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This N.L. fishing vessel endured stormy seas and heartbreak before it ever touched salt water

The Petten's Legacy, launched early Monday morning in Harbour Grace, is likely the largest and most expensive vessel ever built at a Newfoundland and Labrador shipyard for use in the modern inshore fishing fleet. The vessel is owned by the Petten family of Port de Grave, and its name is a tribute to the late Dwight Petten, who died a year ago. (Submitted by Mark Blundon - image credit)

Sitting in a thick leather chair on the bridge of his newly launched fishing vessel this week, Matthew Petten has the look of a man who's endured an ocean full of adversity.

His eyes are heavy from a lack of sleep, many days of intense stress, and sadness over the fact that his father, noted Port de Grave fisherman Dwight Petten, is not at his side for a milestone moment in his life — the launch of what is likely the most expensive and largest fishing vessel ever built in Newfoundland and Labrador for the modern inshore sector.

But he's also filled with a sense of relief on this Monday morning, as the Petten's Legacy rocks gently in the choppy water, buffeted by a stiff January breeze. It's the vessel's first day afloat following a difficult and lengthy launch effort that lasted a full week, required an army of determined men and machines and a unique bed of sturdy airbags, and came with a price tag north of six figures.

"It's been quite a few challenges, a few delays to say the least, but it all worked out," says Matthew, 33, as he relaxes on the bridge of his new marine monster, which is engineered with the latest technology and equipment to efficiently and safely harvest vast amounts of seafood from the North Atlantic.

Two years of setbacks and heartbreaks

The impressive new craft is 27 metres long, nearly 10 metres wide, and weighs a stout 400 tonnes. It's capable of holding 100,000 pounds of crab in refrigerated seawater tanks, has a million-dollar engine room, the latest electronics package, and can accommodate up to nine crew members.

It stands out among a flotilla of boats at the crowded Harbour Grace shipyard as it tugs at her mooring lines, and not just because of its immense size or the purple paint and impressive art that covers its sleek exterior.

The crew of the Petten's Legacy include, from left, owner and captain Matthew Petten, Billy Bartlett, Dave Gifford, Andrew Green and Tyler Petten. The fishing vessel was launched this week in Harbour Grace.
The crew of the Petten's Legacy include, from left, owner and captain Matthew Petten, Billy Bartlett, Dave Gifford, Andrew Green and Tyler Petten. The fishing vessel was launched this week in Harbour Grace.

The crew of the Petten's Legacy include, from left, owner and captain Matthew Petten, Billy Bartlett, Dave Gifford, Andrew Green and Tyler Petten. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

It's been two years of setbacks and heartbreaks for the Petten family of Port de Grave as they struggled to complete a dream that would cement the family's status as top-of-the-fleet seafood harvesters. The Legacy is a state-of-the-art, steel-hulled multi-species fishing vessel built to the largest dimensions allowable under federal government rules for the inshore sector.

Some would have buckled under the pressure and obstacles, including a pandemic that upended the supply and service sector and drove inflation through the roof, financial turmoil at the shipyard where the Legacy was built, a collapse in crab prices in 2023, and frustrating delays that drove costs to more than $10 million, about a 30 per cent overrun.

And if that wasn't enough, getting the Legacy in the ocean — a distance of roughly 120 metres from its construction dome to the water's edge — proved to be a much more daunting task than first imagined.

Port de Grave fisherman Dwight Petten.
Port de Grave fisherman Dwight Petten.

Port de Grave fish enterprise owner Dwight Petten died a year ago at the age of 56, but his legacy lives on in the Petten's Legacy, a tribute to Dwight and his late father, Willie Petten. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The vessel is too heavy for the yard's travel lift, and is too wide to be lowered into the launch pound, so heavy lift specialists from the United States were brought and used airbags to gradually slide it into the water, with the help of a fleet of excavators, front-end loaders, cranes and other equipment.

But it took six days to launch the vessel, as the Legacy proved to be a stubborn participant, and heavy winds also meddled in the process.

"Nothing goes as planned, but we we persevered and pushed through," says Matthew, who is grateful for the many family, friends, fellow fisherman and local companies who assisted in the launch.

But the biggest blow of all came a year ago when Dwight Petten passed away at age 56 following a brief battle with cancer, halfway through the building process.

