Wooden Ships and Iron Men

Churchill may not have been the first to use the words in the title above to describe the small boat fishermen of Newfoundland and Labrador, but he did make the phrase famous. Fishing remains a way of life here, and on this two-day tour we'll visit Bonavista and Grand Bank to explore 500 years of our seafaring history.

Day 1 – Where the fishery began

We start at Bonavista at the Ryan Premises National Historic Site (open mid-May to mid-October from 10am to 6pm daily), a multi-building complex that once housed a major fish trading company. Fishing is an international business, and cod fish caught near Bonavista or along the coast of Labrador were cured, packed and shipped to markets in Europe, South America and the Caribbean. The Ryan Premises exhibit covers all of Atlantic Canada, as the nature of the fishery was much the same all along Canada's east coast. The permanent exhibit is housed in the Retail Store and Fish Store and covers the inshore fishery, the seasonal fishery in Labrador, international trade, and the seal hunt.

The Salt Storehouse features an exhibit about the evolution of traditional outport furniture (an outport is any place outside St. John's, the provincial capital). The Proprietor's House is now an art gallery. The third floor of the Fish Store is a theatrical space for dramatic programs, entertainment and interpretive programs. There's also a gift shop on the site.

Not far away in the harbour is a replica of the Matthew, the ship Cabot sailed here from Bristol England in 1497.

Bonavista is still a fishing port, and has some wonderful old buildings dating mainly from the 19th century. East of the town is the Bonavista Lighthouse Provincial Historic Site, which has exhibits on the often solitary life of a lightkeeper. Back in the town, the Mockbeggar Plantation Provincial Historic Site explores the life of a 19th-century outport merchant family.

Half an hour south of Bonavista on the Discovery Trail Route 230 is Port Union, founded in the early 20th century by William Coaker, who spent most of his life trying to improve the working conditions and lives of fishermen. Until Coaker came along, fishermen were almost totally at the mercy of merchants who supplied fishing gear and food, and purchased the cured cod - all at prices set by the merchant. Coaker helped introduce a form of collective bargaining, and set up his own company to compete with the merchants. He entered politics during World War I, but was never able to bring in the reforms he thought were necessary. His house and former offices of the Fishermen's Protective Union are open in summer.

Day 2 – Tsunamis and wooden boats

Today we drive south on the Heritage Run Route 210. At Boat Harbour, the Livyers Lot museum is an example of a typical fisherman's home in the early 20th century.

Our next stop is Burin, where the Heritage Museums have an excellent display on the 1929 tsunami that devastated the town and others nearby at the start of the Depression. There are two buildings, one a heritage home with exhibits on the history and social life of the community, and the other a former bank with the tsunami exhibition and other displays.

The final stop on this tour is the Provincial Seamen's Museum at Grand Bank. Here you'll find an extensive collection of models, paintings and photos of the (mainly) wooden boats used in the fishery. Grand Bank is synonymous with the Grand Banks fishery. The Banks are a series of shallow continental shelves only 100-200 metres under water where ground fish such as cod were extremely plentiful until recent times.

There are dories and western boats and various types of sailboats that fished these waters. A typical arrangement was for a schooner or larger vessel to carry 10 or 15 dories offshore on its deck, deploying them to known good fishing spots with only one or two men aboard. Sometimes the men were left to themselves for a few hours before the larger vessel returned to pick up the fish that had been caught, resupplying the small boat men with fresh bait and other supplies. Sometimes the men were alone for a day or two, and in many, many cases were lost at sea. Many of the boats in the museum's displays carry awful memories for the families left on shore.

The town has several Queen Ann-style homes with a "widow's walk" at the top – a railed lookout from where wives could watch for their fishermen husbands returning – or not returning – from the Banks.

Day 3 – A detour to France

In summer, a passenger boat (no autos) takes visitors from Fortune, near Grand Bank, to a little bit of France only 20 km away. Most visitors go for one or two days. The islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon are an overseas department of France. The islands changed hands a number of times during the colonial era wars waged by the major European powers, and were finally ceded to France at the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763.

St. Pierre and Miquelon is every bit as French as Brittany, where the ancestors of many current residents came from. Miquelon was once two large islands that later became joined as shipwrecks piled up on sandbars between them, resulting in a narrow, connecting isthmus. Miquelon is a good place to view marine wildlife, while St. Pierre is a good place to buy French wine and perfume. Remember though, you have to clear customs on your return to Fortune and if you are American, you'll also have to clear customs on your return to the United States.