Deeply rooted Nova Sco­tian work­boats in­spire this cus­tom cruiser.


Boats were a source of trans­porta­tion and in­come long be­fore they were a source of plea­sure. So it’s not sur­pris­ing to find a work­boat’s DNA in the bones of many recre­ational boats. This is es­pe­cially true of the trawlers and long-range cruis­ers we love so much. It only takes a brief glance at to­day’s pop­u­lar Downeast-style cruis­ers to see the sim­i­lar­i­ties with their lob­ster-fish­ing an­ces­tors. It is in­ter­est­ing, how­ever, to note that while this hand­some de­sign so ubiq­ui­tous in New Eng­land wa­ters is closely as­so­ci­ated with Maine, the style was ac­tu­ally de­rived from a sea­far­ing land even far­ther “down east” in Nova Sco­tia.

The Her­itage of Cape Is­land

For cen­turies the res­i­dents of coastal New Eng­land and Nova Sco­tia made their liv­ing from the sea; fish­er­men plied the rich wa­ters of Ge­orges Bank and Cape Sable Is­land in ketch- or sloop-rigged boats built of oak and pine. By the early 1900s the town of Clark’s Har­bour on Nova Sco­tia’s Cape Sable Is­land was home to car­pen­ters and ship­wrights turn­ing out what would be­come known as “Cape Is­land” boats. Around this same time com­bus­tion engines were also mak­ing their way into work­ing boats. Two en­ter­pris­ing young car­pen­ters in Clark’s Har­bour— Ephraim Atkin­son and Wil­liam Kenny—in­de­pen­dently started build­ing fish­ing boats bet­ter suited to this new en­gine power. Though they were not work­ing to­gether, their de­signs were re­mark­ably sim­i­lar: Each boat took ad­van­tage of the new power op­tions by fea­tur­ing an en­gine fur­ther for­ward and a long shaft that ran the length of the keel to a skeg-pro­tected pro­pel­ler and rud­der. These boats were deeper keeled than the tra­di­tional boats of the day. They car­ried wider beams—some were al­most half as wide as they were long. These fea­tures al­lowed fish­er­men to stay out longer in worse weather and bring in larger loads, and the new de­signs were so suc­cess­ful that they even­tu­ally re­placed the wooden sloops that had been in use for al­most 200 years.

While many be­lieve both Atkin­son and Kenny should be cred­ited for de­vel­op­ing this new style of fish­ing boat, Atkin­son is largely rec­og­nized as the orig­i­na­tor of the de­sign. Atkin­son’s boats had a rep­u­ta­tion as sturdy sea boats: It was well known that you could fish one of his Cape Is­land boats for years and prob­a­bly sell it for what you paid for it.

As to the name, Cape Sable Is­land lo­cals call them “Cape Is­land” boats. Out­siders will some­times use the term “Novi” or “Cape Is­lan­der,” but to a lo­cal, a “Cape Is­lan­der” is a per­son, not a boat.

On­go­ing Journey

A lit­tle-known piece of mar­itime his­tory is that Atkin­son sold one of his boats to a Mainer named Wil­liam Frost around 1920. Frost was the grand­fa­ther of the fa­mous New Eng­land naval ar­chi­tect Royal Low­ell. Many be­lieve that Frost’s early Cape Is­land boat is the true pre­de­ces­sor of what we now know as the Downeast lob­ster boat. Un­der the in­flu­ence of Frost, Low­ell, and other Maine builders, the Downeast style con­tin­ued to evolve to per­fectly suit its lo­cal use in a grow­ing lob­ster in­dus­try, and to­day its sea­wor­thy de­sign has trans­lated into one of the most pop­u­lar recre­ational boat styles ever built. Cape Is­land boats evolved into slightly dif­fer­ent boats to suit the wider range of fish­ing ac­tiv­i­ties in Nova Sco­tia. Yet de­spite mi­nor dif­fer­ences, both the Downeast and Cape Is­land de­signs have proven them­selves over many years and mil­lions of sea miles to be ca­pa­ble boats.