Quitting not an option

Whether it was heavy seas or mechanical trouble or low catch rates, Dwight Petten was known as a fisherman who always punched his way through adversity and brought the highest standard to every task he undertook. His son Matthew Petten shares that same DNA, so as crushing as it was to lose his father, his mentor and best friend, quitting was never an option for the younger Petten.

The Petten's Legacy is pictured here last week outside of the construction dome at the Harbour Grace shipyard, where is was constructed over the past two years.
The Petten's Legacy is pictured here last week outside of the construction dome at the Harbour Grace shipyard, where is was constructed over the past two years.

The Petten's Legacy is pictured here last week outside the construction dome at the Harbour Grace shipyard, where it was built over the past two years. (Submitted by Mark Blundon)

"After everything that went on, we had to make sure we got it done," says Matthew.

He chokes up when asked what his father would think of it all.

"I think he'd be overjoyed. He would be extremely proud," says Matthew. "Dad truly was the best of the best."

WATCH | It took 2 years to build a new boat — and then move it 120 metres to the ocean:

Matthew's sister, Melissa Norris, praises her brother for boldly stepping out of their father's big shadow and guiding the project home.

"My brother Matthew and my dad dreamt up this fishing vessel, and to see it come to fruition is a moment that will go down in history. For us, it's something that is unforgettable," says Melissa.

"All I can think of is how Dad would have felt, and how proud he would have been, not only of the boat, but of his son."

A fishery fortress in Conception Bay

The Conception Bay town of Port de Grave is a fishing fortress, with dozens of vessels crewed by hundreds of hard-charging harvesters.

But the Petten name has been a mainstay in Port de Grave from the very beginning, and Dwight Petten — following in his father Willie's wake — built a prosperous fishing enterprise funded largely by a lucrative crab industry with a series of vessels that featured the word "Joyful" in their names.

The Joyful Sound, a 65-footer built in Triton and the latest in that series, delivered millions of pounds of seafood to shore during her two decades in service to the Pettens.

Dwight started planning for a new vessel six years ago, but those plans were shelved after crab stocks, the backbone of the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery, started to decline.

But the idea was dusted off again a few years ago after crab rebounded dramatically and catch prices soared.

It's been a bittersweet time for the Petten family of Port de Grave. Their new fishing vessel, the Petten's Legacy, was launched early Monday morning in Harbour Grace, but the man behind it all, Dwight Petten, died a year ago while construction was ongoing. Pictured here are Dwight's wife, Cynthia, and Melissa Norris, their daughter.
It's been a bittersweet time for the Petten family of Port de Grave. Their new fishing vessel, the Petten's Legacy, was launched early Monday morning in Harbour Grace, but the man behind it all, Dwight Petten, died a year ago while construction was ongoing. Pictured here are Dwight's wife, Cynthia, and Melissa Norris, their daughter.

It's been a bittersweet time for the Petten family of Port de Grave, including Dwight's wife, Cynthia, and their daughter, Melissa Norris. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The Pettens signed a contract to have the vessel built in Harbour Grace and commited to using as many local suppliers as possible.

But in the spring of 2022, Dwight became unwell, and was soon diagnosed with cancer. Knowing his father would not be around to see the vessel finished, Matthew decided to break the naming tradition and called the vessel Petten's Legacy, in honour of his father.

But the blows kept coming. Last year, signs of trouble started to appear at the yard, and by November, a court order was needed to keep creditors at bay as a restructuring began and a search for new owners that is still ongoing commenced.

Already delayed by a year, Petten worried his vessel would become a casualty of the insolvency, so in November, at the end of a challenging fishing season, Petten and his crew took control of the construction process. They spent six days a week at the yard, trying to advance the construction as much as they could.

"We didn't know if we would show up one day and the yard would just be shut down," he says.

Matthew Petten was all smiles this week following the successful, but challenging launch of his new and impressive fishing vessel, the Petten's Legacy.
Matthew Petten was all smiles this week following the successful, but challenging launch of his new and impressive fishing vessel, the Petten's Legacy.

Matthew Petten was all smiles this week following the successful, but challenging launch of his new and impressive fishing vessel, the Petten's Legacy. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Petten does not regret the decision to build the Legacy in Harbour Grace, and speaks highly of the yard's workforce, but wishes the process had been smoother.

As for the Legacy, the propeller shaft will soon be installed, and sea trials will begin. Petten is confident that his new vessel will be on the fishing grounds this spring.

"We'll make it work. I have no other choice," he says.

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