THE TRAGEDY OF THE BLUENOSE
For 25 years she queened the Banks. Yanks challenged her in vain. A proud nation put her on its coins. She wore the King’s sails. Then, in 1946, a humble tramp, she died on a far shore. Lunenburg mourns as if it were yesterday
GET to Lunenburg,” the editor’s request said, “and pick up a yarn on the tragedy of the Bluenose.”
Tragedy! What was there tragic about that roaring old great one? Old Stormalong herself! Old Weather Leg! The champion fishing schooner of the North Atlantic with the wood to beat her still growing! She had tramped them down from 1921 to 1938 one after the other as they came; the best Gloucester, Mass., and Boston could produce in those last tempestuous days of sail. She had started slow with them and reached placidly out
the off-wind leg to the turning huoy as relaxed as a sauntering steeplechaser. And then, with a snort and a flexing of her great loins, she hardened on the wind, sheets in, rail down, spray flying off her powerful bow and left them wallowing and beaten astern.
ElBie, the Henry Ford, the splendid Columbia, the Gertrude L. Thebaud she had beaten them all for the International Fishermen’s Trophy in five races from 1921 until the series was discontinued in 1938. She beat them in good weather and bad, off Halifax. Gloucester and Boston. In midcareer, just as Angus Walters, her firebrand little skipper, had warned, she brushed aside her one Canadian sister, Haligonian, who dared challenge her. Only once she lost a series (to the
Thebaud, in 19.30) but it wasn’t for the International Trophy; twice later she trimmed Thebaud when the stakes were down for the big cup.
She sailed to England where the King gave hern mainsail. She sailed the Great Lakesand queened it over the World’s Fair water front at Chicago and at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.
Her likeness, reaching across a blue sea, is on one of the most beautiful postage stamps in the world, the 50-cenl, issued in 1928-29. She is minted, topsails and all, on a Canadian dime. In stone mosaic she jogs forever
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The Tragedy of the Bluenose
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on the lobby floor of Halifax’ new post office. She sails, blowzy and fat, across 10,000 hooked rugs and almost as many pillow cushions. There are models of her gathering dust from Cape Breton to Vancouver.
During her 25 years she lived as an adored summation of Canadian virility and ability. She came to her end after only a short time of unhappiness which for a champion like her was to have the racing ended and to be too old and logged to be magnificent any more. She broke her back on a clean coral reef on the southwest corner of Haiti and slid her soft old spruce bones down into the blue tropical water where fish as bright as pieces of rainbow fan long lacy tails. What tragedy was there about any part of her?
But we found it in Lunenburg; a deep and moving and somewhat bewildered grief. Lunenburg, that rich, solid, German-ancestored county in Nova Scotia, Bluenose’s home port, is still mourning for her with a stark, tragic sense of loss that time does not seem to dull. Lunenburg is Canada’s eastern fishing capital, home of men who make a living from the sea. It has seen 20 generations of vessels launched, sail out their life and vanish in wreck or floundering or the dry rot of years. Vessels to Lunenburg are the commonplace machines of the fish-killing trade. They come and go. But Bluenose! She was lost in 1946. It might have been yesterday.
“Ah, don’t mention her,” Lunenburg says in the soft tongue which is no longer German but something as pleasant as a warm breeze off spruce woods. “Why, why did we ever let her get away to be wrecked, stranded, sunk down there? Bluenose! Mister she should be wit’. No matter what else we lost, Bluenose she should be
The feeling is strong, a group lamentation strangely moving in an outwardly unemotional people. It glowers just beneath the surface. One has only to mention her, and it wells up. It comes out in various forms trying to express itself. How the tourists will miss her, for instance.
“Bluenose! Take for example tourists. Who cares about Loon’burg? ‘Where is Bluenose?’ the tourists say, ‘Let me see that vessel.’ Now it is too late. But if we still had her, we’d dig a basin in the Point over there. Float her in and let her sleep in concrete. Then she would be wit’ forever. We could see her when we looked out and—tourists 25c. In up a stern gangway, out over the bow all day long, like ants. Think of dat, eh. Thrown away! Sunk down dere. Gone!”
The End of a Thoroughbred
There is remorse.
“Bluenose! You know how Loon’burg feels? Like somebody just buried their mother. Home now after the funeral, they sit in the kitchen and remember they didn’t treat her very good when she was alive.”
And much recrimination.
“Bluenose! The Government should have saved her. Blockhouses! Archives! They save things like that, but not Bluenose. The greatest topmast schooner the world ever knew. Perfection! A beautiful model of the past. She should have been saved for history. Good God, the harbor is empty without her. The rich men of Lunenburg wouldn’t give of their fortune when it would have done some
good. They are sorry now that she is lost down dere.”
