The Voyage of the Spiteful Lady
I came to furniture through wooden boat building - a craft I learned in St. Anthony, Newfoundland, from Ray Elliott. What follows is the story of the Spiteful Lady.
“We’ve got 12 hours in open water and we’re steaming straight into a high wind warning is what I think,” I snapped at Ray.
The old skipper looked back at Cape Anguil shrinking behind us and then forward to the calm open water of the Cabot Strait with Cape Breton still over the horizon.
“It’s not going to blow, the forecast is wrong,” he replied.
The plan had been to head for Codroy and wait on a good forecast. But when we’d rounded Cape Anguil (Newfoundland’s southern point) the sky was clear and the sea lumbered ponderously by. Ray Elliott looked at the sky while I listened to Environment Canada’s warning of 30 knot northerly winds on the marine radio.
I gave in to Ray’s wisdom but as I worked the wheel of our 26 foot homemade wooden boat to hold a compass course marked with a pencil on a chart toward land I couldn’t see, I felt need to vent and went too far, saying, “Just ‘cause they’ve got university degrees, doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
But the journey began three years earlier in Northern Newfoundland and some lessons are worth waiting for.
POGEY BOOTS AND CHAINSAWS
“I’ll help you, but you’ve got no idea what you’re getting into,” warned the 72 year old former inshore fisherman pouring my cup of tea.
Ray Elliott was speaking from experience – 50 winters ago he got behind 10 yapping dogs and went into the Northern Peninsula’s stunted forest, coming out in the spring with enough larch to build a 45 foot longliner. Over the decades to come he fished that boat with his brother along the Southern Labrador coast, returning each fall to now resettled Lock’s Cove to build longliners and trapskiffs, punts and speed boats.
Ray’s life spans the old self sufficient world of outport Newfoundland with the new. The three year discussion which followed behind chainsaw, skidoo and mill, in his shed and his home, saw him teach two young Nova Scotians as much about life as traditional wooden boat building.
But first we needed a keel.
None of us were wealthy in money or sense, but we were all flush with time.
On weekends we piled into Ray’s rusted out Chevy pickup and headed into the woods behind his ancient sawmill. Not wanting to wait for winter, when trees could be easily hauled by snowmobile, we cut each spruce, tied rope around one end and let out a holler – kicking and stumbling through the boggy undergrowth with log in tow. At the road we loaded the trees into the truck, with myself and my buddy, Mike Boiduk, sitting on the 20 foot planking logs so they didn’t fall out of the eight food pan as we carried them up the highway.
In Northern Newfoundland they cut trees to fit the hull’s ribs – meaning we also spent days stomping along stream beds and headlands, where spruce and fir grow out and up to compete for precious sunlight in slow and desperate battles. Once cut, Ray handled his chainsaw like a butcher’s knife, pruning down our prey until they were light enough to carry to the mill.
To get the single cylinder diesel that turned the 36 inch blade running on cold fall mornings, we’d light a fire under its base pan, heating up the oil before cranking the little beast to life.
“Danger, danger,” I mumbled as Ray pushed the first crooked tree down the table. Everything I’d been taught in 27 years about safety bounced around my skull. Sawdust sprayed straight into Ray’s squinting face, glasses thick as the bottoms of coke bottles, his well worn hands inches from the blade’s spinning teeth.
“You trust your hands and know what chances not to take,” explained Ray when the mill was quiet and the kettle boiled. “It’s the same as on the water. The crowd now talks about safety gear all the time, but that only makes people cocky. Experience is about not getting into trouble in the first place.”
“A plank is much like a man, it’s never perfect.”
Ray had come in the shed to find me sorting through planking spread across the floor.
We’d need all of it, but as I looked up at the Spiteful Lady’s skeleton – a timbered out hull that had consumed 10 months of evenings and weekends – I had become too demanding of the plank destined to keep the North Atlantic off our ankles.
Northern Peninsula black spruce grows from thin soil into a life of struggle. Six months of cruel winter means it grows slow and strong, each thin ring tells of another season of sun and shadow. Black knots show failed attempts to reach for light, frustrated ambitions the boat builder prunes with his blade. Red is for the beginning of rot, weakness brought on by old wounds or too many hard winters. Dark brown is usually from where the tree has twisted itself, growing hard and dry – spots of wooden flesh that will warp and chip with time.
