Rebuilding the dead: Old whaler shaped with new hands

A piece of Newfoundland and Labrador history is slowly coming to life by the Albaola Foundation, a sea factory in Pasaia, Spain, to celebrate the Basque’s achievements in exploration and marine history.

Halfway through the first year of its construction, the San Juan de Pasages, Canada’s oldest recorded shipwreck found submerged in over 30 feet of water in Red Bay, Labrador, is expected to take another two years to finish. Once seaworthy, the San Juan will take a tour of the ports around the world, with plans to stop in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“What I’m told is the first trips are actually going to be around Europe. So they’ll go to various ports in Europe and we’ll be the next summer after the launch, or probably the same year, that depends,” said Jerome Canning, Newfoundland and Labrador boat-builder for the Wooden Boat Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador, who visited Spain to help build the San Juan, sponsored by the boat museum.

The Albaola Foundation has welcomed people with experience from far and wide to help build the ship. The moment Canning found support from the Department of Heritage and Tourism, he was on the first flight out to help build the whaling ship as a representative of the province’s museum.

“When I left, there was just the first level. All the frames of the first floor were done and they were just starting on the second flood when I left. Then it’s onto the third floor, and then they’ll start the planking,” said Canning.

Canning has been involved in several boat building projects. He constructed a Rodney, a small Newfoundland wooden boat usually used for one man to go hook and line fishing, at The Rooms, which he invited the public to watch his progress. He’s also constructed boats in the Wooden Boar Museum in Winterton and the Boat House in Placentia.

In Placentia, Canning built a chaloupe during the 2004 French celebrations for the 500th anniversary of the French presence in the province. The chaloupe is a French boat with Basque origins, used primarily for hunting whales.

“He seemed to be very confident in what he was doing (while building the boat) and he’s also very friendly in dealing with people’s questions about the project,” said Tom O’Keefe, President of the Placentia Area Historical Society. “He was very good about talking to people (who came to watch the building process) if they wanted to know anything about what he was doing.”

Canning got his start in boat building when his father retired and spent his time as a fisherman. Canning and his brother visited to go fishing with their father but their boat was too small for the three of them.

So Canning made his own boat. For years after, Canning would build a boat or two every winter. And now he’s building a massive whaler.

For now, Canning has returned home to Newfoundland and Labrador but plans on returning to Spain to help if he can gather the funds again.

The San Juan played the important role of a whaling cargo ship. It went down in December 1565 while riding at anchor in the bay with other whaling ships. During a storm, the ship’s mooring broke and it struck the island. The blow led to the ship’s sinking with a full load of 1000 casks of oil.

Parks Canada archaeologist divers discovered the ship after Dr. Michael Barkham translated a Basque sailor’s will, which was found by his mother, federal archivist Dr. Selma Barkham.

According to the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Site, the Basque whalers of France and Spain hunted right whales and bowhead whales around Newfoundland and Labrador during the 16th Century.

For over 50 years, the Basque whalers lived in prosperity, capturing whales migrating the Strait of Belle Isle waters.

The whaling ships averaged at around 700 tons and were some of the largest yet slowest vessels sailing across the Atlantic Ocean at the time.

From 1978 to 1985, archeological teams from Parks Canada conducted underwater investigations of the historical giant and found she was in close to the same condition as the time before her sinking. This investigation revealed the expertise of the Basque shipbuilding industry at its peak and Parks Canada wasted no time in documented all the details of the ship’s structure and formation.

This ship will not be an interpretation. The Spanish organization responsible for the ship’s construction plan on building the San Juan as close to it’s original form as possible, all the way from collecting the wood used from the same trees in the same forest areas to using the same tar, pitch and tools like wooden nails and ropes used to keep the ship together.

“This ship in Spain is a ‘fine line’ boat. It’s exactly what was underneath the water,” said Canning. “We have a piece of history here in Newfoundland and Labrador. We have a whaling ship that has not only been uncovered in the physical evidence but the evidence was documented as well.”


Special to Telegram