UPPER ONSLOW, NS — To fathom the unspoken anticipation in the Upper Onslow shop, you would need to know lumber as Warren and Andrea Manthorne know lumber.
That is, you’d need to read a plank as many would read a person. See strength in the grain’s curve where the tree reached for light and found it, and weakness in the black knot where it failed.
Warren, the eighth generation of boat builders in his family, grew up in Drum Head on the Eastern Shore reading the lumber of his people — black spruce and tamarack and pine when they could get it.
But this day the Colchester County boat-building couple were
on white oak.
“It’s the ultimate,” said Warren, 70.
“It’s Canada’s mahogany. It’ll be here any day now.”
The truck will be carrying enough of the hardwood to build a 14-metre pilot schooner. That’s a lot.
A century ago the small, fast boats from which this one will take its design worked the Bay of Fundy, racing out of its harbours in all weather to carry pilots to the great ships coming in from all over the world.
The Manthornes are actually building three wooden boats.
There’s the 23-metre schooner Lena Blanche, planked with white pine, corked with oakum and held fast to steam-bent timbers with black locust wooden nails.
It was a retirement project for the couple after Warren turned in his wrenches from a career fixing elevators. The Lena Blanche is in an unheated shop, so they’ll work on it through the next two summers.
There’s a 3.9-metre wherry like the ones Warren grew up with on the Eastern Shore that the pair is building to keep busy as they wait for the coming oak.
And then there’s the set of lines Andrea traced onto a large piece of paper on the floor, a process called lofting, but more akin to alchemy, that the builder uses to turn a graph of numbers into the various curves of a boat’s hull.
The pilot schooner is the result of one of the
nearly 400 visitors the Manthornes have been getting a year to the Lena Blanche.
“He liked what he saw and commissioned it,” Warren said.
“We never intended to be a boatyard but we were open to it.”
Their retirement project has turned into a shipyard. They even got a name, Eye and Batten Wooden Boatworks, and had business cards printed.
For the couple, who otherwise lived quietly up a dirt road, all the attention their projects have received speaks to the enduring interest in the craft of wooden boat-building.
“There is something kindly about a wooden boat,” said Andrea.
In a time when everything we use comes from unknown hands in places few of us ever see, visitors come to see a knowledge once common in each of this province’s harbours being kept alive in farm country.
It’s not just the Manthornes building wooden boats amongst hay fields.
There was a pile of grown larch knees — wood milled to preserve the strength of the grain where a tree’s trunk meets a branch or root — waiting for Nick and Evan Densmore of Stewiacke.
The young cousins built the 24-metre schooner Katie Belle in their shop behind a garage. While they wait for the sailing and charwaiting tering season, they are framing up a small wooden punt.
“They’re fine young fellas,” Warren said of the Densmores.
So as Andrea quietly traced lines fit for a February sea and Warren tinkered with a contraption for steam-bending ribs, they both quietly waited for their white oak to arrive.
With the load of precious planks will be three 6.3-metre logs from which the couple will mill the keel that will be the pilot boat’s backbone. They’ll be careful to keep the log’s heartwood in the centre of their cuts so that the pressure of the wood’s grain doesn’t twist the keel.
The whole process, from the backbone through to the ribs and planking, requires a series of skills that Warren’s family has honed for generations. This will be his 26th boat.
Andrea has been learning all along from him. The couple spent the past year rebuilding two old diesel engines that they recently lowered into the Lena Blanche.
For all their building, their hope is to launch the Lena Blanche in 2019, put down their planes and caulking hammers, and chase the wind.
“We’ll let her stretch her legs a bit in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and see where we go from there,” Warren said.
Winters will see them back in Upper Onslow, just outside Truro.
“But there’ll always be a boat getting built in the shop,” Andrea said.