At the end of the 19th century, the golden age of cod fishing, there were more than 500 traditional canoes in Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon: the dories. Trawlers have now replaced these small wooden boats, but a few enthusiasts are re-engaging the legacy.
The rain is coming down in torrents today—or, as they say in France, il pleut des cordes. Gilles and Stéphane have just returned from 48 hours of fishing aboard the Cap Percé. France.fr meets with them as the day gradually dawns, bathing the city of Saint-Pierre, plunged into the mist.
The maritime brothers are descendants of Acadians. They grew up here, in the archipelago, surrounded by sailors. When they were little, it was not uncommon for their mother to come to school: fishing couldn’t wait! They would promise the teacher to do their homework at home and set sail to go capelin fishing with the whole family, on board the dories.
Keeping the tradition alive
The dory is the traditional boat of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, a kind of cousin to the American pirogue. Commercial fishermen have since abandoned these boats for more modern ones. But in Saint-Pierre, a handful of determined mariners continue the tradition.
These devotees are called the Zigotos, after the association they founded over 30 years ago. When Gilles talks about it, his pride of the archipelago’s heritage burns in his eyes.
A few hours later, Gilles is at saltworks no. 20. At the end of the day, these colorful hangars are the rendez-vous spot for the Zigotos. On summer evenings, there is always a crowd. There are those who come rowing, and then those who just come chatting—the Zigotos are a community above all.
From hours of fishing to crazy races
The first saltworks here was converted into a small museum, where the oars and engines that tell the story of the traditional boat, from the many hours of the cod fishing to the crazy races where the rowers reached Langlade or even Newfoundland by the strength of their arms and the mercy of the sea.
Right next door, two women start peeling potatoes. They're preparing the evening meal while c. Everyone will eat together, at the same table, after the sea voyage. Moreover, of the 80 members, few really come to row: the pleasure is in the sharing of this Saint Pierre tradition.
Behind the two cooks, some fishing tools decorate the wall. No longer used by professional fishermen, the association’s enthusiasts continue to use these traditional lines and lures to catch the cod they will eat together.
Nothing is straight on a dory
Sitting on the side, Robert contemplates the dories. Retired, he devotes part of his free time to the Zigotos. He no longer goes to sea: his pleasure is the workshop. The Zigotos are not content to float on the water in their boats—they're determined to perpetuate the tradition even in the manufacture of new dories.
There are several versions of the wooden boat, of different sizes, depending on the number of rowers, but all have a common difficulty: nothing is straight on a dory. Each board is curved, following the rounded lines of the boat.
The rowers of the day arrive in drips and drabs. There are all ages present. A teenage girl, daughter and granddaughter of a fisherman, shows off in front of her friends because today she will hold the oar for the first time. The thirty-something woman from Paris, who came for a few months on an assignment to the archipelago, found an open-air gym and a new family with the Zigotos. The 40-year-old banker and the retired teacher came to enjoy the beautiful weather.
Everyone gathers around Jean-Marc. He is the one who initiated the Zigotos movement and who, even today, supervises the launches. The Zigotos put a six-seater dory in the water, with three pairs of rowers and one person holding the helm.
I follow Gilles on board of a second dory, with a motor. The rowers head to the port of Saint-Pierre. This is not an easy exercise: you have to synchronize six rowers at once!
The sea is perfectly still tonight, not a wave to be found. The air is soft. The sun's rays caresses the faces of the sailors. It’s probably one of the last Zigotos out at sea before winter. Everybody’s smiling. After a tour in the port, we go back to the salt flats along the Île aux Marins.
Childhood memories shared with visitors
Half of the rowers grew up here in the archipelago, and yet they don’t seem to get tired of these islands and their colorful houses. The deep attachment of all generations to the heritage and history of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon is palpable with every beat of the oars.
During summertime, the Zigotos invite visitors onboard with them for tours in the dories. It’s much slower than in a dinghy, but the important thing isn't speed: the dory is a wooden testament of the childhood memories and the stories of grandparents in this little corner of France in North America.