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Building a double-ended Navy whaler at Big Pond Boat Shop

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

The wood fireplace crackles. The air smells of sawdust. Two hulls in progress, each almost 15 feet long, crowd the workshop at Big Pond Boat Shop. A father and daughter hold either end of a long piece of wood, laying it on the spine of one upturned hull. Today’s project is to attach a keel to a wooden Navy whaler, specially ordered by the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust. When finished, the boat will sit on the deck of Canada’s oldest warship: the HMCS Sackville, a national historic site on the Halifax Waterfront.

The double-ended boat in the shop is modelled on a traditional design, with a contemporary build. “It’s a bit of a fascinating project,” says Pat Nelder, one part of the three-member staff at Big Pond. On ships like the Sackville, boats like this “were used as lifeboats actually…it’s called a whaler because its shape is very similar to whaling boats.” Pat, her husband Keith, and their daughter Dayna run the Big Pond Boat Shop in Martin’s River, Nova Scotia.

WHIRRRR—the sound of a power sander shears the quiet. Keith and Dayna are working together today. Dayna giggles as sawdust spits from the wood while Keith smooths it out.

Big Pond Boat Shop almost always builds boats from wood, but often they incorporate modern materials in their work. They build everything from original sailboat designs to custom orders like this one. “It’s a bit of a blend that we do,” says Dayna, “where it’s a lot of contemporary new ways of building but with the backbone of all that is the tradition of how a boat is built, and you see that with the Navy boat. There’s a lot of contemporary factors into it but overall it’s built like a traditional boat. So you get the benefit of learning the traditional way and the more contemporary way and how both things can work together.”

Dayna grew up watching Keith and Pat building in the shop. “My earliest memory would have been just a bare hull,” she says, “with them building it.”

She explored other options as she matured, looking for ways to satisfy her urge to be creative. “If anything, I tried as hard as I possibly could not to [be a boatbuilder],” she says, “I wanted to be a musician when I was younger. I went to school for that.” Guitar was fun, but wouldn’t provide the kind of career Dayna wanted. “When I was about 22,” she says, “I realized that I wanted to work in the marine industry.”

Boatbuilding is creative and active. It’s perfect for Dayna.

“I always wanted to do things by hand, so for me to sit in an office and do paperwork is not very creative to me,” she says, and “you get to be on your feet all the time, which I also like. I mean, you can create a boat or you can create music. If anything, it just means my hands are just a little tougher than they used to be.”

The whaler keel is the right length, and level, but one end is giving some trouble. As they drill through to the hull, the hole isn’t quite in the perfect spot. Pat comes for a quick consultation.

Many steps of this build have involved “a bit of trial and error,” says Pat. The boat is being built the same way it would have been, in keeping with tradition, but trying to make the traditional build happen with modern materials means “maybe a little more swearing than usual.”

The hull was designed by naval architect Laurie McGowan. “I didn’t have a lot to go on,” he says, “but used mostly some simple drawings from the British Admiralty’s ‘Manual of Seamanship,’ 1951, and modernized the construction for CNC-cut lapstrake plywood construction. The boat should weigh around 1,300 to 1,500 lbs, which is about one-third the weight of the fibreglass whalers used by the Sea Cadets today.”

After diving under the hull and comparing notes with Keith and Pat, Dayna climbs atop and drills one final hole. Friction with the drill makes the wood squeak. A wisp of smoke twists around the drill bit.

The three Nelders build boats together with relaxed aplomb. Smiles and chuckles dance across their faces as they approach the next steps. Pat returns to the company office in the house.

Tools pass from Dayna’s hand to Keith’s without looking. “We get along sometimes better in the shop than we do outside of the shop,” she says, “he’s a pretty easy guy to work for, and I think it’s great, because I get to spend time with my dad, and he also is just such a wealth of knowledge.”

The keel is screwed into place. Dayna mixes some sealant and brushes it on while Keith drills holes in another piece of wood.

Toward the end of the afternoon things are quiet in the shop. Both the Navy boat and the other hull have sealant that needs time to cure. Dayna coils an electrical cord. It will be a few weeks before the Navy boat is on the HMCS Sackville; then Big Pond will be on to another project.

As a wooden Boat Builder every day is different. From the hull to the trim there is always something different to do. The Nelders have built hundreds of boats and still encounter new problems to solve every day. They love what they do. “It’s nice to have a new project every time,” says Pat.

When they aren’t in the shop, the Nelders are often on the water, sailing or motoring somewhere over the Atlantic. Boatbuilding allows them to get out often and enjoy the lifestyle that comes with the profession. “My dad and I talk about it,” says Dayna,“it’s not necessarily a job. It’s more of a lifestyle.”


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