“Man, Aren’t They Grand?”
Concluding a series of articles on ships and the men who build them at Shelburne, Nova Scotia
Louis ARTHUR CUNNINGHAM
IT’S LIKE harking back to the golden era of the wooden wind jammers to walk through the great yard of the Shelburne Shipbuilders, Limited. There are vessels in the shops, in the yards, and men swarming about them. There is not, as in the mammoth, grimy docks where steel and iron ships are built, the sound of sledges and electric rivetters making a noise like the staccato of a mitrailleuse. There is no smoke or dirt. The sun glints on white and reddish wood; the sounds are the old sounds that these dark fir-clad hills have heard for more than a century the sounds of hammer, axe and saw manipulated by strong hands. The smells are pungent as frankincense balsamy, tingling scent of spruce and pine, hackmatack and oak.
Back of the yard there are great ponds where float spars of Douglas fir and Oregon spruce that run to a length of 107 feet and are shaped by the skilled hands of the sparmakers, rounded and smoothed. Many months these spars lie in the salt-water ponds which pickle, season and harden them. For the same reason, great piles of deck planking, sawn two years before the time of use, are exposed to the winds and rain that they may be weathered. For a year they lie in the open, thousands of dollars worth of precious lumber; then they are placed in the dry-house, or the sun does its work in the open. Thus when these spars and planks in time are used for the construction of yachts and schooners, there is no warp or give to them, no danger of leakage, for the wood is properly aged.
We passed over piles of chips and shavings, through yards littered with lumber. A. D. Bruce, the guidingspirit of the Shelburne Shipbuilders,
Limited, was my companion—a type of the shipbuilder of the younger school. He sees beneath the mere mechanics of boatbuilding, the fine artistry, the wholesome spirit of the trade, and that which, more than skill or strength, goes into the ships’ construction.
There is an atmosphere to the shipyard. There are no clocks to punch. It is an informal place where men go about their tasks and stop to talk with you or talk as they work, gauging curves and angles with practised eye. They are young men, but many have studied the building of yachts in the great American shops of Lawley’s and Herreschoff’s. They are earnest about their work. Some have taken correspondence courses in drafting. Last year, the workmen
from the various shops got together, the government of Nova Scotia lent its aid, and there was a worth-while technical school of marine drafting in Shelburne.
“It happens often,” said Mr. Bruce, “that I’ll take a youngster and teach him the trade, allowing him five years to spoil materials, break the foreman’s heart and lose us all money. Then he’ll pack up and go away to the land of higher wages than we can give. In time, though, he and his brothers will come drifting home and go again to work in our yards.”
We passed the galvanizing shop, the smithy where sparks flew up from the forges and men in the dimness worked at making hooks, pulleys and bolts. The yard had just launched a beautiful yacht, the Micmac, that was made complete from masthead to keelson, from rudder chain to bowsprit, in this little town of less than two thousand people.
Choosing a Yacht
JpACTT year the Shelburne Shipbuilders launch many yachts, mostly of the larger type, twoand three-masters. The luxury of their appointments is breath-taking. The cabins are finished in Mexican mahogany and Indian teak, precious woods.
Some of these yachts of the smaller type sell for as little as a man would pay for a highpriced car, but there is a beauty indescribable about them, and the possibility of enjoyment with them is infinitely more than one can vision even in drifting down woodland aisles in a smoothrunning auto. Their slim, swelling hulls are staunch, inbuilt with power of great resistance.
They are safe and snug and the relative insignificance of their /U"* cost is startling.
“People buying yachts,” said the builder, “love to drive a hard bargain. I’ve seen it time and again with my American customers, but I’ve found it’s more that they dearly lov; to dicker than that they want to save money. For if there are three different-priced ways of doing a thing, they’ll unerringly pick the most expensive.”
Yachts of Mr. Bruce’s building have gone as far as Kansas City, where the Blue D Iphin is owned. She is still under Canadian register. There is one named the Amanap, which, spelt backward, will tell you where she originally belonged. She was sold by Panama owners to yachtsmen in Milwaukee. The gentleman who had her built wanted her called Panama, but that name had been pre-empted by another; so he did the next best thing.
Most of the Shelburne yachts, all save a very few, go to American owners. Wherever yachts are sailed or discussed, the Nova Scotia builders, McKay, Bruce and MacAlpine, are known and treated as master craftsmen by those conversant with the finer points.
The yard of the Shelburne Shipfa u i 1 d e r s is equipped with the most modern, electrically - operated machinery— planers, band saws, rotaries, bevelling machines. There is much time and labor saved. A few minutes later I talked with an old ship worker who had begun in the yards when men knew what a broadaxe was, and a fellow in the pit and another on the staging worked the big whipsaws.
