuning pegs, her hull the ocean’s sounding board, her lignum vitae and mahogany, her oak and teak, her taut proud beauty and her lines that hum like harp strings in the wind—an instrument that we, together, play.

—Harvey Oxenhorn