Ephraim Atkin­son was for­tu­nate to have three sons com­mit­ted to con­tin­u­ing their fa­ther’s legacy. In 1938 when Ephraim fi­nally re­tired at 80 years old, he knew his busi­ness was in good hands and that his Cape Is­land boat would live on. And it lived on so well that to­day ap­prox­i­mately 80% of Nova Sco­tia’s com­mer­cial fish­ing boats un­der 65 feet are Cape Is­land de­signs.

The Atkin­son fam­ily busi­ness con­tin­ued un­der the guid­ance of a third gen­er­a­tion, and sev­eral crafts­men would come out of Atkin­son yards to run suc­cess­ful busi­nesses of their own. With an im­pres­sive fleet of fish­ing boats be­hind them, the com­pany, now led by Ephraim’s grand­son Bruce, has con­tin­ued to build not only fish­ing boats, but a num­ber of per­sonal trawlers as well. At one point he was even the exclusive builder of Monk Trawlers. In an in­ter­est­ing turn of his­tory com­ing full cir­cle, Bruce Atkin­son has also built sev­eral “Blue Seas” Downeast-style cruis­ers de­signed by Royal Low­ell.

The De­sign

The Cape Is­land boat was never meant to be fast; it is built for sea­wor­thi­ness and car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity. They are known to be “tanks” on the sea. With a broad beam and deep keel, Cape Is­land boats track straight, and with sharp en­tries and soft chines they open a head sea eas­ily and al­low a quar­ter­ing sea to gently pass be­neath them with lit­tle yaw­ing or move­ment.

It’s lit­tle wonder that so many recre­ational boaters are drawn to the proven de­sign and the known qual­ity of the fam­i­lies that

build these boats. John Cowan and Marie-Anne Erki were one such cou­ple when they be­gan their quest for a safe, ca­pa­ble cruiser. With their re­tire­ment a few years away, Marie-Anne and John wanted to build and take de­liv­ery of a new boat while still in their home wa­ters of Lake On­tario. This would give them a few years to shake it down be­fore en­act­ing plans to cruise south in the win­ter. With years of boat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and mul­ti­ple de­grees in physics and engineering be­tween them, they had de­vel­oped a list of spe­cific char­ac­ter­is­tics and fea­tures they wanted in a boat. Like many oth­ers on a sim­i­lar quest, the cou­ple started by look­ing at mod­els cur­rently avail­able on the mar­ket. But with such a clear idea of what they wanted, it didn’t take them long to re­al­ize they would need to con­sider a cus­tom—or at least a semi­cus­tom—build. A well-timed ad by Bruce Atkin­son en­ticed John to call and in­quire about build­ing a ver­sion of a Cape Is­land boat for them. Their quest would cul­mi­nate in the con­struc­tion of Ir­re­sistible III, a 43-foot cus­tom built trawler.

Lessons at the Boat Yard

John’s in­tro­duc­tion to Bruce Atkin­son hap­pened dur­ing their three­hour drive from the air­port in Hal­i­fax to Cape Sable Is­land. With de­grees in both physics and phys­i­ol­ogy, John is Prin­ci­pal Emer­i­tus at the Royal Mil­i­tary Col­lege of Canada (RMC) in Kingston, On­tario. Yet in the car with Bruce on their way to the yard, it was John re­ceiv­ing a les­son in physics and hy­dro­dy­nam­ics from the boat builder. While John knew from his re­search that Cape Is­land boats had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing very sta­ble, he hadn’t thought much about why that was. Bruce ex­plained that un­like typ­i­cal cruis­ing boats, which are ei­ther un­der­way or an­chored, a fish­ing boat work­ing long­lines or haul­ing lob­ster pots is fre­quently op­er­at­ing at very slow speeds or stopped in the wa­ter. In do­ing so, they don’t have the luxury of al­ways keep­ing the boat pointed into the seas. Now, imag­ine crews on their feet mov­ing around the boat han­dling what can be dan­ger­ous gear and you start to see the rea­son why Cape Is­land boats are de­signed and built to be so sta­ble. Bruce also ex­plained the sta­bil­ity needed to be in­her­ent in the hull de­sign as fish­ing ves­sels can’t have the un­der­wa­ter com­po­nents of ac­tive

sta­bi­liz­ers mov­ing when they have lines in the wa­ter.

