Rebuilding the Matthew

Kevin Curley
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Committee planning major overhaul of replica ship

The Matthew cannot be repaired, it must be replaced, says the chair of the Matthew Legacy Committee.

The Matthew in Bonavista is going to need to be replaced and the Matthew Legacy Committee has a plan that would see the replica ship completely rebuilt in two years.

That was the message given by Dr. Chris Randell at a council meeting in Bonavista last month.

It's been over three years since the replica of John Cabot's 1497 ship has seen water, but efforts have been ongoing to make the vessel shipshape for tourists.

The site will be open this year and Randell told council that if they have a good season similar to last year, they should have in excess of $100,000 in their operating account at the end of the season.

In an interview with The Packet last week, Randell said while the legacy committee is looking to build a new vessel; parts of the existing ship can be salvaged. Things like the mast, rigging and some of the below-deck timbers could be used in the rebuild, he said.

The legacy committee will now begin a two-stage project whereby they will replace the hull between this season and the next.

Once the hull is replace, they will be able to focus on the topsides, with new decking and putting the masts and rigging back in place.

Though the Matthew was first unveiled to the public in 1998, it had moisture issues that weren't resolved and, as a result, damages to the Matthew began with rot in 2006.

"It's normal for wood to rot, you look at a deck that's made of wood it will rot in Newfoundland weather as years pass, moisture and wood do not agree. Unfortunately, the vessel was constructed the way you would expect a vessel from the 1500s to have been built. There were areas in the vessel where moisture collected and was able to penetrate the wood," says Randell.

The legacy committee looked at the logistics of stripping the vessel and doing a full restoration in one go, but it would have been a fairly long interval and they would have missed out on one tourist season or more.

"That would have taken us out of the market place for that year, and then we would have to build on that lost patronage in the future," says Randall.

He said the committee contacted groups in other places with similar ships, like in Bristol, England, where they also have a Matthew replica, and in Nova Scotia, where the famed Bluenose schooner has been a tourist attraction for years.

They also had people in the ship building industry inspect on the ship for them.

Experts told Randell that a full reconstruction would work better than attempting piecemeal repairs.

"If we do it in a two stage process, we've got the vessel there now and it's in reasonable shape for viewing in its static situation within the building. So, we're going to conduct the season as normal and, unless there is a greater degree of deterioration and the vessel becomes unsafe, we will have onboard viewings again next season."

They won't lose two seasons and might even be able to do the whole reconstruction if they find the funding this year. In 2015 they would be able to do the rest of the work by dismantling the remainder of the ship.

"At that point The Matthew could see water and would be docked wharf side, it was never built to stay inside the building," says Randell.

He adds that if the ship was at dockside now it could suffer more damage with the amount of rot existing.

The Matthew is currently housed in the building constructed especially for its storage. It is currently open for the season and on board tours are ongoing.

"There are sections of the boat we won't allow people to go for safety reasons but you can still do an onboard tour of The Matthew. We intend to keep that going as long as we don't run into safety issues."


June 1997

Construction of The Matthew begins at the Marine Centre in Bonavista. The project is estimated to cost $1.9 million, which will include the $1 million Legacy Building to house the vessel in the winter.

When completed the ship will remain in Bonavista Harbour as a floating museum.

April 1998

Construction of the Newfoundland Matthew is nearing completion.

Dave Gullage, coordinator for the project, said the ship will be in the water by late April with the official christening on June 24.

Fourteen people were hired for the build.

June 1998

Another milestone was reached in the construction of the Matthew legacy project with the stepping of the mast in early June 1998.

Bonavista Mayor Betty Fitzgerald laid a silver Discovery coin before the main mast was set in place. Placing a coin in the mortise on the mast step is a custom with shipbuilders. According to tradition, it is to ensure the crew will not be short of money in the event of a shipwreck. The coin is then covered by the tenant at the base of the main mast.

June 24, 1998

The Matthew is officially christened in Bonavista. Frances Sweetland had the honour of breaking a bottle of champagne on the ship's bow.


