During a visit to Newfoundland’s west coast last spring, my colleague and I were directed to Benoit’s Cove to talk to the McCarthys about their experiences building and using dories in the Bay of Islands.
Accessible only by boat until 1974, Twillingate Island has been home to skilled boat builders for generations.
“Mr. Young – across the tickle – Don Young, he just lived over across the way there, he was building boats, and one or two of his brothers built boats. They were the closest ones to me that were in the business of boat building,” Alf recalls, “But there were lots of other people around. There was Mr. Watkins, over across there, he built speed boats. Good speed boats. And of course, the Pardys of Little Harbour. They’ve been building them since… well, I don’t think they were involved in the ark but they go back pretty far,” he laughs.
Roy Jenkins has been building boats in Twillingate for more than 30 years. Born in nearby Tizzard’s Harbour, Roy moved to Twillingate in the late 1970s. “This is where my mother was born… here on this land,” he said standing outside the shed where he builds his boats.
Over the years, Roy has built mostly speed boats. He estimates that he’s produced around ten or eleven, but no two were ever alike. “Every one was on a different mould,” he said, “and there was changes to each one.” Some of the moulds were adapted from those used by other local builders, including Max Hussey, while others Roy made himself.
“These are some of the tools I use,” Eric Bourden said standing behind a table of handplanes. “I used them… My great-grandfather probably used them. I know my grandfather did, and father.” In his shed, Eric show me relics from generations of Bourdens in Bayview, Twillingate. Some of the handplanes he estimates to be 150 years old.
Josiah Bourden, Eric’s great-grandfather, moved from Durrell on the northern coast of South Twillingate Island to Bayview (Maunel’s Cove), a distance of about five kilometers over land. His grandfather, John Bourden, was an inshore fisherman, and his father, Andrew Bourden, spent his life as a schooner captain sailing out of Twillingate. Born to Andrew and Sophia (nee Jenkins) in 1935, Eric made a living fishing for lobster, doing carpentry work and operating a school bus. Read more
Born and raised in Little Harbour, Twillingate, Harry Pardy learned how to build boats from his uncle Harold. “First when I started it was all done by hand. Hand plane, hand saw, ax, drawing knife, spokeshave, hand drill and all that stuff. There was no electricity then.” Following in line with generations of boat builders, Harry built his first boat, a flat, in 1942.
Robert Boyd Coleridge was born February 28, 1928 in Trinity, Newfoundland. He learned how to build boats from his grandfather, George Henry Christian, who repaired schooners for Ryan Brothers Limited. Boyd built at least seven boats over his lifetime, including row boats, motor boats, and speed boats. “You’d have to look for special trees for timber,” said Boyd, “with all different crooks in them.”
“I can’t remember not using them,” said Joe about canoes, “either being a little passenger in them or paddling them myself.” Born in 1939 into a family of trappers in Mud Lake, Labrador, Joseph Goudie grew up around canoes. His father, Jim, and brother, Horace, would paddle for five weeks each fall to reach their trap line. Leaving the canoe behind, they would snowshoe for twenty-two days home to Mud Lake, towing a toboggan of pelts.
“He had to build a canoe every year, as did a lot of other trappers,” said Joe, “They used mostly white spruce and covered it with canvas and then painted it… They were probably not as fussy as I am because it was only going to be one trip right? Paddle it in the country and leave it.”
“I was one of the very few girls down in the stage…” said Rhoda, sitting at the table in her home on Pinhorn’s Beach. It overlooks the landwash where her family operated their fishing premises for decades. “I used to love to get the prong to help with the fish. I pronged hundreds of fish from this point [the stage head] to the barrel, to feed the fish to them… But the prong wouldn’t be in my hand very long if one of the boys saw it.”
“When I started fishing first, there was one fish in the water. That was cod,” said Vernon Petten, fisherman and boat builder from Port de Grave, Conception Bay.
“We’ve been at this through thick and thin. My father, my grandfather, great-grandfather down.”
Vern started fishing when he was old enough to get aboard the boat. He was only five years old when he accompanied his grandfather, John William Petten, on his last trip out.
“We were fairly well isolated in Herring Neck. We thought this was the world here when we were growing up. Twillingate was big- you know, to make a trip to Twillingate would take a day almost to get there,” Max Hussey recalled.
Located on the northeastern side of New World Island in Notre Dame Bay, Herring Neck is composed of a number of communities including Ship Island, where Max was raised in the 1950s.
