Old fishermen, in these times of glass and metal boats, love to go on about the fine wooden boats on which we spent our youth. Each year a few more are converted to pleasure boats or found neglected and sunken at the dock. When that happens, a plea goes out to the maritime museum to intervene and rescue the derelict.
In my marine career I worked on five wooden boats over a 15-year period. Two were fine-hulled purse seiners built in the 1920s by Japanese-Canadian builders. The other three were coastal freighters. One was built as a 78-foot sealing schooner at the end of the nineteenth century. She had been given a diesel engine and an aft house to make way for a sizable hold forward.
Another was a surplus US-built World War II 100-foot naval craft. The third was a 120-foot double ender built on the east coast for the Hudson Bay Company and massively timbered with a shallow draught designed to lift when she froze in during an Arctic winter.
I enjoyed working on each of these boats and some of them carried me through some tough weather and made a decent living for me. All but, perhaps, one of them, are gone now, sunk or burned, but every time I see one of their class, I long for it to be preserved. This is especially true of the two 1920s purse seiners. In British Columbia there are still a few survivors of the vintage and other fine wood fish boats built, in declining numbers, right up in to the 1970s.
These days, when possible, I track down local maritime museums on my travels that take me to many fishy parts of the world. In Oslo the museum is like a university campus. When I visited years ago, they had everything from the Kon-Tiki raft to a display of variations on rowboats from coastal villages.
They even had a section of a larger boat cut to show the aft cabin and engine room. More recently I visited a fishing museum at Afurada in Portugal that had been designed by fishermen and had a great selection of fully rigged models and actual small boats from the local fleet.
Models of larger boats make good economic sense for museums. The primary reason for owners to neglect larger wooden boats is the shear cost of their maintenance. In British Columbia, the Britannia Heritage Shipyard at Steveston near the mouth of the Fraser River has had some success in preserving both the boats and the skills of maintaining them.
Several years ago someone donated a nice 32-foot Fraser River salmon gillnetter, the Silver Ann. It was in tough shape but well represented a whole class of boats that once numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands, along the coast. The boat was hauled into a building that was once a Japanese-Canadian builder’s base. Nearby a larger shipyard that had belonged to a processing company and other net lofts and fishermen’s houses made for a campus-style museum site.
The launch of the restored Silver Ann was greeted with joy by the wooden boat aficionados but it also brought a new challenge. Owners of tired wood boats wanted to donate their “special” craft to the heritage shipyard in hopes of getting the same treatment. If a wood boat has survived 50 years it is special and if it has survived over 75 years it is exemplary. But a museum must be strict in its criteria for accepting donations of old wooden boats.
British Columbia has a number of boats that served as rumrunners during the US alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. There are some fine old massively built wooden tugs and other noteworthy vessels. However a commercial fishing maritime museum has to stick to its purpose and its budget. Having a bunch of derelicts drying out and coming apart in the grounds does not serve the museum or its public well.
I do hope that, over time, the museum will be able to add one of the west coast’s classic wooden salmon trollers and an early seine boat. The first of these would be 40-odd feet and the second should be 50-plus feet. Each of these two projects would take some cash to restore the boat or to maintain it. Another requirement is a set of dedicated volunteers, at least some of whom would have the required knowledge.
I’m afraid that I offer neither of these attributes, but I, like too many others, am never short of ideas. About 25 years ago, one of our coasts finest 72-foot double-decker seine boats, the Waldero, was hit broadside in the fish hold by a freighter. The steel bow of the freighter tore through the wooden hull right to and past the keel. Her watertight forward bulkhead and the hold’s foam insulation kept her afloat. But she was declared a total loss.
The 1950-built Waldero was clearly bound for scrapping in spite of her perfect condition from the mast forward. Realizing that most visitors onboard a fishing vessel moored at a dock typically want to see where the crew eat, sleep and steer the boat, I had an idea.
Rushing to a friend who worked with the Britannia Heritage Shipyard, I said, “You need to get permission to have someone take a chain saw and cut the deck all the way around the deckhouse. Then get a cement foundation built on which to install what could be come a great marine display for a fraction of the maintenance cost of keeping a boat floating alongside.”
Warming to my subject, I proposed life-sized models of the boat’s designer Robert Allan, builder Bensons and owner Walter Carr. Visitors could come through the galley door from on deck and this would trigger the audio of the three men talking about designing, building and fishing the boat. The visitor could then go forward to see the bunkrooms and up to see the wheelhouse.
More importantly than money, such ideas require volunteer commitment, which I was not prepared to offer. In the end the boat was trashed but the idea remains. As more and more aging boats are hauled and backhoed into a dumpster I continue to hope that someone with more energy than me will pick it up and run with it. Are you the one? Let me know.
Alan Roderick Haig-Brown is a Canadian novelist and non-fiction writer. He specialises in commercial marine and commercial fishing writing and photography. He is a regular contributor to a number of marine publications.