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A New Use for Old Boats

For centuries, wooden fishing boats plied the rich waters off southwest Nova Scotia.

As a result, there is a long and storied tradition of boatbuilding in the province — with generations of master builders passing down their skills and knowledge over the years.

Wood, of course, was the only material boat builders had available to them and Nova Scotia craftsmen were masterful in the fine vessels that originated from local yards around the province.

However, all of that started to change 60 years ago.

According to the Canadian Museum of History, Nova Scotia started to explore and promote the advantages of an innovative, new material in the fishery — fibreglass. In 1961, the Nova Scotia Department of Industrial Development commissioned the building of a fibreglass inshore fishing boat.

A contract was awarded to the Atlantic Bridge Company of Lunenburg. The new Cape Island style boat was designed by William Hines of the Department of Fisheries and was christened the Cape Islander when it was completed in 1962. The Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries demonstrated the boat throughout the inshore fishery, allowing fishermen to use the vessel in selected areas, under varied conditions and using various fishing technologies.

“The vessel was not an instant success, despite the benefits of the homogenous leak-free hull, low maintenance costs and other apparent advantages. It seems the tradition-minded fishermen were unwilling to accept the new material. Some said it made alterations to the vessel difficult to achieve, while others claimed the material was too rigid and too hard on the legs of men spending longs hours at sea. After some years as a trial-horse, the Cape Islander was retired to the government-owned Liscomb Lodge for use as a pleasure boat by tourists who wanted to go fishing. It has since been retired and can be seen in the collection of the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in Lunenburg,” the Canadian Museum of History explained.

However, after the first vessel in 1962, almost a decade passed before anyone in Nova Scotia considered building fibreglass boats commercially.

Reginald Ross of Clark’s Harbour was a grandson and son of wooden-boat builders in Clark’s Harbour. He launched his first fibreglass Cape Islander in 1971 and christened it the Enterprises. It was 40-feet long overall, just eight per cent longer than Atlantic Bridge Company’s Cape Islander, but almost 20 per cent wider, illustrating the continuing trend in Cape Island boat design.

“Ross built fibreglass fishing boats in quantity in the old Vimy movie theatre in Clark’s Harbour, which had been converted for the purpose. Notably, he hired two local women for part of his production staff. His first fibreglass boats were small, open-hulled craft, larger but similar to regional mossing boats. They were fitted with either outboard or small inboard engines. The small craft were forerunners of larger vessels and when they were well received, Ross began to design their successor. Unlike traditional builders, he drew his design on paper. He then discussed his plans and the proposed idea with Ernest Atkinson. The plans of Enterprises can be seen in the Achelaus Smith Museum, Centreville, Cape Sable Island,” stated information on the Canadian Museum of History website.

And the rest, as they say is history. Fibreglass is now, by far, the most popular fishing vessel building material in this region.

With so many of the extremely long-lasting and durable fibreglass hulls now in operation, not much thought has been given as to what will happen to these vessels once they need to be replaced or are deemed unseaworthy. With the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of Atlantic Canadians, perhaps this could be the next fishing-related industry.

The technology involved in recycling fibreglass boats is still in its infancy. In fact, for decades, many thought that fibreglass hulls could never be repurposed. But various research projects are finding that there may be economically viable uses for old fibreglass boats — both fishing and recreational.

One such U.S.-based project, the Rhode Island Fiberglass Vessel Recycling (RIFVR) Pilot Program is tackling the disposal issue head on.

South of the border, the boatbuilding boom of the 1970s, 80s and 90s led to a large number of fibreglass boats reaching their end of life. Hurricane activity also continued to add to boat abandonment and disposal challenges. As a result, many fibreglass boats ended up in landfills or simply abandoned. “Boatbuilders, boat owners and boat businesses alike face limited options for responsible disposal,” explained Evan Ridley, Rhode Island Marine Trades Association’s Director of Environmental Programs.

Completed in 2019, phase 1 of the RIFVR project included collecting 20 tonnes of recycled boat material, processing it and suppling the product to concrete plants. The recycled boat material is used both as an energy source and as a filler for concrete manufacturing called glass fibre reinforced concrete or GFRC.

Phase 2 of the study will include an economic analysis of the pilot program to help determine long-term feasibility, legislation opportunities and regulations supportive of fibreglass boat recycling, lessons learned and resources to aid other fibreglass recycling programs.

In the near future, could old Nova Scotia fishing vessels possibly find their way into the back of your local cement truck? Only time and ingenuity will tell.