Over time, legends and their icons tend to grow, enhanced by successive elaborations. One of Canada's best-known icons is the fishing schooner "Bluenose". Known by some as "the boat on the dime", many Canadians have lost sight of just what made her worth putting there. Something about racing, racing against the Yanks and winning, right? Partly correct, but the whole story involves more than beating lesser boats and crews. The Bluenose was the apex of a long-running industry of fine ship-building challenged by the rising power of motor-driven vessels. In this excellent recounting of the Bluenost legend, de Villiers applies his fine journalistic skills to survey the context of the industry in a rapidly-shifting environment.
Framing his narrative in a roughly chronological order, de Villiers opens with the final race. Bluenose had been specially conceived from a challenge to hold races between fishing schooners crewed by fishermen. In fact, the contenders, even in new boats, had to engage in at least one fishing season to qualify for entry. Prompted by the cancellation of a yacht race due to "excessive winds", William Dennis of the Halifax Herald scorned the Yanks of New England for scrubbing a race due to weather that was ideal operating conditions for Atlantic fishers. The challenge was taken up and the North Atlantic Fishermen's International Competition was formed. Dennis' challenge wasn't the first suggestion for such an event, but the timing was fortuitous. The search for contenders caught up fisher Angus Walters, already in the process of building a new schooner.
Angus' long career as skipper of the Bluenose rightly dominates this tale. Among other things, he posed a late design suggestion to William Roue revising the form of the bow. It proved an immensely successful change. A significant trait of a fishing schooner is its ability to "sail close-hauled" - as near to heading into the wind as you can. The effect is to tilt the schooner until one rail [and no little deck area!] remains under water during a given tack. Bluenose excelled at close-hauled sailing, as many of her competitors learned to their chagrin. With a master like Angus Walters, who sailed with every stitch of canvas possible, Bluenose romped past its competitors with deceptive ease. The author might have skimmed over the details of the races for brevity's sake. Instead, he presents the action with animation, turning fine points into gripping accounts. Each race, and the later career of The Queen of the Atlantic are depicted with precision laced with sensitivity and pathos.
For de Villiers, the true tragedy isn't the loss of the Bluenose in the post-War Caribbean. It's the fact that this grand sailer was built in the era of industrialisation and early globalisation. Gasoline and diesel-powered boats were already at sea when the Bluenose's keel was laid. They were erratic and unsafe, and could land too many fish. Schoonermen protested their introduction with exactly the same complaints heard years later. Engine-driven boats weren't fast, but they were constant, and did the same job with smaller crews. Bluenose thus was not merely the most attractive and fastest schooner in the Western Atlantic, she was also the symbol of a fading excellence of design. Schooners have gone extinct like the great lizards - due to conditions beyond their control. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]