Winslow McKay, Master Craftsman

A Grand Old Man of Nova Scotia Shipbuilding, reminisces of change and chance in the Yards


Winslow McKay, Master Craftsman

A Grand Old Man of Nova Scotia Shipbuilding, reminisces of change and chance in the Yards


Winslow McKay, Master Craftsman

A Grand Old Man of Nova Scotia Shipbuilding, reminisces of change and chance in the Yards


FOUR generations of McKays have built ships in the town of Shelburne on the south shore of Nova Scotia. Donald McKay, builder of the famous Australiantrade clippers, Lightning, James Bains and Champion of the Seas—ships that astonished the world with their marvellous speed—was born in Shelburne.

“He did a bit of piracy, you might call it,” said Winslow McKay, the eldest of his line. “He had built a ship up this way, but got in debt for her, and her sails were seized on that account and stowed away. He was a determined lad, this Donald McKay, so he took matters into his own hands, gathered some trusty men, stole the sails and got away with his ship. Later he was able to pay back all he owed, for he won great wealth. Yes, he was a Nova Scotiaman, though he did build the best of ships for the Yankees. He built them; his brother Lochlan sailed them.”

Winslow McKay is close to the fourscore mark. All his life from earliest boyhood has been spent in the shipyards. His first duty, that usually assigned to beginners, was to boil the water in the big caldrons that held from eighty to ninety gallons.

“It’s a wonder to me now,” he said, “that we could ever get steam enough from them to soften the timber we used. The largest ship ever launched on the south shore was built in our yards. That was the Cypress, 2,200 tons, a bigger ship than the Marco Polo. During the past twenty years we’ve built upwards of eighty vessels of all types and sizes. Styles change in ships, same as in women’s clothes. Maybe that’s why we always call a ship “she,” and soon they won’t be wearin’ any canvas.

“The gasoline engine was the second death of sails, but there will always be a demand for wooden ships as long as men go to the sea to fish.

Fishermen don’t like steel boats; they’re not so safe as wooden ones.

“The first vessel I built,” continued the octogenarian builder, “was the fishing schooner Grecian Bend, so-called from the queer bustles the women wore in those days; which again shows how much ships are related to women and affected by their fashions. A man’s got to keep up with the styles in ships. Suppose he dropped out for eighteen year 0r so and came back to it, he’d be entirely lost.

“We’ve had some unlucky ships. There was the Alice Muir that cost us some $30,000 to build and ruined all of us. We owned and operated her, but never could get back what we invested in her. Mostly we’ve been builders, and the profit in building is not large. It’s the owners who make the money. There were great fortunes built up in Yarmouth, and it used to be said that we in Shelburne lent them our ships, for we never got a cent of money till after the ship was launched—never.”

He spoke of the old days with the zest of a man still active, still busily engaged in the work he loves. No bitterness, such as I have found in others who speak of the palmy days of “the lost trade.” One would take him for a man about fifty—a thin, gray-haired Scot, keen and alert, a canny earnest man, garrulous on his own subject when he warms to it.

“It’s a clean and honest business,” he said. “Men come to me and say: ‘Build us a vessel.’ We make a model.

Then, ‘How much money do you need?’ And there’s never so much as a scratch of the pen between us. They have faith in us as we have in them, and we’ve never been let down. But in the old days an advance was never heard tell of. When the work was done, we were given at best a quarter of the amount due us, and notes at six, twelve and eighteen months for the balance. These had to be discounted; so that we were really working for the banks. But the laborers and ship carpenters and the rest wouldn’t get their pay, except maybe five or ten dollars cash a month, till the ship was launched. But the builders owned stores, and the workers could get their food and clothes on trust.

“Then, when the time for settlement fell due, they might have a few dollars cornin’ to them. They mightn’t have a cent; sometimes they’d owe money. It was a grinding business then, but now it’s on a cash basis same as any other, and it’s profitable.

“The shipbuilders in those times,” he said, with a reminiscent smile, “knew their job and didn’t need to be bossed. Nowadays you have to show them what to do and see they do it. The only ship carpenters left are in Shelburne and Lunenburg counties, and in our yard there are only three men who can use a broad-axe, which was a common enough tool in the olden time. I recall how proud I felt when we had a crane put in the yard, and a sturdy ox to pull on the rope, and a young shaver to drive him around. No planers or bandsaws in the yard then. We had a brow-stage built to the top of the keel and a sluiceway to haul up the lumber.

