On a cold winter’s day in Wild Cove, Lewis Roberts is outside working on his latest boat. He’s a fisherman and a boat builder, the third generation of his family to build the boats essential to the local fishery. He’s built all manner of boats, from punts all the way up to schooners. This boat, although he may not have realized it at the time, would be one of the last he’d build. It’s a passenger boat, made entirely of wood, 60 feet long. He’s building it in his yard, taking occasional breaks from building to shovel off the accumulating snowfall of an early 1940s Newfoundland winter.
Each year, says his great-grandson Tony Roberts, Lewis would begin a boat on the first of January. To get the larger boats from the build site to the water when they were ready to launch, he would make a slip. It was a fair distance to the water, so there would end up being more wood in the slip than in the boat.
Local boys, including Tony’s father, would climb aboard the boat on launch day. They would hold on as the boat slowly started on its dry land voyage to the sea, picking up speed as it went through the neighbour’s potato patch and over vegetable gardens, across the road that is now a main street, faster still across the beach until, with a large splash, it came to a bobbing halt in the sea. It was, says Tony, Twillingate’s first rollercoaster.
Tony’s grandfather was also a boat builder, but his dad wasn’t and neither was Tony. Though he wanted to build a boat for as long as he can remember, Tony trained as a carpenter instead, building houses, furniture and, most recently, working at Muskrat Falls. But the desire to build a boat never left him.
“Ever since I was a boy watching my grandfather, I always wanted to build a boat. Always. And I actually learned, when I was a teen, how to build models of schooners,” he says.
Then one day he got a call asking if he’d be interested in being the resident boat builder for a Twillingate boat museum. Three years later, Tony is telling stories of boats and builders to Downhome, having just finished a day in the workshop, splitting his time between building a row punt and talking with tourists about building boats at The Isles Wooden Boat Builders Museum and Workshop.
This season, Tony is building a punt based on one that, by the time his great-grandfather was building that passenger boat, would have already been at least 30 years old. The punt was built from a half model that Titus Manuel, who died in 1915, made some 130 years ago. There hasn’t been a boat made from that model in about 100 years, says Tony.
“I’m actually building it again to see what that boat would be like in full size,” he says.
Like Titus, Tony is building from the half model, as opposed to starting from a paper plan or blueprint. And, like Titus would have, Tony is using wood from trees selected for their natural bend. Today, there are several ways to create a bent piece of wood, including laminating several pieces in a mold or steam bending a piece to shape. But for hundreds of years in Twillingate, building a boat began with a walk in the woods, looking for trees with just the right natural bend to make a stem or ribs or knees. Tony is spared the foray into the forest, though, as he’s using lumber collected by old-timer boat builders who gave it to Tony and the museum for use in boat building.
This is, undoubtedly, the most difficult way to build a boat - shopping at the local lumber store is a far easier way to gather materials - but for Tony, and the museum’s board, this is about more than just building a boat. It’s about preserving a craft.
“We realized, as a museum, that the traditional way, like a lot of things, is dying out,” he says. “Ever since ’92, when the cod moratorium happened, most commercial fishermen have transitioned from a wooden boat into a fiberglass boat. So the knowledge and understanding of building a boat, there’s very little of it left in the community.”
Those who do still have that knowledge are getting on in years - the youngest master boat builder in the Twillingate area is 80 years old - and there’s a risk that once these folks are gone, no one will be left who knows how to build a boat the old way.
“I can set up a steam box; I can steam all my timbers and ribs in my boat,” says Tony, “but the uniqueness of doing it the traditional
way that’s been done for hundreds of years is what we’re trying to capture and keep going, and not let it pass away when these gentlemen are gone.”
Boat building these days is largely an old-timer’s pursuit - Tony, at 53, is considered a younger boat builder - but those who appreciate wooden boats are all ages and come from everywhere. There is a global appeal to the small craft of Newfoundland outports, as seen by the popularity of the museum in Twillingate. Now in its third year of operation, midway through the season they had already surpassed last year’s visitor numbers, and if this pace keeps up, the museum will have seen some 9,000 people pass through its doors this season, with visitors from around the world. Granted, many are visiting the museum because they’re in the area for other reasons, like icebergs and whales, but regardless of the reason for their visit, each person that becomes interested in wooden boats is one more person who, potentially, may buy or use a wooden boat. That part - the using of the boats - is vitally important “because that’s the only way you’re going to keep this tradition alive,” says Tony.
What that boat looks like will depend largely on where it was built. Take, for instance, the punt, or rodney. This small boat was used, back in the day, to get around the harbour or to go do a bit of fishing, or it was sometimes brought along as a tender for a larger boat. Each outport had folks who knew how to build a boat, and each harbour built their boats slightly different. The Winterton punt is different from the Fogo Island punt, which in turn is different from the Twillingate punt.
Likely, the punt design came from England, and more specifically the West Country, and was brought over here by fishermen back in the 1700s. Like the boat builders of today, the craftsmen of yesteryear would have, after using their boat in local waters, noted ways it could be improved
and then incorporate those changes into the next boat. This incremental, iterative approach to boatbuilding led similar boats to have regional distinctions.
Last year, Tony built a punt designed by Frank Lane of Fogo Island. Frank recently passed away, and his punts are regarded as fine examples of the Fogo Island style. Compared with the boat Tony is building this year - the one based on the century-old half model of Twillingate’s Titus Manuel - there are several discernible differences.
“The one I’m building now, they say she’s a Twillingate punt,” explains Tony. “She’s a little higher on the gunnel rails compared to the one I built last year. The one last year would be more stable because she’s wider, but she would be a slower boat. This boat, where she’s narrow, would be a nice fast boat.”
Each builder makes a slightly different boat, and while some aspects can be attributed to the personal tastes of the builder, other differences - ones that affect handling and stability - can be attributed to the local conditions.
“I think it’s just an understanding of the water around you,” says Tony. And that understanding of local seas explains why you won’t see a dory in the waters off Twillingate. Those flat bottom boats once used in the Grand Banks schooner fishery sit high in the water. In choppy waters like that of Twillingate, they tend to be a bit cranky, or unstable, says Tony.
Look carefully and you’ll still see small wooden boats around Twillingate. Some of them have been glassed over (i.e. coated in a layer of epoxy and fiberglass), while only a layer of paint protects others.
Tony estimates there are about 15 boats of various shapes and sizes around Twillingate. And there are still people, like Roy Jenkins, building boats in the area. It’s not many, but it’s more than none, says Tony, and there are definitely more than there were several years ago when it looked like wooden boats might follow the cod into oblivion.
“There’s not many wooden boats around Twillingate, but it’s starting, you’ll see more and more of them now,” he says.
In his work, Tony preserves the traditional skills of building boats the way they did it in Victorian times through his builds, while also looking toward the future and encouraging the next generation to get interested in building these fine craft. His shop apprentice at the museum is a young feller, about 20 years old, and Tony is working on going into area schools to share his boat building knowledge. Maybe some of those students will pick up the craft even if, like Tony, it is years down the road after a lifetime of interest in wooden boats.
The Isles Wooden Boat Builders Museum is open through September. Learn more about it online at Isleswoodenboatbuilders.com. To follow along with Tony’s boat building, and for news on wooden boats in Twillingate, head to the Facebook group Twillingate Wooden Boat Discussion Group.