Ray’s observation was that I couldn’t be unfair with my timber – couldn’t demand perfection from it as I wouldn’t expect unblemished characters from the souls surrounding me. He often wandered into the shed to give instructions for the night’s work, leaving with some metaphor or joke for me to ponder.
I chose a plank, marked the course of my drawknife on it in pencil and clamped it to the table. As I peeled back years of growth, I thought of the similarities between working with wood and people.
In my job as a reporter covering the lives of 63 fishing communities spread over 500 km of rock and water for the Northern Pen newspaper, I spent much of my days probing the lives of people for stories. Much like a tree, you first cut through the bark with which we shield ourselves from the world’s capricious winds, then you peel back the years, at all times watching for black knots.
The difference between planking and writing is in where you find your material.
As a writer you seek the gnarled and scarred over lumber of human experience.
When you find it, you treat it with respect and tell yourself you have brought it into the light as an exploration of how people cope with the cruelty of this world.
Once while interviewing an elderly lady about the history of Bartlett’s Harbour, she said, “My beautiful boys, they were all such good dancers.”
I asked if they were working in Alberta.
“They were lost with their boat,” she said.
After a winter in the woods and another building a longliner, her sons went down in a sudden gale off Port aux Basques during the winter cod fishery. Later I heard one was found with hands smashed and torn, having made it to shore only to be battered on the rocks.
Lost in that memory, the drawknife hooked a grain, delved below the line and spoiled my plank.
St. Anthony’s far enough north that in January it’s dark when you go to work and dark again when you go home. The only light you see is during trips for coffee to Tim Horton’s, clad in a snow suit, or on weekends when climbing the White Hills on snowmobile for a bottle of frozen beer with a buddy.
The land is white, the Straight of Belle Isle is ice choked as far as Labrador and the sky is grey (when you can peer through the blowing snow).
Depression sets in easily.
Each evening I’d head to the shed to fill the old oil drum with dry birch and deal out my frustrations on the latest phase of construction. It was our second winter and I was framing out the cabin’s interior on our 26 foot motor-sailor.
“For Christ’s sake, that’s the third time you’ve told me about sticking your tongue on something metal this winter … why do you got to be so damned stupid sometimes,” I grumbled at the good hearted teenager. He’d taken to stopping by, desperate to help but with too much energy. I cursed him constantly, but enjoyed his company.
Laying on my back in the boat’s bilge below the benches, I grabbed a handful of galvinized nails and stuck them in my mouth. The target of my curses leaned over the boat’s gunnels to find me uttering new oaths – it was minus 20 degrees despite the raging barrel fire and the nails had stuck to the inside of my mouth.
We both cracked up laughing as I peeled them painfully from my tongue.
I scrambled out of the boat and made for Ray’s house, knowing he’d relish this ironic tale of hypocrisy.
Ray was bent over the phone – it was a Sunday morning and he was trying to get heating oil delivered to a neighbouring house occupied by wayward teenagers.
“At some point,” I said to him, leaning against his door. “They’re not your responsibility.”
Ray, with his old pickup, is St. Anthony’s unpaid taxi for people without vehicles. A week before, the kids had gotten him to pick them up a skidoo from the far side of the harbour, claiming they’d bought it when in fact they were just taking it. The RCMP stopped by Ray’s house the next day – he never got in trouble, his honesty is known up and down the coast, but he was hurt by the betrayal.
“If they’re in trouble, they’re all our responsibility,” he said.
“She looks alright,” said Ray.
Bedecked in bright blue, red and white paint the Spiteful Lady was perched on a rock outcrop 100 feet above St. Anthony Harbour. We’d been two days building cribbing, chainsawing the front wall of Ray’s shed and hauling the Lady out with a clever mess of rope and block and tackle.
Amongst the few things Newfoundlanders love more than salt beef are humorous tales of mischief and misadventure. The Spiteful Lady qualified under both – throughout her construction I ran a column detailing our foolish endeavours for the 5,500 weekly readers of the Northern Pen.
“How thick’s your planking,” I was asked once by an old fisherman on a wharf 200 km south of St. Anthony. He didn’t ask my name or introduce himself.
He stroked his stubbly chin, then responded, “She’ll be heavy, if she’s too broad up forward she’ll pound.”