“You see, to we, a boat is only a boat. That’s all. It’s just nuttin’” Lance Short told us over tea and desserts served by his wife Pat. It was a chilly, damp October day and the crackle of the fire in the kitchen stove can be heard on the interview recording.
I first met Lance during boat documentation research in Trinity Bight in summer of 2014. We arrived at his home in New Bonaventure and explained our interest in speaking to him about boat building. Though he denied being a boat builder, he eventually admitted to building about twenty boats.
Henry Vokey was born with boat building in his blood; His uncles and grandfather before him were boat builders. Henry Was born in 1929 to parents Joseph William and Mary Vokey and grew up in Little Harbour, located in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. As a boy, he took an interest in boat building and at age 12 Henry built his first model boat, which measured six feet long. In the 1950s, at age twenty-five Henry built his first boat. In 1964, Henry and his family resettled to the town of Trinity and that’s when he took up boat building professionally.
Ernest Hodder was born to Archibald and Clara in Davidsville, Gander Bay in 1933. The oldest of seven children, Ern followed in his father’s path working as a guide on the Gander River in the summer and spending the winters working in lumber camps. “I enjoy it out on the river. If you’re getting paid for something you love that’s the way to go.”
“In my father’s early day, there was no outboard motor. They had canoes that were the same on both ends.” Born in 1905, Ern’s father Arch was almost forty-years-old when he got his first 3 horsepower outboard motor.
Eugene was born in 1944 on Indian Islands, Notre Dame Bay to Frank and Netta Saunders. When he was three years old, his family moved to Glenwood where Frank, a blacksmith, worked with Anglo-Newfoundland Development (AND) Company.
Eugene grew up in Glenwood alongside the Gander River and learned how to build boats at a young age. “It always enthused me building boats. I used to go out to my uncle Nat Gillingham’s when I was growing up. They were boat builders,” Eugene says.
Basil Gillingham was born in 1940 in George’s Point, Gander Bay and spent fifty years guiding on the Gander River. He learned how build boats at a young age by watching his father Leslie Gilllingham.
In Leslie’s earlier days, these boats were double-ended and propelled primarily by a black spruce pole. “To get Gander you’d have to pole up the river and then get the train from Glenwood,” says Basil, “and it would take you three days.” Today, the trip from Gander Bay to the town of Gander can be done in less an hour by car.
Basil built his first Gander Bay Boat when he was 16-years-old and has built over 100 of them since. “There were a lot of boats built here in Gander Bay, and a lot of people built them. Older people now, a lot of them are gone, and there don’t be many built anymore.”
Lester Vivian was born in 1932 in Gander Bay, Newfoundland. By the age of sixteen, he had learned how to build Gander Bay boats and began to work on the Gander River. “The river was our highway,” Lester says, and served as the primary route between Gander Bay and Glenwood until the Trans-Canada Highway was completed in 1962.
“It would take two days to get to Glenwood before motors,” says Lester about his father’s generation. Without a motor, rivermen used paddles, a pole, and a sail on the centre beam, “if the wind was right.” Lester’s father got his first motor in the 1940s – a 3.3 horsepower Evinrude.
Originally written by Gordon Slade for The Globe and Mail: Lives Lived published Monday, Feb. 18 2013
Boat builder, fisherman, husband, great-grandfather. Born March 26, 1936, in Wild Cove on Fogo Island, Nfld., died Dec. 25, 2012, on Fogo Island, aged 76.
Calvert Meadus was born in Loreburn, Trinity Bay on December 23, 1927. As a boy Calvie recalls watching his father Keid, Uncle Lige [Elijah] Price, and others as they built boats, using a three piece mould to shape every frame before assembling onto the keel.
Learning the Craft
“There was an old fella down there, Uncle Lige Price, he used to be in always building boats. That’s all he done, most all his lifetime. I used to watch him, and then I thought I’d build a boat too. When I started I was fifteen, I wasn’t yet sixteen. I was sixteen before I got her finished.”
Born in Summerville in 1928, Tom built his first boat at the age of 12. “It was what we called a rodney – a small boat about 12 feet long. We used to tow her behind the trap boats.”
Tom spent 15 years fishing with his father for cod, mackerel, herring, squid, salmon and whatever else was in season. He learned how to build boats watching his neighbour Abe Fry as he worked in his shed, “I would spend hours. I helped him to plank a boat. I’d go in there in the nighttime and help him – he lived alongside us. I’d hold onto a plank for him, and he’d show me that, then show me something else…it was right fun for me.”