Looking around the next corner
Guardian reporter Mary MacKay is part of a voyage retracing the seagoing steps of Viking explorers 1,000 years.
© Mary MacKay - TC Media
“Humans always have this thirst to explore, whether it’s oceans or land or space, you want to know what’s around the next corner,” says mariner Geoff Ralling, shown here Friday morning on his boat the Be Faithful 2, off the west coast of Newfoundland.
(Editor’s note: From onboard the Be Faithful 2 off the west coast of Newfoundland.)
There comes a time during a sailing adventure when the sauntering sway of the sea becomes the norm and land takes on a tilt-a-whirl feel.
The sway is practically nil on this cool, calm seafaring day off Newfoundland from Cook’s Harbour to Flowers Cove with Charlottetown, P.E.I. mariner Geoff Ralling, who is retracing the seagoing steps taken by Viking explorers 1,000 years ago.
It may be quiet topside but beneath the smooth Strait of Belle Isle surface there’s plenty of marine action.
“Oh! Oh! There he goes again; the tail is coming up!” Ralling exclaims as we take in the magnificent swim-by beauty of a humpback whale as it heads north.
It’s still early in the day but we’ve already checked off four of what could be considered Newfoundland’s Big Five list. We’ve seen icebergs in the distance and have had a much closer view of a fast-moving pod of pilot whales, a minke whale and that long lumbering humpback.
Even after years of long distance sailing, Ralling still gets thrilled to goose bumps when he sees marine life such as this.
“With our first little boat we headed to Pictou (N.S. in 1993) and we saw dolphins in the (Northumberland) Strait and I was just amazed. I couldn’t believe it. Of course once you get out here, after a while you realize that all of this marine life is out here,” he says.
Born and raised in southwestern Ontario, Ralling’s developed his boating skills on local rivers and lakes.
Then, after a 20-year gap, he and his wife, Jane Ralling, bought their first sailboat and started taking family vacations with their children, Kingsley, now 30, and Alexandra “Allie,” now 23.
“Jane tells the story of when we were boating with Allie, who was three (at the time). We would put a lifejacket on her. Of course the children’s life jackets had a handle on the back where you could grab them, so we’d just simply put a rope through that and tie her to a cleat on the boat in case if she did go over we could fish her out quickly,” Ralling laughs.
His favourite marine life experience occurred in June 1996 when he went to Ontario to pick up their present day 32-foot Aloha sloop.
“We were motoring the Gaspe Bay one night, I was in bed sleeping and the guy on the helm came and got me and said, ‘You’ve got to come see this.” It was flattop (water surface), not a ripple, and behind the boat as far as I could see there was this trail of phosphorescent (from bioluminescent plankton) and then the little wavelets coming off. It was just like Winkin, Blinkin and Nod or something. It was just unreal,” Ralling remembers.
That same glow-in-the-dark magic can appear in the onboard loo as well, which draws seawater in for flushing.
“The first time we saw this, the kids were so excited. There we were with a towel or a blanket over our heads to make it dark, pumping the toilet and laughing like crazy,” he remembers.
The family upgraded to their present day sloop in 1996. Then came an ever-increasing long distance travel itinerary that includes the Bras D’Or Lakes, the Gaspe Bay, Newfoundland, Florida, Bahamas, Bermuda and more.
Meanwhile, while working at UPEI as a director of research development, Ralling became interested in Viking history as it pertained to Atlantic Canada through the Institute of Island Studies and executive director Harry Baglole, who had an adjacent office on the university campus.
“It was the Viking story (that drew me). When I first was told about the Norse visits and attempts to settle North America 1,000 years ago I was really intrigued. As I kid I learned about Erik the Red and Leif the Lucky (in school) but it was all centred on Iceland. I had no knowledge of Greenland and certainly no knowledge of the explorations of North America,” Ralling says.
“When I read about these Norse explorers 1,000 years ago, with no navigation and open boats sailing to Iceland and Greenland and then to North America, I was astonished. That really got my attention.”
In 2003, Ralling joined Baglole and a group of people who travelled to Iceland as part of comparison project to P.E.I.
“On the way home I sat on the right side of the plane ... It was a beautiful clear day and I could see Greenland, it was just laid out like a map. Of course I had read about the eastern settlement and the western settlement (of Greenland by Vikings in the late 900s),” he says.
“When I got home I started to read about small boat trips to Greenland and realized that it was doable in my boat.”
In 2005, he and professional mariner Dan Steele sailed a return trip to Greenland. But even with a sturdy modern-day vessel there were some scary moments.
“The strongest winds I’ve ever been out in were off the coast of Greenland. And there’s virtually no capacity off Greenland for rescue. Around here you can always count on the Coast Guard to come get you when you get into trouble ... but there you have to come to the realization that there was nobody coming for you.”
Unfortunately, time constraints and weather conditions prevented him from stopping over at Parks Canada’s L’Anse aux Meadows historic settlement site both going and coming. This year the timing was right for a journey devoted exclusively to raising awareness for the Vinland Society of P.E.I., of which Ralling is a founding member.
The society strives to celebrate the Vinland Sagas and the Viking explorations of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and P.E.I. more than 1,000 years ago.
The modern-day long distance “crusier” community has inherited some of that Viking desire to see what’s beyond the horizon.
“Humans always have this thirst to explore, whether it’s oceans or land or space, you want to know what’s around the next corner,” Ralling says. “You want to see things you haven’t seen before.”
A forecast of strong southwest winds now brings this reporter’s time with this Viking voyage to an end until I rejoin with Ralling and the Be Faithful 2 in the Isle de la Madeleine in mid-August. Catch you on the flip side of the gulf for the final wrap-up of the Viking Voyage series as we explore the legend of Vinland, or Wineland, and the controversy surrounding its true location and why the history of Viking exploration in Atlantic Canada is of importance to us all.