Boat building for War

Imagine a five-year-old boy whose father had gone overseas with the navy in World War 2. He might have become very interested in grey warships, despite his young age. If he had a chance to actually see one sliding into the water for the first time, it might have been a huge thrill.

Such was the case for me. In the summer of 1941 we learned that a long grey warship was being launched in Honey Harbour. On the big day, a crowd of cottagers, myself included, watched as the unfamiliar shape moved out of a huge building, slid down a marine railway, and floated on Georgian Bay.

I remember feeling a little disappointed. Some adult must have told me that when ships were launched their massive bulk would go hurtling into the water, throwing up massive waves and gouts of spray. Even at that tender age I was a “visualizer” and my mind expected to view such a spectacle that day. Instead, the long ship came down the track at a slow, controlled pace and eased sedately into the Bay. There might have been a few cheers from the spectators and some military ceremony marking the occasion.

This was an important event. It brought the war in Europe, where many of our fathers and other relatives were fighting, closer to us. The people of southern Georgian Bay and nearby Muskoka were being called upon to join the War Effort by using their knowledge and skills to help the military. At the Bay, this meant building ships and boats to support our Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in it’s support of Britain’s Royal Navy (RN).

As the threat of war with Nazi Germany grew in the late Thirties, the RN prepared other Allied navies to help. The RN provided designs for warships that could be built quickly by their allies, including Canada. These were smaller steel fighting ships like corvettes and minesweepers, and various wooden craft for coastal patrol and other defensive actions.

The latter consisted mainly of vessels known as Fairmile B motor launches, or MLs. They were 112′ long, 18′ beam, 5′ draft and powered by two engines giving a cruising speed of 12 knots and a top speed of 20. They could be equipped with armament, including guns, depth charges, and in some cases torpedoes. They would be used for coastal patrols and as escorts, sub-chasers, and various other activities.

Rather than being built in shipyards, which were going full tilt turning out much larger naval ships, Fairmiles were designed to be put together quickly by small manufacturing enterprises. Furniture factories could prefabricate wooden components, then send these to boatyards with skilled employees and facilities to assemble the boats themselves.

At Honey Harbour, Port Carling Boatworks of Muskoka had built a branch plant to tap into the Georgian Bay cottage market. When war broke out they teamed with other Muskoka boat builders to construct the Fairmiles from parts prefabricated in Gravenurst, Port Carling or Bracebridge. A long low building with a marine railway was erected where the Honey Harbour Boat Club is now. It stood there for decades after the war, used for the marina’s pleasure boat storage.

According to the Honey Harbour Historical Society’s website, the first Fairmile was prefabricated by Minett-Shields in Bracebridge then the components were shipped by truck to Honey Harbour where Port Carling Boatworks assembled them. That first Fairmile may have been the one I watched being launched in 1941.

After that, apparently, up until 1943 nine more of the big wooden war vessels were built entirely by some 175 to 200 local employees working shifts to meet the RCN’s needs. After the Fairmiles, they also built two “Lake” class wooden minesweepers.

Fairmile Q058 built in Honey Harbour (author’s collection)

Midland Boatworks, Grew Boats in Penetanguishene and Hunter Boats in Orillia all built Fairmiles for the navy’s defence of Canada’s Atlantic coast. A Midland-built Fairmile Q095 had the distinction of escorting the surrendered German submarine U-190 into harbour at St. John’s, Newfoundland, as the war ended in 1945.

Surrendered U-190 is escorted by Midland-built Q095 into St. John’s, Nfld. in 1945. (Library & Archives Canada)

Including other yards on Canada’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts, a total of 80 Fairmiles were built in Canada’s war effort. The quality of their construction was such that they performed for years after World War 2 as private yachts and in commercial roles such as the Eighty-Eight on the Bay’s inter-island route in the Sixties.

Three Fairmiles built by Grew Boats, Penetanguishene. (Marine Museum of Great Lakrs)

5 thoughts on “Boat building for War

  1. This is so interesting! I grew up hearing all these names (like the “88”) thrown about but had no idea of the larger wartime context till now.

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  2. Great to read that Dick. As I started, I thought there was a boat we grew up seeing and remembered the Penetang 88, so I looked it up and it said it was a minesweeper. It was good to finish your article and see that I was right. Many memories of looking south from the living room and seeing the Dover, the Midland City and then the 88 going along the channel.

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  3. Fascinating history, Ancient Mariner. It cannot go unnoticed that, as a young boy, you witnessed the building of these wartime boats. And when you grew up and moved to Sarnia, you worked at Polymer/Polysar/Nova etc., a company founded to produce synthetic rubber for that same war effort.

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