Restoring Dorothy: Gabriola artist restoring oldest sailing vessel in BC

Derek Kilbourn

Tuesday, June 12 2012

Look for the oldest sailing vessel in the Pacific Northwest and you will find her on Gabriola Island.
Tony Grove, Gabriola artist and wooden boat restoration expert, has been contracted by the BC Maritime Museum (located in Victoria) to restore Dorothy, a 30-foot gaff cutter sloop built in James Bay in 1897.
According to Tony, she is said to be the oldest vessel in Canada that has continued to be in use.
“This is a privilege,” said Tony.
Dorothy was designed by Linton Hope, an English naval architect, in 1894. Hope was an avid sailor and won an Olympic gold medal in 1900. The ship was commissioned by F.H. Langley, a prominent B.C. lawyer, and MLA in 1896. She was built by JJ Roberson who built her to Lloyd’s standards for around $1,800 (roughly $40,000 by today’s standards).
As Tony pointed out, Dorothy was unique from day one, being a pleasure yacht built in Victoria at a time when most ships plying James Bay were either coastal work boats or dugout canoes.
When Dorothy was originally built, she had no motor. In 1920 she was fitted with a single-cylinder engine and today has a 10-horsepower engine. Over the years she has had several owners, repairs and restorations. A major restoration took place in 1991, shortly after which Dorothy was purchased by the Maritime Museum and put in to storage.
Dorothy is 30 feet long and 24.3 feet wide. She has an 8-foot beam and a 3.5-foot draft. Her displacement is 5.86 gross tonnes.
Tony said he’s very much looking forward to getting inside the ship and seeing all the little things the builders had done back then.
“This is what guys did – they built wooden boats. There was nothing else to build them from. There are these archeological finds on how they put it together.”
So is he finding old ways of doing things for new boats now? “Absolutely. My profession is wooden boat restoration. Most of my learning is in seeing how things were done. This boat is 115 years old and still floating. I want to see why.”
As to whether the restoration will see Dorothy put back to her original 1897 form, or kept true to her ‘character,’ which has been formed over the past 115 years, Tony said not all the details have been worked out. He is going to try and keep her in character and as true to herself as possible.
“With boats, trying to keep things authentic, it’s important to preserve the whole history of the boat.”
The intent is to have her capable of going in the water when Tony’s done. He hopes to have Dorothy ready for the 2013 Victoria Classic Boat Festival. To accompany Dorothy, Tony (also a well known painter on Gabriola) has spoken to festival organizers and will be doing a painting of Dorothy to be used as the 2013 festival poster.
In describing Dorothy’s character, Tony said, “She is more of a yacht than a working boat. To have a boat built for luxury in Victoria of 1897 was extravagant.
The boats that were built for pleasure are easy to spot in historical photos, according to Tony: all one has to do is look for the long fantails out the back.
“The fantail was typical in the early 1900s. It showed up in yachts and pleasure boats.” Even for the infamous Titanic and her sister ship, the fantail was a signature of the luxury ships of that era.
Tony said, “Look at old photographs of Nanaimo Harbour, you’ll see these little boats that would have these fantails. You don’t see them as much now. They’re not a design that is as desirable.”
So why did the fantail, and the rest of Dorothy’s style of design go away?
“The design [now] is you have a motor that is more powerful or a sail rig that is more powerful to push the boat.”
Before the early 1920s, ships had to be very efficient in their design, keeping as little of the ship hulls from causing friction in the water; but in the case of luxury boats, builders wanted to have lots of space for passengers above the water line.
“So you have a short boat below the water line, but then you have this six-foot porch on the back that gives you more room to hang out on the boat. Dorothy would move like a witch – this boat would fly and respond very quickly.
“These days, you can build a box, stick a motor in it and it’s going to move.”
Tony said studying ships of Dorothy’s era could open the door for traditional techniques to be used to build more climate-friendly, energy-saving hulls.
Tony said, “In a period of 150 years, boat design and innovation has gone from wood to fibreglass now to carbon fibre. It has dramatically changed. So when I get to crawl in to one of these, I get to see what used to be done. It could very well influence designers of the future to get back to more efficient designs and shapes.”