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The Great Longliner Debate

“A boat is like a house,” says Joe Carpenter, a 12 year veteran of the boatbuilding trade.” It’s impossible to deign and build one model that will suit everyone.

In those few words, Joe may well have summed up the controversy that surrounds fishing vessels design. For years, we at Decks Awash have listened, while the fishermen praised or damned the boats they used. Some of the critical comments on Newfoundland vessels were recorded and printed, and a very recent criticism prompted Gerry George, the newly appointed head of the Fisheries Loan Board, to ask that we take a look at the other side of the question. After several chats with Gerry, he took a day on the road with Decks Awash to look at three boatyards, and the vessels they build.

Let’s briefly review the list of supposed faults. The most prominent is the famous roll, a function of the round bottom and comparatively narrow beam found on many Newfoundland designs. The boats also have a reputation for being over lively in a following sea, with the high, square transom being implicated as the cause. In addition, the boats’ finish has been said to be rough and there’s no denying that they are expensive boats.

Now let’s take a look at that famous roll. The traditional Newfoundland longliners are indirect descendants of the banking schooners which had a comparatively narrow beam, and a roundish bottom. Lacking the steadying influence of sails, the longliners do tend to roll with a quick motion, a characteristic that they are unstable, especially when compared to the flatter bottom Cape Islander designs. However, Gerry and others in the trade feel that this is a misrepresentation of stability and point out that to their knowledge, no Newfoundland longliner has ever been capsized, a claim that certainly can’t be made for the Cape Islander.

Few would deny that the average Newfoundland boat will roll more in any given sea than a comparably sized Cape Islander design. To the average person, that might indicate that the Cape Islander is more stable, but a naval architect might not agree. The term stability refers not to the ability of a vessel to resist a roll, but rather to the ship’s ultimate ability to recover from a roll. That rolling might make the boat a more difficult platform to work from, but some experts feel that the roll is, in itself important for safety when big seas are encountered. The stiffer vessel’s a bigger danger of her breaking up in the sea.

There are some basic solutions to the rolling problem. One, which the Cape Islander illustrates, is to go flatter on the bottom. Another feature that cuts rolling is also present in the Cape Islander.. to go wider in the beam. The third is to build the vessel deeper in the Keel, which tends to dampen the roll.

But boat design, like life, is a series of trade-offs. A flat bottom may resist roll too much and twist the hull. Too much beam makes for an inefficient hull form, one that pushes too much water and hence is slow and expensive to run. And a deep keel means more drag in the water, and other problems come lifeout time…special gear and cradles, and so forth. So, the fishermen, like the motorist looking for a new car, compares the models available, pays his money and takes his choice.

The new boats Decks Awash looked at were in Trinity, Port Union, and Clarenville to show an interesting evolution in designs. In the 45 and 55 footers, the pork barrel bottom is replaced by a much more shapely hull form, and the beam is swelled considerably from earlier models, which one person claims were designed “more for their beach keeping qualities than for their sea keeping abilities.” In the days before marine liftout facilities dotted the coast, boats had to be dragged up beaches when they came out of the water, and tough round bottom were a real asset. Both Clarenville Shipyards and Carpenters Port Union yard have their own designs available to fishermen who are looking for a new vessel in the 40-45 foot class.

Obviously, choices are becoming increasingly complex these days, as more and more designs become available. The Clarenville yard, for example, has a new 45 footer available. Designed by the yard, the vessel impresses one immediately as being beamier than proceeding models, a fact which should mean well for both its carrying capacity and seakeeping abilities. A nearly finished example of this type of boat, the Miss White Bay, was in the water and is a very attractive boat, inside and out. She fits nicely at the top range of the increasingly popular 36 to 45 foot class of vessel, and the hull shows considerable departure from the traditional half barrel shape found earlier in boats of her size.

Clarenville is building other boats, too, these days. Several of the new 55 footers at various stages of completion offered Decks Awash an opportunity to see just how a Newfoundland boat is put together. If there was one word to describe the construction of these boats, solid would be the best.

If you glance at the accompanying photo, you’ll note that the vessel is being double planked. The ribs are massive blocks of sawn timber, and there are plenty of heavy bolts in evidence. This means a vessel that should be tough as nails, able to the force of the sea well, and capable with the bows sheathed in greenheart, of operating in ice during the early season. The Cape Islander, in contrast, has stern bent ribs which lack the strength of the solid timber. They are usually single planked, and generally lighter in build. Cost comparison between the two types are difficult to make, but if taken on a new boat basis, the costs seem about equal for both.

One last point when considering the Cape Islander vs. the Newfoundland longliner question; neither boat really exists today. The longliner is now more properly called a multi-purpose fishing vessel, while the evolution of the Cape Islander makes it hard to recognize some boats built today as being descendants of the original Cape Islander.

Some of the problems encountered by the Newfoundland designs are the result of misuse of the vessel, rather than the fault of the design. No matter how cleverly conceived and well built a vessel is, she’ll behave poorly if used for radically different fisheries than those intended. A lot of problems came up when traditional boats used for longlining were covered to take trawling gear, as the extra weight a loft affected handling adversely. Similarly, a boat built to take an 80,000 pound payload in prefect safety can become a deathtrap if the skipper piles 110,000 pounds of fish aboard and then encounters a bad sea.

The Fisheries Loan Board is actively encouraging fishermen who would like to have boats drawn in their own designs to work with the Loan Board in getting their ideas translated into working fishing vessels. However, that process is far from simple, and the day of the backyard builder is just about over. With large vessels now running in the $300,000 to $500,000 range, proper shipyards are needed to do a competent job.

Any fishing vessel built today must meet international stability criteria, and the Newfoundland longliner is no exception. Construction methods are tightly controlled, and the Loan Board is anxious in Gerry George’s words, “to get out of the building and design end.” He sees the Board being increasingly active as a source of financial assistance and technical advice.

The Newfoundland boatbulding industry has its problems, too, and most of them are too complex to go into it in this article. With labor scarce and wages rising, many yards are caught in an economic bind and face stiff competition for available contracts. If a yard shuts down in a slack period, the highly qualified wood-workers may well leave to seek jobs in the construction industry, and the yard, when it gets enough business to gear up again, must start retraining new workers, Fluctuating federal bounty policies give the whole industry an on-again, off again aspect which makes rational planning of vessel production next to impossible.

This article isn’t intended to be a defense of the Newfoundland longliner, or the last word on vessel design. However, we do hope that it provides a glimpse of the other side of what is an ongoing controcersy, one to which there probably are no firm and final answers. The question “which vessel is better for me” is one the individual owner has to answer, based on his own style and type of fishing, his performance in gear and accommodation and a host of other factors.

We were said earlier, you pays your money and you takes your choice.

In our next issue we’ll look at another aspect of boatbuilding in Newfoundland.

Decks Awash
Vol. 7, No. 3 June 1978


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