THE NEWFOUNDLAND FERRY
I was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. At the age of 3, I emigrated to the U.S. with my Parents and infant Brother, settling in the far south suburbs of Chicago, in the same Village where my Aunt and Uncle lived.
I have few memories of my time in St. John’s before moving to the U.S., but many more of my trips to Newfoundland during my childhood. Airfare being out of reach for my Father, those visits began with a long car trip through the U.S. and half of Canada, then on into Nova Scotia. It was there that we left the mainland for The Rock, crossing on the Newfoundland Ferries: from North Sidney, Nova Scotia, across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland.
Our earliest trips, in the late 1960’s, took four or five days. From Chicago north to Detroit, over the Ambassador Bridge (or under the companion tunnel) to Windsor, Ontario, then east on the Trans-Canada Highway through Quebec and New Brunswick, and finally Nova Scotia. We drove big Fords for the most part, and in those early years stopped most nights to sleep in roadside motels.
This was, of course, long before GPS systems, as satellites themselves were in their infancy. Traveling by car wasn’t quite as routine or predictable as it is now, and we had many adventures along the roads between Chicago to North Sidney.
Getting lost was not uncommon, since few road maps included every road you could find yourself on. Meals were also hit or miss, but I remember some great little diners, with uniformed waitresses and the best apple pies in the world. The big burger franchises hadn’t yet forced these roadside Mom & Pop restaurants out of business.
Finding a service station was also tricky. Dad usually started looking around the half-tank mark on the fuel gauge, and his solemn rule was never leave the highway unless you could see the gas station from the exit. Even then, it was a search for whatever station would take your gas card. Gas prices were still pretty low, and we always got an oil check and window wash from an attendant when we pulled in.
Arriving in North Sidney, Nova Scotia, was an exciting time. The ocean crossing awaited us, and the seaside Town smelled of salt air and diesel exhaust from the huge engines of the dockside ferries. By the time we made it, we usually had reservations on whatever ferry was in port and heading to Port Aux Basques.
Not always knowing our planned departure time, Dad usually called from a roadside payphone when we were less than a day from North Sidney. Most times we were lucky enough to get a cabin for the 12 hour crossing, on one of the big Canadian National (CN) Marine Ferries, with names like William Carson, Leif Eiriksson, and Ambrose Shea.*
Our first look at the boat we were to make the crossing on usually came when we neared the ferry parking lot. Whether on a bright sunny day, or a cool early Spring night, the images of those vessels is something I will never forget.
The ferries were massive, holding 4 decks of cars, trucks, and even trains. Purpose-built for the crossing, I remember distinctly the dramatic white superstructures of the ships, with the red-orange CN smokestacks atop the tall decks. I remain awed by the sheer power and majesty of these behemoths, waiting in their docks to brave the fathomless seas. They appeared, then as now, equal to the task.
Once checked in through the gatehouse, we parked our car in the long line of other vehicles waiting to drive on board. The ferry lot was marked with lines to facilitate loading, and once our car was in line we had to leave it there until departure.
Most times, this afforded us the chance to walk around the nearby community of small restaurants and shops. There was usually a subtle vibration in the air, as those big marine engines idled in port, waiting for their next trip across the North Atlantic.
Soon it was time to board, the ferry whistle echoing the quiet streets with notice of departure. We hurried to our car, and with a thump of the steel ramp drove on board. Dark and damp, the car decks were a hovel of activity, as each vehicle was parked close to its neighbors and chained down to the deck. This was pretty important, as at the end of one crossing we learned that a VW bug had broken loose and smashed into a few of its nearby companions.
Next we walked the deck to the narrow stairs that lead up to the cabin levels. We carried a few of our suitcases, but my Brother and I were too excited to notice these mundane details. We were on board! Heading topside, we couldn’t wait to look down the sides of the ship and into the water.
If the shore waters were a bit oily, once out of the harbor the big ocean rollers more than made up for it. The rocking of the ship as we hit the open sea was subtle, but the long drop to the surface from the upper decks (as demonstrated by a quick shot of spittle) was awesome. On some crossings, the spray made it up to even those dizzying heights, hitting my lips with the salt tang of water that had perhaps journeyed around the globe.
There is something both familiar and ancient in the taste of sea spray to me. I can’t help but recall how we all once came from the sea, that it makes up the very blood in our veins. Not the noticeably sour taste of the science experiments that all kids do to demonstrate dissolved solutions (and we’ve all tasted that concoction), but the more subtle reminder that this water covers most of the world, and transcends the fleeting taste it delivers on the lips.
Our cabin below was every bit as exotic as the seas above. Once out of sight of land, we made our way downstairs to the tiny metal compartment that was to be home for the next half day.
On night crossings, we settled down in bunks, with heavy curtains to hold you in place if the ship started to rock. Each bed had its own light for reading, and came complete with a flat pillow, tight sheet, and coarse woolen blanket. Under the beds were those ubiquitous orange life preservers we hoped never to need.
In the morning, our bathroom was another new experience. The tiny sink had a shower head attached to it, and with no tub or shower enclosure, you could spray water till completely soaked as the suds drained down into the middle of the room. Small bars of red-wrapped CN soap helped us clean up, and then it was off to the galley for breakfast.
CN Marine had a well deserved reputation for excellent food in those days, and rumor had it that some very fine chefs opted for employment with the line. I remember many great meals, including hand carved turkey and ham, homemade mashed potatoes, eggs cooked to order, and slices of chocolate cake. Our meals on board were among the best we had on those vacations.
Back on deck, we watched as dim brown outlines above the dark water resolve into our first look at Newfoundland from the sea. It is quite a site, and one that stirs the heart of every Newfoundlander. Soon, though, we’d get the call to head back down to our cars and prepare for departure.
Our voyage nearly over, my Brother and I were usually so engrossed with seeing St. John’s that we little noticed departing the big ferries. I do remember the dark of the lower deck turning bright when the cargo doors opened, and how my eyes hurt when we finally drove outside into the sunshine.
We usually left Port Aux Basques quickly, to rejoin the Trans-Canada and the long drive to Newfoundland’s Capital City. My aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends were all there, waiting for our arrival and the endless visits it would entail.
Before one of these crossings, while in North Sidney, my Brother and I participated in the age-old ritual of a note in a bottle. We had drained our glass-bottled sodas outside a small grocery store in the streets of town, and filled out notes giving our names, addresses, and that part of the sea we intended to launch our messages from. We corked them and let them go late one night, in the middle of our passage.
I’d like to say here that we heard something of them in later years, but like so many things lost to the sea, we never knew what became of those bottles. I guess I’ve thought of them over the years: floating on the vast oceans, washed up on some nameless shore, or broken to pieces in a terrifying storm far from land. These images never lessen my joy and wonder in crossing the ocean, and indeed, have made my voyages since then even more exciting.
Ships in the end are magical things, giving us the seas and landing us on distant and exotic shores. Our earliest form of global transportation, they remain the fulfillment of our dreams of travel. The opportunity of a sea voyage is something I don’t believe I could ever refuse.
– Pete Murphy May 2014
This Article appeared in print in the August, 2014, issue of
Downhome Magazine (Volume 27, No. 3)