SAILING SHIPS – THE N.S. WOOD CONNECTION (September 7/01)

During investigation of a wreck found in Wolfville harbour, the curator of marine history at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic made an intriguing, and what may be to some, a puzzling comment.

In a review of preliminary findings, Dan Conlin remarked that underwater archaeologists from Parks Canada took wood samples from the wreck. This, Conlin said, “should tell us whether (the ship) was built of local woods.”

In the same vein, a wreck found recently on a Haitian reef has been identified as the fabled “Nova Scotia ghost ship,” the Mary Celeste. If you read the various stories carried in the press, you probably noted that wood found in the decomposed hull of the Mary Celeste was a key in the ship’s identification. Apparently, a marine archaeologist identified the wood in the hull as coming from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Now the wreck found in Wolfville harbour is literally a nothing story compared to the discovery of the infamous Mary Celeste. Yet in both cases wood samples taken from the wrecks were, or in the case of the Wolfville wreck will be, important clues in identifying the vessels.

And now one more piece of intriguing information on the wood used in ships, this from the files of Kentville marine history buff, Leon Barron.

In Barron’s files is a document containing detailed specifications in a 1919 contract for building a four-masted keel schooner. The line in the specifications that interests me calls specifically for parts of the vessel to be built of wood from Nova Scotia. “Frame,” the specifications read, “to be of hardwood floor, Nova Scotia Bayshore Spruce.”

Barron tells me that in the shipbuilding era one often finds bayshore spruce from Nova Scotia as a component of sailing vessels. In some cases, such as in the spec sheets from the Amelia Zeman, bayshore spruce was often specifically called for.

The report on the Mary Celeste said that wood from the hull was of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick origin, cementing the ship’s identification; the investigation of the Wolfville harbour wreck includes checking wood samples to determine their regional origin and the contract for the Amelia Zeman calls for Nova Scotia wood.

As I did, you may ask why is Nova Scotia bayshore spruce called for? And why was spruce wood from the bayshore – the Bay of Fundy shore – favoured over other woods from the province and from other regions? And finally, what is Nova Scotia bayshore spruce?

The best way to answer these questions is to again call on the acknowledged local expert on sailing ships and the age of sail, Leon Barron.

“Nova Scotia lying on the angle that it is, north-east and south-west, and our prevailing wind being westerly, this gives the bayshore of the province an onshore wind,” Barron says. “These winds stunt the growth of the shoreside spruce, which is the dominant species on the shoreline, giving the wood more density and making it stronger and heavier. The salt air is what does it, the onshore winds carrying the salt air.”

The stunting effect of salt-laden winds on spruce stands along the Bay of Fundy is what made this wood preferable in shipbuilding since it was more durable. Barron said he’s been told the winds have the same effect on bayshore hardwoods.

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