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.”
These distinct fishing boats were concentrated in the Burin area of Placentia Bay, particularly in Epworth and the now resettled community of Wandsworth. “As far as I know, most of the swampbottoms that were built, were built in Epworth. There were a couple of fellows down there: Ren Roberts was one man and Uncle Macky Manning, he used to build them too, but he was a fisherman and probably in the wintertime he might build one for somebody. But Ren Roberts, he made a living out of that… He built boats for the whole Burin Peninsula I think,” said Eli Pike, a retired fisherman from St. Lawrence.
Swampbottom boats ranged from twenty-three to twenty-eight feet in length, increasing in length as more powerful engines became available. At midship they had a breadth of five to seven feet and a depth of three to three and a half feet. “They were much like a dory. But the sides of them was round… And they had this narrow bottom in them,” described Sam King who remembers his father-in-law’s swampbottom boat in Epworth.
The flat bottom was eighteen to twenty-four inches wide, tapered like a dory but included a keel bolted to the bottom. The timbers and stem were fashioned from locally harvested juniper. The spruce planks were overlapped (clinker), commonly seen in dories, but the sides were rounded more like a punt or rodney. The triangular stern was also similar to a dory, but the raking stem was more inline with what would have been seen on a schooner. The striking similarities to Swampscott dories, in both name and design, leads one to speculate that swampbottom boats may have been a local adaptation of the Massachusetts dory design.
The hulls of swampbottom boats were painted grey, with green trim on the gunnels. They would originally have been fitted with single-cylinder gasoline engines, later replaced with more power diesels. A small sail called a “driver” was placed on the stern, “just to keep her head up when you’re taking up trawl and hauling nets… just a small sail on the back,” explained Eli. In earlier days, a second sail may have been placed on the forward thwart. “I think in the early days, if the wind was suitable, they would sail to and from, and shut off their motors to save a bit of gas,” Ed speculated. They were typically fished by two people using gillnets, trawl and handline, and have a reputation for being seaworthy among those who used them.
“They were seaworthy. They could take a beating. Take a good beating, I guarantee ya. We’d come in with herring aboard, and hang your hand on the thwart like that, you could flick at the water. But right calm, eh? You’d take your time coming in. But ya’d load it to the weather. If you had a little bit of rough weather, you didn’t overload them. They had a good head on ’em. When they’d strike the water, the spray would go right away from you. Wouldn’t come back over you, used to shoot it away from you. That’s why they were so popular, I’d say. And they were strong boats.” – Percy Stacey, St. Lawrence
“We were out in plenty of bad days. Those boats, as I remember them, were like lifeboats… They were good sea boats. And that’s the reason we were out there in seventy-mile winds on our trawl,” said Billy Paul who fished with his father in a swamp boat for fifteen years. “A normal days trawl would be four tubs, which would be forty lines… We’d go two hours steam from home. We’d go from Epworth to St. Lawrence… We’d get up two thirty in the morning. Black thick of fog, perhaps wind coming in on the land. Start up our make and break, a five horsepower Acadia, and steam two hours from home before we throw out our buoy… We’d be gone until three or four o’clock in the evening.”
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best boat you could go in fishing. They were really seaworthy for the size. They’re not like those bigger boats, but for the size, you couldn’t get in anything better,” said Eli Pike, who started fishing in a swamp with Billy’s uncle Hebert Paul when he was eighteen years old. “I fished with he for five or six years and then I went on my own. I’d say I was twenty-five when I got my own [swampbottom].”
“One day we were out on the Old Bank there [6¾ miles south of Cape Chapeau Rouge in St. Lawrence]. It takes you fifty minutes to come in, hey? We left out there one day twelve o’clock in the day, and five o’clock in the evening I got home. The wind was fifty-five miles an hour. Poor day, that day. But the old swampbottom brought us through it. We bailed lots of water, but we managed to get in.” – Eli Pike, St. Lawrence
“You’re out in the weather all the time. Sunshine or darkness, or whatever it was, right up over you. No way of getting out of it,” said Percy Stacey who fished with Cecil Beck in a swamp boat from 1977-80 for cod, flounder, herring and capelin. “We used to fish from late in April right up until the later part of November. We made a living, best we could do.”
“They were amazing boats,” said Gary Robere, retired fisherman from St. Lawrence. “Those things toss you around, but they were wonderful on the ocean… I don’t know if anybody ever got lost in a swamp. You got in. You managed to make it home.” Gary started fishing with his father in a swamp boat before getting his own at the age of twenty-one.
Sylvester Churchill from Little St. Lawrence was among the last to use a swampbottom boat. Built by Albert Rennie, the boat’s original four horsepower Atlantic engine was replaced with a fifteen horsepower Yanmar. From 1979-1986, Gary used his swamp boat to fish for salmon, cod, herring and flounder with trawl and gillnets.
“There was a lot of times we’d go out when it wasn’t fit to be out there, but they were good boats. Lots of water came aboard, you had to just scoop it out as fast as you can. It was difficult sometimes… dangerous… But that’s it.” – Sylvester Churchill, Little St. Lawrence
Despite its reputation among fishermen, the regionally unique swampbottom boat faded from use during the 1980s, a time when fibreglass was replacing wood and boats were getting larger and better equipped to handle the transforming fisheries. The last swamp boat known to exist in Newfoundland was found in a stage in Rushoon, where its been stored for the past thirty years. Owned by the late Herbert Whiffen (1906-1993), it was used to fish for cod, salmon and lobster into the 1980s.