In ad­di­tion to sta­bil­ity, John was in­ter­ested in safety. At RMC, John had ac­cess to naval en­gi­neers and naval test­ing fa­cil­i­ties, and he was firm in his plans to have their cruiser built like naval ves­sels, with mul­ti­ple wa­ter­tight com­part­ments and pump­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties to sur­vive al­most any mishap. Bruce was happy to in­cor­po­rate this idea, along with many oth­ers, into the boat. Ir­re­sistible III has four wa­ter­tight com­part­ments be­low deck, each with high­vol­ume pumps ca­pa­ble of keep­ing up with a se­ri­ous in­ci­dent. A fifth com­part­ment in the bow is foam-filled to serve as a col­li­sion com­part­ment.

Ca­pa­bil­ity ver­sus Liv­abil­ity

Most off­shore cruis­ers don’t have large open spa­ces within the boat. Con­fined walk­ways and strate­gi­cally placed bulk­heads typ­i­cally make for safer move­ment around a boat at sea. How­ever, this con­fig­u­ra­tion doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make for com­fort­able liv­ing spa­ces. John and Marie-Ann were de­ter­mined to find a com­pro­mise in this area.

Ir­re­sistible III was built to be a com­fort­able long-range coastal cruiser with gen­er­ous ac­com­mo­da­tions, yet still be safe to move around when un­der­way. This was ac­com­plished with well-placed hand­holds through­out the boat. For a boat only 43 feet in length on deck, it has nicely sized liv­ing spa­ces. Tak­ing ad­van­tage of the port side be­ing pushed out to the beam, the main sa­loon has a width of 15 feet. The mas­ter state­room, nearly 12 feet long, starts at the full beam width and only ta­pers to­ward the bow. The pi­lot­house is over 12 feet wide and deep enough for a com­fort­able watch berth and two helm chairs. They have two large heads, un­usual for a sin­gle state­room boat, but a great mar­riage saver for a cou­ple liv­ing aboard. Head­room through­out is a full 6 feet 4 inches. The wellthought-out spa­ces have proven easy to live in and easy to main­tain. A tal­ented artist, Marie-Anne es­pe­cially likes that the pi­lot­house can con­vert into an art stu­dio, say­ing it has the per­fect light for paint­ing.

Power Plus

Ir­re­sistible III is pow­ered by an ef­fi­cient Cum­mins 660-horse­power en­gine that gives the boat a com­fort­able cruise speed of 8.2 knots at 1200 rpm, burn­ing only 4.1 gal­lons per hour. This pro­vides a range of 1,140 nau­ti­cal miles with a 10% re­serve. Slow­ing down to 1000 rpm—the min­i­mum Cum­mins rec­om­mends for con­tin­u­ous oper­a­tion—in­creases the range to more than 1,800 nau­ti­cal miles at a still re­spectable speed of 7.3 knots. The top speed is ap­prox­i­mately 12.5 knots.

Not over­look­ing any de­tail, John also con­fig­ured the boat to in­clude rig­ging for a 215-square-foot head­sail and an 85-square­foot main­sail for emer­gency propul­sion. The sails have worked well so far, though they have only been de­ployed in test runs. The main­sail can also be used as a small steady­ing sail while at an­chor.

A Sat­is­fied Con­clu­sion

Upon com­mis­sion­ing, John and Marie-Anne took their new boat home to Lake On­tario from Nova Sco­tia by way of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence Se­away. Quite a first cruise, but Ir­re­sistible III han­dled all of it per­fectly. They con­tinue to cruise the In­tra­coastal Wa­ter­way each year.

John and Marie-Anne ap­pre­ci­ate the con­tri­bu­tion that years of hard­work­ing crews aboard fish­ing trawlers have made to boats like theirs. They feel a kin­ship with the past and present when­ever they pass a work­ing boat on the wa­ter. Ephraim Atkin­son would no doubt be proud of the boats be­ing built un­der his name to­day and would likely take comfort know­ing his de­signs con­tinue to be safe work­ing boats as well as com­fort­able live­aboard cruis­ers.

Left: John and Marie-Anne in Charleston, South Carolina. Be­low: A quiet port af­ter the day’s catch in Peggy’s Cove, Nova Sco­tia.

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