Wooden boats built Newfoundland and Labrador, said Pauline Thornhill, host and producer of CBC-TV’s Land and Sea. And “Henry Vokey has undoubtedly built more wooden boats than anyone in the province.” When she first met him, as the subject of the Land and Sea episode Wood or Nothing in 2009 (a second, One Last Schooner, would be filmed in 2012), Mr. Vokey “was hitting 80 at the time, and suffering from arthritic hands, [but] was still building, in the shed beside his house. He was the guy who just never retired.”
Mr. Vokey, who died on Jan. 27 at the age of 91, had been building boats since he was young, beginning with a scale model and teaching himself. At that time fishermen would have built schooners, “but for their own use, not to make a living,” said his daughter Josephine Johnson. In 1964, when Newfoundland was gearing up to its organized resettlement program, he moved his family to nearby Trinity, and there established Vokey’s Shipyard, building dories, trap skiffs, longliners, and schooners. At first he did everything himself, but in the 1970s and 1980s the business grew to include about 40 people, with as many as five longliners under construction at a time, and was the community’s main employer.
There’s no official tally of production but it’s likely he built more than 1,000 boats. For one, in the mid-1980s, after completing an American-commissioned schooner, he built himself the 50-foot, three-masted J and B, with a juniper hull, deck and masts of B.C. fir, cabins of mahogany and deck railings of oak. (He later sold it to a St. John’s-based tour operator; Mr. Vokey wasn’t actually interested in sailing.)
He closed his enterprise in the early 1990s. The cod moratorium had reduced demand and the fishing industry was shifting to fibreglass and steel-hulled vessels. But by then he had become one of the province’s most renowned master boat builders.
He had a three-masted 57-foot vessel framed out with spruce ribs and half planked in his shed, but a few years ago he began to feel too tired to finish it. Still, each winter he would turn out a 14-foot dory from his basement, for family and friends. Then, when he was unable to get up and down the basement stairs, he set up a workshop in his bedroom and made more than 100 miniature boats, fashioned with tall sails and placed into bottles. He was making one as a Christmas gift for Ms. Johnson, and she said for Christmas he had asked to have all the model boats brought into his living room so he could look at them.
“Henry truly was the king of Newfoundland and Labrador’s master boat builders,” Ms. Thornhill said.
“He was a very private man, and he didn’t know what to make of this recognition,” his daughter said. “One of his expressions was, ‘I don’t know what all the fuss is about.’ But boats were his love and his passion. It’s how he raised a big family. It’s what he was about, the boats. Not for the sailing but the creating.”
To Mr. Vokey, wooden boats were the only boats; he stayed traditional and did not venture into fibreglass or steel.
“Henry never got modern,” Ms. Thornhill said. “Sure, he moved on to electric tools and the like, but his approach to boat building never changed. He never strayed from wood. I remember Henry saying to me, for him, ‘it was wood or nothing.’
“And his wooden boats had their own particular style. I was told people who knew wooden boats could always spot a ‘Vokey boat.’ And if you owned a Vokey boat, it was a badge of honour. It was something special.
“I don’t think any current wooden boat builder could ever live long enough to have a career like Henry’s,” Ms. Thornhill said. “He built more wooden boats than anyone else in this province. His ‘Vokey boats’ became known for their sea-worthiness and value, and last if not least, Henry’s last wooden boat was a schooner. A fishing vessel from times gone by. He brought back a piece of Newfoundland’s past, as I think only Henry Vokey could.”
Henry Thomas Vokey was born Oct. 6, 1929, in Little Harbour, Trinity Bay, to Joseph William and Mary (née Verge). He was their firstborn, with five sisters and four brothers. He went to school in Little Harbour but left school at 14; as the oldest he was expected to work alongside his father at fishing and in the woods. He married Caroline (Carrie) Vatcher in 1947, and they first lived in Little Harbour where they started their family of nine sons and four daughters.
He was named to the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2007, was made an honorary lifetime member of the Wooden Boat Building Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2008, inducted into the Atlantic Canada Marine Industries Hall of Fame in 2012, and received an honorary degree from the Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2013.
Mr. Vokey was so humble about his accomplishments that on being nominated for that last accolade he had to be persuaded by his family to accept it, because he felt he hadn’t done anything to deserve it. “But we said, you’ve contributed all this knowledge,” Ms. Johnson said.
“Wooden boat building in particular is something now treasured in this province, because it was one of those things we almost lost,” Ms. Thornhill said. “Now, those who still know and practise the craft are celebrated.”
Mr. Vokey’s last schooner was the 43-foot, two-masted Leah Caroline. (Like all his most special boats, it was named for the women in his family, here his youngest granddaughter and his wife.) He laid the keel in 2009, when he was 79. The process was documented by the Wooden Boat Museum and the launch in the summer of 2012 in Trinity drew a large crowd.
Sadly, his wife, Caroline, had died on Jan. 27, 2010; the Vokeys were married 63 years, and she had made him promise to finish her namesake boat, which she never saw. Mr. Vokey died at home exactly 11 years after his wife, “and there was something so emotional and spiritual and peaceful about that date,” Ms. Johnson said.
Predeceased by his children Chester, Alonzo and Jane, he leaves his daughters Josephine, Bonnie and Bernice; and sons Stanley, Howard, Cyril, Wayne, David, Austin and Ivan.