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.”
“My father used to build boats and that’s how I came to learn. The first boat I built I was sixteen years old. I built it right there, where that house is now,” Basil says pointing just behind him on the edge of the river. “I sold it for $50; for a brand new boat. They weren’t worth much money then. They’re worth a couple thousand dollars now.”
Basil is one of few builders in the area that can still be found building wooden Gander Bay boats. While others have switched from fir (known locally as var) to spruce for planking, Basil continues to build with fir.
“That’s all we used to use one time, but then we switched to spruce because we couldn’t get var. It seemed like the spruce didn’t last as long as what the var did, so I went back. I built one last spring with var, but she might not last either. They say the wood is no good.”
For planks and gunnels, timber needs to be twenty-five feet long but with local fir trees suffering damage from invasive insects such as the sprucebug, good quality fir is increasingly difficult to find.
At one time, a boat could last for twenty years if it would properly maintained, but builders in the area find that wood rots much quicker than it used to. Basil expects his most recently constructed boat to last only three or four years before needing repairs.