After the demise of its cod-fishing industry, Fogo Island looked to be in trouble. The tide is turning on its fortunes today thanks to a lifeline of cultural projects, a new hotel and jobs.
In the small, warm kitchen of his home, buried among a huddle of wooden houses in the coastal village of Joe Batt’s Arm on Fogo Island off Newfoundland, Canada, Pete Decker is explaining how to collect iceberg ice – the secret ingredient, he believes, for making the ultimate gin and tonic. “When she [the iceberg] comes near enough, we go out in the boat,” he says. “We can’t get too close in case she topples over else she’d crush us, so we wait until a growler pops up.” For the uninitiated, a “growler” is a small chunk of iceberg that breaks off and floats to the surface.
Decker continues, squeezing a lot of lime into the glasses: “We then go up close to the growler and tap, tap, tap ever so gently until a chunk lifts off. We pop it in the ice bucket, take it home to the freezer and hope that it lasts.” Decker is right: his G&Ts are sublime, and iceberg ice is extraordinary. Water, frozen for several thousands of years, broken free from its Arctic glacier, floated down the Labrador Current past the coast of Fogo, into our glasses where it quickly meets its watery end. It must surely be the oldest thing we’ll ever consume and yet it’s gone in seconds. Fogo Island is otherworldy. One man describes it perfectly as “a place of profound intimacy and deep antagonism”.
It takes 45 minutes to reach Fogo from the coast of Newfoundland proper, a journey taken by boat or icebreaker depending on the season. Measuring 25km by 14km, it was settled in the early 18th century by the English and Irish (the accent remains), who uprooted their lives and replanted them on the other side of the Atlantic. They made their home in coastal towns with ethereal names like Tilting and Seldom-Come-By, and turned the cod teeming in the deep inshore waters into their livelihood. By the mid-19th century the entire existence of these small communities was dependent on one species. When factory fishing began in 1951, and foreign trawlers appeared on the horizon, the cod couldn’t keep up. The islanders voted against the provincial government’s life raft offer of resettlement in 1967.
That same year the filmmaker Colin Low arrived on the island, a serendipitous event – the fortune of which it would be difficult to over-estimate – and began making a series of 27 films with the islanders known as The Fogo Process. His camera was like a mirror, and what the islanders saw in its reflection empowered them to make the timeliest of changes that would safeguard their future on Fogo. Until now, the 11 communities on the island had lived and worked independently of each other. The fishermen formed the Fogo Island Co-operative Society, working as one to build boats, process fish and sell it. A school was built in the middle of the island where all Fogo children would be educated. Talk of resettlement receded. In 1992, when the Canadian government imposed a moratorium on cod fishing off the east coast (claiming depleted stocks needed to recover), it rendered more than 30,000 people from nearly 500 communities in Newfoundland unemployed almost overnight. But the Fogo islanders, thanks to their co-operative, adapted their business to crab, lobster and prawns. And they survived.
The moratorium’s ripple effect is still being felt today. Fishing, though not for cod, is what the island continues to depend on for its income. While we are on Fogo, news on the local radio that three fisheries on the Newfoundland coast have been closed sends shivers down the airwaves. Fogo may be safer now than in 1967, but today its population is down to about 2,400. Once they complete school, the young disappear to the mainland and few return. Decker tells us the youngest working fisherman is 55. The islanders may not live under the dark cloud of resettlement right now but there’s still a sense that the sun is setting rather than rising on its frozen horizon.
But change is afoot on Fogo. Around the headland from Decker’s kitchen window a gigantic new building nearing completion looms out of the March mist. Long and timber-clad, the pale grey structure rises off the rocks on stilts, a nod to the architectural vernacular of the island’s houses and their “stages”, small sheds used for storing fish, balanced above the water on wooden piers. In a few months’ time, it will open its doors as Fogo Island Inn, a 29-room hotel designed, built and run by the island for the island – a new chapter in its modus operandi of adapt, change and survive.
The lead character in this chapter is island native Zita Cobb. After finishing school at 16, she left her parents and six brothers to study in Ottawa. A few decades later she was working in Silicon Valley at boom time, as CFO of JDS Fitel. “We bought 40 companies in two years,” says Cobb, by the wood fire at the inn. “I had more money than I needed to live a life. But how do you set it free?” In 2001, she took early retirement, returned to Fogo and founded the Shorefast Foundation, a charity with the aim of setting those earnings free for the benefit of the island’s future.
First came the Fogo Island Arts Corporation – a series of residencies in four extraordinary, modernist studios dotted around the island, built by Gander-born, Bergen-based architect Todd Saunders, who Cobb also hired to design the inn. Artists and writers visit, mingle, exchange, get inspired and create. More than just an act of philanthropy to aid struggling creatives, the residency programmes are almost a continuation of Low’s Fogo Process, an ongoing journey of self-discovery for the island as told through a series of different artists. And it seems to be working.
