It all started with a red boat

Reprinted from Decks Awash, Volume 15, Number 6
November – December 1986
Photographs from MUN Digital Archives

(Click on photos to enlarge)

There may not be any fishermen operating out of Hatchet Cove, but there is a boatbuilding business. It may have been a gamble for Russell Bishop in 1979, but it’s paid off. What started as a three- or four-year project has now been going seven years.

“Our family built boats like everyone else, but one of the first ones became a little more famous than most,” Russell, 39, chuckles. “My grandfather had a schooner which he painted red and towed into St. John’s to sell for $65. She was around 30 ft. long, but she was rough. Once she was sanded down she looked pretty good, but there were several people here said no way would they tow a red ship through the Narrows.

“My grandfather and father used to build boats before there were engines and sounders. They didn’t have anything like the tools I’ve got, so everything was done by hand. I can remember boats that lasted for 30 years. Everyone makes their share of mistakes, even the great boatbuilders. The first boat Les Hiscock from Clarenville built he said he had to put a bag of sand on one side to keep her upright. He gave me this aluminum straight edge and it’s great for lining things up.”

Russell Bishop applying the final touches

Russell has lived all his 39 years in Hatchet Cove. He’s not really sure why he started the business in the fall of 1979.

“Boatbuilding is not a popular trade,” he readily admits, “but as far as I’m concerned it’s a good life. I’m right anxious to get into the woods, although it’s heavy work. It takes a special knack to work with wood. There are plenty of carpenters in the area, but not too many boatbuilders. We have three girls, but no boys to carry on the business. What I would like is to train a couple of young fellows because boatbuilding is something you have to learn and you have to enjoy doing it. You need to get the feel of the boat.

“I have three or four regular employees and I usually have five or six boats on the go in the winter to keep everyone on. I’m busiest in the winter from mid-October on. This was the first quiet summer, largely because the inshore fishery on this coast was so poor, but the drop in Fisheries Loan Board rates to 63/4 per cent is going to be a help to the boatbuilding industry and the fishermen. In my mind, what slowed down the boatbuilding industry was the stopping of the federal bounty, but that might be better in the long run because it will discourage fishermen from getting into bigger boats. Wood is still popular because fiberglass boats are expensive.”

The first stages of boatbuilding outdoors

Bishop’s Boatbuilding has three basic designs for 28-ft, 30-ft. and 35-ft. boats. Most are open, longliner-type boats with engines small enough for two men to operate. Russell could build larger boats if someone had the plans, but his usual building methods don’t require plans. 

“The original design is mine and it was measured up after I had the first boat built,” he informs us. “I can’t put designs on paper, although someday I may take a drafting course. The inspector is Norwegian and at first he couldn’t understand how I could work without a plan. After building 50 boats you can cut what you need on the band saw. I know the bevel on every timber and I have my own way of scaling off on the planking. I have everything jotted down on the wall, but I don’t have to scale each one. You just get used to it. Usually if I make one plank, I make one for the other side, and the same with the gunnels. That saves me a lot of time and it saves timber. The only time I have extra work is if someone needs a wider boat. 

Another boat takes shape indoors

“It takes about five weeks to complete a boat to the cabin and wiring stage. The time spent cutting wood is on top of that. Last winter we built six boats, two late in the spring, which drove me up the wall. You have to have the crooked timber and I cut all my own wood except for plywood and pine for cabins. This is a good time of year to sell a boat. Sometimes fishermen wait until January to decide to have a boat built. They should start earlier in the fall and decide the size they need. I have to go in the woods now to get boat frames, timbers and planks, and I would like to know what to cut. I like to have dry timber and dry planks to work with.” 

Russell has a sawmill, but the lumber business is up and down and he hasn’t tried selling too much himself. It seems like housing and building are picking up again, but Russell is keeping his faith in the boatbuilding business. 

“It looks like it’s going to be a good winter, but you never know for sure,” he admits. “I’m hoping the permits come through for the boats on order. I can’t start on a boat until the permit comes through, but I can go in and cut my timber. My designs are now listed as factory-built boats, and I can advertise them. That took a bit of time to get used to, but I can appreciate the policy. You don’t want too many back-yard builders. 

“A good many guys still go in the woods, but it’s long hours for the money you get out of it. But that’s like the boatbuilding business. If you had to work out what you make on 8-hour days, I don’t think you’d stay at it very long. I’m working 12-15 hours every day except Sunday. Considering the expenses, that’s bringing in less than a dollar an hour. The building cost me $23,000 but it’s almost paid off. Soon I’m going to need to buy new tools, including a band saw. You can’t spend $2,000 until you know you’ve got the work to justify it.” 

Craftsmen take a special pride in their work, and Russell is no exception. 

“I usually know what the individual fisherman wants,” he says. “I like to get my planking nice and even because people like clean lines on a boat. I prefer to have a boat here all the time so that a potential buyer can see what it looks like. I sold four at one time to fishermen from Grates Cove because they had an idea of what I built. I started advertising for the first time this year and I’ve sold three boats through it so far. Most of my sales are to Grand Bank, Burin and Fortune and I’m reaching into Hermitage.” 

If the inshore fishery survives whatever the offshore fishery is doing outside, Russell has faith that small-boat building will be good. 

“It’ll be a rough day my 30-footer can’t catch fish,” he says, “and I don’t want to have to give up boatbuilding for something else.”

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Transcribed by Wanda Garrett, January 2019

These transcriptions may contain human errors. As always, confirm these as you would any other source material.