During this year, the provincial government spends $490,000 to replace the starboard side of the boat.

May 2009

Site Supervisor Debbie Way suggests having a motorized wooden ship standing alongside their unmoving wooden ship.

I'm hoping people are going to say, Look, it can happen'. We'd love to have a motor in her.

The (Legacy) board is torn. Some of the members have been there from the start and they don't know if it's a good idea. The newer members say let's go for it'.

If it's done it won't hurt. It's just getting funding and getting people to believe it's necessary.

February 2010

It's announced that The Matthew would need repairs to be open to the public in the summer.

The board of directors says the only way to ensure the future operation of the Matthew is if it is designated a provincial historic site.

Financially, Matthew Legacy Chair David Hiscock says it has been a struggle to keep the site operating because the tourist season is so short. Last year, revenues for the site are $205,000 with $60,000 from admissions, $80,000 from the gift shop, $7,000 from various fundraisers, a $40,000 subsidy from the Town of Bonavista provides an annual subsidy and a provincial grant of $16,000..

This leaves us a shortfall of $45,000. Maintenance on the ship is also a huge task. A wooden ship like the Matthew needs constant maintenance yearly. We estimate that it could cost $200,000 annually to keep it ship-shape.

Right now we need as much as $750,000 to get the ship ready for the next tourist season, because there hasn't been anything done with it for the last four years, Hiscock said at the time.

May 2010

The Matthew Legacy Committee looks for help from the federal government for funding to repair the ship, after meetings with provincial government ministers and officials proved fruitless.

Hiscock says their only hope is funding from some level of government.

June 2010

The province's Department of Innovation, Trade and Rural Development (INTRD) decides to provide the funding to make the vessel ship shape for the 2010 tourist season.

It provides $10,000 donation to repair the ropes.

The Matthew Legacy committee also received a Job Creation Program (JCP) from Service Canada to install the ropes.

March 2011

It is announced The Matthew will be out of water for the 2011 summer tourist season.

The port (left) side of the vessel is falling apart and, according to David Hiscock, chair of the Matthew Legacy Committee, it looks like the vessel won't be sailing again anytime soon.

Hiscock said in 2010, when the boat was tied to the wharf, and pressure was applied to the ropes, it would separate the hull planks from the deck by four inches.

To get the boat back in condition, the portside and keel need to be replaced.

May 2011

Matthew Legacy lobbies the provincial government for another $20,000 for an engineering inspection on the lift that holds the boat above the water.

The committee's chair, David Hiscock, said although the inspection needs to be done, he's unsure of what the engineering report will recommend.

If it gets inspected and it's passed, we'll just get it painted and so be it, he said.

But, if it gets inspected and it's turned down, then what do we do with the ship?

We can't put her out because she's too bad and we can't put her in because the lift is gone.

August 2011

Matthew Legacy states it will now take at least $1 million to make all the necessary repairs that haven't been done over the years.

June 2012

Puddister Trading Company Ltd. donates $2,000 to help with repairs to The Matthew, which Mayor Betty Fitzgerald hopes will spur more donations towards the $1 million needed to fully repair the boat.

May 2013

Tract Consulting volunteers its time to develop a sustainability plan for the legacy committee.

April 2014

A fund for the Matthew is launched to save the ship.

The Matthew received a $5,000 donation from former premier Danny Williams, on behalf of the St. John's Ice Caps hockey team, and Kevin King of Shoal Investments Ltd. also donated $5,000. Alberta based company Biomax donated $1,000.

Organizations: The Matthew, Matthew Legacy Committee, Marine Centre Department of Innovation Service Canada Puddister Trading Company Shoal Investments

Geographic location: Bonavista, Newfoundland, Bristol England Nova Scotia St. John's

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Recent comments

  • George Smiley
    June 19, 2014 - 15:23

    Why isn't the Matthew currently in Bristol, England rotting? It was built before Bonavista's Matthew: Was it cost cutting in the construction phase or lack of proper maintenance? Either way someone should be held responsible.