Derrick Burry can trace his family heritage back through multiple generations on Greenspond Island off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. On both his mother’s and father’s sides, his family have been seafarers through centuries. In recent times his paternal grandfather was a fisherman, and his father, born in 1931, worked in coastal shipping delivering cargoes around Newfoundland and up into Labrador.

Photographs Derrick Burry collection

Derrick stretched the boat’s length from 14′ to 17′ 6″ and used a borrowed set of three molds to establish the boat’s shape between the stem and transom.

Until the 1950s, few roads connected Newfoundland’s towns and villages, and the sea was everything. Families were self-sufficient and, says Derrick, if someone needed a small boat they would go into the woods, cut some lumber, bring it home, and build it. The culture was oral and local, communities tight-knit and isolated.

Derrick made 11 molds over which he would apply the strip planking. He planked the boat right-side up, working from the sheer down.

Derrick lived on Greenspond until he was six and, he says, was more accustomed to seeing boats than cars. “I can remember my first car ride,” he says, “but not my first boat ride.” His father built small boats, but unlike his forebears he built them for recreation rather than work. Outboards were becoming ever more popular in Newfoundland, and he built small powerboats, known locally as “speedboats.” He would build them one at a time, use them for a year or two, and then, when he got the itch to build a new boat, sell them on and go back into the woods to get some more lumber. Young Derrick joined him in the projects, going into the woods to help fell trees, lifting planks to be fit, holding the clenching iron while his father hammered in the clench nails.

The family moved to Gambo, a town at the western end of Freshwater Bay, a 15-mile-long inlet, where fewer people made their living from the sea, but Derrick’s father continued to build boats and Derrick’s love for small craft didn’t wane. One summer, when he was home for the long university vacation, he tried his hand at building his own boat. His father was away at the time, but Derrick believed he had the necessary skills to build a flat-bottomed outboard skiff. “I bought the lumber with money from my first summer-job paycheck, and built it by eye with hand tools,” he recalls. “It was a terrible boat. If it was empty it floated, but the moment anyone stepped aboard and the first seam went in the water, it leaked. I used it, after a fashion. I had an outboard and a bailer and wet feet.”

While Derrick strayed from tradition and designed an outboard well just forward of the aftmost thwart, in the bows he installed a small raised deck, known locally as a forechute—a feature found in many Newfoundland punts that combines a useful seat-cum-step and a small cuddy locker.

After graduating from Memorial University in St. John’s, Derrick remained in the city to pursue a career as a music teacher. He continued boating both in St. John’s and in Gambo, and then he restored a cedar-and-canvas canoe and became intrigued by boat construction. He helped a friend who was strip-planking a canoe, and the die was cast.

“At first,” he says, “I thought I’d build a ‘speedboat.’ I even got as far as buying some plans from David Stimson for his Ocean Pointer. But then I realized I wanted to learn to sail. My father had always spoken fondly about rowing and sailing punts in his youth, but I had never sailed. So, I changed tack.”

In Newfoundland, small working boats are known as either punts or rodneys. There seems to be little consensus as to the origins or true definition of either, although most agree that the rodney is the smaller of the two, typically no more than 16′ long, while both are smaller than 25′ with keels and round bottoms. Derrick decided he would follow tradition and build a punt for sail and oar.

Guided by the experience of strip-planking his friend’s canoe and having carefully studied Ted Moores’s book, Canoecraft, Derrick decided strip-planking was the way to go.

On launching day, Derrick was joined by his father, Edgar Burry, and dog, Rudy. At the time, CLEAR SKIES had just a single sprit-rigged sail, which could be wrapped around the mast and stowed within the boat.

“A local guy had a set of  three molds that he was willing to let me use. Around here molds get used and passed along all the time, there’s no ‘intellectual property.’ Someone has it, they pass it along. The molds were actually for a smaller boat—about 14′ overall—so I had to stretch it out some. I wanted my punt to be 17′ 6″ and large enough to carry three people. I flattened the bottom some, and introduced a daggerboard, but it’s still a punt.”

Derrick built the boat by eye. He created patterns for the stem and transom, and bent battens around them and the three molds. Having thus determined the shape of the boat, he made 11 molds to provide a building form for the strip planking. “When I thought it looked right, I went with it. It’s how my father built his boats. I talked to him on the phone, and he advised me on things to look for as I went along, but I worked on my own.”

