The west wind rattles in the rigging, rolling Brendan’s Isle, my 50-foot FD-12 cutter, against the pier at Seldom-Come-By, where she’s moored. The sky above Fogo Island is filled with mares’ tails. I’m awake before sunrise and seated at the navigator’s station, where I pore over a stack of navigational charts. The feature on these charts that dominates my attention is a treacherous 40-mile section of coast that lies to the east and south of our present location: the infamous Straight Shore of Newfoundland. The chart shows no safe harbors along this shore. The off-lying banks are dotted with low, reef-strewn islands. The waters close to the beach are shoal and filled with uncharted rocks. And just beyond Cape Freels, at the far eastern end of the strand, lies an area of shallow ledges and unpredictable currents so foul and uninviting that it’s earned an equally foul and uninviting name from local mariners: the Stinking Banks.
The winds for the past several days have been light. The latest weather forecast, however, calls for increasing westerlies, strengthening to southwest 25 to 30 knots by midday, then strengthening again and increasing to southwest gales of 35 to 40 knots by afternoon. Ordinarily, such a forecast would be ample cause for a sailboat like ours to remain in harbor for the rest of the day, tucked up under the lee of the land and moored securely to a strong pier. But on this particular morning, the forecast gales seem an advantage rather than a threat, for if the forecasters are correct, the wind will blow directly off the land, transforming the Straight Shore into a sheltered area of slight seas and fast, dry sailing for its entire length.
As soon as breakfast is cleared away and the morning chores completed, my four young shipmates — Amanda, Liz, Nat, and Richard — and I cast off the mooring lines and point our boat’s bow seaward, heading south and east toward the Straight Shore and the bays of southeastern Newfoundland. For the first six hours of this passage, the weather conditions develop almost exactly as the forecasters have predicted, and my decision to sail seems a good one. The day is clear, and the wind, gusting across the land, is warm. All this begins to change, though, as soon as Brendan’s Isle sails clear of Cape Freels and enters the area of shoal water that extends for nearly 10 miles to the east.
Here, at the gaping mouth of Bonavista Bay, the wind accelerates along the shore, gusting above forecast velocities. The air and water temps plummet as the boat draws away from the land, and soon a cold fog materializes, seemingly out of nowhere, and obscures the horizon and limits the visibility to less than a mile.
Earlier in the day, while Brendan’s Isle was still sailing under the lee of the Straight Shore, I’d asked Amanda and Richard to help me reduce the rig to a fully reefed mainsail and spitfire jib. But now, even this small amount of sail begins to overpower the boat in the gusts that have swirled up out of the gloom. I take over the helm as we draw abeam of the whistle buoy at Charge Rock, and I struggle to drive the boat a few more degrees to windward. Just over two miles ahead are the Stinking Banks. To the west and south of these is Bonavista Bay itself, with dozens of safe harbors at Valleyfield, Indian Bay, Lockers Bay, and a maze of islands and thoroughfares beyond.