Wooden traditions

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Culture/transportation Nuances of boat building to be captured on film

Across the bay and around the province, traditional wooden boats have fallen out of fashion.

Melvin Green is hoping to change that. He's a director on the board of the Winterton Heritage Advisory Board, operator of the only wooden boat-building museum in the province.

The museum has long preserved the knowledge of Winterton boat bulding, but Green says the wooden boat heritage goes farther than that.

Henry Vokey - Packet file photo

Across the bay and around the province, traditional wooden boats have fallen out of fashion.

Melvin Green is hoping to change that. He's a director on the board of the Winterton Heritage Advisory Board, operator of the only wooden boat-building museum in the province.

The museum has long preserved the knowledge of Winterton boat bulding, but Green says the wooden boat heritage goes farther than that.

"Really it's a provincial story - the building of wooden boats," he says.

And so, the Wooden Boat Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador was formed.

You can't learn how to build a boat from a book. The lines and curves of a seaworthy ship are crafted only in the builder's eye. Rough lumber is transformed to ocean-going crafts only under the gentle touch of the master builder.

At the inaugural Wooden Boat Builder's conference last month, the newly formed provincial association agreed to preserve the greater tradition of wooden boat craftsmanship.

They'll start by documenting the life and boat-building times of Henry Vokey.

Vokey is a long-standing craftsman of Trinity. Originally from Little Harbour, Trinity Bay, Vokey resettled to Trinity in the 1960s. That's when he took up boat building in earnest. Vokey learned by trial and error, and built his business from a one-man shop to a shipyard employing 40 people.

He was named to the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador last December. In November, the provincial wooden boat association presented him with a lifetime membership.

Vokey has made hundreds of vessels over the years.

"We started to talk to him about the idea of doing the documentation on the next boat he's going to build, from cutting the timber to when the boat is finished," says Green.

He met with Vokey, and son Wayne, about filming the project every step of the way. Then there was the matter of which type of boat to build - a Rodney? A skiff? A punt or a schooner?

Green says they decided to go for broke.

"We've been talking about a schooner," he says. "We may as well do a traditional schooner, which is a great opportunity for documentation, because you're not going to see that anymore."

The last two-masted schooner to come out of Newfoundland and Labrador was the J and B, built by Vokey in the early 1980s.

Of course, a step-by-step documentary film of a schooner is quite an undertaking. The association is looking for funding to secure the project. They will partner with the Trinity Heritage Society and the Vokey family to ensure the techniques of crafting a sailing ship are carefully preserved.

Jim Miller is certain the building of a schooner in Trinity will draw visitors to the area.

Just this past summer, the mayor noted, 80-year-old Boyd Coleridge constructed a small punt in the garden behind his son's heritage woodworking shop, and tourists would stop to watch him work.

"There used to be groups of people standing around, watching him, fascinated," Miller says, adding that if people are interested in seeing a small boat built, they will likely be thrilled to witness the building of a schooner.

Green's own passion for the craft stems from his father, who was a traditional boat builder.

"There's not many left," Green says of boat builders in the province. "We have to hang on to the skills, because the skills are being lost. Every year, you're losing so many ... and they are not all building now, either."

Green estimates there are about 160 boat builders in Newfoundland and Labrador. Retired now, he's had his hands on four small boats at the Winterton museum.

"I was so busy getting an education and having a career that it wasn't until I retired that I realized I hadn't learned the skill.

"Who knows what a boat builder is? In our terms, it's someone who built a traditional boat."

But even more important than the boats are the skills themselves.

Small wooden boats were used for fishing, sealing and hunting turr. Green says new wooden boats are still in demand.

"Every one is selling," he says of boats built in the province.

But more than a boat for sale, the schooner will be a way to keep the tradition of wooden boat building alive when their builders slip their moorings. Green is eager to get started.

"Henry is ready and raring to go. The biggest question is, are we going to be ready with the funding?"

The Packet

Organizations: Winterton Heritage Advisory Board, Wooden Boat Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador, Trinity Heritage Society Winterton museum

Geographic location: Trinity Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, Winterton Little Harbour

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Recent comments

  • Josephine
    July 02, 2010 - 13:17

    Thank-you for this story. I am his second oldest daughter, Josephine, (4 of us girls and 9 boys). The schooner mentioned here J & B was named after the daughters, Jane, Bonnie, Bernice and myself.
    We, Henry Vokey's family, are all so proud of him, his accomplishments and his drive to build another schooner in the near future. Especially given his age (79), and his physical issues which obviously doesn't deter him one bit. Again, thank-you.

    My dad is just a quiet and private individual who isn't use to this recognition and 'fuss' as he sees it.

    sincerely,
    Josephine

  • Josephine
    July 01, 2010 - 19:58

    Thank-you for this story. I am his second oldest daughter, Josephine, (4 of us girls and 9 boys). The schooner mentioned here J & B was named after the daughters, Jane, Bonnie, Bernice and myself.
    We, Henry Vokey's family, are all so proud of him, his accomplishments and his drive to build another schooner in the near future. Especially given his age (79), and his physical issues which obviously doesn't deter him one bit. Again, thank-you.

    My dad is just a quiet and private individual who isn't use to this recognition and 'fuss' as he sees it.

    sincerely,
    Josephine