But she wasn’t too broad. Ray’s mind had plotted a deep, narrow and heavy craft with a gentle sweep from stem to stern. With no concrete idea how to get the Lady off her little mountain, we spent an hour wondering at what we’d created.
“Best bet for you now is to sell her,” said Ray. “She’s a good boat, but there’s no use for a boat anymore. They won’t let you net a few salmon or jig some fish when the season’s sensible – there’s no reason left to be on the water.”
For old timers in Northern Newfoundland, freedom of access to the sea’s bounty is a God given right – more important than freedom of speech. It’s a curse Ray will take to his grave and a topic I’d taken to avoiding with him – it’s his black knot.
In 1957 he convinced the older men of Lock’s Cove to form a co-op with him. They had chainsaws, mills and skills to build boats and houses. The plan was to cut their own timber, mill it and build houses or longliners for the relative nearby metropolis of St. Anthony. He was the learned one and these men who’d taught him so much put their faith, arms and boats behind his plan. To start the enterprise they loaded up their longliners and headed to Labrador as a team.
They caught one cod fish, had to go ashore and jig a rock cod to make a meal. According to the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, that year the Department of Fisheries and Oceans allowed foreign trawlers to take 250,000 tonnes (as opposed to Newfoundland’s average annual take of 50,000 tonnes). The co-op failed and soon after Lock’s Cove was resettled.
I’d spent two years learning from Ray about wood and life. Amongst the lessons was that there’s a virtue in young wood – its flesh has fewer hard spots around which a character is formed.
Pickups rounding the harbor slowed and stopped, one at a time men sidled up beside us and soon, without our help, a plan was formed to get the Spiteful Lady to the water.
We were probably hoping this would happen – whether it was tools, advice, lumber or rigging, help had always been nearby. The old skippers of St. Anthony keep a mental map of all the projects happening around the harbor, popping in to exchange a few words on the weather or the premier’s latest mischief. They grew up in harbors noisy with young voices, dog teams and caulking irons, with a constant stream of visitors the consequence of a migratory inshore fishery. In a way they’re all a bit lonely now. The Lady awakened nostalgia for what died with the cod.
So twenty odd men pushed and hauled her onto a flatbed – the operators of which never bothered to charge us. A parade of vehicles followed the Lady to the water, which she took to without incident.
The old diesel cranked to life and we headed the Lady up the harbor on her maiden voyage, ran out of fuel and got towed back.
So you’ve been planning this for trip for a while?
“No, not really.”
But you have nautical experience?
“No, not much of that either.”
Mike and I had decided to be honest before the interview with CBC Radio about our escapade – sailing our little boat from Newfoundland’s Northern tip back to the warm waters of Nova Scotia’s Northumberland Strait.
When life returned to the ground after my fourth winter, it was time for me to go. Mike, too, was due for an adventure. Ray was our secret weapon – without him we’d simply of steamed out the harbor, hung a left and crossed our fingers.
“You can travel the world, but you’ve got to take yourself with you,” Ray, now 75, responded when I told him our plan. “Well, I don’t have much else to do. I’ll miss the bakeapples, but I wouldn’t want it on my conscience that I helped build your coffin.”
It’s easier than you’d think.
Spread behind me on the engine house was a big piece of worn paper with shoals, islands and safe harbours marked – a world of opportunity and danger to the navigator. The expanse of water and sky had turned pastel, glowed blood red and faded to black. Eight miles offshore, we were steaming around St. John Bay. Our course to safety through the night was a pencil line with compass co-ordinates scribbled beside.
Hands on a brass wheel off a long rotten trapskiff and staring into a black void, it was easier than expected to put my faith in the chart.
Steaming at night your mind wanders.
I thought of how we’re trained to fly blind and take things on faith from birth. First it’s faith our parents are wise, then it’s faith our teachers teach the truth and after it’s faith that it’s all worthwhile. On the water it’s easier – chart makers are competent serious men and you know who’s at the tiller while you sleep.
“Too much time at the wharf is bad,” said Ray, emerging from the house to take the tiller. “There is a charm to the water – it’s simpler, you only have to worry about matters at hand.”
So while Ray steamed us into Port Saunders, I drifted to sleep on top of the chart.
