Nfld. & Labrador

Searching for shipwrecks: How model boats can help divers hunting for history

Two men are using scale models of Newfoundland schooners to shed light on shipwrecks.

Wooden schooners widely used in Newfoundland for fishing, transporting people and goods

Neil Burgess and Bob Halliday are members of the Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland & Labrador. (Paula Gale/CBC)

With many shipwrecks buried in our waters, parts of Newfoundland's history are hidden just below the surface.

"Every community's got a story about a local schooner that was lost, and the guys that may or may not have been rescued," Neil Burgess, president of the Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland & Labrador, told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

"We don't have an exact number [of shipwrecks], but we're going around gathering those stories and having a look with our divers."

Relics of the deep

Wooden schooners were used in Newfoundland for fishing and transporting goods and people as recently as the 1950s, Burgees said.

Many of these ships sank and still lie at the bottom of our waters.

"We've been working a lot with the town of Conception Harbour recently," he said. "They've got a schooner wreck right off the wharf there and we're going to be investigating that one this summer."

Shipwrecked schooners can be found throughout the waters around Newfoundland and Labrador. (

While some of the vessels have sustained a lot of damage over the years, some have managed to stay intact.

"In Conception Harbour, the wreck has structure … so it's a lot more interesting to look at," Burgess said.

The society's members aim to advance the awareness, documentation and stewardship of shipwrecks throughout Newfoundland and Labrador. In order to help with their investigation, they've enlisted the help of expert model builder Bob Halliday.

"One of the things that's important for a diver when they're going down to a wreck is to understand the actual structure — the way the original vessel was built — and if it's laying partly on the floor or if it's partly erect or covered with a lot of laminaria with a lot of seaweed," Halliday said.

"They need to have some kind of idea how it was put together in the first place."

Educational purpose

Burgess said Halliday's work can help explain how the ships were built and show divers the different parts of boats they might see when diving for wrecks.

"Some of these wrecks have fallen in or they're flattened out, and it becomes really confusing if you're not familiar with what you're looking at, what exactly the parts you're seeing are," Burgess said.

Bob Halliday is a model builder of wooden sailing ships with a keen interest in the history of Newfoundland's schooners. (Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland & Labrador)

While the goal of the society isn't to necessarily preserve shipwrecks — "We're not out there putting these things in a glass case or anything," Burgess said — protecting them can help maintain part of the province's history.

"What's important is some of the boats on the bottom are in locations where some kind of development may end up damaging them," said Burgess. "There was an example in Trinity where a sewer line was put across the harbour and, just by coincidence, it was going to be run right through the middle of an historic shipwreck.

"So, luckily, the Newfoundland Marine Archeology Society back in the '70s identified that and they just moved the sewer line 100 metres and saved the wreck."

With files from the St. John's Morning Show