It took some searching to find just where “down dere” is. Lunenburg feels so badly it does not like to think of that soft night in the tropics when she died. No one could remember the romantic name of the place where her bones are. Buried in the files of the Progressive, the town’s weekly newspaper, we found it. Wilson Berringer, a former Lunenburger who commanded her on her last voyage, wrote home about it. With Bluenose and his fourman crew, probably natives, he was waiting for orders in Jacmel Bay, Haiti. Bluenose was flying the house flag of her last owners, the West Indies Trading Company with head offices in Tampa and Havana. The trading company had purchased her in 1942.
That sale, now so bitter a transaction in Lunenburg, was not without its mitigating circumstances when it was made. The submarine war was at its worst. Prospects of trade and fishing in the North Atlantic were dark. Bluenose, a moneymaker as long as her master, Angus Walters, was on her deck, did not prosper under substitute command. She had not earned enough to pay her way and square up for a pair of $7,000 diesels bedded in 1936. The West Indies needed her. The tramp ship traffic normally supplying the Caribbean had been driven to cover by the undersea war. The islands were hungry. Sailing hulls, too insignificant and scattered to warrant a German attack, were in desperate demand. Bluenose, a fine carrier with her big hull (112 feet long at waterline, 27-foot beam) worked nobly from 1942 to war’s
But now the war was over and it was January, 1946, in Jacmel Bay. Get under way at once, Berringer’s orders came, and make a run in ballast to Aux Cayes, 68 miles due west along the coast. Getting under way at once meant that the last of the voyage would be made in darkness, a tricky business. There is a one-and-a-half mile passage between the reefs into Aux Cayes. On Isle Vache, five miles south of the channel, there is a flashing light but nothing else; no buoys or ranges. The currents, changing with wind and tide, are treacherous. The soundings, dating back to 1830, are unreliable.
Berringer, fearful of the reef and the unknowns, set a course a half-point more northerly than usual but in spite of it Bluenose made too much southing. At 7.20 p.m. a squall broke on her. At 7.40 the bow lookout screamed breakers and in an instant she was on the reef. Berringer reversed her engines and put the wheel hard astarboard and she came off a quarter length. Then a heavy swell struck her and laid her on her port beam and slid her back up the wicked coral. With every slow, powerful sea breaking over her now, Berringer and his crew crawled forward and got their lone dory launched without swamping and made the nearest island behind the reef. It was unoccupied.
Berringer came back alone in the moonlight. With her spars acant and her port rail under water she was dark and lonely on the moonlit reef. The big tradewind swell, slow, relentless, beautiful, was bursting silver as it hammered her. He watched his chance and managed to get a few things (he did not say what they were). Getting away a sea caught him and injured a leg and broke a small bone in one of his hands but he rejoined his men and they waited for dawn. He took three of them and went back.
In daylight she was, to quote him. “a hard-looking case.” Her back was broken and the break extended up to
the deck where she had opened thwartship all across her break beam (the transverse beam where the quarterdeck lifts a step up from the midship). Below she was half full of water churning so violently that none of her people could reach their clothes. Later with the sea down and help from Aux Cayes, those expensive, tragic engines were salvaged. She sleeps better without
A Sprite at Her Bow
Of her, save for Wallace MacAskill’s excellent photographs and a few trinkets taken out before she left the Maritimes—a bell that has lately become noisy for one—nothing intrinsic remains. There is only the mingled rage and sorrow of her loss and her saga. It is a live and growing saga. Like all great creatures she was touched with mystery.
She had a magic bow.
It came about this way.
In 1920, W. H. Dennis, proprietor of the Halifax Herald, announced the International Fishermen’s Trophy for working ships. According to the rules, contenders had to be rugged enough for the salt-fish trade and to have spent a season on the Banks. The course was to be about 40 miles; the prize, $4,000 for the winner, $1,000 for the loser.
That year, off Halifax, Gloucester’s smart little schooner Esperanto soundly trounced the pick of the Lunenburg fleet, a good heavy workhorse named Delawanna. This would never do. Bluenose was conceived and built at once to retrieve the lost honor.
Her design was entrusted to W. J. Roue of Halifax, who was just emerging from the amateur phase of a career that has gone on until he must be listed next to Donald MacKay as the greatest marine designing genius Canada has ever produced. He gave her a sheer that left low head room in the forward end of her forecastle.
The building yard of Smith and Rhuland at Lunenburg, where she was hull No. 200 and something, had built from whittled-out models — a rule-ofthumb yard—for a quarter century. Bluenose’s blueprints grew dog-eared as they were studied and followed step by step.