“Man, we used to work then. I’ve seen fellows discharged for cornin’ to the yards after sun-up. It was dusk when we quit. We had to go on strike for a twelve-hour day. When we got it we struck for ten, and told the boss we could get it in Yarmouth if we couldn’t get it here. And we were goin’ to quit if he didn’t give it to us.

“ ‘I’ll speak to the owner,’ says he, and the next time we met the owner, ‘Boys,’ says he, T were just cornin’ down to the yard to give you that ten-hour day!’— which was passin’ it off neat.

“The hands had work to do then, on ships and ashore. Here in Shelburne we installed the first h’isting-outfit. That’s the first thing a sailor or fisherman thinks of before shipping aboard a vessel—has she a h’isting-outfit, a gasoline engine to raise the anchor and sails and pull in the hawser? You can’t blame ’em. It was no joke for men who had fished all day to fall to at a hand-capstan and haul in 250 or 300 fathom of hawser. The gasoline winch has ended all that.

“As I said, we installed the first one, the idea of a chap hereabouts. He didn’t have a patent on it, I guess, for before we’d got well started they was up from the Lunenburg foundries to take its measurements, and in jigtime every fishin’ schooner from Newfoundland to Gloucester was equipped with a h’isting-outfit.”

Ships That Passed

ABOUT the ships you built,” I asked him, “do you recall any strange stories?”

“Eh! There were a few,” he said doubtfully. “Things go on pretty quiet in the shipyard. Everything’s been smooth. My boys are clean and fine. But there was one we built that gave us great hopes, an’ promised riches for us. I’ll tell you how it was . . .

“We built a schooner called the Kernwood. For ten years she was owned up here. Then some people from South Africa bought her for fishin’ purposes an’ took her away. They put an engine in her an’ liked her so well that they came back for more. And she was over ten years old at the time.

“They got hold of me in Liverpool because they knew she’d been built in our yards. But someone down there persuaded them to have one built in Liverpool. When this schooner was launched she tumbled over. They righted her, loaded her down with machinery and sent her off. She started to leak on the southward run and had to put into Bermuda. When she got out of there, she was in trouble again and had to stop at St. Thomas. In short, she was a terrible disappointment, and the South African people never came back again. If it hadn’t been for that, we’d have had a big trade with them. The fault was in her building, where or why I don’t rightly know. Men that build ships, most of ’em, think seriously of the number of human lives that depend on the kind of work they put into their vessels. It’s a mighty important thing, and if you know the sea you realize how staunch a ship must be to stand the winds and waves.

“Then there was a ship, the Crusader, that got lost when I was a boy workin’ in the yards here. Never a word was heard of her, and they’d given up hope, when news came some two years later that she’d been seen several hundred miles up the River Plate in South America.

“It was more piracy. Captain Hilton went from here on behalf of the owners, and sailed up the river in a steamer that had to be moored to the banks each night on account o’ the snags in the stream. He found the Crusader flyin’ the flag of some of those countries down there that the man in command had chartered her to. That man skipped out. Captain Hilton went to the British Consul, got her release and brought her back home.

“Men come to us from far places— foreigners who can hardly speak a word of English. They come from the Cape Verde Islands. They’re Portuguese—some nationality like that. They know our ships an’ have used them for years. A black man came the other day from Bermuda, wantin’ us to build him a boat.

“Our trade advertises itself, when you come to think of it. We build a boat and build her well. She goes to many ports, and is seen by the very people most interested in ships. They ask where she was made, and when they find out they come to us.

“Often we get queer commissions. A man came to me one day an’ pulled out a great roll of bills, thousand-dollar bills as plentiful as stage money. ‘Build me a boat,’ he says, and puts five thousand dollars into my hand. I asked if we hadn’t better go to a bank to do business, but he’d have none of it. The rest of the money was forthcomin’ slap on completion of the job. From that day to this I’ve never even learned his name, but it isn’t hard to guess his business—which is none of mine.”

"Do you think there will be many fishing schooners built in the future?” I asked.

“No more,” he said. “The fishermen send their product as far east as the Mediterranean, even to Greece. In the days of the schooners they’d all arrive at once, four or five big vessels loaded with fish. The result was a glutted market and a slump in price. Now a steam trawler can start out with 38,000 quintals, an’ get from one port to another without delay. The trawlers have put a finish to the schooners and imperilled the livelihood o’ fifty thousand fishermen.”

The trawlers, I found, are universally detested by the dory-builders and fishermen. Banks fishermen have told me of following for miles the trail of a beam trawler, sadly marked by the thousands of dead small fish that have been thrown away. Trawlers have been built in the McKay shipyard; one of the finest they built was run down by a French Line steamer on its first voyage and sunk. But the loss didn’t cause much mourning except among the owners. The fishermen would rejoice.

