“There was a guy that built boats. His name was Clayton Learning. And he gave me a few tips for how to build the first one. That was it,” said Cartwright boat builder Howard Mesher. Born in nearby Paradise River, Howard moved to Cartwright in 1953, at the age of seven. He built his first boat when he was eighteen. Read more
During the mid-twentieth century, there was a type of boat found on the Burin peninsula called a “swampbottom,” or a “swamp” for short. “Most people claim that the swamp was a pretty stable boat,” said Dr. Ed Mayo who shares an interest in traditional wooden boats, “and there are a few people that said they were properly named: to swamp.”
In Little Harbour, Twillingate, Hedley Pardy grew up surrounded by boats. “Everybody built boats out of necessity… You were fishing, you couldn’t afford to buy a boat, you had to build it.” Coming from a long line of reputable boat builders, Hedley learned how to build boats from his father, Harold. “Seemed like it came natural I don’t know… He wasn’t there all the time with me, but I guess from watching him build boats over the years.”
Using moulds passed down from their father, Hedley built mostly speed boats and one twenty-six foot trap skiff with his late brother, Hebert. “You use a mould to cut your three bend: forehook, midhsip bend, and afterhook we call them. And your counter of course. And the stem, well, it could be all different shapes depending on the piece of wood you’ve got, you know? But we try to get it half decent looking: not too upright.”
Hedley always used to cut his own timber frames, harvested from the roots of trees. “I can remember going with my dad over in the woods. Go down around Cobb’s Arm or over on some of the islands around Port Albert… Get some timbers for a boat for next year and get your firewood. You’d be gone a couple of nights probably.”
Hedley spent twenty-five years working in the fishery, harvesting cod, lobster, capelin, herring, mackerel and crab with his brother Hebert. “We had cod traps out. So we used a skiff for that… Just two of us, even with the cod trap, just the two of us… We managed, but it was a lot of hard work… You needed four guys really, but we managed anyways. The fishery was just about over when we started then, and it seemed like it was going down all the time… ‘99 we stopped. Moratorium was…‘92 I think it started, but we kept on at the crab for a few years.”
Howard was born to John and Elizabeth Childs in Lark Harbour in 1950. During our 2016 interview, he recalled what the community was like when he was a boy, “We got the road through here when I was growing up,” he said, “Used to to have to go to Corner Brook by boat… That would take pretty much all day to go to Corner Brook and back again.”
His father fished in the Bay of Islands, mostly for herring and cod, before moving on to other jobs. “He fished for a while, he then he carried the mail back and forth to Corner Brook, and then he got into the bus service going back for to Corner Brook, and then he got into carpentry work,” Howard said. He remembers having horses, as well as sheeps and cows, when he was growing up. “He depended on the horses because he used to carry the mail… In the wintertime he’d go on the ice and in the summertime it’d be the motor boat. When they couldn’t use a motor boat, they’d have to walk along the shore as far as Frenchman’s Cove. He done more stuff in his days than I done.”
Howard worked in carpentry and learned how to build boats from being around his father while he built. “My father, it seemed like he had a gift for it. He was only, I think, seventeen or eighteen when he built his first motor boat, and went from there,” Howard said. He couldn’t say how many, but knows his father built dories, motor boats and six longliners. His last boat was a forty foot longliner built in 1981.
“He learned on his own. Now let me tell you, the first boat he built, she wasn’t the prettiest boat around. But as they grew, he got it down, you know, pretty good…”
Howard starting building his own boats in the early 1990s, after his father passed away. “The last one he built… he said, ‘there’ll be no more boats built here,’ but a couple of years after he died, me and me brother [Eddie], we took it up to build one!” Howard estimates he’s built about twenty dories, but had to stop building due to health concerns. “I used to build a dory or two every winter, but this past three years I haven’t built neither one.” In addition to the dories, which he sold and traded, Howard has also built six longliners which were sold across the island.
