Schoonerman Bob Halliday

Newfoundland’s Schooners: A Story Worth Preserving

Schooners are defined as having two or more masts with triangular sails rigged fore-and-aft, or along the length of the ship, as opposed to the square type sails across the hull that were typical, for example, of the famous clipper ships. Schooners were more maneuverable and were often the workhorses of the sea wherever they were found, and Newfoundland was no exception 100 years and more ago..

Late in the 19th and well into the 20th century, schooners were the lifeblood of Newfoundland and coastal Labrador. Their prime purpose was to catch fish, which was the core of the economy. But they did much more than that. Before today’s road network was built, schooners were the links between the outports and commercial centres like St. John’s. Even after the railway snaked across the island they continued to be the prime carriers of cargo and people to communities beyond the railheads. To serve these various needs, several types of schooners evolved. The methods of designing and building them from readily available raw materials tested the ingenuity and skill of outport men, who rose to the challenge with great success.

The story of Newfoundland schooners has become a passion of retired St. John’s high school teacher Bob Halliday. For more than a decade he has studied and collected information about these fascinating vessels, as it is quickly disappearing and being lost to the people of this province. Today, you could summarize him as: first, having become an expert in Newfoundland schooners with ever-expanding knowledge in their design and construction; a highly skilled builder of precisely scaled and detailed models of these vessels; and a serious advocate for preserving information and artifacts of these icons of the province’s history and culture.

With a lifelong interest in sailing and building marine models, he had tried his hand at creating a model representing a typical Newfoundland fishing schooner, as many men in the outports and towns do today. In the early ’90s he was urged to build another of these, but this time he wanted it to be an exact miniature copy of an actual ship. He began researching and soon found there were no detailed builder’s plans of schooners. All that was available to him were builders’ models, half hulls with the important measurements marked on them which the ship builders scaled up to construct an actual vessel. The original builders used these rather than detailed paper plans. He borrowed one of these models, reduced the scale to a convenient size and built his first replica model, the Julia A. Johnson.

That is how it began. But his consuming interest has gone far beyond that. When he looked for details about the rigging, fittings, deckhouses, etc. of the Johnson a startling fact became clear. “I realized that no one had documented our schooner designs, or how they were built. There was a lot of material such as the half-hull models, photographs and other information stored away in attics, sheds and stores, and even in the memories of older people, but no effort had been made to preserve it.” Thus began the phase of Bob Halliday’s engrossing hobby that, if he has his way, someday will be a major contribution to the maritime heritage of this province.

Using summer holidays for several years Bob visited communities that he knew had once built Newfoundland schooners. He met and interviewed elderly skippers, shipyard workers, and descendants of the master builders who supervised construction of these vessels all around the coast of the island. Once they realized the sincerity of his quest, the people of the outports opened their doors and hearts, and the information and material began to come forth.

Over the years, Halliday has filled about 30 cassettes with taped interviews of people, many of whom have since died. He has meticulously traced the lines from half-hull models of between 80 and 90 Newfoundland schooners, and knows of others yet to be copied. He has created a thick sheaf of hull plans from which models or even full sized replicas could be built today. And there are still corners of the island not accessible by road that he has not visited.

“Originally, my goal was to learn as much as I could about how these boats were built,” Bob says, “but my interest is now expanding to embrace the entire culture surrounding Newfoundland schooners.”

The project has taken him to the UK and Europe to trace the influences of early fishing vessels from places like England and France on the designs that evolved in Newfoundland. He believes it was in the 1400s or 1500s in Holland that the schooner rig originated in small fishing vessels. Its popularity spread around the coasts of Europe and Britain and eventually was used in the 18th century for larger vessels crossing the Atlantic to fish off Newfoundland. When settlements sprang up on the coasts here over the next century, schooners were the ships of choice on the Grand Banks. Bob’s interest begins with the schooners built here starting in the late 1800s. The myriad influences and variations of design that developed to suit specific needs are part of his work.

“The schooner was central to outport life and the economy,” he says. It was essential to the survival of the outport people. “It was their connection with the outside world. It affected every facet of their existence.”

Bob has made scale models of at least a dozen Newfoundland schooners, including seven half-hulls of the better known variations, such as the western boat, the Labrador schooner, the tern schooner and bully boat. He has a CAD program to computerize his many drawings for preservation, and he is gradually compiling the wealth of information he has collected into a book that will tell the full story of Newfoundland schooners and their place in the province’s history.

Bob Halliday can be contacted by email at:

Photo credit: Dick With