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.”
Earlier this year, WBMNL Folklorists Crystal Braye and I travelled to the West Coast in search of the Bay of Islands dory and her builders. As we turned off the Trans-Canada Highway and drove along Route 450, the unique orange and green dories could be seen scattered along the coastline. We continued to the end of the road and found ourselves at a wharf in Little Port in the midst of lobster season. After explaining the purpose of our visit to the nearby locals, there was one name that came up repeatedly: Sam Sheppard.
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.
Born 1864 and married at 24, Thomas Head lived in Joe Batt’s Arm on the north coast of Fogo Island, Newfoundland. Thomas was a fisherman all his life but, to eke out a living with his wife Phoebe, he would likely have turned his hand to many other things in the course of a year.
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.
The Gander River Boat (also known as a Gander Bay Boat or Gander River Canoe) was designed and modified by generations of Gander Bay builders to suit the specific conditions of the Gander River.
The distinction between a punt and a rodney, or if there is even a distinction to be made, is often debated among boat builders and enthusiasts.
Both punts and rodneys are small (under 25 feet) work boats with keel and rounded bottoms. Used in the inshore and coastal fisheries, the design of these boats varies between communities and builders.
For some, the terms “punt” and “rodney” may be used interchangeably to refer to the same boat. For others, a rodney is smaller than a punt. Sometimes the shape of the counter, or transom, is a defining feature.
What do “punt” and “rodney” mean to you?
“My first boat was what we call a rodney – a small boat about 12 feet long. We used to tow her behind the trap boats.” – Tom Abbott, Summerville
“A rodney is a little narrower, I think. And they’re a little more, what you call ‘cranky’… but the crankier they are the easier they are to row.” – Ray Boone, Summerford
“As I was told, a rodney is 14-16 feet. Once you go over that, 16-19 feet, it would be a punt. A punt is little bit bigger than a rodney.” – Stewart Sturge, Salvage
“I usually think of a rodney as something thats light, easy to row, easy to launch, usually with a little rocker in the keel, and cranky as ever could be… They’re fast, easy to row and light to handle, whereas a punt is more of a heavier, wider, not-so-graceful looking thing that was used for fishing and handling around salmon nets and everything.” – Alf Manuel, Twillingate
Displacement boats are designed to minimize resistance when travelling forward through the water, whereas planing boats are designed to travel on top of the water. Prior to the use of engines, all boats were built with displacement hull forms.
Carvel planking on traditional wooden boats relies on the wood and caulking between the planks swelling to seal the hull against leaks. Since the 1950s numerous marine sealing compounds and adhesives have been developed, allowing progressive boat builders to modify this traditional construction method to take advantage of these new products.
As the power available in outboard motors increased, and planing became a possibility, the traditional boat builder was presented a design challenge. In the traditional process, David Taylor suggests in Boat Building in Winterton, “there were right ways and wrong ways of building and designing a boat [based on past experience] but no governing principles. Decisions were made according to custom and originality in decision making was not particularly encouraged”.
Born in Summerville in 1928, Tom built his first boat at the age of 12. “It was what we called a rodney – a small boat about 12 feet long. We used to tow her behind the trap boats.”
Tom spent 15 years fishing with his father for cod, mackerel, herring, squid, salmon and whatever else was in season. He learned how to build boats watching his neighbour Abe Fry as he worked in his shed, “I would spend hours. I helped him to plank a boat. I’d go in there in the nighttime and help him – he lived alongside us. I’d hold onto a plank for him, and he’d show me that, then show me something else…it was right fun for me.”
Steam bending wood is a technique used in boat building to shape the ribs of the boat. While most builders in Glovertown learned how to build using sawn timbers, they switched to steaming juniper laths when this method gained popularity in the 1950s. Those who grew up on Deer Island recall James Feltham (1883-?) as the first to use steam on the island in the late 1940s. “He was that kind of person,” remembers Sam Feltham, “He liked to try new things and was always up for a challenge.”
In Salvage, Stewart Sturge switched from timbers to ribs when he started building speed boats in the 1960s. “It’s much quicker,” Stewart says, “you could have a rodney ribbed out in a day, but if you were using timber it would probably take you a week.” Edgar Butt also switched from timbers to ribs, saying that “it’s harder to get all the timber and it’s more work.”
William James Feltham, better known as Bill, was born on Deer Island in 1938 to Noah and Daisy Feltham. His paternal grandfather, Caleb Feltham, was one of thirteen men tragically lost on the schooner Little Jap in 1909, shortly after the birth of Bill’s father Noah. Bill’s grandmother remarried to Avlin Feltham, the man that Bill would know as his grandfather.
Bill fished on Deer Island with his father Noah, his grandfather Av, and his Uncle Ralph from eleven to eighteen years old.
Before building a boat, every builder must first acquire his timber. The types of wood used for building boats varies depending the kind of boat being constructed and what is available in the area.
For planking, builders in Glovertown once preferred fir but have substituted spruce since fir populations have suffered damage from aggressive insects. Bill Feltham switched to spruce when he noticed that fir was becoming more prone to rot, noting that one disadvantage is spruce tends to have more knots.
When looking for timber for their boats, builders prefer to cut near the coast. It is said that wood cut close to the coast is a better quality than wood from further inland. Edgar Butt says that “it was a better fiber. [Wood further inland] was more brittle. You could tell by the shavings when you were planing where the wood came from.”