BLUENOSES AND THE BLUENOSE
05 July 2011 | Baddeck, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
If you are a sailor and you have ever bothered to study a Canadian dime, then you will have noticed the beautiful schooner that graces the back of the coin. I don’t think most Americans realize that this vessel, the BLUENOSE, symbolizes one of Canada’s biggest victories over its southern neighbor and is still a source of tremendous pride for the province of Nova Scotia and the town of Lunenburg where she was built. Her story illustrates the skill of the bluenoses, the Nova Scotian seamen that plied the Grand Banks, and the toughness of the boats they built to take on the storm-tossed seas around their fogbound coast.
The story of the BLUENOSE begins, oddly enough, with the America’s Cup. For as long as we have been sailing, Evans has followed the world’s premiere yacht race with a keen and critical interest. And for as long as he has followed the America’s Cup, there has been criticism of boats so delicately built that they have been dismasted or broken in half in what offshore sailors consider benign conditions. What I hadn’t realized was exactly how far back those criticisms went.
On July 24th 1920, with the American defender, RESOLUTE, and the British challenger, SHAMROCK IV, tied two races apiece and a brisk 20-knot sou’wester blowing, the contestants consented to calling the race due to weather. They were roundly condemned by the press and the public, who had been denied a nail-biting conclusion to the five-race series. But the most contemptuous critics were the offshore fisherman who regularly worked under sail in gale-force winds. They began to talk about “a race for real sailors,” a race between banks schooners crewed by the tough fishermen who did not play at sailing but made their living from it.
The talk in the United States remained just that, but in Nova Scotia a race was organized that same year, on October 1st in Halifax. Nine competitors chased each other around the forty-mile long course in winds of twenty knots. The schooner DELWANNA won the race by only four minutes and twenty-seven seconds after the WALTERS foretopmast came tumbling down in a chaos of sheets, halyards and rigging.
The jubilant Haligonians (as the people of Halifax call themselves) issued a challenge to the fishing town of Gloucester in Massachusetts in the form of a full-page newspaper advertisement on October 13, 1920 that set out the rules for the “International Fisherman’s Cup” to be held within three weeks. Eligible vessels had to be bonafide fishing schooners with at least one season on the banks; likewise, skippers had to be real Banks fisherman with a year or more of fishing behind them. The race was to be sailed boat for boat, with no time allowance - a real fishermen’s race.
Most of the American fleet was at sea, but the Gloucestermen scrambled to ready the schooner ESPERANTO without the benefit of an elimination race. On October 30th, the ESPERANTO and the DELWANNA squared off in the waters off Halifax for a best two out of three series. To the Nova Scotians huge disappointment, the Gloucester vessel won the first race easily; though the DELWANNA put up a fight in the second race, she still lost by seven minutes. The International Fisherman’s Cup – and $5,000 in prize money – went home with the Americans.
The wonder is not that the ESPERANTO won, but that the DELWANNA even came close to matching her. For the ESPERANTO and DELWANNA reflected the difference between the American and Canadian fisheries at that transitional time. The Canadians were still salting fish at sea and going back ashore only when the holds were full. Their “ark-like” schooners were designed for carrying weight, not for speed. The Americans, on the other hand, had all but finished converting their fleet for live catch. They took ice out onto the fishing grounds and returned to port with the catch still fresh. The best price for fresh fish went to the first boat into port – speed was of the essence. Compared to the Canadian schooner draft horses, their American counterparts were thoroughbreds.
The bluenoses of Nova Scotia realized that their traditional schooners would never beat the racy American vessels. Yet they could not afford to build a boat that couldn’t earn its keep on the Banks hauling the salt fish that still dominated the Canadian fishery. It is said that within minutes of the loss to the ESPERANTO, a group of wealthy Nova Scotians came together to create the Bluenose Schooner Company to build a competitive working schooner. They brought on board Angus Walters, the skipper of the WALTERS that lost by a hair to the DELWANNA, and an all-but untried designer, William Roue. On March 26, 1921, less than five months after the DELWANNA’s defeat, the BLUENOSE slid down the ways and touched water for the first time.
Great boats seem to defy the physics by which most boats are bound; great skippers seem able to pull from a boat more than it should be able to give. Once in a long while, a great boat and a great skipper come together and redefine the standard by which all other boats and skippers are judged. Such was the case with the BLUENOSE and Angus Walters. The man and his schooner would dominate the International Fisherman’s Cup for the rest of its spotty history until the schooner era passed away completely. But they would also dominate the Banks, repeatedly taking “highline” honors with the largest catches of the year.
After a season’s fishing on the Banks so she would qualify, the BLUENOSE beat the Gloucester schooner, ELSIE, in two races, taking the International Fisherman’s Cup back from the Americans. Despite the fact that the Americans built boat after boat specifically to beat their arch-rival, the BLUENOSE and Angus Walters never again let the Cup out of their hands. She won the last International Fisherman’s Cup in 1938, waterlogged and hogged, besting the GERTRUDE L. THEBAUD though she was seventeen years old and hard-worn from years on the Banks.
Walters was a contentious figure, unwilling to abide by what he considered irrelevant “yachting” rules and unable to suffer fools. He alienated many people along the way and had he not done so the fate of the BLUENOSE might have been different. When Walters could no longer afford the upkeep for his beloved BLUENOSE, he lobbied the Canadian government to take her on as a school ship or a floating museum but could raise no interest in her fate. His heart broke when he sold her in 1942, and four years later the BLUENOSE died a working boat’s death on reefs off of Haiti where she had been relegated to carrying bananas. Only after she was gone did the Canadians finally realize what they had lost. Walters lived to see an exact replica splash at the same yard where the BLUENOSE had been born forty years before. After studying then new BLUENOSE’s lines, spars and sails, he said, “She’ll do fine.”
Here in Baddeck, the schooner AMOEBA takes tourists out four times a day, keeping alive the memory of the BLUENOSE and her sisterships that worked the Banks for generations.
Keith McLaren’s A RACE FOR REAL SAILORS tells the story I have summarized here in full. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in learning about the International Fisherman’s Cup and seeing fantastic schooner pictures by the leading photographers of the day.