The low-ceilinged forecastle revealed itself when she was in full frame and the deck stringers were going into her. It would never do. A man could hit his noggin in that low place jumping out of bunk in a hurry. Who ever heard of a forecastle that did not have plenty of room to jig in? Starting from just aft the forecastle hatchway, the deck was given a new sheer that measured a full foot increase at the stemhead.
What a nose that gave Old Stormalong! With her big bowsprit jutting out of it she seemed to glower like an angry she-elephant, trunk extended, ready to charge. Roue had given her great power forward, a virtue the change in sheer should not have affected one way or the other, but when she demonstrated she could sail dry decked and easily triumphant up a wind and sea that drowned her rivals, men looked at each other in wonder. It must be her bow! That adzman’s rule-of-thumb change in her had been guided by miraculous luck. Not science and human genius had made her great, but a last-minute happenstance.
There was her wraithlike bow wave to further the superstition. It was no ordinary boil of spume hurtling off a rushing cutwater. It was light and airy. Sometimes if a man stared into it long enough it showed him a hollow within; a beautiful watery crypt shot with rainbow. If the rum had not been too long, all “Look! See dere! A
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fairy: gold hair, fish’s tail and all,
Roue smiled and let the pretty fancy live on. There was in truth a hollow inside her wave. He had called for her planking to be rabbeted into the sides of her stem, yacht fashion. Traditional fisherman construction insisted that it be rabbeted into the back of it. Into the back of her big oak stem it went. The planking instead of fairing smooth was drawn in to make a slight ridge in her at the exact place where she turned her wave and her quick water was spinning as it fell away.
There were several attempts to copy her. None of them was any good. Man, her myth insists, could not copy as spooky a ship as she. Angus Walters chuckled when we asked him about it.
“That spook is upstairs in one of my trunks: her plans,” he said. “They went in the day she was launched in 1921 and have never come out for anybody. Those fellas who tried to copy her squinted and whittled models. At night, when she was on the ways, they tried to measure her lines with calipers of long sticks. How could they copy Bluenose that way? I probably couldn’t build her new, plans and all, and have something exactly the same. She would be a hard vessel to copy.”
The Magic of Long Albert
Her true mystery is there: the mys! tery of all ships. They have, each one an individual being, a soul if you are a sailor and a realist. No two ship personalities are ever exactly alike. Even one-design dinghies fashioned of mahogany cut off the same log, with fastening identical to the ounce, can be as unI like as littermate puppies or your own children. Bluenose was given the gift of greatness; great luck and great personality as well as great speed and power. There will never be her like
Because ships are that way seafarers insist there is a Fiddler’s Green, the hereafter of the lost good ones. If there is such a watery annex to Paradise, the International Cup could enjoy a ghostly revival there. The whole fleet can muster now. The Ford broke up on the Newfoundland coast. The Elsie was lost off St. Pierre. Columbia floundered off Sable Island in the hurricane of August, 1927. Thebaud was rammed and lost in the harbor of LaGuaira, Venezuela, in a February, 1948, gale.
The yarns about the racing are distilling down now with the years, shedding the dull figures and dates and leaving those facets of the saga that are going on into folklore. The gargantuan arguments are now shorn of all bitterness. The colossal rum-drinking no longer has a headache. Even that Fairway Buoy in Halifax Harbor that Bluenose, racing Columbia, passed on the wrong side to her undoing during the 1923 race bobs happily, shed of all rancor, in the happy stream of reminis-
For our money Long Albert Himmelman emerges as her never-to-be forgotten character. He was a captain in his own vessel but Bluenose’s sheet trimmer in the racing. He was a very tall, thin powerful Lunenburger.
“is it my fault mother gave rre a haircut with a hole in it?” he explained his bald, domed head.
He was below in Bluenose’s cabin one afternoon early in her career when her many whims were being studiedHe stopped off talking suddenly and stared
"She feels,” he said, jumping up, "a leetle rope-bound.”
He ran up on deck and eased her sheet "this much,” letting her great
80-foot main boom just creak outward. As if that microscopic change in trim had started an engine within her, Bluenose perked up and sped away.
His uncanny ability to feel trim'and rate of speed by some strange inward sense helped him discover where Bluenose liked her ballast. Unlike other schooners who relish it midships and aft or midships and forward, Bluenose insisted that her pig iron be stowed in her two ends. Too much forward however would kill her as dead as a scow. Angus Walters used that knowledge on the rare instances when he wanted her to look slower than she was. He could kill her in light air by simply ordering men forward.