“When I was a lad,” said John Williams, “the first job they put me to was sawin’ gunnels out of thick oak planks with a handsaw. Many’s the blister I had. And the stars was in the sky when we’d start to work an’ we’d stop for breakfast at seven, and then be at it till it was too dark to see the lines.’ But in the Shelburne yards today they know little of such things. These endure only in the memory of the old men, and do not impress the younger ones except with a notion that their fathers were rather feebleminded to work under any such conditions.
Almost completed was a large cruiser-type vessel with triple screws. With one propeller going she could plod along like a coastwise boat; with all three functioning she could show a clean pair of heels to anything afloat. We climbed aboard her and stood in the bow, remarking the graceful swell of her lines and the solid strength of her build.
This day was the fourth of June,
a holiday in most places, since the
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third fell on Sunday. But the shipyards have no rest. Every day except the Sabbath is a working-day. Some forty families directly draw a livelihood from the Shelburne Shipbuilders’ yard alone, and the men work contentedly under good conditions and for excellent wages. I wondered to hear that many orders had been turned away this year, until I learned the difficulty of getting skilled hands, and the uncertainty of the market which will not permit any great expansion.
In Restraint of Trade
OUR yachts have a good name in the United States,” said Mr. Bruce, when we returned to the office, finished neatly with dark-stained spruce, bearing on its walls many pictures and models of yachts, schooners and square-rigged vessels that this firm has built. “We have no worries if that market is left open to us,” he continued. “But Canadian-built yachts are having their own difficulties in the hands of United States owners, and there is still a bill at present under consideration which, if passed, will put a prohibitive duty on our boats and effectively shut us off from selling there.
“It has met no opposition until recently, when the boatshops of Marblehead and other yachting centres were made to see what its enactment will mean to them. They make their money in repairing and conditioning yachts, make more than the men who build them; while we are forced to carry a tremendous overhead.
“It means a lot to this community,” he went on. “The industry is so comprehensive. It feeds the men who cut the wood and saw it, the men who haul it to the yards, the designers, the shipworkers, blacksmiths, riggers, sailmakers, the grocers, the doctors who sew up the cut in a carpenter’s hand. It’s a livelihood for many.”
He went then to another room and returned shortly with an immense bundle of blueprints, which I thought must be the plans of all the boats ever built in Shelburne.
“These,” he said casually enough, “are part of the plans of one yacht.”
He threw the bundle, that was like a roll of carpet, on a table and spread out the sheets for me to see.
The blueprints were covered with dots, cabalistic signs and lines, in a labyrinth infinite and confusing. There were long columns of minute instructions for building. The intricacies of these plans were such as a layman sees in the works of an expensive watch, or a Fiji Islander in those of an alarm clock.
“Have you many men capable of reading these?” I asked.
“Ten or twelve can read them without difficulty. And, mind you, every line and marking on those plans mean something and each one must be carefully followed; the slightest deviation will cause alterations in the entire structure.”
I saw these plans reproduced, full size, on what they call “the drafting-floor.” This is a vast loft, smooth as a sheet of paper, on which the sections and crosssections of the vessel under construction are laid down, drawn out in minute detail so that everything to be done is clearly indicated.
There on the drafting-floor the ship was reproduced—cabins, bulkheads, beams, elbows, companionways, all discernible even to the unskilled eye; just as if the craft had been sawn in two and one was given a view of the segments. From this scheme the builders work, beginning with the laying of the keel.
The blueprints are made from a long list of specifications, and the number of plans is, without exaggeration, like leaves
strewn in Vallombrosa. There is a vast amount of work for the draftsmen to do in building such a yacht as the Micmac before ever a nail is driven or a deal planed down.
The Micmac is a schooner with thirtysix tons of lead on her keel. She is ninetyfour feet over all, full Marconi rig, with mainmast 112 feet and foremast ninetysix feet. She has hollow spars and booms, her sails are of best English make. Her frame is of oak, with natural crooks, her deck planking of hard pine; rails and deck finished with teak and inside with mahogany. She was outfitted in Shelburne down to the last cushion in her saloon.
Many of the Shelburne yachts are de igned by W. J. Rouet who planned the famous racing schooner Bluenose. Mr. Bruce has from Theodore E. Ferris, designer of the Micmac, a tribute to the Shelburne workmanship, which says that no American yacht-builder could duplicate the work done on the graceful Micmac.
