Wooden Boats

Traditional Newfoundland Boatbuilding Is Preserved As A Province-wide Heritage Resource

Before Newfoundland’s inshore fishery became “high-tech” in the latter part of the 20th Century and highways connected most communities, small wooden boats were the workhorses of the outports. In the very early days when hand-lining was common, rodneys and punts propelled by oars, sculls and often sails carried fishermen to the grounds. When trap nets became widely used, hulls were enlarged and eventually motorized to carry bigger loads and crews. Fishing boats large and small were usually built in the fishermen’s home communities, and their designs were often distinguishable from one outport to another.

Winterton, on the south shore of Trinity Bay, is one outport that has a long history of building its own breed of sturdy, seaworthy small wooden fishing craft. It is one place on the island where the traditional methods and skills of wooden boatbuilding are being revived and preserved.

That is thanks to the Winterton Heritage Advisory Board and its museum which occupies an old school in the heart of the town. The second floor of the building houses the community museum while the downstairs space has been dedicated to the Winterton Boat Building Museum.

The museum now has an ambitious new goal to tell the province-wide story of wooden boats and to preserve the traditional boatbuilding methods and skills that are fast disappearing.

This objective, states the museum’s new mission, is “to become the centre of wooden boat building knowledge and history in the province.” It’s a story of not only the Winterton rodney but also the Gander river boat, the South Coast dory, the Mi’kmaq canoe and other traditional wooden boats from all over Newfoundland and Labrador.

“This will be accomplished through a dynamic program which incorporates boat collection and construction activities, interpretive exhibits, innovative programming, and partnering with like-minded groups and individuals,” says the future vision.

There already has been interest from some of those potential partners, including groups at Fogo Island and Twillingate in Newfoundland and Battle Harbour in Labrador. Winterton has hosted a boatbuilders conference to target builders and boating enthusiasts in this province and other regions, and to find other potential partners and resources that need preserving from throughout the province.

Another important goal is a traditional boatbuilding educational and boat acquisition program, and to have traditional boatbuilding incorporated into the provincial school system.

Also proposed are: travelling exhibits to reach people throughout the province and beyond; develop profiles of boatbuilders, living or dead, who have contributed to the industry; Internet access to building techniques and methods; develop a community “ambassador” program encouraging experienced boatbuilders to interact with visitors; help develop regional tourism incentives, such as a visitor “passport” program, to encourage visitors to stay longer.

The Winterton Heritage Advisory Board with the rest of the community is spearheading this second phase of the museum’s development plan, which outlines an action plan to achieve these goals with funding from provincial and federal governments. The board sees the success of its plan depending largely on having permanent staff positions for a curator, boatbuilder and researcher.

In 1997 the heritage board opened its first boatbuilding exhibit at the museum. Its inspiration was a folklorist named David A. Taylor, now of Washington, D.C. As a graduate student at Memorial University of Newfoundland in the 1970s and ’80s, Taylor had collected numerous black and white photos while documenting Winterton’s boatbuilding tradition for a doctoral dissertation on the design and construction of inshore fishing boats around Trinity Bay in Newfoundland and in western Norway. Those photos, plus others from the family of a prolific Winterton boatbuilder, the late John Reid, were augmented with various tools, building moulds and other artifacts to make up the exhibit. Taylor’s thesis, actually a book entitled “Boat Building in Winterton, Trinity Bay,” is now considered to be one of the most detailed descriptions of the building of Newfoundland’s small wooden fishing craft, and is offered for sale at the museum.

A couple of retired boats had been given to the museum and were part of its exhibits of fishing gear and methods. In 2000, the museum actually built a replica of a 25-foot trap skiff with a 6.5 hp Atlantic make-and-break engine. The brainchild of Nova Scotia journalist Parker Bars Donham, the boat was built in a matter of weeks by Ralph Coates of nearby Turk’s Cove. Co-ordinating the project was retired teacher Melvin Green, himself the son of a Winterton boatbuilder and a driving force in the formation of the museum. The skiff is now used as a live exhibit for the museum and is kept moored at the Winterton wharf. (To see it, visit the museum’s website by clicking on the the link in the last paragraph, below.)

With the help of a federal grant, in the winter of 2002-2003 the museum embarked on a youth training project whereby young men from the area supervised by Melvin Green were taught traditional boatbuilding, from finding and cutting the timbers to actually constructing 20-foot trap skiffs with make-and-break engines. The first skiff was built for a private owner, while a second stayed in the museum as an exhibit of how such boats were put together.

A skiff is generally considered to be a vessel of up to 20 tons. Originally they were crewed by two men who fished by handlining, and were propelled by oars and small sails. With the development of low powered make-and-break gas engines early in the 20th century these boats became more versatile and were ideal for setting trap nets, hence the name trap skiff. Elsewhere in North America, the term punt defines a small flat-bottomed boat, but in Newfoundland a punt is an undecked boat up to 25 feet (but usually smaller) moved by oars, sail or engine. A rodney is a small punt propelled by oars. All three types had round bottoms and square sterns with counters (transoms). The definitions often overlapped, with no clear distinction between one type and the others.

The graceful shapes of these Newfoundland craft delight the eye, and the Winterton boats are no exception. But their form followed their function. They probably evolved from craft originally brought to the island from Britain for the fishery, and developed over several centuries of outport boatbuilding using locally available timber, and methods brought to the island with early settlers from England and Ireland. Not only did styles vary from one outport to another, even family preferences differed and the basic boat moulds were handed down through generations. These were usually three-stick moulds, which meant they could be adjusted to create boats of different sizes.

Boatbuilding methods generally followed a set course. After the size was determined, the stem, keel, skeg and counter were set up. Three basic moulds were then placed at stations, or “bends,” along the keel to create the boat’s shape. The largest, known as the “mid-ship bend,” was about half way between the bow and stern. The “for’d hook” was between the mid-ship bend and the bow while the “aft hook” was between the mid-ship bend and counter. Battens to hold the moulds in place, running the full length of the boat, were fastened from the keel up to the sheer where the gunwale would be . At that point, the boat’s shape could be seen and, if necessary, any adjustments could be made. Curved timbers (ribs, or frames) were then shaped and fitted between the moulds and temporarily fastened to the battens. As the planking was installed, as in the photo below, it gradually replaced the battens in holding the boat’s shape during the rest of the building process.

Perhaps one reason Winterton boats became famous was the way they were used. Fishermen often went far from their home port and needed boats that could perform in open waters and bring the men and their catches safely home. According to Melvin Green, some of the larger vessels had motors and were partially decked with two masts carrying sails, “sort of a cross between a schooner and a motorboat.” These were called bully boats. They often ventured to grounds off Baccalieu Island facing the open Atlantic Ocean and were nicknamed “Baccalieu bullies,” he explains.

David Taylor in his writing noted that the building of boats is one of the oldest traditions on the island of Newfoundland. Green credits Taylor’s work as being the catalyst behind the creation of the Winterton Boat Building Museum. He and the advisory board hope to continue teaching the methods and skills of traditional Newfoundland wooden boatbuilding as part of the museum’s future activities.