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The Wooden Boat Museum: Building the Spirit of Newfoundland.

26 Mar 2013 by Alyssa Free in Culture , History and Cultural Experiences
Region: Eastern

From the time the first colonists settled in Cupers’ Cove (now Cupids) in 1610, Newfoundland culture, heritage, and survival has revolved around the North Atlantic and its bounty. Spending time at The Wooden Boat Museum in Winterton gave me an idea of what life was like in the outport communities back when people relied on the land and sea to survive.

The Wooden Boat Museum in Winterton

I started the day by wandering around the museum looking at the different types of wooden boats. From kayaks – one of the oldest crafts built by the Thule people – to punts and dories – the iconic Newfoundland fishing boats – there were boats around every corner. The museum, and the friendly folks who run it, opened my eyes and gave me a serious education on a topic I knew literally nothing about. Howard Cooper, museum researcher, and nicest man alive, gave me a personalized tour of the museum and helped me comprehend the hard work, time, sweat and tears that go into wooden boat building. By using insightful displays and artifacts, he showed me, from tree trunk to paint job, how truly labour intensive the process is, and how boats differ depending on community. “Every boat style has significance to the community where it was built,” Howard tells me. “From the colour, hull style, side and keel, to stem construction designed to handle different sea conditions, you can tell the characteristics that belong to each builder and community.”

Inside the Wooden Boat Museum 

Today wooden boats are made mostly for pleasure. But not too many years ago they sustained entire communities by allowing people to use the natural resources from the forest to build a personalized fishing vessel. The rewards reaped from the sea not only fed families, but provided an economic income for the entire community. 

Displays at the museum  

After I browsed the displays, read the informational plaques and asked Howard a million questions, I headed out to the workshop in the back to look at some wooden boats in construction and speak with expert boat builder Jerome Canning. Jerome is the guru of wooden boat building history and construction in Newfoundland and Labrador. Just standing in his presence I could feel his passion for the art form. We chatted about the personal connection a builder has with his boat because it’s so physically demanding. From chopping down the wood in the forest, to sawing, shaving and bending it to the right shape – the entire process becomes an extension of the builder. That said, no two boats are alike, which means every wooden boat is as unique as the person who made it.

Jerome works on his latest boat

What I found truly fascinating about our chat was that nothing about boat building was ever written down. It was a craft passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth and from learning by observing. The expression Jerome used was: “learn on the father’s knee”, meaning children in the community grew up learning to build wooden boats from the time they were toddlers and had perfected the craft by seeing and then doing. 

The Winterton community wharf

Now that I had a thorough lesson in history and function, it was time to walk down to the community wharf and see a boat in action. The view was utterly iconic, as fishing stores perched on stages, surrounded by wooden boats tied to the docks. I watched from a distance as a man in rubber boots loaded up his wooden boat, untied it from the dock, and sped off towards the narrows of the harbour.

A wooden boat in action 

 It gives me hope to see passionate people like Jerome and Howard passing on their knowledge. That’s why places like the Wooden Boat Museum are so important, as are the boat building workshops they provide. They help showcase how the province’s traditional wooden boats reflect the historical growth, spirit and culture of coastal communities in Newfoundland and Labrador, and why it’s so important to keep this art form alive and well – and written down.

Learn more about Jerome and the tradition of boat building in Newfoundland and Labrador in this informative vignette.