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Before Fibreglass- World War II & The Fairmile (Part 11)

By: Richard Crowder

So far in this series we have celebrated some of Canada’s renowned builders of wooden pleasure boats. Throughout that process and the research that unfolded, in many of the builder’s history, up popped the fact that throughout World War II, several of these builders were commissioned by the Canadian Government to build a relatively small (in naval terms) and fast wooden harbour patrol and submarine chaser ship called a Fairmile.

Even though the Fairmile is not exactly a wooden pleasure boat, it was so significant to the financial strength of the boat builders, to the history of wooden boat building in Canada, to its success during the war, and to Canada’s world renown, that we thought it appropriate that its history not be forgotten in today’s world of sleek, modern, fibreglass and aluminum designs. Following the war, unfortunately only a very few of the many Fairmiles that were built were actually converted for pleasure use.

The Fairmile Class B

It was only in comparison to navy ships such as corvettes, destroyers, and frigates that the Fairmile was considered a “small” boat and were actually called the “Little Ships.” The eighty that were built in Canada varied slightly from the British Admiralty design and were 112-feet LOA on a relatively narrow 17-foot beam with a draft of 4-feet, 9-inches. They were built in Britain for the Royal Navy by Fairmile Marine, thus acquiring their name.

The Fairmile was considered a Motor Launch of four classes, A, B, C, and D, depending on the equipment provisions assigned to it as a form of torpedo boat (similar in class to John Kennedy’s famous US-built PT 109). The four classes were essentially minesweeper, submarine chaser, harbour patrol, or rescue boat. The Royal Canadian Navy settled on the Fairmile B for anti-submarine work in the St. Lawrence River and up and down the east and west coasts of Canada. The narrow beam of the Fairmile made them very tender in heavy seas and they acquired the nickname of Holy Roller, among other affectionate names.

Records seem to vary, but the first batch of sixty were powered by twin 650 horsepower Hall Scott gasoline engines providing a top speed of about 23 MPH. Later models were outfitted with 850 horsepower Sterling Admiral engines thus increasing the top speed to about 25 MPH, a speed considered very fast in those days for a vessel of that size. Range was just under 2,000 miles at a cruising speed of about 10 MPH. It is possible that one Fairmile, ML 095 built in Midland, Ontario was fitted with twin V-12 supercharged Rolls Royce Merlin engines giving it a top speed of around 30 MPH.

Each Canadian Fairmile B had a crew of two to three officers plus fourteen to sixteen crew. Each was outfitted with an early form of Sonar known as ASDIC (Anti-Submarine Detection Investigation Control), fourteen depth charges launchable by a Y-gun (allowing simultaneous firing of two charges at a time), and forward, aft, and mid-ship 20-mm Oerlicon short range anti-aircraft cannons, each of which required manning by four men.

Since steel and aluminum were required for more pressing war purposes and were therefore in short supply, the RN and RCN chose a patrol boat built from wood. Dozens of Canadian builders were capable of building the Fairmile design and eleven were chosen: seven in Ontario, three in British Columbia, and one in Nova Scotia. In addition, Marine Industries of Sorel, Quebec was commissioned to build two slightly larger supply ships, the HMCS (Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship) Preserver and HMCS Provider. The eighty Fairmiles were smaller and did not achieve the HMCS designation as a Commissioned ship but instead were issued number designations painted on their bow from ML Q050 to ML Q129 – “ML” meaning Motor Launch.

The seven Ontario builders were Midland Boat Works, Midland; Greavette Boats, Gravenhurst; Hunter Boats, Orillia; J.J. Taylor and Sons, Toronto; Minett-Shields, Bracebridge; Grew Boats, Penetanguishene; and MacCraft, Wallaceburg. The Minett-Shields boats were built in their Honey Harbour shop, and the MacCraft boats in its Sarnia facility. Each built between seven and nine Fairmiles. The three British Columbia builders were A.C. Benson Shipyard, Vancouver; Star (Mercer’s) Shipyard, New Westminster; Vancouver Shipyards, Vancouver. They each built four or five. The John H. LeBlanc Shipyard in Weymouth, Nova Scotia built seven Fairmiles.

Fairmile B boats tied up in Halifax 1941
Fairmiles tied up alongside HMCS Sambro, Halifax, 1941 / From the collection of Laithwood Leigh /Courtesy of Judy Saunders

The Fairmile held an eight-inch oak keel, and the oak ribs and plywood interior bulkheads came pre-fabricated to each builder from various furniture and piano makers. This sped up the building process. The hulls were of double diagonal planked mahogany. Most took around six months to build from the laying of the keel to launching. Some took up to a year, but one from J.J. Taylor and Sonsis listed as launched in less than a month after laying its keel.

After an initial tendering process, the finished price was fixed for all east coast builders at $85,000; slightly less for the west coast builders. Adjusted for inflation, that’s approximately $1.5 Million in 2020 – amazingly inexpensive for a 112-foot boat. As a measure of its versatility and worth, some seven hundred Fairmiles were built by thirteen different nations during the war years.

Following the war and for a ridiculously low fixed price of $3,500 (considering some were less than a year old), several Canadian Fairmiles were sold to foreign governments, while six were kept by the RCN as training ships on the Great Lakes through the 1960s. Most were snapped up by commercial shipping or transport companies and eventually ended up abandoned, burned, or scrapped in the 1970s and 80s.

ML Q105, built in Sarnia, was loaned to McGill University of Montreal after the war and was used for research in the Saint Lawrence River. It was then sold to a Quebec tour company where it was named the Duc d’Orleans and ferried passengers around I’le d’Orleans. In 1978, it was purchased by two young Sarnia entrepreneurs who refitted and refurbished it to better suit its sightseeing purposes. It carried up to 195 passengers on the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers for some 27 years as the Duc d’Orleans before escalating maintenance costs forced it out of service in 2005 after which it was scrapped.

ML Q120, one of the Weymouth, NS Fairmiles, was eventually purchased in 1986 by the State of Maryland from a Delaware company and became the Governor’s yacht, the Maryland Independence, a swanky government entertainment yacht. In the early 2000’s, due to austerity measures, Maryland listed it for sale on E-Bay hoping to realize in the neighbourhood of $300,000. US. It was apparently one of the last of the Fairmiles in active use before it was eventually sold to a private Rochester, New York buyer. Its final disposition is not recorded.

With such a proud and successful history of protecting Canada’s two coasts during the war by brave Canadian seamen, it is such a shame that there is no known Fairmile on public display in any museum in Canada or at least in any of the eleven Canadian cities where they were built. But the legend of the Fairmile remains as a tribute to the talented and skilled Canadian craftsmen within our wooden pleasure boat builders who collectively rallied to produce these famed vessels in record time.

For more information on the history of the Fairmile, check out these sites:

You can enjoy more from our 'Before Fibreglass' series here:

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Carol Lawrence
Carol Lawrence
05 nov. 2023

Due to recent improvements in night vision (NV) technology, certain devices are now capable of functioning in conditions of complete darkness or very low levels of illumination. Numerous technological advancements are focused on addressing the deficiencies of the human visual system in environments with little illumination. To generate a discernible image, these devices have the capability to either capture and enhance existing ambient light or emit infrared light.

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