We left Lark Harbour on another fine morning, gathering advice from local fishermen about rounding the Port au Port Peninsula. It’s a long stretch without a harbor and sure enough the wind picked up from the southwest as soon as we rounded Long Point.
“She’s a dirty boat, but she’s good for it,” mused Ray as 30 knot winds sent as much water over the Lady as under her. With 1,000 pounds of lead off Ray’s old cod traps in her bilge and nearly three feet of boat under the water, the Lady didn’t even rock, barely bothering to rise and fall with the chop coming straight at us. Over her two years of construction we built the Lady strong – planking nearly an inch thick, ribs made from two by fours held together with nine 3/8” carriage bolts and every second set of timbers with a grown knee for reinforcement. She has wide gunnels and is decked, so she split each wave coming at us without a shake or shudder as the old 42 hp Volvo gurgled away.
“Screw fiberglass,” I hollered at Mike as he worked us toward Red Island, where we spent the night swinging quietly behind two grapples.
The ‘lun’ of an island during a strong breeze of wind is a haunting place. Mike’s long day at the tiller sent him to bed, Ray directed the placing of grapples and then turned in for a well earned rest. My job was to stay on watch, keeping an eye that the grapples didn’t drag. I could hear the wind whistle around the island looming over our little craft and see the line of breakers where a shoal ran from it to the mainland, but the Lady rested in a low pressure oasis of calm.
“Have the grapples dragged?” Ray called out from the house.
“What, who, where … no, no, God no, we’re fine … perfect, yes, perfect,” I shook myself awake on top of the motor house, for all I knew we could have drifted to Quebec.
The night before Mike and I had wanted to push around Cape St. George and head for Stephenville, but Ray had overruled us – pointing out that it’s one thing to work straight into a strong blow, but another kettle of fish to have one on your stern as you round a point.
At 5:30 am I found my eyes darting between following swells that lifted, twisted and dropped the lady dipping her gunnels below the water and Cape St. George, while Mike watched the depth sounder, yelling, “25 feet … 22 feet … 18 feet … 14 feet”
I worked the old wheel, constantly trying to get the Lady farther off the shoals which extended from the Cape. Despite her mast, the Lady righted herself from each twist.
Ray stood beside me, flat calm as always in rough weather.
A year prior in a similar situation I’d asked him, “Can she handle this?”
He responded at the time, with an odd smile, “Maybe.”
I didn’t like the answer then, so I didn’t ask this time.
But we rounded the cape and spent three days enjoying the company of an old friend.
“What time should we start looking for you if you don’t check in, over,” asked the Coast Guard radio operator in Port aux Basques.
I didn’t like the sound of that question.
I looked back at Cape Anguil receding and then towards the open water before us. It was 10 am, we’d left Crabbes River at 5 am, and according to the chart we had 70 nautical miles left to go. Pushing her 7 knots I figured we should make Dingwall, Cape Breton, within 10 hours. If we were more than 14 hours and still not within radio range, it would be because something had gone very wrong.
“24 hundred hours, over,” I called into the microphone.
“Good luck, over,” she replied.
So we were off, I left the radio forecast – still calling for 30 knots to blow from the North.
“It’s not going to blow,” said Ray. “There’s no large swell to speak of, so nothing’s coming from far off, there’s no mare’s tails in the sky. And even if it does, we'll be alright.”
I went back to the chart, running my finger around St. Paul’s Island off northern Cape Breton – thinking that if we made it that far, even if the wind picked up we could get behind the island.
I went back outside and stood beside Boiduk at the wheel.
But the wind never came around, the lazy ocean swell never rose from her slumber and Ray was right again.
We made Dingwall that night. Next we steamed into the Bras D’or Lakes. After a stressful hour finding our way into Baddeck with no chart in the dark, we tied to the wharf. Mike and I heard fiddle music coming from a club and ran straight for it. The party lasted two days.
Laying on the wharf at 8 am with a rather potent headache, I was awoken by one of the yacht crowd, fresh off some ¼ million dollar fiberglass jobby.
“You came from Newfoundland in that old boat?”
I didn’t like his tone, his clean fingernails or the way the sun bounced off his forehead straight into my pounding brain.
“She’s not old and she’s got good ears, so I’d watch my tongue.”
Then Mike growled from under his sleeping bag until the man left us in peace.
We were home.