Last of the wooden boat builders

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Published on July 09, 2012

As music played, the visitors came and went aboard the newly built two-masted schooner Leah Caroline Saturday afternoon. — Photo by Ashley Fitzpatrick/The Telegram

Published on July 09, 2012

One of the few remaining wooden boat builders, Clarence Green of Winterton has not built a new boat in 10 years, but still completes the odd repair. Green built small boats — rodneys and flat bottoms — rather than large schooners.— Photo by Ashley Fitzpatrick/The Telegram

Published on July 09, 2012

One of Green’s last creations sits tied to the community wharf in Winterton Saturday. — Photo by Ashley Fitzpatrick/The Telegram

Published on July 09, 2012

A second schooner was in the process of being constructed near the Leah Caroline launch site Saturday. — Photo by Ashley Fitzpatrick/The Telegram

Published on July 10, 2012

People sheltered themselves from the rain with the schooner's hull, including builder Henry Vokey, (front centre). — Photo by Ken Simmons

Published on July 10, 2012

The Leah Caroline slips into Trinity harbour. — Photo by Ken Simmons

Published on July 10, 2012

Rain did not deter the crowd who gathered for the launch. — Photo by Ken Simmons

Published on July 10, 2012

Under her own steam, the Leah Caroline returns to the dock. — Photo by Ken Simmons

Published on July 10, 2012

Several boats were on hand to watch the launch. — Photo by Ken Simmons

Published on July 10, 2012

A few swings of the hammer knocked the braces free. — Photo by Ken Simmons

Race is on to preserve tradition, encourage next generation of craftsmen

Irish-Newfoundland music could be heard over the chatter of a dozen or so people at the launch site of 82-year-old Henry Vokey’s 44-foot long, two-masted schooner Saturday afternoon.

The wooden boat — the third wooden schooner Vokey has built — was named the Leah Caroline, after his great-great-granddaughter, Leah and late wife, Caroline.

“It’s three years since I started it,” Vokey told The Telegram.

He acknowledged the rarity of the project, saying he does not know of anyone else building wooden schooners these days. He also said he does not, at this point, see himself building any more.

A crowd of people gathered to witness the ship run from its cradle into the waters of Trinity Bay and, a couple of hours after the launch, a core contingent of family and friends remained, celebrating.

Burt Noseworthy, originally from the Wesleyville area, stopped to take in the sight of the wooden sailboat.

“One time, in my day ... I would say that the harbour, Wesleyville harbour, is maybe about close to a half a mile long. You could walk across the decks of the schooners. There was that many schooners,” he said, adding that was in the 1930s.

“There were quite a few and home-built. A lot of them were brought in from either Nova Scotia or South Coast. But way back then, there were maybe 50 or 60 schooners going on to the Labrador.”

Noseworthy came across the Leah Caroline’s launch after the rain led to the cancellation of a scheduled golf game.

“I think he’s got an excellent job done,” he said. “She looks beautiful.”

He stepped aboard, passing Glen Vokey, the boat builder’s nephew.

The younger Vokey said sails will be added this week. The plan is to sail the boat to Winterton, the home of the Wooden Boat Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador, for a special event in September.

Otherwise, she will be kept and used by the builder for a run on fine days, from time to time.

He said, like his uncle, his father had built wooden boats, but Reg Vokey passed away in 1998.

He acknowledged wooden schooners are hard to find in the province and active builders more so.

“It’s — I shouldn’t say a dying trade. It’s a dying art,” Glen Vokey said.

Asked if he would ever take on the challenge of building a schooner himself, he smiled. “There’s gonna come a day.”

The start of a second schooner could be seen in a shed near the Leah Caroline launch site.

Meanwhile, the province’s intangible cultural heritage development officer, Dale Jarvis, told The Telegram he doesn’t know of anyone in the province still building wooden schooners.

It is why, he said, he sees the Vokey launch as a potentially bittersweet event. “It might represent the end of an era.”

He referred to Vokey, a past recipient of the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador, as a guardian of the province’s intangible culture.

 “He doesn’t work from plans or drawings. He holds all of that knowledge intangibly,” Jarvis said.

With so few still alive who retain knowledge of traditional boatbuilding, there have been efforts to record and collect key information on the topic.

Jarvis said the wooden boat museum in Winterton has been central to those efforts — while simultaneously offering workshops and other practical activities to try to keep the tradition alive.

There has been some success in people taking up building the smaller boats, he said.

Even so, ask around Winterton and you will find few remaining wooden boatbuilders of any kind.

Clarence Green was pointed to as the builder of a little, wooden boat, tied to the long, near empty community wharf Saturday.

Green, found sitting on a park bench on a hill overlooking the harbour, said he moved to Winterton in the 1950s, when he was 14 and his family resettled from St. Jones Without.

It has been a decade since he last built boats — one of the last is the boat tied to the Winterton wharf.

He estimates he has built 20 small boats, but insists it is not much of a total. “Not compared to what some fellas done.”

These days, he said, the boats are used for hunting turrs, or a bit of cod fishing during the food fishery.

As for why he stopped building? “I got too old. I can’t do it no more.”

Green said he repaired a few boats over the last decade, but “most boys got fibreglass boats now, right? No wooden boats being built here now.”

On the long wharf, a couple of fishermen are readying for the caplin fishery — set to open the next morning.

Asked about boat builders, the name Billy Fisher is mentioned — Fisher apparently had built a small, wooden boat in the decade since Green’s last efforts.     

One of the fishermen, Colin Hiscock, said his father-in-law, Frank French, is the only other person he can think of to take it up. French became involved with the boatbuilding museum and decided to try his hand at the craft, Hiscock says. He started building last fall.

“He almost got it ready now to put in the water.”

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

Organizations: The Telegram, South Coast, Wooden Boat Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Winterton, Wesleyville, Trinity Bay Nova Scotia September.Otherwise Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • David
    July 09, 2012 - 17:12

    Meanwhile, rural Nova Scotia is alive with gorgeous wooden boats, craftsman boat builders, and people from all over the world who come to marvel at them.....oh, those poor Nova Scotians. They must not be as 'well off' as we!

    • Keith
      July 09, 2012 - 21:52

      I really don't understand you David, you got a problem or just an odd way to congratulate Master Boat builder Henry Vokey on his acomplishment. Well done Henry!

    • David
      July 10, 2012 - 14:14

      That's okay Keith...I don't mind not being understood by you in the least.

  • Hilda
    July 09, 2012 - 08:29

    Congratulations Mr. Vokey, may you always have fair winds while you sail your beautiful boat. It;s always sad when such beauty and tradition is being lost. Maybe his grandson will take up where his grandfather has finished.

  • Don
    July 09, 2012 - 06:41

    I wish Mr. Vokey fair sailing and hope he stays with us for a long while to enjoy his vessel.

    • bobaloonie
      July 09, 2012 - 09:51

      Congratulations Mr. Vokey. Long may your big jib draw.