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Lifelong Shelburne boatbuilder retires: ‘I knew how to build a boat when I was 15 years old'

Roland  DesChamp Sr. holds a photo of the first boat launched in 1963 by DesChamp and Jackson boatbuilders. KATHY JOHNSON
Roland DesChamp Sr. holds a photo of the first boat launched in 1963 by DesChamp and Jackson boatbuilders. - Kathy Johnson

SHELBURNE, NS – He was only a kid when he knew boatbuilding was what he wanted to do for his life’s work, getting his early learning in the trade from the pages of boatbuilding books read while skipping school in the late 1940s.

For close to 70 years, Roland DesChamp Sr., Shelburne, has been building boats, including the last 55 years running his family business, DesChamp and Jackson Boatbuilders Ltd.

At 85, he has decided it’s time to give it up and has sold the business, but not the name, which will surely go down in the local history books as one of Shelburne’s most celebrated builders.

DesChamp was in his teens when he decided school wasn’t for him. “When I went to school, instead of me bringing my books home and studying, I put them underneath a culvert and picked them up the next morning and took them back to school, if I went,” he said in an interview.

Roland DesChamp Sr. looks through photos of boats he built over the years while his wife Blanche looks on in the background. KATHY JOHNSON
Roland DesChamp Sr. looks through photos of boats he built over the years while his wife Blanche looks on in the background. KATHY JOHNSON

More often than not he would head to Don Lane’s store on Water Street, where he would buy boat books to study instead. “I knew how to build a boat when I was about 15 years old.”

STARTING OUT

You could say his boatbuilding career began rather suddenly. DesChamp recalled he was about 15-and-a-half years old, still in bed at 10:30 in the morning, when there was a knock on the door. His mother Sadie answered and there stood Dick MacAlpine from the boatbuilding firm Kenneth MacAlpine and Sons, who asked “if she had a young fellow here that wants to go to work. She said yes, I do and got me up and I went to work at dinnertime. I can always remember when I had my thumb on the doorknob to go in, I said someday I’m going to be opening my own boatshop. I was only a kid but that’s what I had in my mind and that’s what I did.”

“I can always remember when I had my thumb on the doorknob to go in, I said someday I’m going to be opening my own boatshop. I was only a kid but that’s what I had in my mind and that’s what I did.”

DesChamp worked for the MacAlpines for 11 years building wooden boats, gaining experience and knowledge. “I learned a lot from them,” he said. “I watched everything that went on. I was learning from good men.” His talent was recognized, with more responsibility being given the apprentice from building lap strake row boats on his own to his first drafting job for a 40-foot vessel. DesChamp recalled the day that his boss came and asked for his help in laying down a 40-foot hull. “In those days we used to draft them all out on the floor, which is what I learned from the books I got from Don Lane’s store. Anyway, he was foxy. He started and said you go ahead, I’ll be back. He’d come back and check every so often so that was my first drafting job. I guess he knew I could do it.”

From the MacAlpine boatyard, DesChamp moved on to the Atkinson and Bower Foundry, where he worked for three years before deciding it was time to start his own business. In 1963 he formed a partnership with his late brother-in-law William “Buck” Jackson, and DesChamp and Jackson boatbuilders was started.

THROUGH THE DECADES

Throughout its history, DesChamp and Jackson had three boatbuilding shops. The first one, on Wright’s Road, was built from wood salvaged from two old barns in the area. DesChamp said one of the barns was built with wooden pegs and from tongue and grove boards. When they took it down, “It was just like one of those old westerns,” said DesChamp. After taking the roof off, straps were wrapped around a couple of beams and attached to an old international truck. “When I took off in the truck, it looked like a building getting blown over in an old western. The dust was flying,” he said, laughing.

After seven or eight years at that location, DesChamp and Jackson moved to its second location on Hardy's Lane, where they stayed for about 30 years before moving to the final location in the Shelburne Marine Industrial Park in Sandy Point in 2001.

The first boat built by Roland DesChamp Sr. (left) and William Buck Jackson (right) was built for Lloyd Bower. CONTRIBUTED
The first boat built by Roland DesChamp Sr. (left) and William Buck Jackson (right) was built for Lloyd Bower. CONTRIBUTED

Up until the late 1970s, DesChamp and Jackson built wooden boats ranging from 33 to 45 feet in length. “We could launch them right out the back door. We had a little drink too when we launched them.”

Then fibreglass came along. At first DesChamp would buy the hulls from different boatbuilders that already had the moulds and he would do the finishing work. “I got mad one day. I wanted a hull and couldn’t get one, so I built two moulds of my own.”

The first was a 32-foot Cape Island-style hull. “That was the going thing,” he said. “I cannot tell you how many we moulded. It was steady, steady, steady. Then I built a mould for a 36-footer and that went like hot cakes.”

By then, Roland Jr. had joined his father in the boatbuilding business. He would mould the hulls while Roland Sr. worked in the finishing shop. DesChamp estimates he built more than 1,200 boats in his lifetime. “I enjoyed what I done. I must have if I stayed at it that long.”

Besides building boats for the eastern seaboard, DesChamp also crafted three wooden hulls in B.C. during the 1970s for three different customers who did the finishing work themselves. “They paid my way there and back and for my time,” he said.

While DesChamp has been more or less retired for the last 10 years, he has maintained an active role in the business keeping the books and ordering supplies. In 2015, DesChamp was recognized by the Nova Scotia Boat Builders Association with a lifetime achievement award.

“We had a good go at it, he said.

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