Photo courtesy Charles Legris. As Paul Moyneaux and Adam looked across the rough water between them and the cliff’s of Grand Manan, they wondered about the plan to row across in Paul’s Amesbury skiff. They went ahead, even though the tide carried them off course. The 10-mile crossing took seven hours.
By Paul Molyneaux
They put in at Carrying Place Cove
and ended the trip at Dark Harbor.
The tide pushed them down the
channel as they went.
Adam had cancer, or something, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was always complaining about it, and it got him a lot of attention from the ladies.
“I have a fatal disease,” he told me.
“I noticed,” I said. “Seems to be quite the chick magnet. Well, I have a fatal disease too.”
“What?” he said. Now it was a contest.
“I’m an alcoholic,” I said. “We have a very low survival rate.”
“That’s not the same,” he said.
“Just row,” I told him. “And try to keep in time with me.” I leaned back into the oars, and as I swept them back for the next stroke I could see his port oar out of the corner my eye, sliding out of sight. Adam was a musician; he had good timing. Our oars clunked back and forth between the thole pins, and the dory moved smoothly over the long ocean swells as we headed down the outside shore for Lubec. To the east lay the Island of Grand Manan. Canada.
“If you head south-southeast,” I said to Adam, “if you keep rowing and stay on a straight course, the next landfall is Antarctica. I kid you not.”
“What about Brazil?”
“Brazil. Okay, you have to go around Brazil a little bit.”
“Well then it’s not a straight course,” he said.
“Still. It’s a long way.”
We rowed for a few minutes in silence, a rare thing for Adam to endure.
“What about Grand Manan?” he asked.
“Yeah, one of these days I’m going to row over there.”
“About ten miles. But the tide runs around four knots through the channel.”
“I want to go with you,” he said. “I want to do something bold in case something goes wrong with my operation.”
Two weeks later, an hour before dawn on May 3, 1993—three days before Adam went to Boston for his bone marrow transplant—we drove with three other friends, Charles, Steve, and Lynn, to a cove three miles up the coast from West Quoddy Head, the easternmost point in the United States. Adam and I had left my boat there, and we found it already afloat on the incoming tide. Charles had a bona fide Banks dory, four strakes deep with plenty of sheer—a much more seaworthy craft than my low-sided Amesbury dory-skiff. By flashlight Charles, Steve, and Lynn slid their boat off its trailer and into the water.
We had all stayed up late at Charles’s the night before; everyone except me drinking home brew and arguing about the course.
“We just row,” Charles had said, in his Quebecois accent.
“No, no,” I’d insisted. “Steer this course out of Carrying Place Cove or the ebb tide will take you down below Dark Harbor. There’s nothing on that shore below but cliffs and rocks.”
We loaded the two boats with life jackets, some water, and snacks. I tossed a damaged survival suit into my boat and shoved off. Together we rowed side by side up to Sail Rock. The wind was blowing out of the southeast, right in our teeth, and in the growing light we could see the occasional white cap. We lay on our oars, talking it over. Adam sat quietly while Charles and I, as de facto captains, looked over the uninviting prospects. We were ready to scratch.
“But if we don’t go now, Adam won’t be able to go,” Lynn said. I glanced back at Adam. He was poised to row.
The waves, now topping five feet, and steep, hid us from each other as we pulled for all we were worth.
Finally Steve dug his oars in. “Let’s just go,” he said as he leaned back into a powerful stroke. We were off, pulling for the far shore, Dark Harbor—the only refuge among the hundred-foot cliffs that guarded the western side of Grand Manan.
I thought that with our narrow boat we’d pull ahead of Charles and his gang, but with three in their boat, they took turns rowing and resting. Adam and I only had each other. The first couple of miles went okay. We held to our bearing as the flood tide swept us deep into Canadian waters, almost to The Wolves, a group of uninhabited islands between Grand Manan and the mainland. Adam and I soon got into a debate over the name of the island.
“They say it’s some bastardization of a Passamaquoddy word, but think about it,” I said. “The sailors who mapped this coast came from Brittany, a Celtic land, and the Celtic god of the sea is Mananan MacLear.”
Adam said the name Grand Manan was based on a Passamaquoddy word: Mun-a-nook
, because someone he trusted more than me had told him so.
“Well then,” I said. “Mananan had a son, Mongan, as in Monhegan, don’t you think that’s a bit too coincidental?”
“I think you make up facts as you need them. Those sound like Native American names to me, not Irish.”
On we went. Charles and his crew were a quarter mile ahead of us as we hit the middle of the channel. The waves grew higher and higher and we pulled onward, our oars often catching in the rough water. We banged our blades together more often than we would have liked. Every time our bow dropped down off a wave it left just inches of freeboard to spare.
At one point a splash soaked my back.
“Did that come off your oar?” I asked Adam.
“No. Should I bail?”
The waves grew higher and higher and we pulled onward, our oars often catching in the rough water. We banged our blades together more often than we would have liked.
“Might be a good idea.” When I looked over my shoulder I could see Charles’s boat atop a wave and then it disappeared into a trough. The waves, now topping five feet, and steep, hid us from each other as we pulled for all we were worth.
Adam bailed a bit and then manned his oars again.
“I wish Charles would let us catch up,” I said. “It’d be hard to help us if we swamp.”
“What should we do?” Adam asked.
“If we swamp? Stay with the boat. I brought a survival suit.”
I gave him an unsympathetic look.
“For me?” he said again.
“Well, you can try to get into it,” I said, relenting. “I brought a wet suit top, too. But the water’s so cold, 40-some degrees at most. We’d be hypothermic by the time Charles got to us.”
Adam started singing a song. I couldn’t make out the words, some other language.
“What are you singing?”
“The Mi’kmaq friendship song,” he said.
“Where’d you get that one?”
“I learned it at summer camp, from Chief Red Thunder Cloud. Do you want to learn it?”
“Might as well.”
Adam continued singing and I picked up on the chorus: ahee ahee ah-ey, several times. We sang it loud, amplified by our fear of the waves.
It was just us in a chip of wood out there, doing something stupid for nothing.
After seven hours we made it to the other side. We watched over our shoulders, as the cliffs grew taller and clearer. Drawing in under the lee we could see details; small trees growing out of pockets of dirt in crevices here and there. We had a hell of a time getting our dories into Dark Harbor and had to pull them in against the tide with ropes from shore.
“You rowed across from Lubec?” the Canadian Customs man asked.
“Kind of dirty day for it wasn’t it?”
“What you do it for, fun?”
I stood there exhausted while the rest of the gang napped on the beach. “I wouldn’t say fun,” I told him. “Just something we had to do.”
Adam and I had a fight that night that spilled over into the next day. We caught a ride home with a lobsterman and Adam went off to Boston for his operation. We didn’t talk for six months, but now we’re friends again. Last I heard from him, he said he was still alive, knock on wood.
Paul Molyneaux lives in East Machias and is the author of A Child’s Walk in the Wilderness
published in 2013 by Stackpole Books.