Lark Harbour

Monday September 22, 2014 (49o 05.771’N   5822.721’W): Lark Harbour Coast Station Dock

We have been at Lark Harbor,  Newfoundland for three nights and expect to remain for at least one more, avoiding wind and waves.

Friday’s weather report read: 

Winds – Wind northwest 15 to 20 knots increasing to northwest 30 early  this evening. Wind increasing to  southwest 40 near noon Saturday.

Waves – Seas 1 to 2 metres building to 2 to 3 this evening. Seas building to 3 to 5 Saturday  afternoon.

We’d left Port Saunders late the night before and by Friday afternoon, after a day of over 70 miles of progress, were diverting straight towards Lark Harbour as the nearest port to shelter from Saturday’s predicted high winds and waves.  With only 10 miles to go, the winds and waves had built to the evening’s predicted 9 feet, with corresponding 30 knot winds. By then the hour was well past twilight with only starlight and the glow of the distant town of Corner Brook providing just enough illumination to reveal the ghost like outlines of the tall islands lining our approach. Without any navigational buoys to show us the way, we were fully dependent on the electronic GPS map displayed on the chart plotter mounted immediately forward of the helm. If the electrical power had suddenly failed, we would have been navigating blindly between unfamiliar  islands and rocks in near total darkness. While the possibility is remote, having one’s safety depend on a  single point feels like tempting fate, so Eli quickly entered  a string of waypoints into the hand-held battery operated GPS to provide a back-up in the unlikely event that the main power failed. 

Meanwhile, the wind and waves were providing for a wild ride in. With the wind coming from dead astern, the mile wide channel between the islands compounded the waves, increasing their magnitude over what we had experience on the outside  and  providing surfing lessons in the dark. At one point, the wind and waves combine to lift and push Lillian’s stern hard enough to port that even full rudder would not keep her nose pointed straight ahead. She rolled with a broaching motion as a wave broke over the aft rail, splashing into the cockpit. Given that Lillian has over 10,000 lbs of encapsulated lead in her keel, she is no danger of being toppled under those conditions and she immediately brought her nose back around in time for the next wave. None-the-less, it was disconcerting to be overpowered in the dark by an unseen wave.  

After an hour of surfing, we turned 90 degrees to starboard around the last outcropping of rocks and headed straight for Lark Harbour. Now the challenge was to be able to make reasonable progress for the last five miles, with the waves coming  broadside and the gusts increasing to over forty knots. Adding to the discomfort was the announcement by Eli that the steering wheel of the helm was suddenly loose.  It felt as if a strong pull backwards might pull it completely off the steering column. Ironically, just that afternoon we had been talking about steering failures and the emergency tiller stowed in  the aft locker.  In the event that the steering wheel or associated cables and pulleys that normally control the rudder fail, here is a circular port behind the helmsman’s chair that provides direct access to the top of the rudder post. The emergency tiller fits down on  top of that shaft,  creating a direct link to the rudder. As Eli steered, being   careful  not to pull back on the wheel, I worked up a sweat digging deep into the locker, past tangles of ropes, lifejackets, and other stowed items, and pulled out the tiller … just in case.   With Eli continuing to steer gingerly,  the mainsail reefed  to half it’s normal size, and the engine running on the high side of its rpm range, Lillian was able to make 3kts towards Lark Harbour. After an hour and a half  the mountain at the head of the harbor finally began to offer shelter from the wind and waves. At that point we dropped the main and continued on the engine alone. 

Less than half a mile ahead was a dock, illuminated by a street lamp at the dock’s end. We did a first pass monitoring the depth and looking through the shadows to make sure that there were no lines trailing in the water or sharp edges along the sides. Satisfied that all was clear, Eli and Pete rigged the fenders and dock line for a starboard side tie up. I then attempted to motor alongside, but was unable to finesse the approach to get Lillian close enough to allow Pete or Eli to safely snag the dock. With each pass, the winds blowing off the dock would catch the bow and blow us back out of reach.  The right combination of forward momentum into the wind and towards the dock with a well-timed  last second veer would have worked, but at the risk of misjudging and potentially causing damage to the bow or side rail.  

