Huge wooden boat being built 'old school' on P.E.I.

It's the largest boat Neil MacKay has built in his 32 years of building wooden boats — like most lobster boats in P.E.I. waters, Catcher is 45 feet long, but is four feet wider than the typical 14 feet.

'Old school is coming back'

Wooden boats 'are a better sea boat,' says builder Neil MacKay of Murray Harbour, P.E.I. (Teresa Doyle/Facebook)

Neil MacKay is building his largest wooden boat in his 32 years of making them; like most lobster boats in P.E.I. waters, Catcher is 45 feet long, but is four feet wider than the typical 14 feet.

The 51-year-old has been building wooden boats in his shop in Murray Harbour since 1986, starting right around the time the industry moved, en mass, to fibreglass vessels. 

Why wood?

'I'm guessing it would be the biggest [wooden] one built in the last hundred years maybe,' says builder Neil MacKay. (Submitted by Spencer Norton)

"If you ever walk in a fibreglass shop you'd have that answer — it's just a deadly work environment," MacKay said. "And I'm a woodworker ... wood is my favourite thing to work with." He took a course in Nova Scotia in the '80s, he said, and started off working with local boat-builder Russell Compton. 

Catcher's owner Spencer Norton, 28, lives in nearby Alliston and designed the boat with MacKay. Norton even cut some of the wood himself, with his father-in-law.

Norton owns a fibreglass repair shop, and also fishes mackerel and tuna and offers tuna charters. He sold his fibreglass boat in order to purchase this one.

Before and after: yellow birch and rock maple cut on P.E.I. become the keel of Norton's new boat. (Submitted by Spencer Norton)

"Old school is coming back," Norton said. He'd always dreamed of building his own wooden boat, and admired MacKay's skill — many days he helps out MacKay on the construction.  

"Neil is in his early fifties, and with him being the last guy I know doing active wooden boat building — it's a trade that people are losing, it's an art," Norton said. "There's only a few people that know how to do it. I wanted to learn as much as I could from him." 

Unique design

The boat will be unique in that the hull — the part of the boat in the water — will be wood, but the gunnels (sides), cabin and floors will be fibreglass, created by Norton.

Norton, MacKay and a crew of ten others steamed and bent the oak framing— which darkened to black in the 16-hour process. (Submitted by Spencer Norton)

The idea is the boat will combine the easy maintenance of fibreglass with the comfort of a wooden hull. MacKay and Norton agree wooden boats handle better and bounce around less, especially in rough seas. 

"We put our heads to the drawing board," for the design, said Norton, and starting by carving a scaled solid wood model of the hull.

"I'm guessing it would be the biggest [wooden] one built in the last hundred years maybe," MacKay said.

P.E.I. fisherman Spencer Norton will have extra power if he needs it with this 1,000 horsepower engine. (Submitted by Spencer Norton)

"Four feet [wider] is a huge difference," he said. It's about 40 per cent more work, and it's harder work, MacKay said, with more climbing. 

He's been working on Catcher full-time since Christmas, MacKay said, and is scheduled to finish in about a month before handing it over — Norton wants the boat in the water in July.

The wood is P.E.I. juniper for the keel, oak framing from Connecticut and clear spruce planking from Nova Scotia.

Could be replicated

Although the design is new and unique, MacKay is confident it will be successful.

"There's so many other bad designs on the market that there's room for error," he said. "There's more room for error in a wooden boat than a fibreglass one." 

Norton has big plans for the design. He hopes others see his boat and want something similar. He'd like to recreate Catcher's design in fibreglass.

"If this vessel turns out correctly, I may be using it to turn it into a fibreglass version," he said, because not everybody is interested in having a wooden hull. 

Bigger may be better

Catcher will have a 1,000 horsepower engine — unusually large compared to most Island boats, and double the size of Norton's last engine. 

Wooden boats 'absorb the water so they become part of the water,' says MacKay. (Submitted by Spencer Norton)

"Bigger is where the industry is going, in my opinion," said Norton, for both engines and boats. 

Fishermen are also seeking bigger vessels for easier handling in rougher weather, and to carry bigger loads and catches, Norton said. 

MacKay's boats generally cost 25 to 40 per cent less than fibreglass ones, although he contends they actually "should cost more." They're also cheaper to repair. And he believes, there's no substitute for wood.

This photo captures the extra-large size of Catcher. (Submitted by Spencer Norton)

"They're a better boat — they're a better sea boat," he said. "It's a difficult thing to explain but ... they don't lurch. They absorb the water so they become part of the water." 

Norton will pay MacKay about $75,000 for Catcher, but estimates after adding the fibreglass, electronics and engine the total cost will be $350,000 to $400,000 — roughly comparable to the cost of a fibreglass boat.

'Not flooding the market'

MacKay doesn't have a large crew in his workshop — usually just one helper, his nephew Michael Ferguson. "Young people don't like hard work — it's hard work," he contends, and very few people are skilled enough at woodworking to do the work.

He builds, on average, one boat a year, and also does carpentry work.

They absorb the water so they become part of the water.— Neil MacKay

The demand for lobster fishing boats of any material is very high right now — with good prices and record catches in Atlantic Canada, fishermen are upgrading their gear. Many are on waiting lists of three or four years for a new boat.

But MacKay doesn't believe wooden boats are enjoying a big renaissance, even though he's busy.

"I'm the only show in town and I'm not flooding the market!" MacKay said. A few Islanders have built their own wooden boats and some shops do dabble in them, but MacKay believes his is the only shop exclusively making wooden boats full-time. 

His shop is in his yard so he doesn't have to travel, MacKay said, and he enjoys being his own boss.

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Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca