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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
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.