Derrick bought some 2 x 6 and 2 x 8 spruce, the best he could find, and milled it into 3/8″ x 1 1⁄2″ bead-and-cove strips. He set the molds up in his garage, built the keel, stem, and transom, checked and rechecked the profile, and started planking. “I planked her right-side up. Back in the day, my dad and other Newfoundlanders always planked their boats right-side up, working down from the gunwale and tipping the hull on its side to fit the garboard. So that’s what I did. It was all new to me, but I’d been around so many boat projects that I was comfortable with the process.”

In CLEAR SKIES’ first summer, Derrick sailed with just the mainsail. The simple arrangement meant plenty of space for his wife, Pamela, and the Brittany spaniel, Rudy.

Less easy was the configuration of the rig. “When I was building the punt in 2005–2006 I found very few sources to give me insight on the style of sailing rig the Newfoundland fishermen would have used. I came across the occasional archival photograph, but most of my searches came up empty. From Dad’s description of the sail rigs used in his youth around Greenspond, it seems clear that the sprit rig was the most common for small punts.”

Derrick went back to his research. The more he read, the more he liked the simplicity of the sprit rig. “All I’d need to set the rig in place was a hole in the bow thwart so the mast could pass through it into a simple maststep. The sail was small and simple and could be doused easily, rolled up, and stowed out of the way. It didn’t need any rope or wire stays.” He conceived a 70-sq-ft spritsail with a single reef to reduce it to 55 sq ft, and had it professionally designed and built out of Dacron.

On launching day, Derrick christened the boat CLEAR SKIES and was joined by his father for the first outing. “I had never sailed. Never. When we put the boat in, I was excited and apprehensive. Dad took the lead. He was in his 70s and I’d never seen him sail before, I don’t think he had sailed his whole adult life, but I was amazed by all the things he knew, and how comfortable he looked. It seemed as though he hadn’t forgotten one thing after all those years.”

Following the advice of his father, Derrick fitted a 25-sq-ft jib in his second season. Edgar, seen here sailing with Derrick, had identified that CLEAR SKIES had too much weather helm with just the spritsail and suggested adding the jib to better balance the rig for a more neutral helm.

Father and son sailed together for many of the boat’s early outings, and each time they went out Derrick learned a little more. “I’d researched all the theory, so I knew how it worked in principle, but he taught me to sail, and passed on tips that I couldn’t get out of books.”

For the first summer Derrick sailed the punt with just the mainsail. But at the end of the season his father suggested adding a jib. “He said she’d be better balanced. Because I was new to it all I hadn’t recognized that she had significant weather helm.”

The following summer, CLEAR SKIES was launched with three homemade Tyvek jibs of varying sizes. Derrick settled on the 25-sq-ft version and had one professionally made. “Dad was right, the balance was better.”

CLEAR SKIES is firmer in the bilge than a traditional Newfoundland punt, giving her greater initial stability. Because of this, Derrick can comfortably row standing up using long sweeps set to the forward thole pins.

In recent years Derrick has also added a mizzen. Around Newfoundland, he says, wind strength can pick up quickly during the day. “It can be calm in the morning and blowing 25 knots by noon. I’d seen videos of Drascombe Luggers sailing in heavy winds with just the jib and mizzen and realized the additional sail would give me more options. Now, if the wind picks up, I brail in the main, keep the jib and jigger, and feel safe.”

Adding a mizzen provided more options for managing the boat and adapting to a wide range of wind strengths.

Derrick has been consistently happy with CLEAR SKIES’ performance. Under full sail in 10 to 12 knots, she moves easily at 5 knots and in heavier winds has often attained 6 and even 7 knots on a broad reach. She points high and has good stability on all points of sail but, he says, even after almost 20 years he’s still learning how to sail her and “on each outing I discover more of her characteristics and gain confidence in her ability to handle varying weather conditions.”

Today, CLEAR SKIES lives on a trailer in the garage where she was built, about 5 minutes from the launching area. Derrick has retired from teaching, so now, if the conditions are good, he drops everything and goes. The fall of 2023, he says, he had some of the best sailing he’s ever had.

With her daggerboard raised CLEAR SKIES has a very shallow draft, allowing Derrick to pull up to gently shelving beaches on calm summer days.

Derrick’s father died in 2021, but for as long as he could, he went on coaching and offering Derrick advice in boat handling and seamanship. From building to sailing, Derrick has learned every step of the way and built himself a boat he loves. And above all, he says, “I’m grateful for the opportunity to provide my father with another chance to experience the boating that he so enjoyed in his youth.”

Jenny Bennett is managing editor of Small Boats.

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