Alf Manuel has deep roots in Twillingate, a small town on the northeast coast of Newfoundland. Seven generations of his family have made their home there, and it was only in Alf’s lifetime that a causeway and bridge, built in 1973, connected it by road to the rest of Newfoundland. Naturally, boats and boatbuilding are steeped in his bloodline.
As a boy, he would sneak an axe from his father’s shop and chop a boat out of a scrap of wood. There were a number of boatbuilders near his home, and he was inexorably drawn to their shops to watch them at work. At 19, he built his first boat, a plywood skiff, and “it worked out all right,” he says, so he went to a trade school to learn more. Now 80 years old, he works in the shop that had belonged to his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. He has a long string of wooden boats, up to 56′ long, to his credit and is a highly regarded boatbuilder.
His most recent boat was inspired by the trap skiffs that he used to watch as they worked the Twillingate waters. They ranged from 28′ to 34′ long; the smaller ones, with a crew of two aboard, were also used for hand-lining cod in the fall when the lobstering season closed. The original skiffs were more boat than he needed, so he had in mind to build one 21′ long. There were neither surviving boats nor plans for the trap skiffs, so he started with a half model, carving the shape from memory. Lofting followed, and he drew full-sized lines for a skiff 21′ long with a beam of 6′6″. He gathered materials for the build. From a local sawmill he got live-edge Newfoundland black spruce for the planking and black spruce timbers for the keel; with the help of his son and grandson, he cut tamarack crooks for the stem and frames. Stainless-steel fastenings would be used throughout. Wanting to power the boat in the traditional way, Alf acquired a single-cylinder make-and-break engine.
He built the skiff over the course of two years, working only during the winters, often wearing a heavy coat and wool gloves while tongues of wind-driven snow lapped at the floor beneath the shop doors. He assembled the keel and frames upright, and then as the planking proceeded, he tilted the nascent hull to angles convenient to the work he needed to do.
After Alf launched the boat, the 4-hp Acadia motor he had installed developed a number of problems, so he switched to a more reliable and more powerful 13-1/2-hp Volvo Penta two-cylinder diesel. It pushes the skiff along at about 5 knots.
Alf does day cruises and some recreational cod fishing in the waters around Twillingate. Notre Dame Bay, which surrounds the North and South Twillingate islands, is cradled in Newfoundland’s ragged and island-speckled northeast coast and has no shortage of nooks and crannies to explore. In the late spring and early summer, the harbors and coves may be free of ice, but icebergs, spawned by Baffin Island and Greenland and carried south by the Labrador Current, are regular visitors, so numerous that Twillingate bills itself as the Iceberg Capital of the World. Verdant hills and wandering mountains of brilliant white ice make a spectacular seascape for Alf’s cruising.
Alf has spent a lifetime building and using wooden boats, but the boy who was often scolded by his mother when he came home with pant cuffs wet after wading from shore with his axe-hewn boats remains every bit as fascinated by them.
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