After several unsuccessful attempts, we re-rigged for a port side tie-up and ended up backing  her into the dock. This technique is one that I attribute to mentor Dave Dickerson who, years ago on a dock approach in the Cape Cod Canal, demonstrated how Lillian backs well to port, offering a distinct advantage when docking downwind with a left side tie up.  Using this technique, we were able to get a stern line on one of the cleats on the pier,  securing Lillian firmly to the dock, after which  she could be snugged up alongside using the engine with a combination of  lines from the bow and mid-ship. Once fully secured, we took turns on watch, occasionally readjusting the lines and the tires hanging from the dock rails, thus  spending  Friday and Saturday nights riding out Saturday’s predicted gale.  

Come Sunday morning we expected to be able to relax with a reprieve from Saturday’s high winds, but the next revised forecast  indicated even stronger wind for Sunday and Monday:

Winds – Wind southwest 25 to 35 knots with gusts to 45 along the coast  tonight. Wind becoming south 25 overnight the increasing to south 45  to 55 Monday morning. 

As I remained on board watching the lines and changing the engine oil, Pete and Eli walked into town to check with the Coast Guard Station to see if we could tie up at their dock. The public dock where we had just spent the last two nights was firmly attached to solid ground, requiring the dock lines to be continually adjusted as the tide rose and fell 4 feet every six hours.  It was also located a mile from the head of the harbor, sitting between two mountain peaks each over 800 feet, creating a venturi effect that funneled the winds and significantly increased their velocity. At one point Eli recorded a gust of 70 knots (77 mph) on the wind indicator, even more than what we’d seen in the Arctic. Lillian was sitting in the windiest location in all of  Lark Harbour and the waves had a fetch of over a mile from the far shore, giving them room  to build before slapping up against her starboard side,  working her hard against the tires and fenders. With the wind and waves  coming from the SW,  Lillian was being pushed up against the dock. If possible, we did not want to spend another night under those conditions, especially with even the stronger winds predicted for the following day.   

In contrast, the Coast Guard dock stood at the head of the Lark harbor with no mountains to funnel the winds and virtually no distance over which  the waves could build. Furthermore, with the Coast Guard rescue ship tied up on the windward side, the available spot was oriented such that  southwest winds would push Lillian away from any contact with the dock. And finally, it was a floating dock that rose and fell with the tide, meaning that once secured, Lillian’s dock lines could remain fixed as the tide came and went.  

Not long after I’d finished with the oil change, Kevin from the Coast Guard station drove up with Pete and Eli. After a cursory inspection of our situation, he announced that it was okay if we moved to their dock. It was understood that was not a common practice but, given the coming bad weather, they let us know that we were more than welcomed to   tie up there. With his authorization, we rapidly prepared to move as the wind steadily increased, pushing the Lillian harder and  harder against the dock. Being on a Sunday and Lillian being somewhat of a curiosity, we had no fewer than five people from the town who had come to see what was going on and were offering help and advice as we prepared to leave.  

To cast off, we worked our way along the windward side of the dock, leap-frogging fenders as we went. Once near the end, we let the wind to blow the bow around the corner, kicking the stern out away from the dock, freeing Lillian from all contact, and allowing the engine to take over and gain sufficient speed to begin steering normally. A mile later we were tied up at the Coast Guard dock. The boat is as secure as she can be.  We subsequently had a worry-free,  uninterrupted night of sleep. With no need to readjust the dock lines with the tides, we have no need to have a lookout on board and  have been able to come and go from the boat as we please. That freedom has allowed us to fully enjoy our stay in the picturesque and friendly town of Lark Harbor, including visiting with the crew at the Coast Guard Station and enjoying the hospitality of the individuals we’ve met in our short time here.  Although the high winds have been frustrating in slowing our progress south, the benefit is that it has  lead us to meet people and experience locations that we would have otherwise  sailed by.  The next blog is to be on the friendliness and hospitality of all the people we’ve met in Canada.

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