By Nellie P. Strowbridge
Special to The Compass
PORT DE GRAVE, NL — Port de Grave visual artist Gary Kennedy had not anticipated taking time from his work to build and paint a 13-foot, 20-year-old flat that Clayton, his father, fished in during his retirement.
The old fisherman had not been well for a while. He died on a grey January day in 2006. His boat lay face down near the Hibb’s Cove (Hole) launch, shrouded in snow under a frosty blue sky, worn out like its owner. Its paddles and sculling oar had been stowed in the basement rafters of the home Clayton had built in the 1940s for Lillian Upshall, his young bride.
During Clayton’s fishing years he had drawn blueprints for boats in his basement so precise that the inspector, out from St. John’s, had been amazed. Renowned for their boat-building skills over the years, he and his brother Jim built many skiffs, longliners, punts and flats. Former Premier Frank Moores commissioned one longliner. The flat had been Clayton’s last boat. Now it appeared to have had its last ride on the ocean.
Then Gary, Clayton’s youngest son, remembered days out in his father’s boat, times fishing for cod under the gloom of a foggy morning or in the dazzling light of sunshine on blue seas and the times he skirted the dark precipice of Hibb’s Cove, slipping in and out of dullifares, taking photographs as wild birds wavered through the sky and skimmed the cove waters. “I’ll wait ’til summer, then I’ll haul her to the basement and work on her,” he promised himself.
By summer, the flat lay almost hidden by long grass, moss pushing through its cracks. The boat had “fair” rotted from rain and snow eroding it, and strong winds nudging rocks to rub against it. Some timbers were so decayed Gary could put his fingers through them. Left alone, the boat was ready to be dragged limb by limb to a fire on Bonfire Night.
Gary had refused a fishermen’s offer to buy the boat and fiberglass it. He believes that fiberglass boats are built for economic reasons. “Wooden boats,” he says, “have more to do with art and culture. Building a boat is not like building a shed. Every part is different from stem to stern. When she sits on the water wobbling up and down, it’s as if she’s alive. The waterline on a boat is like lipstick on a woman. It sets her off.”
The boat was hauled into the basement of the old homestead where Gary decided to replicate it by removing one old plank at a time, replacing it with a new one. He harvested black spruce from his own land and white spruce from the woods. He scribed each piece to match the worn out pieces, smoothing each one with a plane as carefully as his father had done. He marked out knees scrubbed clean of knots and skin, white flesh making an old boat with a unique and impressive curve to its sides into a new boat. He was careful in bending the timber to the right tension to bring the same curve without splitting the wood. The scent of newly cut wood and old oakum mingled as Gary painstakingly replaced his father’s flat piece by piece, his hands where his father’s hands had been, holding tools his father had used, sweating as his father had sweated. He gently inserted each stainless steel screw. Discarded rusty nails lay among cobwebs or in bottles in the musty basement, old timber scattered about to be used in the wood stove. The only parts of the boat not replaced were the stem and scrubber.
When the boat was finished, it was a mirror image of his father’s flat with its own name: The Dullifare (faire) meaning a passage between a cliff and a rock large enough for a small boat to pass through.
On Aug. 5 following a decade of work, the Dullifare slid off the rickety and barnacled Hibb’s Cove launch into shallow waters, buoyant like a boy taking his first dip of the year. Gary turned the sculling oar in the score and the boat’s strong limbs moved through snaky kelp and darting smelts and headed in stride out into the open mouth of the bay.
Jellyfish floated along the flat like white doilies, while sea waves blew bubbles that burst under the sculling oar. The ocean like wrinkled blue silk ironed itself out far behind the boat’s wake.
Gulls and cormorants twirled and squawked under a cloudless sky, wings spread as they waited for a meal of offal from the cod on Gary’s hook. The boat rocked gently, as if it remembered the slosh of water at its sides and the touch of the fisherman’s line as a writhing codfish was dragged over the gunnel, christening it.
An old boat had been made new again.
Clayton would have smiled his approval.
'Love your little heart
Love your little soul
Put your little boat (punt)
down in Hibb’s Hole." (Hibb’s Cove ditty)
— Nellie P. Strowbridge, an author of several books, is from Hibb's Cove, Port de Grave.