Last month we introduced you to boat builder Val Cull from Port Saunders on Newfoundland’s northwest coast. A very interesting man who started from humble beginnings, Val was self-taught in the art of wooden boat building and later learned the skills of fibreglass construction. He was best known during most of his career for his repair and vessel maintenance skills and more recently made a name for himself as the builder of some of the largest privately owned fishing vessels ever built in Newfoundland and and Labrador since the days of wooden schooners. Val’s success was the product of hard work and taking corporate gambles. Many of his career moves meant defying the odds and stemming some heavy tides.
This is Part II of Defying the Odds.
Val Cull was never one to spend too much time doing the same thing.
In 2005 and in his 50th year, he decided to try his hand at something entirely different than boat building. He sold his shipyard and went to Alberta.
But instead of working directly for one of the oil companies, Val stuck with his construction skills and remained self-employed. At first, he secured contracts as a framer and would frame up houses for home building contractors. Later, he built a large, high-end house on spec and sold it.
That worked well so he built more houses and sold them privately. Nearly three years later, he was having second thoughts about the faster lifestyle in Alberta and the call of home grew stronger every month. His yearnings to leave were cemented when he escaped death by what he describes as “just a fraction of a second.”
“I was driving south on a highway near Grand Prairie when a truck going west came barreling through a red light at more than 100 kilometres an hour and T-boned me. He struck the front of my truck and totally demolished both our vehicles. If he had hit me a fraction of a second later he would have struck me dead on and I would have been dead. That’s was about when I decided it was time to go home.”
Val still suffers some physical discomfort from that incident, along with recurring nightmares.
Meanwhile, home had no shortage of close calls for Val either.
He was about one year old when he first narrowly averted death. His father came home from working in the woods one cold winter’s evening in Great Brehat and was told that Val had died. Val recounts the story in his matter-of-fact manner of storytelling.
“My grandmother had me laid out for dead. It was at a time when measles, whooping cough and all kinds of stuff like that was on the go. She looked at dad and said ‘your son is gone Josh.’ So with that, dad ran upstairs where I was and he picked me up and opened up the big window and held me outside. It was about minus 20 degrees and I suppose shock of the bitter cold opened my pipes and lungs or something and a big gasp of air went through me.”
After some careful home care nursing techniques, Val made a full recovery.
Val says that was his first close call of what would be many. His next close encounter came five years later when he fell overboard.
“I fell from the wharf and unable to swim, I sank to the bottom. One of dad’s sharemen (crewmember) saw me on the bottom and dived down. By the time he got me up I was almost gone. That was my second close call and I was still only six years old.”
Val has had so many hair-raising brushes with death that he is reluctant to talk about all of them but one of the closest happened at the boatyard.
“A large piece of plywood got jammed in a heavy industrial table saw in the yard and it let go and went flying through the air. That piece of plywood struck my chest bone with such force it drove me about 20 feet backwards across the floor and popped my heart right out of its socket (chest cavity). I remember feeling really cold and two weeks later at the ICU in St. Anthony they told me that my heart stopped beating and the blood stopped circulating and that’s why I felt cold.”
On another occasion Val almost got shot to death.
“We had been duck hunting and this guy was walking up from the beach about 10 feet behind me. He had a brand new hammerless double-barrel (shotgun) and he had the shells left in and something happened and the gun went off and the shots just missed me — I felt the wind on my face from the shot as it went by me. And then, the shot hit a mud bank right in front of me and mud came flying back into my face.”
He wasn’t hurt other than being a little shook up.
Listening to Val recount some of those amazing stories is reminiscent of childhood days when outport boys would gather in a shop or someplace where elderly men would congregate and spin yarns. When asked if he any more, he answered, “Yes there are more but I think that’s enough for now,” he chuckled, saying something about how no one would believe him.
“Well, not one like the others but a couple of years ago we were at the cabin and this young inexperienced guy had a gun pointed straight at me. I don’t know if he realized it or not but it was loaded and the hammer was cocked so all he had to do was accidentally touch the trigger and I’d be a goner. I didn’t want to move quickly or say anything that would cause him to make a sudden move so I slowly reached out and moved him aside and took the gun away.”
Val says that might not sound like a big deal but when you see a loaded high-powered gun with hammer cocked and pointed directly at you just a couple of feet away, you need to take a deep breath and move gently to get out of harm’s way and get the gun away from there as well and disarm it.
Val bought a motorcycle recently and enjoys riding. He says he hopes nothing goes wrong that would use up another one of his apparent nine lives.
Meanwhile, feeling lucky that he’s escaped so many close calls, Val has put the wheels in motion to wind things down and get ready for retirement.
The company is up for sale and at the time of this writing, there was some very strong interest. If and when there is a sale, he will probably stay with the company for a couple of years to ensure a solid transition for the new owners.
“That’s why I’m starting the process now,” Val explains. “I figure if I wait till I’m 65, it would mean I’d be 66 or 67 before I could be fully out.”
Whatever his age at closing time, Val can look back at a job well done and a life riddled with near misses that will probably help him appreciate retirement a little better.