Today very few people know how to build a wooden boat. What was once a common skillset throughout Newfoundland and Labrador has become an afterthought. The tradition survived by being passed down from generation to generation, but is now at risk of being completely forgotten. However, there’s more at stake than just another lost art. Once vital skills are gone, a part of our culture and history is lost as well. Mark Wareham, faculty member at the Marine Institute of Memorial University, works closely with the Wooden Boat Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador in the preservation of the art of wooden boat-building and the great historical significance it carries.
Mark is on the board of directors for the Wooden Boat Museum, located in Winterton, N.L. The museum archives, conserves, exhibits and transmits Newfoundland and Labrador’s wooden boat history and its contribution to the province’s economy and way of life. Mark explains that before this museum began its efforts, most of our province’s wooden boat-building skills and techniques had never been documented. Instead, the training had been handed down from teacher to student by way of demonstration or oral tradition. Today most of this artistry resides primarily with a few elderly craftsmen remaining in rural communities throughout the province. Memorial University recognizes the pressing need to document and preserve these wooden boat-building techniques before they pass away along with the generations who developed them.
According to the Wooden Boat Museum, a number of factors led to the decline of wooden boat building in Newfoundland and Labrador. Fishing efforts, once concentrated inshore, moved further offshore, requiring newer boats capable of holding larger loads and navigating deeper waters. At the same time, the industry experienced an influx of fibreglass hulls. Then, in 1992, the fisheries moratorium came into effect with the collapse of the Northern Cod stocks, nearly eliminating the need for small wooden fishing boats. The change forced many young people to leave the province in search of work. Without a younger generation to learn, the tradition was doomed to be lost along with the senior craftsmen who had mastered the skill.
Wooden boats played a major role in the development of Newfoundland and Labrador. They equipped the province’s forefathers to thrive in a variety of harsh marine and coastal environments while helping to establish the cultural landscape present today. As custodians of Newfoundland and Labrador’s culture and heritage, Memorial University has made it a high priority to ensure the specialized knowledge is preserved for generations to come. Mark notes that in some ways, the preservation effort started with one particular Memorial alumnus’ research. Dr. David Taylor completed his master’s degree at Memorial in 1978. Inspired by his research and thesis titled Boat Building in Winterton, the community realized wooden boat-building skills and techniques were in danger of disappearing, not only in Winterton, but also throughout the province. Since the Wooden Boat Museum opened in Winterton in 1997, many representatives of Memorial and it's Marine Institute, among others, have proudly volunteered their time with the museum.
Jennifer Green-Sheppard, her husband Mark Sheppard, the mayor of Winterton, and their mutual friend Steven Duffett, are all Memorial bachelor of commerce alumni and current volunteers at the Wooden Boat Museum. Jennifer is also the vice-president of marketing for her family seafood business, which has been operating in Winterton for over a century. She says the work the Wooden Boat Museum is doing is crucial to preserving the province’s history and giving future generations a humble but integral glimpse at Newfoundland and Labrador’s cultural past.
“The Wooden Boat Museum, and the history of wooden boat building, says a lot about Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. Fishermen, who had to work extremely hard to eke out a living from the water, actually got as resourceful as to build the boats themselves in order to get the fish and the money they needed to survive. I think that strongly speaks for Newfoundland and Labrador’s culture.”
Without help from the public, institutions that work to preserve cultural heritage could not exist. They require many volunteers and fundraising, as well as general public support. The contribution of knowledge and resources is also critical to any provincial museum’s sustainability. Mark Wareham is a strong advocate for the Wooden Boat Museum. He understands that the techniques and information surrounding this cornerstone of our history and culture would be lost forever without it. He also recognizes the unique opportunity the museum provides students who wish to study locally developed naval architecture. Ongoing research reveals how innovative boat designs evolved organically, by way of trial and error, throughout the province’s long history of boat-building. This breadth of knowledge, once maintained through oral tradition, is carefully studied and documented to preserve the skill for future generations. Mark and the Marine Institute are currently exploring ways for the university to become more deeply involved with the Wooden Boat Museum. Strengthening these ties furthers the missions of both the university and museum, while protecting a unique part of the shared history and culture of both.
The Wooden Boat Museum is always looking for more bright and curious minds to interact with; there are many volunteer opportunities available throughout the year, each with varying levels of commitment. If you can’t volunteer or fundraise on behalf of the museum, you can still get involved in several ways. Invite friends and family to join you on a visit to the museum to learn something about your shared culture and heritage. Explore your community and talk with others about donating old wooden boats to be studied and preserved. Visit Winterton and partake in one of their many boat-building classes and workshops available for every age and ability. Whatever you choose to do, Mark says you’ll be contributing to the betterment of this province. After all, it’s only by measuring how far we’ve come that we can imagine how far we'll go.