Little Wooden Boats of Newfoundland

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Mar 16, 2017 4:13 PM
Jerome Canning photo

In the April 2016 issue of Downhome, we bring you the stories behind the province’s wooden boats and the people who built, and still build, them. We saved the following two tales just for the web. 

The Gunning Punt
Image title
Jerome Canning photo


It’s March, sometime in the 1950s on Horse Islands. The hungry month, they call it. Llewellyn Curtis has been preparing for it. It’s been on his mind all winter, as he whittled down the frames of the gunning punt he was building, getting them thinner and thinner, until they were as light as they could be without failing.

He sucked in the sides, pulling the small punt’s gunwales closer together. He knew he was pushing the limits of how thin this boat could get. But look at a herring - thin and quick. That’s what this boat would be.

It was a cranky boat, rowed out of the harbour by a hungry man; handled by an unskilled oarsman, that boat would have nothing in her but water. Llewellyn knew this. He also knew how to handle a pair of oars. Had to, really. There weren’t many motors around Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula.

This boat (pictured above) was an embodiment of necessity - it had to be fast to retrieve the birds and seals he was about to shoot. Too slow, and he would return empty handed to his family, hungrier. And he had to be the one to build it, because in these parts, if you wanted something, you made it. But it proved its worth, this boat. He got his seals and his birds. And, like he figured it would, the boat calmed down with a seal in the bottom for ballast.

It was a good boat, worth keeping. A boat his grandson would have - some 60 or 70 years later - hanging in the rafters of his stage, to be spotted by a folklorist on a hunt of her own, accompanied by a boat builder who would one day retell this story of the cranky beauty from Horse Islands.

Musical Inspiration
There’s an old traditional Newfoundland folk song, "Squid Jigging Ground," written by Arthur Scammell of Change Islands in 1928. He names Bobby Watton and his brother Nobby in the song, along with other squid jigging fishermen from Change Islands. In the summer of 2016, Crystal Brae, a folklorist with the Wooden Boat Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador, was in Change Islands, searching for wooden boats to document. She was staying in an AirBnB, where her hosts pointed out the old store shed that once belonged to Bobby. Later that day, she spotted an old boat up against a shed and began asking around, looking to see who owned it.

It was in rough shape, but Crystal could see that it had the lines of a row punt that had been modified to accept an outboard motor. To her experienced eye, this boat was old enough to have been used during the transition from row to motor power.

The current owner told her it was once Bobby Watton’s, followed by “You want it? Take it.”

Her small car wouldn’t fit a boat, and she declined. But her hosts took the fellow up on his offer, and Bobby’s boat, possibly even the boat he was in that day Arthur surveyed the scene, recording it in song, is now back in Bobby’s store, likely the spot it was built more than 70 years ago, says Crystal.

Find more stories about traditional boats and their builders in "Dories & Stories" in the April 2016 issue of Downhome. 

- By Tobias Romaniuk