By: Richard Crowder
Atkinson 'Cape Islander' Boat Builders
Ephraim Atkinson had been a competent and successful carpenter when he moved his family to Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia in the late 1800’s and established a home building business. Cape Sable Island is located off the extreme southern coast of Nova Scotia and today boasts a population of about three thousand. In the late 1940’s, the island was connected to the mainland via a causeway. Do not confuse Cape Sable Island with Sable Island, the unpopulated sandbar known as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic” located some 200 kilometres off the east coast of the province.
Ephraim Atkinson built many homes on Cape Sable Island, some of which are still standing over one hundred years later. With his insight, foresight, woodworking skills, and knowledge, in the early 1900’s and after some prodding from a local mariner, he put his mind to utilizing the newly developed internal combustion engine to provide more reliable power to commercial fishing fleets.
At that time, fishing fleets that were the backbone of the maritime economy and operated subject to the vagaries of the region's unpredictable weather. Ephraim designed a heavier, stronger, deeper-keeled fishing trawler with a protected skeg, round bilge, a flat transom, a flat bottom toward the stern, an extremely high stem and prow, and a much beamier full displacement gasoline powered engine. These attributes meant the boats were more stable and could venture forth in heavier weather, stay out longer, carry more gear, and most importantly, bring back larger volumes of catches.
Ephraim set up a boat building yard in Clark’s Harbour on Cape Sable Island, and over the coming decades began to perfect his design. He began to build longer and even beamier models which became known as the Cape Islander (or “Novi” – for Nova Scotia) which grew exponentially in popularity across the east coast of both the Maritimes and New England.
While initially the first Cape Islanders he built were less than twenty-five feet, today most of the smaller commercial fishing boats in the fifty to sixty-foot range utilize the Cape islander design, as does what are known as the Downeast and/or Maine lobster boats of New England.
The success of Ephraim’s designs, and the growing dependency on engine power replacing sail power, caused word to spread about the Atkinson yard and the Cape Islander design. Soon Atkinson designs became the standard for inshore fishing trawlers.
In the 1920’s, Atkinson sold one of his Cape Islanders to a William Frost of Yarmouth, Maine. Frost, himself a boatbuilder originally from Nova Scotia, is also the grandfather of renowned marine architect Royal Lowell, who is considered the originator of the Downeast Lobster Boat design, which was influenced by the Atkinson Cape Islander of his grandfather’s. Three generations later, Lowell Brothers are still in business.
So where does the pleasure boat part come in? Ephraim retired at age 80 just before the Second World War, and the business was taken over by his well trained and accomplished three sons. As the war ended and leisure time and money became available, knowledgeable pleasure boaters approached Atkinson about adding custom built pleasure interiors to their existing fishing boat designs. Each boat was built to the buyer’s own requirements.
By 1961, FRP (Fibreglass Reinforced Plastic) boat construction started to replace traditional wood construction, but Atkinson continued to build in wood. While recognizing the advantages of fibreglass, Atkinson also created molds for their most popular sizes. As the fishing industry started to wane across the east coast, many fishermen would simply coat the hulls of their existing wooden Cape Islanders with epoxy to extend the life of the boat. As a result, the market for new Atkinsons came primarily from the pleasure market.
Ephraim’s two grandsons, Bruce and Freebert, eventually took over the business and specialized in building three pleasure models of the Cape Islander design in 37, 41, and 44 feet but strictly in fibreglass. The Atkinson 43/44 Cape Islander Flybridge Trawler is recognized as perhaps being the closest to the original design. A couple years ago, this author had the pleasure of brokering one of these to a customer who brought it from Nova Scotia to Georgian Bay, Ontario.
By the 1980’s Atkinson became the Canadian builders for the famous Monk trawlers, and later still the Blue Seas 33. Still operating out of Clark’s Harbour on Cape Sable Island, Bruce and Freebert Atkinson have continued building right into the 21st century. Only Bruce remains today, and while the yard is still in business primarily for service and retro-fitting little new boat building is done.
In 2015, Bruce Atkinson received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Nova Scotia Boatbuilders Association for his contribution to the industry, and in 2017 the federal government announced that the famous Atkinson Cape Islander fishing trawler would be featured, along with Peggy’s Cove, on the reverse side of the Canada 150th Anniversary commemorative Loonie. Certainly a fitting tribute to a Canadian masterpiece.
You can read our full 'Before Fibreglass' series below:
For further information and pictures of Atkinson Trawlers, check out these websites: