Three weeks before the Christmas eve storm surge devastated the small fishing village of St. Lunaire, The Northern Pen stopped by to visit Ambrose Pilgrim who was nearing completion of a timber vessel. During the catastrophic events of Dec. 24, the rodney he’d spent months building was destroyed. In a twist of fate, the boat had been salvaged from inside the shed just seconds before the wave hit, but the force of the surge lifted the shed and pushed it back 15 feet onto the boat, completely destroying it. This is the story of how the boat came to be.
St. Lunaire — Ambrose Pilgrim steps lightly, running a gnarled hand along the gunnels, stopping every now and again to talk.
The raw white spruce is still naked. There’s no paint, just smooth timber, in some parts sanded to an almost polished perfection.
Outside his father’s stage down on Pilgrim Point at St. Lunaire, it’s cold. An inshore breeze buffets the wood structure but inside the timber planks are warm.
They are drying and shrinking, leaving gaps, just like they’re meant to.
Someday soon, when the drying is complete, Ambrose will continue with the project he started in early October.
But for now he has to wait.
“I don’t know where it came from,” Pilgrim starts, “I just knew the shape I wanted and I built it.”
There were no diagrams or schematics; just a thought, a concept in his head.
“I think it comes from our roots as Newfoundlanders,” he continues. “We are resourceful. If we wanted something, you couldn’t go out and buy it, you’d go out and make it.
“I wanted a rodney to tow behind my boat, so I built it.”
There’s something special about boat builders, especially those who retain tools and skills from an age that shaped Newfoundland’s history.
Fishing was once the rich lifeblood of the province, hence the need for skilled boat builders because, as Ambrose says, most fishermen couldn’t afford to buy a boat, they simply built them.
To this day, a timber boat builder’s craftsmanship elicits a certain romantic quality.
Their past creates something for the future; their hands mould, plane, shape, sand and chisel a vessel they will not only put their own faith in but explicitly trust to keep all its occupants safe from the torment of the ocean.
It’s not just the boat builder’s life on the line when his vessel is complete and out on the water.
“The ol’ Newfoundlanders would say she’s got a nice flare in the bow,” he says as we roll the hull onto its side, gently propping it up to admire the craftsmanship.
That it does. The timber delicately flexes, turns and rolls towards the bow to give the vessel a certain sleekness.
Every handbuilt boat you see on the water has a special story. Ambrose’s 15-footer is no different.
From stem to stern it all has a story and you can bet once it’s finally complete and out on the water, there will be plenty more tales to come.
“Once she’s all dried out, we’ll do the carkin’ using oakum. Then I’ll paint her, traditional of course,” he says.
The carkin’ Ambrose talks of is caulking — a process whereby material is used to fill the gaps left when the timber shrinks.
In his case, Ambrose will use oakum, a natural fibre made from jute that is treated with bentonite, a naturally occurring mineral sometimes found in cat litter, and oil that resists water infiltration.
Once that’s done, the vessel will get a paint job.
“I’m not sure what I’ll paint the gunnels,” he says.
“Around these parts, you’ll notice that a lot of boats in Griquet have green gunnels, in Quirpon it’s red and the Raleigh crowd has blue,” he says.
“My other boat is red and white and my house is red and white. Not sure what’ll do.”
Ambrose continues to pace around the vessel, his hand never very far from the timber. He stops at the stern and points to the knee.
“That came from the last boat I built when I was living out in Ontario,” he says. “It was 16 foot, good looking boat but no one wanted it so I took it apart. But I saved this piece.”
“The stem here,” he says as we round the bow of the boat, “that came from last year’s Christmas tree. I saw it and thought, if I ever build a boat, I could use that so I kept it.”
“All the laths came from a buddy up the way. He had some spruce that he was going to use as firewood and I saw this piece, “ he points to a timber block leaning against the wall.
“I traded him a wheelbarrow of firewood for it.”
The Northern Pen