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The Great Fogo Island Punt Race to There and Back

The crowd is hopping from foot to foot—kids blowing whistles; grown-ups blowing steam from coffee cups. It’s a July day masquerading as October, and I’m on the Government Wharf in Joe Batt’s Arm, waiting for the Great Fogo Island Punt Race to There and Back to begin.

High winds whipped up big waves yesterday, when the regatta was originally slated to take place, and today’s start has been nudged back several times (the Atlantic doesn’t submit to human schedules).

Finally, in the middle of the afternoon, the ocean simmers down enough for the race to go ahead.

Thirty grinning rowers grab their oars and make for their 15 punts—the handmade wooden boats used for centuries here both for fishing and to get from one community to another.
 

 



It’s still gusty, and the punts are not exactly lined up military style, when Pete Decker, the Head of Land Safety, fires the starting rifle. I almost fall off the wharf in fright.

The racers set off, each punt flanked by a marshall boat to ensure its safety on the open waters.

They proceed as a pack at first, then a couple of guys with perfectly synched tree-trunk arms power into the lead. Another team falls back, as their wave-and-wind-slapped boat advances sideways, like a crab trying to keep pace with sharks. Eventually all the punts have disappeared from sight.

Photo: Janice Thomson

We spectators take the chance to browse the craft stands and grab hot dogs, as MC Paddy Barry gives updates on the racers’ progress.

After half an hour, as the first punt bobs into sight again, the cheering and whistling explode.

Photo: Janice Thomson

Excited friends and relatives of the men in the lead—Craig Freake and Kevin Purchase—pump their fists. The defending champions cross the line in under 45 minutes.

As the rest of the pack rows in, the cheers keep coming. Completing a race like that on a day like this is no small feat. As the competitors share blister-handed high fives and soggy hugs, I start to tear up. I also resolve to be rowing not watching next year.

 

Once everyone is back on dry land, Race Coordinator Colleen Higgins announces the winners—who receive cash prizes—and Head of Water Safety, Aidan Penton, presents all the finishers with wooden medals.

The medals are handmade, like the punts themselves. Building these wooden boats is in fact a highly specialized art. The rounded pieces of wood used for their ribs are cut in a single piece from the naturally curved juncture between the root and base of a tree. The wood has to be harvested in late fall, before the ground freezes solid, and after the fairer summer weather has dried the boggy land.

This knowledge had been disappearing from Fogo Island, over the past few decades. Now roads  connect communities, and punts have lost their place at the heart of everyday life. There were only six punts to be found around the island, when organizers first decided to hold a race back in 2007. Today there are over 50, sitting tethered in rows out on the ocean, all summer long.

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After the race, I head to Fogo Island Inn to thaw out and chat with the flush-faced rowers. A mother-daughter team dressed in pink, Helen and Meghan Couves, beam as they talk about snagging third place. “I was just thinking: Go as hard as you can; go till you puke!” says Meghan. “There were parts where we were just rowing air, because there would be a big swell—it was insane out there.”

This was a first race for Meghan. “I didn’t have a clue, when I started training three weeks ago in St John’s,” says Meghan. “I asked my mom: ‘What do I do? How do I do it?’ And she said I don’t know, Meghie, you just row!”

Helen grew up on Fogo Island in the 50s and 60s, the daughter of a boat builder, but like many of her generation, she left the island after finishing high school. “I’ve always loved the punt,” she says. “It saved lives; it lost lives; they used it for fishing, for transportation, even to take people to hospital.”

Her daughter laughs and chimes in: “I learned that it was used by young men trying to court young ladies, because there were a couple of islands around here that were uninhabited, and they could go there for a little picnic.”

Helen has competed in the punt race four times since it began eight years ago. In fact it was on returning to Fogo Island to participate the first time, and staying in her grandmother’s house, that she realized how much she missed the place where she grew up.

“We had land here, and I was thinking: If we had our own house here, we’d probably stay for longer. It just went from there, and we built a summer place. Really, it was the punt race that brought me back home to Fogo Island.”

And seeing all the new punts out on the water, Helen often thinks of her late brother, an avid fisher, and of course of her father.

“They have to be looking over us today,” she says. “They would be… they are so proud—especially my dad, seeing his granddaughter do the punt race.”

Photo: Janice Thomson

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 The Great Fogo Island Punt Race to There and Back was the culminating event this year in the first ever Fogo Island Punt Festival, a week-long joint initiative between the Shorefast Foundation and Heritage Canada. For more information, visit: fogoislandregatta.com