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.
When we arrived, Mick was in the workshop where he keeps busy making kitchen cabinets, building dories and other woodworking projects. As a skilled carpenter, his attention to detail was evident in his products and his workshop was nearly spotless. Which is how he managed to build five dories in the first five months of 2016. “I’m doried out for this year,” laughed Mick. “I turned down a feller the other day.”
Mick builds the Bay of Islands dory, known for its bright orange and green colours and outboard engine. In his lifetime, Mick has built seventy-two dories and doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. If you visit the nearby community of Frenchman’s Cove and see the dozens of dories lining the beach, many of them were built under Mick’s care.
Originally from Woods Island in the Bay of Islands, Mick grew up on the water. As the son of a fisherman, he learned to build dories at an early age and tackled his first by the age of 17. His first boat, however, was a different dory than the boat he makes today. Dories in the Bay of Islands have seen a dramatic increase in size the last 30 years. The bottom of his first boat measured 16’ in length, 36” at the midship and 26” in the stern, while his latest build had the same 16’ bottom length, but measured 52” at the midship and 48” in the stern. When asked why he changed his design, Mick said it was a safety hazard due to the larger engines used today. “There’s 75HP on them now. One time, dories would only put probably… 12-15HP [on the stern], so you gotta go bigger!” Higher horsepower requires a wider, heavier boat for stability. “They’re safer dories now because they’re bigger, they’re heavier because there’s more wood into them,” said Mick.
When building a dory, Mick usually likes to do things alone, but there’s one exception: his wife Velita, also a native of Woods Island, is no stranger to the workshop. Velita often lends a hand during the building process and plays an important role with the tedious and time-sensitive job of gluing and constructing dory bottoms. She also happens to make up the other half of his fishing crew.
A self-described ‘tom-boy’, Velita grew up with six older brothers and her own row dory. She met Mick on Woods Island before their families resettled in Benoit’s Cove in the 1960s, but they would always keep Woods Island close to their hearts. The couple own a cabin on the island and live there during the summer lobster fishery. “We didn’t live in here,” says Velita. “I came in here to wash clothes and have a bath! We moved to Woods Island in early April and we never came back until November.”
Velita started fishing with Mick full-time in the summer in 2002 and continued for thirteen years. One day when Mick needed help untangling some nets that he had hauled by hand, he asked her to help him out. “I went that day, and I never stopped!” she laughed. They fished together for lobster, crab, halibut and cod, using a small fleet of boats that included a 22’ aluminum boat and a 25’ fiberglass flat. The dory was only used for lobster fishing.
“Usually if you got three or four, you were laughing!”
Velita and Mick would haul and set up to 220 traps every day during the lobster season. She was responsible for measuring and banding the lobsters and baiting the traps to be reset. Together, Mick and Velita would wake up before daybreak and leave when there was just enough light. This usually meant being on the water by 5:00AM. They fished anywhere from 15 fathoms of water to as shallow as 2 fathoms, looking for rock beds through the clear water. “Rocks. You’ve got to have rocks! It’s no good to set on sand.” Velita reinforced. When retrieving the pots the next day, they hoped to have struck pay dirt. “Seven or eight [lobsters] if you were lucky!” said Velita. “Usually if you got three or four, you were laughing!”
Between them, there’s an unspoken level of trust and understanding. “He knows our limits. But sometimes his limit wasn’t my limit!” Velita joked. She would sometimes be weary about the oncoming weather, but she trusted that Mick was in tune with the seas and knew when he had to go home. Velita suggested that the dory was like an extension of his own body. “When you’re fishing, you’re in around the rocks… and it could be a [inclement] day like today. He’s gotta go in there, get the buoy, get the trap, but he could turn that [dory] on a dime… I guess it’s just learning over the years.”
To be a successful lobster fisher takes a lot of experience and a little luck. It seems like Velita and Mick had both. “I don’t know, I just – I guess it’s in the blood,” she laughed, thinking of her days on the water. “I didn’t miss many days, I must say.” Since retiring from the fishery, Mick keeps busy with his woodworking and Velita continues to help out in the workshop. “I miss fishing more than he does,” she said. They still call Woods Island their home and spend most of the summer there in a little cabin near the shores where they both grew up.