“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.
“I can hear him in my ears ‘til this day…”
Vernon’s love for the water outweighed his fondness for school, especially on the days when the school children were to receive needles.
“I wasn’t very old but they couldn’t keep me out of the boat. And I’m telling ya, I still lived a few years, but I never had many needles in school. When I knew the doctor or the nurse was coming to give a needle, I was going on the boat with dad.”
Summer holidays were always spent fishing. At twelve years old, Vernon fished with an older man in the community named William Henry Doyle, known as Poppa Doyle, in a sixteen foot boat with a three horsepower Acadia engine.
Fishing with Poppa Doyle
At the age of fourteen, Vernon started fishing full-time with his father, Henry, in a thirty foot decked trap boat with an eight horsepower Acadia. “When I caught the fish, I’d cut the tail. And when they were split and salted with all the rest of the fish, my mother used to pick out them fish on the flake when they were dried, and when they went to the fish merchant they were my fish. That’s what I got paid for.”
Vernon’s grandmother, Caroline Petten, would look after his money on his behalf. “I wasn’t wasteful. I wanted a good bike on account of going to Bay Roberts,” to visit his future wife, Shirley Badcock.
Vernon would ride his bike ten kilometres from his home in Hibb’s Cove, Port de Grave, to see Shirley in Mercer’s Cove, Bay Roberts, often getting back home in the early morning hours. “Every time I came home in the night, the top stair on the steps would squeak and I’d try to get up without my grandmother hearing me,” Vernon laughs.
Vernon and Shirley were married in 1955, the same year that Vernon built his first large fishing boat, the thirty-five foot Shirley & Buelah. “That was the year they were building the bounty boats,” said Vernon referring to the 1955 Fishing Ships (Bounties) Act, which paid fishermen $8-10 per foot on newly constructed fishing boats from 24 feet to 35 feet. Over the years Vernon has built a dozen longliners, making each one bigger than the last.
“We were busy. We’d be building boats in the winter and fishing in the summer. That’s what we done. Never stopped. And I enjoyed it. Nobody liked their job any better than me, on the water and building boats.”
While cod may have been “the only fish in the water” when Vernon started his fishing career, by the time he retired from the water he’d fished for everything, including mackerel, herring, capelin, crab and tuna.
“When my son Blair went to school and got his grade twelve, that’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to skipper the boat. When he got old enough to do it and came to work, I said, ‘now it’s your turn.’” Vernon continues to help out onshore, while his children and grandchildren carry on generations of family fishing tradition in Port de Grave.