Ghost World

“Deadly Storm Takes House, Leaves Excellent View.”– The Shipping News

Titanic daydreams. Idle thoughts drifting out past the waves to the fabled Grand Banks, to singing Portuguese dorymen and thick schools of vanished cod once so dense they slowed a galleon’s progress. These swells, born of sultry hurricanes off the Azores, roll for untold leagues over turbot, hake and the bones of drowned fishermen to slam against these desolate shores.

In my left ear Gordon chattered on, cheery as a roosting gammybird. He’d wandered over from his house across the road to see what this mob of crazy off-islanders was up to in his front yard. He and I hung back by the cars overlooking a small tea-stained stream that bled into the lineup. He pointed to the head-high left where the guys had triangulated a small take-off zone.

“Dem sunkers took out a skiff while back,” he observed in a near-incomprehensible dialect that conjured up a Belfast pub. “Nasty squall blew up on a couple boys fishin’ over ta Jigger’s Cove. Enjin’ swamped and dey got t’rown on ta rocks. Got in alive but was tore up some horrible.”

The outporters, especially old fishermen like Gordon, are instinctual surfers. They know each rock of their coast by name, know when it’s awash or sticking up like a cruel killing claw. They know how the waves break over the bottom, where the safe channels lie to thread their way into the tiny gunkhole harbors.

Rob and the crew bobbed just offshore like lobster buoys, enduring the numbing 52-degree water in a last-minute push to sift out some water shots before we headed back to the airport. Pete took off late on a warbly cobalt wedge breaking over a flat table reef that Gordon called Old Rory. He folded his lanky 6’1″ frame into an unlikely hole, made an obligatory camera pass, then shot over the kelp-choked shallows to thaw out his nose.

We are an instant roadside attraction to the villagers here; a good excuse to pull over and call the kids on the cell phone. The islanders are friendly after a wary fashion; curious, but returning our chirpy West Coast wazzups with subtle, tightlipped Newfie nods. To them, we are “come-from-aways”, the local term for any outsiders. I suppose we are borderline hangashores as well, since although we technically venture into the ocean we don’t exactly make an honest day’s wage off it either. The odd notion of “professional surfing” has to leap a wide cultural gap in a chilly island province where people are used to working 10-hour days gutting fish.

The local fishermen we met, however, were casually impressed with the way Pete and the others deftly beached themselves up the steep flinty berms where they brought their skiffs in.

“Jeez, I wish I could do dat with me boat without sendin’ ‘er ass over teakettle,” remarked one to his friend.

A cold, sunny morning, a glassy calm for now, in these brief stolen hours of a soft September. But winter, with its frozen inlets and the occasional iceberg sailing by like a stately white warship, lay offshore only days away. You could smell it. The outport men, red-cheeked and grizzled, intuitively sensed the impending sea change and busied themselves with roof repair and wood stacking. Others made for the barrens astride their ATV’s for some late-season partridge hunting. Along the highways, woolcapped elders and grandchildren sifted through the lush bogs picking buckets of wild partridge berries and bake apples soon to be simmered into sticky sweet preserves.

Gordon, 83 and a touch drifty without his medications, asked me how the boys stayed on top of their boards. I showed him a bar of coldwater Sticky Bumps, let him sniff the sweet floral-scented wax. Rheumy blue eyes flared unexpectedly; a child’s toothless smile of delight. “Smells like a pretty lady’s leg,” he wrinkled slyly.

This morning is an upbeat anticlimax, a long easy coda out the door after two weeks of chasing phantom swell down a convoluted rockbound coast. But yesterday, in a last ditch push, we scored an epic rumored wave; an unending slope-shouldered right that wrapped auspiciously into a deep bight for 800 yards or more. Crowd factor: eight. It lasted for exactly 5.5 hours and then evaporated like mist tendrils with the morning light. Like the wild berries we found next to the coastal footpaths, the waves here are a rare sweet treat expressed from a harsh, often unforgiving landscape.