The Life & Tides of Jim Payne

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Dec 16, 2015 3:58 PM
Newfoundland musician Jim Payne on one of his sailing expeditions

"Where it's wave over wave, sea over bow

I'm as happy a man as the sea will allow

There's no other life for a sailor like me

But to sail the salt sea, boys, sail the sea

There's no other life but to sail the salt sea" 

So goes the chorus of the song "Wave Over Wave," penned by Jim Payne and the late actor/playwright Janis Spence in 1981. Jim, 60, is no stranger to music lovers in Newfoundland and Labrador. One of the province’s most prolific folk singer/songwriters, with numerous solo and group recordings to his credit, he is a long-time collaborator with Fergus O’Byrne; a member of the band A Crowd of Bold Sharemen; and member of the musical comedy group Wicked Altogether. He has travelled and performed the world over, and has contributed his music and comedy to Rising Tide Theatre’s annual “Revue” shows since 1989. He also teaches a course in traditional Newfoundland accordion music at Memorial University and for almost 30 years has been spreading his love for traditional music through his own recording company, SingSong Inc. And while it’s obvious that music runs in his blood, there’s lots of saltwater there, too. 

A Life Aquatic 

Growing up in the small fishing village of Pilley’s Island, Notre Dame Bay, Payne was surrounded by water, literally and figuratively. Hailing from a long line of seafarers (his maternal grandfather was in the merchant marine and his great-grandfather was a foreign-going sailor), he remembers sitting spellbound as a young boy while the men around him shared tales of being at sea.

Jim says he’s always felt comfortable on the water and, with the ocean at his doorstep, he earned his sea legs at a young age. 

“The first few years while we were living on Pilley’s Island, our house was built over the water. So you could hear the water lapping up under the house in the summertime. And in the wintertime when it froze up - I remember learning to skate and my mother would open the back door and just put me out on the ice. And everything was done in boat. We went berry picking, we went in boat. We went cutting wood, we went in boat,” he says. 

“Where I grew up, the harbours were really protected. There’s a good hour’s steam before you get out into the open ocean…So that harbour was our playground...My grandfather built me my first punt when I was five or something, because we lived on one side of the harbour and they lived on the other. So on the one side they could watch me coming. My mother could see me all the way and they could see me all the way.”

Jim says he’s always had an interest in geography and learning about other places around the world. However, as a child, he wasn’t allowed to venture any farther than the harbour’s edge, so he spent many moments gazing out at sea and daydreaming about all the places he could go. 

“I’ve always wanted to circumnavigate Newfoundland, even from the time I was a small youngster, because I could do that to some of the little islands that were around out there...At that age, it was an adventure.”

Jim’s boyhood dream became a reality about 15 years ago when Canadian cruise company Adventure Canada contacted him. Having learned of his seamanship skills and musical talents, they invited him on their circumnavigation of Newfoundland. Jim accepted without hesitation, proudly joining the ranks of those explorers who came before. From Capt. Cook to Cartier and Magellan, Jim says, musicians were an important part of their crew complement, and he was happy for the chance to play the role on his own journey. 

“Sometimes I’ll introduce myself as the ship’s fool,” he laughs “because part of my job is to keep things light, bring a sense of humour to things, especially when things aren’t going well, if you’re in really rough seas or whatever the case might be…but that’s part of the adventure of going to sea.”

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A group of Gentoo penguins attempts to steal Jim's boat during a stop at Yankee Harbour, Antarctica.

Where the Wild Things Are

Since that fateful trip, Jim estimates he has circumnavigated the island 20-30 times. His adventures have also taken him far beyond the shores of home and include sailing through the Northwest Passage and back; travelling through the Canadian and Scandinavian Arctic, including Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard; and exploring the Southern Ocean, crossing the Drake Passage between Tierra del Fuego and the Antarctic Peninsula, and sailing along the South Georgia and Falkland Islands. He has worked with several tour companies over the years (mainly with British Columbia-based One Ocean Expeditions) and his duties have included everything from piloting Zodiacs and organizing dances, to performing music and recitations. 

Wherever he goes, Jim carries with him that sense of childlike wonder that fuelled his sailing fantasies all those years ago. The excitement in his voice is almost palpable as he shares stories of standing amongst the majestic, massive fiords of East Greenland; watching the northern lights dance under a clear, dark sky; and pulling up to a cliff face in Svalbard.

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Jim photographed these magnificent ice arches neat Ilulissat, Greenland.

Jim says every trip has been an education, and while he’s met a boatload of friendly and fascinating folks, it’s the “wild” encounters that really stick out in his mind, such as getting up close with polar bears; witnessing leopard seals playing a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with penguins; and standing in the midst of a quarter-million king penguins and hearing their deafening call. 

“The whales are just incredible. I’ve had situations where I’ve been in the Zodiac with a whale underneath my boat, with its tail up on one side and its head up on the other, and having them come up so that you can touch them. I had one that basically blew his nose all over my engine. It was disgusting. The passengers were thrilled, but they didn’t have to clean it up afterwards,” he laughs.

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Jim took this picture of a group of passengers getting up close and personal with a humpback whale off the Antarctic Peninsula.

“Perhaps the most amazing thing of all - I was driving my boat towards an Adélie penguin colony in Antarctica and there were orcas around and they were hunting seals. They sort of come up, looking at ice pans to see if there’s any seals on them. And if they see a seal on an ice pan, what they do is they get together and they rush it and create a wave to wash the seal off the ice pan. It’s amazing. They’re very, very clever.”

Sometimes Jim has even found himself part of the action. He recalls a particularly close encounter on Prion Island in the Southern Ocean.

“We were trying to take people up to get a view of the [albatross] nests. But the beach was covered in fur seals - they’re huge…I was assigned the job to clear the beach of these seals, to make a path so that passengers could walk through,” he says.

“So I’m out there on the beach, my floater and my sou’wester and so on, with two bamboo sticks. If they’re coming at you, you scrape the stick across the rock. That’ll sort of make them stop…and practically all of them have these scars where they’ve been bitten by other seals…I was a bit nervous. And I’m thinking, geez, I can see the headline in The Telegram now: ‘Seals Take Revenge on Newfoundlander,’” he laughs.

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Jim visited this colourful port of Sisimiut, West Greenland.

Not one to drop anchor for too long, Jim has an expedition planned for later this year to sail the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Gaspé Peninsula, including stops along Sable Island, Cape Breton, the Magdalen Islands, Anticosti Island, Gros Morne, Newfoundland’s south coast and St-Pierre. Next summer an expedition will take him back to the Arctic, as well as through the Northwest Passage. Keeping him busy in the meantime is an ever-growing to-do list that includes several recording projects, gearing up for this year’s “Revue” performances and, slowly but surely, compiling a book of his own songs.

While Jim could write a story to rival Captain Ahab, he’d much rather look out at the horizon, like that little boy back on Pilley’s Island, and think of the adventures that await.

“My Aunt Frances, who lives in Badger, she’s always after me to write a book. To me, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal. I know not everybody does it. I guess I don’t think of my life as being that interesting to other people,” he laughs.

“And maybe part of it is that if you think about getting to the point where you’re writing a book about what you’ve done, it’s kind of suggesting that perhaps you’ve done all the interesting stuff you’re going to do, and now you’re past it and you’re reflecting on it. I still have a lot of things ahead of me, hopefully…There’s more things to do.” - By Linda Browne

To listen to Jim Payne talk about some of the wildlife he's encountered during his sailing expeditions, click on the audio file below.