St. Lewis, formerly known as Fox Harbour, was one of the earliest locations recorded by Europeans on maps of the New World. Depicted as Ilha de Frey Luis by Portuguese explorers on 1502 charts of Labrador’s coastline, the area’s sheltered harbour with access to fishing grounds and migrating seals made it an ideal location for both migratory European fishers and native Inuit inhabitants. In the eighteenth century, Europeans began to settle permanently and the community became a vibrant fishing centre on the southwest coast of Labrador.
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.”
Native Labradorian Joe Goudie began building canoes in 1996 after a chance encounter with canoe builder Jerry Stelmok of Island Falls Canoe in Atkinson, Maine. Joe grew up around canoes and had helped his father and others build and repair them, so his interest was piqued when Jerry invited Joe to his shop in Maine.
“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.”
Built in 1989 by Calvie Meadus, fisherman and boat builder from St. Jones Within, Trinity Bay, this motorboat measures 19’6” long and just over 6’ beam. “She is quite substantial for a motorboat her length with big flaring on her bows and a wide counter,” says her current owner, Kevin Price. “That gives you a better boat in the wind,” Calvie explained.
C.B: “How did you learn how to build boats?”
V.P: “I’ll tell ya now… you just never had to be afraid to start.”
When the Pettens needed a new larger fishing boat, Henry Petten began to consider who they would hire to build her. “We’ll do it ourselves,” said his son Vernon.
“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.
“Everywhere we went we went by boat because there was no way off the island other than that,” said Max Hussey about Ship Island, Herring Neck in Notre Dame Bay.
Growing up in the 1950s, Max recalls a time when boats were not only used to earn a living, but for transportation, recreation and everything in between.
“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.
“Everything is governed by the moon,” says boat builder Sam Feltham, “You wouldn’t cut timber when the moon was wasted; you would cut on a new moon. If you cut it after a full moon the wood shrinks faster.”
Jack Casey from Conche, on Newfoundland’s northern peninsula, also abides by the cycle of the moon when cutting wood for his boats.
In summer of 1909 the schooner Little Jap left from Deer Island to fish on the Labrador Coast. She returned home with “six hundred quintals of salt bulk cod” at the end of October, a little later than was usual.
Known for its wild Atlantic salmon, the Gander River hosts thousands of tourists from all over the world each season. Located in central Newfoundland, the Gander River is the third largest river on the island and is internationally recognized as a world-class sports hunting and angling destination. The river flows through Gander Lake and past the towns of Appleton and Glenwood before draining into the Atlantic Ocean at Gander Bay.
Juniper (Tamarack) is a strong softwood that grows mostly in wet swampy areas and is the preferred timber for the ribs of the Gander River Boat. Builders heat thin strips of juniper in steam or boiling water to make it pliable to bend the wood to the desired shape.
“I usually put about half a gallon of Javex in the water with it. That makes the juniper pretty soft.” – Eugene Saunders, Glenwood
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.