Harvesting Tradition

Harvesting Tradition

Issue 05

Back sheds and workshops rich with the scent of sawdust and a thick layer of shavings are where boat builders honed their craft. When you think about what those early settlers did every day — casting out into a capricious sea in a vulnerable craft built from materials gathered around their homesteads — you realize what a truly incredible act of daily faith it was. But that’s what Newfoundlanders did for centuries to feed their families. Every safe return to shore spoke to the skill of the craftsmen who built those vessels.

At first, techniques of master shipwrights were imported from the UK. Over successive generations those core concepts were reworked according to the preferences of each builder, until almost every village had a distinct variation of their preferred boat.

“Wooden boat building is integral to Newfoundland,” says Jeremy Harnum, manager of the Wooden Boat Museum in Winterton, about 95 miles outside St. John’s. Fishermen used these boats to build the region’s economic backbone. “It’s probably the most fundamental part of our heritage,” he adds. “It’s the reason we were able to provide for our families for 300 years.”

Although every builder had quirks, the boats were based around a few standard models. The dory, one of the most basic, is flat-bottomed with a double-ended hull around 16 to 20 feet long. Much larger sail-propelled boats called schooners carried fishermen out into the Grand Banks — an area of submerged plateaus rich with sea life. They loaded dories onto schooners as support vessels, launching them near the fishing grounds to gather nets and traps.

Closer to shore you would find punts and rodneys, which are so close in form that debates continue today about whether they should even be considered different boats. While some make no distinction, others insist that a rodney, around 12 to 14 feet long, is a slightly smaller version of a punt, which stretches 16 to 18 feet. Regardless, they’re both oar-propelled workboats with a keel and rounded hull.

“…one should only harvest timber when the moon is on the rise, never during its waning.”

Of course the biggest decision about a wooden boat is what type of wood it will be constructed from. Mostly fir, spruce and juniper grow in Newfoundland. And the closer to the sea the wood grows, the better for boat building because of the strong fibers — an important quality when it comes time to shave the planks. Balsam fir is easier going than knottier spruce, but rots faster. More recently, insects have ravaged the province’s fir population, making spruce more prevalent.

Master builder Jack Casey teaches that one should only harvest timber when the moon is on the rise, never during its waning. Born in the village of Conche back in 1922, Jack started harvesting lumber for boats with his father at age seven. Turns out his advice has scientific backing; just as it affects tides, the moon’s pull determines the rise and fall of sap in a tree. During fall and winter sap is lower and makes for better timber. So they would leave the felled trees out over the winter to harden, then bring them in once spring arrived.

Many builders used pre-made molds to measure and cut the timber, passing them down through generations. The mold Jack uses was brought over by his grandfather, Michael Casey, when he arrived in Conche from Europe in 1860. To keep water out, cotton string was hammered into the gaps between planks. These days, the strings of a traditional mop can seal an entire small craft.

What was once essential has become purely recreational. Anyone building wooden boats in Newfoundland now does it for fun, not because they plan to haul nets. The fact that anyone in the area still makes wooden boats is due largely to the museum in Winterton.

Aside from its in-depth exhibits, the museum preserves the history of boat building in a more hands-on way through its workshops. Led by builder Jerome Canning, they offer various levels ranging from afternoon sessions focusing on one aspect of the craft, to weeklong classes where students build a 14-foot Fogo Island punt or 16-foot Grand Banks dory. Recently they launched a junior program where kids aged seven to 12 can assemble a boat from pre-made parts.

Common Marine Knots

1. Reef - Easily released sailing knot that binds two ends of the same line. 2. Half Hitch - Useful for fastening a mooring line when doubled and combined with a round turn. 3. Jury Mast - Emergency knot traditionally used when rigging a damaged mast.
1. Reef - Easily released sailing knot that binds two ends of the same line. 2. Half Hitch - Useful for fastening a mooring line when doubled and combined with a round turn. 3. Jury Mast - Emergency knot traditionally used when rigging a damaged mast.
4. Cow Hitch - Lanyard style knot used to tie a line to a boom or mast. 5. Bowline - Multi-purpose loop knot that does not slip, jam or fail. 6. Figure Eight - Stopper knot that prevents a line from pulling through a sailing block or fairlead.
4. Cow Hitch - Lanyard style knot used to tie a line to a boom or mast. 5. Bowline - Multi-purpose loop knot that does not slip, jam or fail. 6. Figure Eight - Stopper knot that prevents a line from pulling through a sailing block or fairlead.
7. Sheepshank - Shortens a length of rope or reduces strain on a worn area of rope. 8. Heaving Line - Adds weight to the end of a rope that needs to be thrown. 9. Spanish Bowline - Double splayed loop knot used as an emergency lift for downed sailors.
7. Sheepshank - Shortens a length of rope or reduces strain on a worn area of rope. 8. Heaving Line - Adds weight to the end of a rope that needs to be thrown. 9. Spanish Bowline - Double splayed loop knot used as an emergency lift for downed sailors.

“…the only sure way to know where the current leads is to look back and see where it’s taken us.”

According to Jerome, the museum exists to answer a simple question: “How do you know where you’re going in the future if you don’t beckon back to what was first here?” Early settlers endured gruelling hardship to lay the foundation for Newfoundlanders today. Jerome believes it is critical for those who live here, especially younger generations, to know their history and learn their heritage. “Look aft and learn” is the museum’s motto, because the only sure way to know where the current leads is to look back and see where it’s taken us.

Written by Grady Mitchell
Photographed by Stephen Wilde
Marine knot prints by Jenny Shipper and Corey Mah

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