Boat Building Lumber
“We use mostly plywood for the sides, and we use local plank from the building supplies. We used to cut years ago, go in the woods and get it ourselves, but we used to have a problem getting someone to saw it. Most all the mills were set up for 2″x4″s and 2″x6″s and they had to change everything to cut the plank for us. We go to the mills and by the 2″x10″ plank, sixteen feet long and put them through planners to make them our thickness.”
Although Andrew (Andy) Riggs grew up around boats, he didn’t start building any until the age of 73. Born in Port au Bras on the Burin Peninsula in 1941, Andy worked as a welder at the Marystown Shipyard. In 2005, he moved to Salmonier, Burin, where he began building boats. “I don’t know why I started at it all… I just wanted to see could I do it, is all. I just started to build her, that’s all. I came in here [the workshop] the winter and drew it on the floor and then I got some timbers in the woods… a lot of work to building a boat,” he said.
His first boat, launched in 2015, was a 27-foot trap skiff. Built from spruce and juniper, Andy harvested all the wood himself. “Everything come out of the woods…It’s a job to get timbers for them, eh? I’ve been all over the place… It’s a job to find the crooked ones,” he said. “Andrew spent hundreds of hours in the woods searching for the perfect trees,” said his sister Pauline. Named “Our Star” to honour the memory of his late granddaughter, the boat was outfitted with a 20-horsepower Lister engine and launched on July 4, 2015.” She’s a good stable boat, that one,” he said.
Andy’s second boat, a 24-foot motor boat, or motor punt, was launched in 2017. Under construction at time of our interview in 2016, Andrew said that “she’ll be just as good or better…She’s a different boat that one. More flatter on the bottom. The other one was more rounder.” She was outfitted with 4-horsepower Acadia engine and launched on July 22, 2017.
“I was born and raised in York Harbour,” said Gordon Wheeler, “Right across the road,” he added, pointing towards the window at Austin (Aus) Childs’ house where our interview took place. Gordon was born in 1960 to Chester and Stella Wheeler. His father was a fisherman and carpenter, and also fought in the Korean War. His mother was the first postmistress in York Harbour, “she worked at that for a number of years. Then she worked for awhile in the fish plant,” Gordon said.
“It was great growing up here, in this area,” he remembered and described how his family was close to the Kendells, who owned the adjacent land. “There was a lot of us so we could play tiddly, baseball, cowboys and indians an awful lot, never forget that one… Jumping ice pans, jumping trees…We broke all the tops off all the trees between here and the bay,” Gordon laughed. “And you had chores to do… Planting vegetables in the springtime, weeding, carrying water, getting firewood…” added Lew Kendell who grew up with Gordon. “It was all work, but it was fun work ‘cause it was a group thing, a family thing- or families I should say because everyone helped one another,” Gordon remembered.
“When we was young, there was no outboard motors. everywhere you went, you rowed. I think the first outboard motor… Uncle Ben had one there, a five [horsepower]. And he used to tell ya to slow down, you’re going too fast.”
Gordon’s father, like many fishermen, built boats and Gordon learned from watching and helping him. He built his first boat in the early 1970s, when he was a teenager, “we built her down in dad’s woodshed,” he remembered. Gordon continued to build dories with Aus Childs, “Aus had a little shed here, and we used to build them in that. And it was only 16″ x 22″, something like that? by the time you got your boat built that’s all the room you had,” he remembered.
At one time, all dory builders in the Bay of Islands would have shaped their timbers from natural curved pieces of wood harvested from the roots of trees. In York Harbour, Austin Childs and Gordon Wheeler continue to use this method in their dories. “All we ever used is the tree root,” said Gordon, “The part that’s in the ground, that’d be your side. And your bottom- four feet up the tree, that’d go across your bottom.”
Gordon started fishing at the age of fifteen and continues to use his dory to fish for lobster, alongside Aus. “We haul up on the Wild Shore, so dories are the best.” Unlike keeled boats, the flat bottom dories are designed to be beached in the sandy coves found on the west coast. In addition to lobster, they’ve also fish crab and other groundfish. “I got forty years gone now,” Gordon said about fishing.