From Square Rigger to Palatial Yacht
rT'H E history of the Shelburne
I Shipbuilders is graphically told by the pictures that adorn the office walls. There are square-riggers, sloops, yachts, cruisers—every conceivable type of wooden vessel. There is a picture of a hermaphrodite topsail schooner, the Paule Simone, believed to be the last squarerigger built in America. She has a peculiar rig—square sails from foresail to fore-topgallantsail, the fore-and-aft sails of a schooner, fore-course and fore-andaft foresail. There has been and still is much dispute about classifying such a rig, but that she is a topsail schooner none can deny.
There is a fine schooner, the Roy Bruce, a three-master which met with a sad fate: half of her was found floating, but never a trace of her captain and crew. There was a two-masted schooner, the Thorndyke, which from obscure beginnings has come to be queen of the rum fleet; and many others whose histories could only be told by the men who sailed them.
Though Mr. Bruce comes of shipbuilding stock, he does not let the memory of past glories eclipse the hope of future ones. A shipyard cannot be run like a machine-shop or foundry; yet he has put excellent system into the workings of his plant, and has his hand always on the pulse of its multifarious activities. He is not the type of builder who works in the yard with his men. For that he has highly-trained subordinates, while the extensive business end of the trade is handled by him.
“The man in the office,” he said, “may seem to have little to do with the business of boat-building, but he has to act as the buffer between builders and owners. He has to know both points of view, and there are lots of shocks to stand.”
Bruce and McKay are the chief builders in Shelburne, and Winslow McKay represents the master shipbuilder of the days of the clipper ships, the man who toils in the yard, who oversees or shares every operation from the day the lines are drawn on the drafting-floor to the hour the ship first feels the welcoming kiss of the waves on her bowsprit.
“Man, Aren’t They Grand!”
AMONG the builders of Shelburne *■ there is a natural i ivalry. They send in bids for the same work; one tries to best the others. Yet there is always the best of good relations, and as I sat in Mr. Bruce’s office, the stalwart Ken MacAlpine, whose yard is farther down the shore, came in, resplendent in high-topped
rubber boots and working-togs, smoking an ancient brier pipe, to pass the time of day.
They talked of the trend of affairs. Some said the new American law with its prohibitive tariff would not go through; others said it would. They speculated on why a man will pay thousands of dollars for a motor car, and think a lesser price extortionate for a Shelburne yacht.
“Winslow McKay’s a great man,” said Ken MacAlpine, “but he said he saw a ship turn so fast she unscrewed the lamptops—which isn’t to be believed. I’m launching one tomorrow,” he continued proudly, “and my daughter will christen her with champagne—only a pint bottle.”
He had, I thought, a touch of the pride a man feels when a picture he has worked at long and hard is finished, the unconscious exultation of the artist in the product of his art. Any man might well be proud, as these were proud, of the boats built and launched in Shelburne. They spoke of the ones that had left their hands recently, still recalling them with fondness.
This is the type of man that wealth cannot attract and cannot spoil if it be given them. They are reticent about their visions, about the future of their work. They make no prophecies. What the years have in store they do not know; they are content to work steadily and hard. They have the houses their grandfathers dwelt in, houses far older than a century, with great beams of white oak. The apples and vegetables for their tables come from their own orchards an i gardens, the cream from their own cows.
Fastened beneath the porch of Kenneth MacAlpine’s home are two ancient models —one of a square-sterned, blunt-nosed ship his father built; the other of a rakish schooner. He passed a rough hand over them caressingly.
“Man, aren’t they grand!” he said. “My father built great ships. I’d never part with these.”
Across the road in his own yard were the yachts he himself had newly built, shiny in their white and green paint, the long wandlike spars stretched out smooth and tapering with matchless symmetry. The shades of his fathers, perhaps, stood by us then in the shadow of the whiteblossomed trees, and were they able to speak, no more could they have said than “Well done!”
A short distance from the home of Kenneth MacAlpine live the McKays, where a brook runs brawling across the road below a bridge. Across the road, at the entrance to the McKay shipyard, is a great willowtree where in warm evenings the old shipbuilders and their sons, their carpenters and helpers sit and talk over their work.
Behind them are the yards, the boatshops, the derricks, the piles of sawdust and rough-cut lumber reaching down to the shores of the great harbor that could accommodate on its placid surface every ship that was ever launched from its shores. Everywhere in the swampy land about, the peepers are at their work, and I am reminded, as perhaos they are too, that the sound is an old, old, everlasting echo of the thousand mallets of the shipcalkers of other days.
They sit there and smoke, masters and men, and their whole philosophy of life might be summed up in the magic word —Content. They want for nothing; food to eat, a bed to lie upon, a sufficiency for themselves and their many children. Their pride in home and family brings to one a feeling of thankfulness that there are such right and honest folk still in the world.
Editor’s Note—This is the concluding article of a series of three articles by Mr. Cunningham on the Shelburne Shipbuilders.