“Sailmakers are goin’ the way of the whip-sawyers, the broad-axemen an’ borers. They’ve fallen to the work of makin’ circus tents, which you’ll agree is a sad come-down for men who sewed the canvas for the square-rigged ships we built in Nova Scotia. There isn’t a half-dozen sailmakers in the province now; once every place along the coast had three or four sail-lofts workin’at top speed.”

I asked him if there were any old-timers still working in his yard.

“I’m the only one,” said Winslow McKay. “There’s a few left around town —men upwards of eighty, but they’re not workin’ just now. Oh, the rheumatiz, I suppose, got them.”

He seemed doubtful just why these ancient shipwrights weren’t at work like himself, and discounted my suggestion that at eighty they mightn’t feel quite so hearty as in the days when they walked ten and twelve miles to work from dawn till dark.

A Proud Record of Endeavor

rT'HE McKays have just launched the splendid auxiliary schooner, Atlantis, to be used in research work for the Harvard Museum. Previously they built a vessel, the Chance, for the same owners, which pleased them so well that the Atlantis, twice the size of her predecessor, was ordered. She will sail from New York to the west coast of England, taking soundings and studying ocean currents over a period of some forty days. She carries four miles of wire cable.

“She gets into the States free of red tape,” said the builder. “But now they’re tryin’ to put on Canadian yachts a tax to be paid yearly, a heavy tax which would be a big handicap to us and would give American builders a vast advantage. But they’ll come to us as long as we are buildin’ boats. In all my life I’ve never had a comeback on a vessel launched from this yard, never one. Not a ship of mine was ever weak in the building, and leaky rudder-ports, a common ailment with new vessels, brought no schooners of mine back to the dock. Only once a small hook broke in one of our boats. It was the rigger-blacksmith’s fault, and he felt real bad about it.”

“It’s a proud record,” I said.

“Aye, but we don’t think so much of that. It’s natural for us to build ships, and we have the traditions of our fathers to keep us building good ones. We love the feel of the wood, the oak, pine, spruce and hackmatack. We like to see it take shape beneath our hands. And it’s fascinating; for there never was two ships alike.” He shook his grizzled head and laughed as if the vagaries of ships were beyond him. “Never two alike.”

In the log of the Chance, the little McKay schooner of thirty-six tons that went into the icy seas of Labrador, there is a foreword that speaks in these high terms of her builders . . .

“She was built last winter in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, by W. C. McKay and Sons, who make a business of building fishingschooners for local use. They deserve much praise, not only for building so quickly, but also for producing such a stout, able boat. The Chance is a typical product of Nova Scotia, long and low, but with plenty of draft and a good turn of speed. A more seaworthy little boat could hardly be made.”

The Chance was built in 1926 and sent out to secure data on the upper part of the Labrador current, and to find out as much as possible about the fauna and flora of the Torngat region of Labrador. She had to contend with the ice floes, the storms and heavy seas of that troubled region, but she proved herself a stout ship for the purpose. The Atlantis, which will do similar work, is one of the most beautiful vessels ever launched from the McKay yard.

“My son John makes the plans for all my ships,” said the old shipbuilder with a proud look at his stalwart son. “He makes ’em mighty good. In my early days we didn’t have so much of that. I guess we went by intuition a lot, and Providence was our guide. It is a whole lot safer, and cuts out a deal of worry, to have the lines to guide you in every operation.

“Electricity has transformed things in the shipyard. The old saws we used to use—just one in the mill, operated by waterpower, an’ it sawed the timber in waves, an’ left plenty of work for the adze, plane and handsaw. No joke to saw out knees that were eight inches through by hand.”

This man is one of the very few who live to tell of such strenuous work, and of that past whose glory was purchased with no little use of sinew and pouring of sweat. He had done tasks that arduous, and in him yet is strength sufficient to do them again.

My last recollection of the oldest active shipbuilder in this land of ours is that of meeting him, lively, and looking very much like the head of affairs as he walked through the big shipyard where he works side-by-side with his son and grandsons. John McKay, who combines the practical experience gained in building with the technical knowledge of the marine architect, was laying down the lines of a new pilot boat to be used in Saint John, drawing them to full scale on the draftingfloor. The keel had not yet been laid, and time hung heavily on old Winslow McKay’s hands.

“Don’t know what to do with myself,” said he, “when there’s no ships a-buildin”. Guess I’ll go an’ work in the garden.”

This is the second of a series of three articles by Mr. Cunningham on the Shelburne shipbuilders. The final article will follow in an early issue.