“You don’t see that shape dory nowhere else. You can go around the Island and you’ll see dories, but you’ll never see none like the Lark Harbour”
Austin (Aus) Childs was born in Lark Harbour, Bay of Islands, in 1947. His father, Llewelyn, was a fisherman and fought in the Royal Navy in the First World War. “My mother [Mary Jane (nee Robinson)] looked after kids. There was thirteen of us so it was a full-time job,” said Aus.
Aus started fishing full-time by the age of twenty. He fished for lobster with his brother Ben and Gordon Wheeler in an area on the west coast known as the Wild Shore. For the duration of the lobster season (9-11 weeks), they stay in camp and fish from Eel Hole, south of the Port-au-Port Peninsula. “Stay for a week [at a time]. Probably come in for a night, or something like that,” he described.
Jack Lane was born in Englee, on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, in 1934. As a boy, he remembered spending time with Gideon Lane as he built boats next door to their family home. “Most everybody in Englee built their own boats. If they wanted a boat they built it.” In his youth, Jack lived in Exploits, Twillingate, and St. John’s before eventually returning to Twillingate to settle in 1965.
Do you have memories of swamps boats on the Burin Peninsula? Do you have a swamps model? Do you know of a swamps boats stored in a stage and long forgotten? Our Folklorist needs your help! We will be travelling to the Burin Peninsula next week to collect memories, photos or other items related to these boats.
To share your photos or memories, please call Crystal at (709) 699-9570 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Born in Cottrell’s Cove, Notre Dame Bay, Lloyd Boone moved to Point of Bay in 1977 when he married Cybil Philpott. He learned how to build boats from from his father-in-law, Wilfred Philpott, a carpenter and farmer who learned how to build from his father, Stanley. “In ’76 I started. That was my first boat. [Cybil’s] father showed me how to build it … it was a speed boat.”
“I was only about fifteen, I’d say, when I built the first dory with my father,” said Sam King. His father, Gabriel, was a carpenter in North Creston and built and repaired dories for others. “We never had it built before a fella wanted to buy it,” he said.
Now retired from the Marystown fish plant, Sam has built around fifteen boats. He was working on a dory at the time of our visit to his home in Epworth in 2016. “A fella wanted me to build it… well, I didn’t know if I was going to do it or not. He was two years after me to do. I finally decided I would build it,” he said. “It’s a hobby, that’s all… You gotta do something when you’re used to working all your life.”
Mike Sheehan was born in Benoit’s Cove in the Bay of Islands in 1937. “I lived just up past where the church is at,” he explained, “Everyone had their houses close to the water in them time, eh? I spent all my evenings down here, there used to a store over there. There’s still a store there now…” Read more
“Wherever you went, you either walked or rowed on Change Islands. Everybody had a punt,” said Calvin LeDrew. Born in 1942, his father Harry was a fisherman and boat builder from Change Islands, and his mother, Lucy (White) was originally from Comfort Cove. Calvin moved to Purcell’s Harbour on South Twillingate Island in the 1970s and spent his life working as a fisherman. “I’ve been at everything clear of the shrimp, I was never at that. Cod, turbot, lobster, mackerel, herring, squid… whatever you could make a dollar at,” he said.
Sherwin Saunders was born in Main Brook, on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, in 1950. Around the age of nine, he moved to St. Lunaire with his parents, Fred and Olive. “Dad used to fish summertime and he used to work in the woods wintertime with Bowater. I would have been nine or ten years old when we moved here [St. Lunaire] permanently,” said Sherwin.
Roy Dennis was born in 1932 in the community of John’s Beach, in the Bay of Islands on Newfoundland’s west coast. Like his father Joseph, Roy grew up fishing for lobster, herring and cod. He built his first boat at age fourteen, using the skills he had learned from his grandfather. Read more
Born on Woods Island, Michael McCarthy, better known as Mick, is a carpenter, boat builder and fisherman. He was nearly a teenager when his family resettled to Benoit’s Cove in the 1960s, as part of the Government’s Centralization Program. Mick learned how to build dories from his father, Ignatius, and built his first boat in the late-1960s, at the age of seventeen.
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.