Legacy in Wood: The Wahl Family Boat Builders
November 4, 2013
Review By Forrest Pass
For almost half a century, the Wahl family boatyard near Prince Rupert produced high-quality wooden boats for the coastal fishing fleet. Founded by Norwegian immigrant Ed Wahl after the First World War, the boatyard built gillnetters for cannery fleets and trollers for independent fishers, as well as other craft, until the 1970s. Ryan Wahl, the founder’s great-grandson, mixes thorough research with affection and a little nostalgia to produce this work, a valuable contribution to the history of the BC fishery and its ancillary industries.
Wahl effectively documents the history of his family and its involvement with the fishing boat industry. The technical descriptions of boat building, especially the epilogue, which documents in text and photographs the construction of the last Wahl craft, are informative for the non-specialist, and the author has performed a valuable service in collecting the reminiscences of family members as well as of the Wahls’ employees and customers. The prevalence of sidebars is at times distracting, but none of the information they provide is superfluous. Even the family history element, which at times overshadows the history of the company, is intriguing for the detail it provides regarding life in the BC outports.
Assessing the Wahl boatyard’s historical significance is difficult. Certainly the fact that several Wahl boats are still cruising the BC coast attests to the quality of workmanship, and primary documents, occasionally reproduced in toto in the book, indicate a high level of customer satisfaction throughout the firm’s history. Yet, Wahl does not demonstrate as effectively as he might have the inextricable connection between the family company and the fishing industry. The broad context promised in the introduction (xv) is implicit rather than explicit, and some questions about the connection between the history of the company and broad themes in the history of commercial fishing are left unanswered.
Wahl certainly does address these themes occasionally, though. While the book is a celebration of his family’s successes, he does acknowledge some darker forces at play, for example the boost in business the Wahl boatyard received as a result of the internment of local Japanese Canadian competitors during the Second World War. In other areas, however, more explanation might be in order. After the Second World War, the Wahls shifted their focus from the gillnetters favoured by canneries to the trollers preferred by independent fishers.
Although Wahl does mention that trolling was much more attractive to fishers than was the indentured servitude of working for cannery fleets, he does not offer possible reasons for the significant increase in trolling in the postwar years. When explaining the decline of the family business, Wahl cites two broad phenomena – the consolidation of canneries and the emergence of new materials (such as fibreglass, aluminum, and steel) – that challenged the dominance of wood in fishing boat manufacturing. However, perhaps there was something about the structure of the family firm itself. Certainly, one of the oral history sources Wahl mentions suggests this as it indicates that small shops like the Wahls’, integrated not only with the fishery but also with the forest industry, lacked either the will or the capital to make the shift to fibreglass construction and thus lost market share to large shipyards in Vancouver. Although the Wahl boatyard was sold in 1976 and closed for good in the 1980s, several members of the family carry on the tradition, continuing to build custom wooden boats. Moreover, the original Wahl craft that are still afloat have been refitted as recreational vessels. In this sense, the fortunes of the Wahl company and the fishing boats it produced do indeed illustrate, in microcosm, the process of challenge and adaptation that has reshaped the west coast fishery and the communities and families it once supported.