Tag Archives: boatbuilding

April on the waterfront 1891

Charlottetown’s Busy Waterfront. Detail from a Panoramic View of Charlottetown 1878.

Although by 1890 the days of busy ship yards on Prince Edward had long since past the industry did not vanish overnight. The Island still possessed a large fleet of sail and steam providing services and connections between the Island and the mainland, as well as overseas. Besides the building of ships the industry had a large suite of related trades whose importance would continue for many years.  The waterfront was still the place of industry as a report from the waterfront in 1891 will show. Shipyards gave rise to related businesses which continued to operate and serve the fleet. In the 1890s we still had sailmakers, ships carpenters, chandlers and boatbuilders. Once the shipping season ended many of the warehouses were taken over by boatbuilders and shipwrights. There was also a large inshore fishery which had strengthened by the lobster industry. While it was sill almost exclusively sail powered by the end of the decade engines were beginning to make their appearance. Small steam engines, some built by local engineers, were just beginning to appear in steam launches and small yachts.

In the spring as the ice deteriorated into cakes and floes smashed and tossed about by the tides and waves the warehouse and boat-building shops were opened to reveal a winter’s labour and an assertion that while the harbour was asleep its craftsmen had been busy.

Here is what was happening on the waterfront in April of 1891:  Extensive repairs had been completed on Ronald McMillan’s steamer William. The ship was raised up on the ice between the wharves and a number of iron plates replaced and the whole bottom re-riveted, a task which kept eleven men employed for the winter.  The P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company paddle steamers; Princess of Wales and St. Lawrence were overhauled and completely re-painted over the winter and the St. Lawrence received new 2 inch deck sheathing. By mid-April both ships were loaded with cargo and were waiting for the ice to clear from Hillsborough Bay. The ferry steamers Southport and Elfin were also overhauled and the Inland Steam Navigation Company’s Heather Belle had also been prepared for the 1891 season.  Numerous schooners had also over-wintered in the harbour of Charlottetown and were repaired and overhauled by their crews and Charlottetown shipwrights.

On the pleasure boat side three steam yachts had been completed over the winter. One, for Jefferson Gardiner was 56 feet overall and 11 feet wide and had a 20 horse power steam engine built by the McKinnon & McLean of Charlottetown. It was estimated she could reach speeds of 10 knots. The hull had been constructed by McPhee Bros. of Souris and had 1 1/2 inch planks and had two sleeping berths and seating for fifty people.  Another steam yacht, also boasting an engine from McKinnon & McLean was built by H.H. Crossman for a buyer in Newfoundland. She was 38 feet overall, was  half decked and also had sleeping accommodation for two and seating for 20. A third yacht was completed by builder Angus McDonald. She was also 38 feet long  and would be fitted with an engine built by White & Sons.

McPhee Bros also completed eight fishing boats for the Portland Packing Company to be used in the lobster fishery. These were of an identical design with 17 1/2 foot keel and 20 1/2 overall length. The three boats were completed in less than three months.

Another local boat builder, James Griffin, had a busy winter. He completed a four-oared lapstreak boat for John Collins intended to be used for the boy’s crew at the rowing club. Griffin had built seven or eight four-oared boats over the last several winters. The is one was 32 feet long and had a beam of 3 feet. The previous fall he had completed a rowing craft 34 feet long and 3 feet 8 inches wide, copper fastened throughout and reported to be the finest boat he had ever produced and was offered for sale. He also complete two pleasure rowing boats which had already been sold.

Today once the last cruise ship leaves, the sailing yachts and powerboats are snatched from the water and the ice begins to close in Charlottetown turns its back to the water. In the 1890s however, winter was a time when harbour-life continued, although to a different pattern. It was a time when shore-based marine trades barely paused in their quest to ready the harbour for its next season.


P.E.I.-based boatbuilder receives international recognition


12.5 foot and 17.5 foot Norseboats on a P.E.I. beach


All too often we think of the golden age of sailing and boatbuilding as being something confined to the 19th century.  Of course, 150 years ago Charlottetown the harbour was the home of scores of small multi-purpose boats that served as fishing craft, lighters, dinghys, sculling boats, ferries, and yes, even as small yachts.  Boatbuilders both in Charlottetown and other coastal areas served the market for well-built small boats.  Not so much today.


Charles McQuarrie’s boatbuilding ad in Haszard’s Gazette 1852

The work of making small craft was one of the minor industries along with sail making and marine blacksmithing which often get lost when we talk about the wood, wind and water economy. We focus on shipbuilding with schooners, brigs and barques, often forgetting that the nautical arts  contained dozens of specialties which were a requirement for a community which, as an island, depended on boats for much of their existence.  As the economy changed and our dependency on locally produced  craft was reduced many of these minor skills almost disappeared. In the 20th century boat building became the preserve of those producing large motorized fishing boats on the one hand and home-built pleasure craft on the other.

But all has not been lost. In the most recent issue of the English yachting magazine Classic Boat, the Norseboat has been recognized as a “New Classic”.  See the story here.  The founder and president of the firm responsible for the Norseboat is Kevin Jeffery of the Belfast area just down the coast from Charlottetown.  He conceived of the boat as a multi-purpose craft which could equally well be sailed or rowed, had a classic appearance, and could be easily transported by trailer so that its range was extended to almost every harbour in the world.  Built originally in Pinette, PEI production moved to Lunenburg and then to Maine to tap the increasing market.


Norseboat 12.5t showing characteristic rig.

There are now a number of different craft in the range with boats at 12.5, 17.5 and 21.5 feet, all with a distinctive dutch curved gaff rig with a boomless mainsail.  The boats are now found all over the world and are admired for their classic style and their fine workmanship . In addition to being recognized by Classic Boat Norseboats have graced the cover of Small Craft Advisor and have been nominated for awards such as the Sail Magazine Best Boat award.  Kevin has described the boat as “the swiss army knife of boats” and his depiction is not far off. The webpage for the Norseboat has lots of video and photos of the various models in action in posts across the globe.

I have spotted a Norseboat from time to time in Charlottetown harbour and have seen them at boat shows. They are expensive boats but have a quality which matches the price. Like the Drascomb Lugger this seems to be a boat that does everything well.   I am sure DeSable’s Charles McQuarrie would approve.