In the second race against the Ford, off Gloucester, in 1922, Bluenose’s crew knew her power to windward better than Gloucester did then—although Gloucester learned all about it later. They liked the look of the sky that day. It held promise of wind. The first leg from Gloucester Breakwater to Thatcher’s Light, however, started off in light air. It was a short four-mile reach with sheets well off and the two vessels were within easy conversational distance all the way. First one would take the lead and then the other. Ford had won the first race, a drifting match that barely finished within the time limit, and the Yankees were cocky. Boasts and invective and taunts and dire threats filled the air back and forth.
Slowly the sky’s promise paid off. Knot by knot the wind picked up. Just in time to be lead boat around Thatcher’s with a long, true windward leg in prospect, Bluenose slid into the lead. With her wind clear she would have her weather and her kind of sailing in 10 seconds. Long Albert ran aft and standing on Bluenose’s very stern he shouted back at the Ford.
“If you gentlemen got anything further to say, say it now,” he warned. “From now on it’ll cost you postage.”
He was lost a few years later in his own vessel with all hands somewhere between St. Pierre and Bay of Islands, Newfoundland. He was caught in a fall gale, bound up after herring.
“All of Canada Owned Her”
Angus Walters lives in a big white house around the corner from the Lunenburg foundry’s office. The years have been kind to him. He is a trifle slighter, a trifle more disarmingly mild-mannered than when he sailed Bluenose to her victories and she, in turn, made him the Dominion’s most famous Nova Scotian. There was something about the little skipper’s coiled energy, explosive force that Bluenose loved. She thrived under his dynamic energy in leash, his violence under wraps and understood him when it burst forth. He possesses it still. He was talking about Haligonian, the Canadian schooner designed by Roue for a Halifax syndicate to beat Bluenose'. Bluenose beat her easily in two match races in 1926.
“I knew what she was before they matched us,” he said. “We’d met her outside in the fishing. I’d watched her sail. ‘Don’t talk race,’ 1 begged Roue. ‘Please, Mr. Roue, for your sake, don’t talk race.’ ‘We’ve got to race,’ Roue said ‘All right,’ I said. I won’t do a thing. No racing canvas. Nothing special. We’ll just wash up and come as we are from the fishing.’ They took Haligonian up to Halifax and got all tuned up. We came in and they passed us coming up the harbor. On the wharf there were two fellows. ‘How do you feel about meeting the Haligonian?’ they said ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I don’t make a practice of talking about my vessel
before a race. You can see both of us and decide for yourself. I don’t like to make any prophecies. But I’ll tell you (and that mild, almost soft voice of the little skipper’s did not lift; only there was a sharpening twinkle in the steelblue of his eyes), you and your partner bring a couple of boxes of good cigars down to meet us when we get in after tomorrow’s race. I and my boys will have them half smoked before Haligonian’s got a line ashore.’
Talk of the sale of Bluenose came up in our interview. Captain Walters and a syndicate of his friends were the party of the second part in that transaction. They sold her.
“Don’t think the effort to keep her here wasn’t made,” he said. “It was. There were a few of us who knew what she meant not only to this place but to Canada. But there were just a few of us—too few. Nobody else cared enough then. Now they do.”
There was the matter of the noisy bell. It had been taken off Bluenose some years before. A society of Nova Scotians in Alberta wrote asking for some memento of her. Captain Walters granted them the bell. The storm of protest that followed has dinned in his ears. It has reached the editorial pages of the Maritime Press and been voiced on the radio.
“I’ll tell you why I sent that bell
out West,” he said. “I was the one who used to get the letters. I took her up the Lakes. I knew what she belonged to. Not just Lunenburg and Nova Scotia. All of Canada owned Bluenose. There were these people out there. They gloried in her even though they could never see her sail. I appreciated them and so did she. I thought they deserved her bell if they wanted it.” But Lunenburg is where all Canada pictures Bluenose. That is where her memorial will stand someday. If there is a young sculptor in the house right now—a young genius who can stand up for himself in a bargain because Lunenburg never could help shopping just a trifle over price—he might do well to hie him out to the eastward. A marble likeness of just a portion of her stern say with its beautiful fashion piece and the gold letters of her name would look good out Rouses Brook way overlooking the harbor. Or maybe her wheel and a bit of her deck with Long Albert down to leeward on one bony knee as he used to kneel steering her by the luff of her towering canvas. Or the little skipper himself with the after end of her 80-foot main boom slatting over as he jibed her.
Lunenburg is in the mood for a memorial. A beautiful mood when one thinks about it. A whole county tearful with grief for a vessel. ★