Next came the Shorefast Business Assistance Fund, a micro-lending scheme to help create small businesses and alleviate the reliance on fishing as the sole economic provider. In three years there have been 17 successful applicants, including an expanded bakery, bed-and-breakfasts, a taxi firm and greenhouses to extend the vegetable-growing season. “People are growing broccoli and fancy stuff now,” says Decker.
“The more feet you get down the more people root for you,” says Cobb. The plucky, genius girl with the elfin crop talks both the language of the enlightened islander and the jargon of the Silicon Valley nerd. She sings island folk songs about “the glow of the kerosene lamp” hauntingly, with her eyes closed – but with eyes wide open, and in one breath, she says: “We need to stop optimising for efficiency; if the world optimised on employment instead of return on capital, we’d be in a better place.” She is as much a product of Fogo as she is a gift to it.
The inn is the third prong on Shorefast’s trident and is intended to pull together the smaller businesses, offer consistent employment opportunities for the islanders young and old and open up Fogo to the curious, intrepid tourist. As well as the 29 sea-facing rooms it will have a rooftop sauna, hot tubs, a conference room, cinema, library and art gallery. As if inviting tourism and building a hotel weren’t enough, Cobb embarked on an extraordinary product and community development initiative, engaging as many islanders as she could in the building, furnishing (and soon to be staffing) of the inn. You wonder if she knew what she was getting herself into. “I don’t think we ever did – but as soon as we started talking about what it could be, we were already in it,” she says. “Why would you get up in the morning if you didn’t feel you had something to give?” Yet Cobb is more aware than anyone that it could go up or down. “It’s that butterfly wing thing; you end up damaging the very thing you’re trying to protect.”
So Cobb involved as much of the island as she possibly could to ensure the inn is entirely rooted in Fogo, not plonked on it. “There is nothing here we haven’t thought about a million times over,” she says, as she shows us around. She paired designers from Canada and Europe with local island craftsmen to design and make every piece of its interior – bar the ceramic tiles and Kachelöfen in each room. The impetus to create a 21st-century design language rooted in the island’s craft heritage is admirable; turning boat makers into bed, chair and table makers is no small feat. The local wood workshop hums with the industry and efficiency of a Swiss factory in preparation for the inn’s furnishing – a whiteboard with a neat inventory of furniture pieces says that Earl Cull has made 64 single beds.
The wood-workers are doing a sterling job but the most intriguing collaboration is between British textile artist Yvonne Mullock and several women on the island who have made 220 quilts by hand. Mullock first came to Fogo in 2010 and asked the women she met if she could see their quilts – not the new ones they’d just finished but their grandmother’s that may have been stored in an attic. “I was struck by what they represented – the need to keep warm, the using-up of scraps; to me the quilts summed up this sense of remoteness and survival,” she says. Mullock embarked on a cultural awakening, holding a parade at the local guild for women to show their family quilts. “I wanted to hold a mirror up to what existed, so rather than do a pastiche, we worked together to reinterpret the old patterns.”
The guild was formed in 2009 with 12 quilters, knitters, sewers and crocheters – today there are 50 members. Thursday is guild day and the women who work elsewhere co-ordinate their day off so they can come. It feels like a girls’ dormitory. From 9am to 9pm (with the occasional sleepover) they stitch, sew, gossip and share. “We are keeping skills alive that were dying,” says quilter Sheila Payne. “We don’t use patterns or books; it’s in our heads and the heads of the older members. We all share what we know.” The beautiful quilts are on sale at the guild, a stone’s throw from the inn, and suddenly you understand what Cobb means when she refers to her goal of the inn being “a new part of an old continuity, not a theme park for ‘outport’ living. It’s vital that it doesn’t take anything away from the island, but only adds to it.”
The greatest boon for the islanders is job opportunities for themselves and their children. Cobb is zealous about the potential. “Of the 800 people of working age here, we’ve employed 100 through Shorefast and economically touched 200.” It will be hard to measure her success for many years but already there are signs this was what the island needed. “Angie is one of our servers – she moved back to Fogo from St John’s. In fact, she gets an extra point because she brought her partner with her,” Cobb beams. “Maybe an extra half-point because she’s just rescued a cat too.”
Decker’s three children have also returned to work for Shorefast. Back in his kitchen he’s telling us about “ballycatter”, the broken pack ice that clings to the shoreline and stage stilts in globular lumps at this time of year. He reads Fogo, its weather, landscape and idiosyncrasies, like a book. Cobb says he’s 200 years old (he’s actually 63), and sure enough he has that timeless wisdom and prophetic assurance that comes from living life immersed in nature on the edge of humanity. “We are survivors here,” he says, “and Shorefast is the best thing that’s happened to us since we found cod.”