International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
Bloodthirsty brigands such as William Kidd and Henry Morgan are also known to have terrorised ships on these waters, and may have left a greater legacy than a few sunken shipwrecks. ‘There was a man called Myrick who was part of Morgan’s crew, so I might have some pirate blood,’ John says with an infectious cackle. ‘But the story is that he turned traitor and sold out Morgan to the British, so ancestor or not, I’d have made him walk the plank.’
To the west of Newfoundland is New Brunswick, where great forests of maples, poplars and larches are busy turning bright shades of red, gold and fuchsia in the chilling air. On the province’s eastern flank, a broad river – the mighty Miramichi – empties into the sea, and it’s here that US presidents, visiting dignitaries and Hollywood stars like Jack Nicholson regularly come for a bit of peace and quiet. They stand up to their thighs in water and cast rods in the tree-dappled sunlight, hoping to catch one of the salmon that the river is famous for – so large, locals say, that the fish will gobble up squirrels that fall into the water.
The river flows into the broad, flat Miramichi Bay, which is sheltered from the wider Gulf of Saint Lawrence by a string of low-lying islands. Water laps gently against the shore; there is barely a breeze. It’s a far cry from the foggy, wild coasts of Newfoundland, but even here, stories of man’s struggle with the sea pervade. This area bears the legacy of one of Canada’s worst maritime disasters when, in 1959, a hurricane swept in and destroyed much of the local salmon-fishing fleet.
Theodore Williston has been fishing these waters since the age of five, when his uncle first taught him how to set a net. Now 80 years old, he still heads out in his boat every day, bringing in mostly rock crab and small fish called smelts. He settles into a seat in a wood-panelled restaurant overlooking the water and recalls in a strong, clear voice his experience of that night.
‘The weather report was bad, but the fishermen went out anyway,’ he says. ‘I was one of them. The storm came up late in the evening and it was the roughest I ever saw. Hundred-mile-an-hour winds. I can’t tell you exactly how high the waves were because I might be lying, but about 30 feet. Boats were tossed over, upside down.’
His sentences are short and direct, as if scripted by Hemingway. He pauses as his breakfast arrives – a hearty plate of eggs and fried potatoes – before continuing his story. Theodore and his crew worked to rescue men from the stricken boats, but 22 vessels sank and 35 men were drowned.
‘I was lucky,’ he says. ‘A lot of the guys that drowned were experienced fishermen. There was no rhyme or reason. The largest boat was lost, the smallest lost. A 13-yearold boy, a 75-year-old captain.’ He shakes his head, silent for a moment. ‘I don’t know why I survived. Maybe it was as my mother believed – everything is pre-planned. Who knows?’ He shrugs and gives a sudden smile, gesturing out over the water, where a lone bald eagle can be seen trailing lazy circles against a clear blue sky.
Folks say the conditions that occurred that night are rare – ‘Won’t happen again in a lifetime,’ according to Theodore – but 100 miles or so to the south, where the lower edge of New Brunswick meets the Bay of Fundy, the colossal power of these seas is demonstrated as regular as clockwork.
Groups of chatty walkers make a clanging noise as they descend the metal stairs to reach Hopewell Rocks, a motley collection of sandstone outcrops on a muddy beach against a high, green-fringed cliff. These have each been sculpted into shape over aeons by a twice-daily rush of 100 billion tonnes of water flooding into the bay – enough to overflow the Grand Canyon.