She was one of the hardest working schooners of her time. And the fastest.
Go to her website, bluenose.novascotia.ca, and you’ll see the descriptors. Undefeated champion, Canadian icon, Nova Scotian ambassador.
The Bluenose was a wooden schooner built in 1921 in Lunenburg, N. S. Mention her name and Canadians swell with pride. She delivered record catches of cod from the Grand Banks and repeatedly trounced her American race competitors.
She’s on our dime. She’s on a stamp. She’s indelibly stamped on our hearts.
“I often think of her as an icon and as a way to examine all kinds of history,” explains Captain Philip Watson, who started out as a deckhand and now helms the famous ship’s daughter Bluenose II.
Unfortunately, the original Bluenose sank off the coast of Haiti in 1946. But in 1963, the Bluenose II emerged from the same shipyard as her mother and the legacy of resilience, beauty, and national pride carried on.
Every April she takes on a crew of 14 young people between the ages of 19-30, many of whom have never sailed before. “We spend two months scraping and varnishing from waterline to top of the mast. Then we set sail for four months,” notes Watson. She usually stops in Maritime ports where visitors can meet and greet the captain and crew. In Halifax and Lunenburg, she is often available for harbour tours or “Deckhand for a Day” programs.
Due to the pandemic, last summer and this summer she’s only done “sail by” tours where locals wave and cheer from shore.
Chloe Marshall, of Pictou, Nova Scotia, was 21 when she applied to become a deckhand in 2019. “That season we took part in the Great Lake Tall Ship Festivals. Each week we were in a different port, welcoming thousands of people on board,” she recalls.
The program included watches in the pouring rain, answering questions from the public, and learning all the skills needed to up-rig, down-rig and maintain a wooden ship. When Marshall did another deckhand tour in 2020 during COVID-19 it was a little different. “I missed speaking with the public about the ship and her history,” she notes.
The Bluenose’s story began shortly after the First World War when people were reeling from horrendous battlefield death counts, as well as the decimating toll of the Spanish Flu. A boost in morale was in sore need.
The final race of the prestigious America’s Cup had been cancelled in 1920 because the owners of those sleek racing vessels were afraid the weather might damage them. Hearty fisherfolk of Lunenburg, N. S., scoffed at the wealthy yachtsmen’s fears. Sailing through fog, high winds, and cold, heavy rain was second nature to them.
American and Canadian fishing schooners had been informally racing for years – to reach the Grand Banks first and then be the first to get home to get the best price for their catch. An official race for real sailors, from real fishing vessels was organized. The prize was the International Fisherman’s Trophy along with a cheque for $5,000 (worth $69,000 today).
Nova Scotia picked its fastest schooner and invited neighbouring American fishing community Gloucester, Mass., to do the same. The race was held in October of 1920 and the American ship Esperanto beat the Canadian’s Delawana. Undeterred, Canadians began building the Bluenose. She was completed in 96 days.
Most ships at this time were named after the captain or owner’s wife. The Bluenose was named after a humble potato. Blue in colour, it is shaped like a fat little nose, grown in the Annapolis Valley, and eaten throughout Nova Scotia.
She was an everyman’s ship and embodied the hard work and resilience of Canadians.
Helmed by Lunenburg’s Captain Angus Walters, she was driven to the max. As sails ripped and lines snapped, she won her first series of races in 1921. In 1922, she won again. In 1923 there was no clear winner due to a technicality. The next race took place in 1931, and the Bluenose triumphed once more.
As her fame grew, she became known as the Queen of the North Atlantic. In 1929 she was placed on a postage stamp. In 1937 she graced the Canadian dime and stayed there.
The last race took place in 1938, when she was 17 years old. In a cut-throat tie-breaker, Bluenose beat Gertrude L. Thebaud in less than three minutes and the cup remained in Canada. Today you can see it on display at the Fisheries Museum in Lunenburg.
The age of the wooden ship was over. The Second World War was on the horizon and the Bluenose eventually was sold to the West Indies Trading company to carry cargo throughout the Caribbean. In 1946, while carrying a load of bananas and rum, she struck a reef off the coast of Haiti and sank.
That was not the end. In 1963, the same Lunenburg shipyard that built the original, Smith & Rhuland, launched Bluenose II. She had been commissioned by a local brewery to promote their Schooner beer and be an ambassador for Nova Scotia. Bluenose designer William James Roué and Captain Walters were consulted on the build and Walters sailed on her maiden voyage.
Bluenose II, now owned by the province, incorporates modern technology but when the weather whips up it’s still frightening.
“If I never saw another storm it would be a good thing. It’s like standing on top of your car, going down the highway at full speed,” says Watson.
The joys, however, outweigh the challenges.
“At sea, you see more stars than you’ve ever seen in your life. A 20-foot wave will crash beside you and you’ll see a dolphin in the wave, or a 600 lb. tuna finning on its tail. It’s a life changing experience,” he says.
Marshall, who returns to Dalhousie University to study oceanography this fall, agrees. “I’ve grown tremendously as a person since leaving the Bluenose II. I’ve learned new skills and expanded old ones.”
To mark the Bluenose’s 100th anniversary there’s a commemorative coin and stamp, and local breweries have released a few beers in her honour. Plus, you can track her “sail by” tour progress on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
How does Watson feel to be captain of such a beloved vessel?
“I am the luckiest guy in Canada.”
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