Herschel Supply Co.

I wrote three very un-backpack related pieces for the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Herschel's publication The Journal: the issue introduction, a sensory essay exploring the idea of light and dark, and a story on traditional wooden boat building in Newfoundland and Labrador. If you want to know about wooden boat building - and who doesn't - read the Newfoundland story in its entirety below. 


Traditional Wooden Boatbuilding in Newfoundland

Newfoundland and Labrador was built in back sheds and workshops rich with the scent of sawdust and floored with a thick layer of shavings. That's where boat builders worked their craft. When you think about what those early settlers did every day, casting out into a capricious sea in a vulnerable craft built entirely by their own hands 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. 

"Wooden boat building is integral to Newfoundland," says Jeremy Harnum, manager of the Wooden Boat Museum in Winterton, about 150 kilometres outside St. John's. Fishermen used the boats to gather the fish that built the region's economic backbone. "It's probably the most fundamental part of our heritage," Jeremy says. "It's the reason we were able to provide for our families for three hundred years."

The earliest settlers brought the techniques of master shipwrights in the UK. Over successive generations those core concepts were honed to the preferences of each builder, until almost every village had a distinct variation of their preferred boat. 

Although every builder had quirks, the boats were based around a few standard models. The dory, one of the most basic, is a flat-bottomed, double-ended hull around 16-20 feet long. Much larger sail-propelled boats called schooners carried fishermen out into the Grand Banks, an area of submerged plateaus off the east coast 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'd find punts and rodneys, which are nearly identical, so much so 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 work boats with a keel and rounded hull. 

Of course the biggest decision about a wooden boat, no matter what kind you're making, is what type of wood you'll use. The province grew mostly fir, spruce and juniper. The closer to the sea the wood grew, the better for boat building; stronger fibre, less brittle, an important quality when it came 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 July 2, 1922 in the village of Conche, Jack started harvesting lumber for boats with his father at age seven. Turns out his advice has scientific backing: just as it does on tides, the moon's pull determines the rise and fall of sap in a tree. In fall and winter the sap is lower and makes for better timber. They'd leave the felled trees out over the winter to harden, then bring them out in spring.

Many builders used pre-made moulds to measure and cut the timber, passing them down through generations. The mould Jack Casey uses was brought over by his grandfather, Michael Casey, when he arrived in Conche from Europe in 1860. Cotton string, hammered into the gaps between planks, acts as a sealant to keep out water. These days, lacking high-quality cotton string, a mop can substitute (one mop usually seals a whole boat). 

What was once essential has today 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 still makes wooden boats in Newfoundland at all is due largely to the Wooden Boat 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. Lead by builder Jerome Canning, they offer various levels ranging from afternoon sessions focusing on one aspect of the craft to week-long 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 7 to 12 can assemble a boat from pre-made parts. 

The museum, Jeremy says, 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. Jeremy believes it's critical for those who live here, especially younger generations, to know their history, to 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.