Why the Punt?
For more than 300 years the people of Newfoundland and Labrador have used wooden boats for industry, travel and recreation. These boats played an essential role in making a living in a marine environment where fishing was not only a way of life but often the only means of survival. Before the development of roads, traveling by water was the only way to move from one community to another. In the thousands of bays and coves, all sizes and designs of boats took people to the fishing grounds, to the cottage hospitals, to the homes of friends and relatives, and to the larger mercantile centers. Life lived between wind and water was dependent on these wooden boats of Newfoundland and Labrador’s outports.
These boats were built using methods handed down from generation to generation. The skills of these master boat builders were well known and greatly admired and others were eager to learn the methods to ensure that their enterprises were developed and strengthened. As a result, the boat building practices influenced a community’s social, economic and natural environments. Those skills and abilities have been lost to many communities in recent decades. Modern construction materials and techniques, the collapse of the inshore fishery, the decline in rural communities and the out-migration of younger generations of Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans have all contributed to an erosion of traditional wooden boat building skills. As a result, there are very few communities today that are recognized for maintaining that traditional boat building heritage.
Fogo Island and Change Islands are well known for their fine boat building techniques and today those traditional methods and skills are being revived and preserved. The Shorefast Foundation is currently creating a heritage collection of wooden boats. It is involved in traditional boat building projects with experienced builders on both Fogo Island and Change Islands. The Foundation has also begun a ground-breaking boat building program with students and staff at the local high school and it is in the process of acquiring some older punts that will be included in the heritage collection.
These boats will be available for the general public to view and learn about the traditional building methods. Allowing residents and visitors to use the collection will bring our maritime history alive through direct experience so our punt heritage can be enjoyed, preserved and passed along to future generations. The Great Fogo Island Punt Race will create a greater awareness of this wooden boat heritage, help preserve the traditional skills and methods, and promote the pride, appreciation and enjoyment of the great wooden boats of Fogo Island and Change Islands. These boats embody the very nature of our people; ingenious, creative, adaptable, resourceful and hard working.
As with any endeavour, boatbuilding of Fogo and Change Islands have developed its own very unique terminology. You may click here to see a sample list of boatbuilding terms that are unique to our corner of the world.
History of Community Races and Rowing
Rowing races and local regattas were once a part of summer recreational activities in many coastal communities of Newfoundland and Labrador. For at least one day during the summer fishery various boats and fishing crews participated in a day of sport and enjoyment as they raced against neighbours and family members.
The races took place in harbours, coves and bays and attracted entire communities to follow the events and cheer on their men. While these informal summer celebrations provided a break from the long days of work during the fishing season they also demonstrated the incredible strength, remarkable skills and competitive nature of these hardy participants.
These coastal rowing races can be traced as far back as the mid-nineteenth century in Newfoundland and even further in Ireland, the United Kingdom and many European countries. Rowing was a means of survival and earning a living. In some countries crews often raced for the best fishing grounds and boats raced out to meet schooners with the winners receiving valuable piloting or tendering contracts. On special occasions these same crews raced for sport.
The Great Fogo Island Punt Race is an annual summer program of friendly competition and enjoyment for people of all ages. Events will be organized for all levels of competitors from the novices to the experienced rowers. It will feature the traditional punts of the region and help develop a renewed pride in our wooden boat culture and heritage.
Youth Project with the Fogo Island Central Academy
Over 2 academic years, we partnered with the Fogo Island Central Academy to offer a punt building course to students aged 14 to 15. In 2007-2008, master boat builder Melvin Combden worked with teacher Phil Robbins to design and carry out the course, and in 2008-2009 master boat build Aidan Penton worked with teacher Kevin Martin.
Students learned about the importance of the punt to community and to family, its history as the main means of transportation, and the traditional hand tool building methods. Many were surprised to learn that while many boat builders weren’t academically educated, they were experts at boat building and could create a punt with but 3 sticks for measurement. These boat building skills were also used when a church was built on Fogo Island; the technique can be seen in many churches across Newfoundland.
Together the master boat builders and the students built their own punts, from harvesting the traditional tree root or ‘moor’ and carrying out measuring and construction, to filling the seams with oakum and painting the punt the school colours of green, yellow, and white.
Traditionally, the community attending the launch of each new punt, as some would have helped build it or provide supplies, and all were interested to see how she would float. For the school projects we celebrated with a punt launch, letting the students each have a try, racing it against other punts, and enjoying refreshments together.
2010 Manning Award
In 2010, we were chosen by the Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador as a winner of the Manning Award for Excellence in the Public Presentation of Historic Places.
This award was created to recognize community heritage projects and the dedication and work of champions of heritage. It is named for the late Bill Manning, a former Parks Canada Superintendent of Newfoundland and Labrador National Historic Sites. Manning realized that the preservation and presentation of our heritage requires the involvement of people in the community.
Receiving this award is a recognition of the individuals on Fogo Island and Change Islands who have given their time, love, imagination, and hard work to bringing back the punts, and the joy and depth they add to our lives.