Woods and waters

Make-and-break ramblings

Published on August 3, 2013
A motorboat swinging on the collar in Trinity East. — Photos by Paul Smith/Special to The Telegram

Yesterday, I launched my boat to have a go at the recreational cod fishery, or the food fishery as most folks refer to our three-week opportunity to put a few fillets in the freezer.

I’m a week late getting started. I just got home from two weeks of salmon angling in Labrador. No doubt you will read more about that adventure in coming weeks.

There is much to relate on fishing, flies and campfire culinary. Back in Spaniard’s Bay, nursing scores of fly bites, I find myself splicing rope and securing galvanized shackles to rusty grapnels.

While I was away, my long time buddy Terry Barrett and a few of his friends built a lovely little wharf right next to my house.

I live on the shore of Conception Bay in Spaniard’s Bay Harbour, adjacent to the site of the old and demolished Green Head Wharf. The government removed the remnants of the last and final edition of Green Head Wharf about 15 years ago. Although, in my view, it’s the safest place in Spaniard’s Bay to moor a boat, elected officials did not see fit to replace it. It’s a shame.

Over the decades many schooners and vessels dropped anchor and tied up in the lee of Green Head, protected by its rocky mass from seas driven by easterly gales. Now just a tiny dock for two boats, mine and Terry’s, it commemorates where ocean going ships landed cod from the coast of Labrador and set sail on voyages to Spain and Portugal. The times have changed.

It’s been a while since I’ve kept my boat in the water on a rope haul-off. I’m a bit rusty on splicing and rope work. Since Green Head Wharf was removed, I’ve been trailering my boat to the water and hauling her up again after the day’s fishing. But crack of dawn launching is a bit of a pain. It’s good to see the boat waiting anxiously on the collar as the sun peeks over Bell Island, bobbing in a gentle morning swell.

I didn’t go fishing this morning. My granddaughter was out from

St. John’s for a sleepover and I just couldn’t miss breakfast with her. I did go down on the new wharf just to look at the boats swinging in the breeze. It reminded me of days gone by.

Newfoundland has changed. No matter how many traditional tunes we write, or summer festivals we host to commemorate traditional ways, our province, our land, our way of life will never be the like it was. Books can be written on this; in fact many have, I can only say a little in the few paragraphs I have left for this week.

How many of you remember the clean, sweet lines of the old style Newfoundland trap skiff? There are so few make-and-break motorboats left. It was an object, so much more than the sum of its parts, hand hewn in musty smoky sheds, amid mounds of curled sweet-smelling plane shavings. Its conception began in autumn, when the cold northeasterly gales ended hand lining and the cod catching for another year. Nets were stored and boats pulled ashore.

Fishermen built their own boats in Newfoundland. They would go in the woods and cut crooked trees for stems and timbers, long clear spruce or fir for planking, and numerous roots for various knees and assorted joinery.

The construction of a motorboat, typically from a tiny scale model, aided by nothing but handsaw, axe, adze and jackplane, was a remarkable work of art, resourcefulness and ingenuity. I think it reflects the steadfast and enduring character of our seafaring people.

Do you recall the music of the old motorboats sputtering and coughing on their way to the cod-fishing grounds. I moved to Trinity East in the spring of 1982, when the cod fishery was still in full swing. I lived in a two-storey house next to the main wharf and a row of fishing stages.

Many fishermen had converted to diesel, but there were still a few using the old gas-powered Acadia and Atlantic single-cylinder engines. The sun would rise over the bay each morning accompanied by the rhythm of those make-and-breaks thump-thumping their way through the dawn’s mist like only a single engine marine engine can.

I suppose it’s not the actual sound that stirs the soul but the association of memories and experiences, the fish being tossed on the stage, the smell of oakum, the stench of cod liver oil rendering in the sun, the waft of pipe smoke and chatter in the air, and the wonderful aroma of the sea. I suppose it’s akin to why bikers love the deep throated roar of a V-twin, the call of the open road; only those who thread the path understand. It’s why I love the smell of canvas and gunpowder.

The inshore cod fishery is no more; the wooden planked boats and all their charms are rotted into the earth. The old engines are rusted in the land wash, seized up in decaying sheds and stages, or propped up in yards for the sake of adornment and memory. They were beautiful things, both in form and function, simple to operate and rock-solidly dependable, a trait quite essential for use on the unforgiving North Atlantic.

While I was in Labrador, I visited Red Bay and met a man named Stuart Butt. He knew more about marine engines than anyone I have ever met, although he told us he never ever had the opportunity for much in the way of formal schooling. No matter, if I was broke down at sea I know who I’d rather have with me: Stuart over a mechanical engineer any day of the week.

Calculus is of little help in such matters of wrench, fuel, gaskets and spark. Stuart has a collection of Acadia and Atlantic engines displayed in front of his lovely home in Red Bay. He was kind enough to tell us the details of the function and reputation of each one. It was most educational. Thanks, Stuart.

I’m retiring in less than two years — from the day job, that is, not writing, travelling, fishing and taking pictures. My plan is that for just a few more years an Atlantic or Acadia will stir the wee hour slumber of people in Spaniard’s Bay. God willing, I’m going to build a motorboat and install an old-style marine engine. If anyone knows of a decent engine, please let me know. I’m in the market.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay,

fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at