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Nova Scotia Motor Fishing Boats
From Power Motor Launch to Cape Islander
Nova Scotia Motor Fishing Boats


The Gasoline Engine

The gasoline engine was introduced into Nova Scotia near the beginning of the first decade of the twentieth century and was promptly integrated into existing sailing boats. But almost as quickly, new fishing boat designs were developed to make better use of the capabilities and versatility of the new engines.

Open-hulled Fishing Boat - 
Photograph: David Walker

Open-hulled Fishing Boat
An open-hulled fishing boat of the early sailing type, with a rare twin-cylinder make-and-break engine.
(Courtesy: David Walker)

With motor power, fishermen could pursue their calling more efficiently, albeit at a considerable increase in operating costs. The fishery changed radically, as the fishermen could now escape fatigue from rowing or dealing with contrary winds. It always seemed that favourable airs for leaving port were rarely suited to returning home. Now they could travel to the grounds at times of their own choosing, not those dictated by weather and winds. They could fish larger areas or tend a larger number of lobster traps. Fishermen could also return home much more rapidly at completion of their calling. They produced a fresher product.

In 1902, the first recorded use in Nova Scotia of a boat powered by a gasoline engine took place. Frank Hawboldt, a jeweller of Chester, saw a new make-and-break engine and designed his own. He made wooden patterns, cast the cylinder and crankcase, and machined the fittings. He then fitted his new engine into a boat and circumnavigated his home harbour. Afterwards it was recorded he was carried away from the wharf shoulder high by his fellow townsmen.

Engine - 
Photograph: David Walker

Make-and-break Engine
A rare, twin-cylinder make-and-break engine of an unknown make.
(Courtesy: David Walker)

The motor which transformed the inshore fishery was the make-and-break gasoline engine. The motors were crude and initially were something less than reliable. But for all their faults, they were preferable to the unreliable, sometimes cantankerous and vengeful winds.


Cape Island Boats

The most repeated story regarding the first Cape Island boat is that of the Atkinson family of Cape Sable Island boatbuilders. In 1905 Ephraim Atkinson, a house and sometime boatbuilder in Clark's Harbour, was approached by a client from Saint John, New Brunswick, to build a power boat. He did so, fitting the engine the customer supplied into a boat for which the customer possibly designed or provided the plans. Atkinson saw the opportunities in the new vessel design for the local fishery and went on to build a second similar powered boat. This became the first Cape Island boat, say Atkinson's supporters. One can imagine the local fishermen adding their comments about the new craft as Atkinson gave it shape and form in his Clark's Harbour boat shop. Descendants of Ephraim Atkinson are still building Cape Island boats on the island, though not of wood but of fibreglass.

A second version of the first Cape Islander story is that a busy boatbuilder, William A. Kenney of Clark's Harbour, built a gasoline-powered fishing boat before Atkinson. Details of the second version are remarkably similar to the Atkinson tale. Samuel Bowker from Nantick, Massachusetts, arrived at The Hawk in 1902, found Kenney and commissioned him to build a 46-foot steam-powered pleasure yacht in Clark's Harbour. A year later Kenney built and launched Fantus Parnell, said to be the first gasoline-powered boat in Shelburne County. It was similar in shape to the popular motor boats then used by pleasure-boat owners, often former sailing yachtsmen eager to try out the new power.

It is difficult to confirm exact dates, but sometime within the first decade of the twentieth century, other boatbuilders in Nova Scotia were also creating and launching their own powered fishing boats. The term "Cape Island Boat" did not come into general use until after World War II. In the literature before World War I and for years following, fishing boats with engines are referred to as "motor boats", "power fishing boats" or similar generic terms, and no local appellation is added. This continued a long provincial tradition in the fishery. Builders and users of small craft, whether rowing, sailing or powered, named them variously: skiffs, dories, flats or similar generic terms without considerations of style, provenance, power, design or locale.

Motorized Hull and Cape Island 
type boat- Photograph: David Walker

Sailing-type Motorized Hull and
Cape Island-type Boat

An early open sailing-type motorized hull with an early Cape Island-type boat with a flat transom, at Peggy's Cove.
(Courtesy: David Walker)

By 1914, powered fishing boats could be found throughout the province, and a number of races had been organized to prove the superiority of one boat type or one particular engine over another. The practice of fishing-boat racing did not begin with the advent of the motor-powered boats. There had long been a tradition of organizing and competing in races in various parts of the province. The races simply became much noisier, smellier and faster around the end of the first decade of the century.



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