Gazing out over the ocean, I take a deep breath. A low fog bank hovers just beyond Nova Scotia’s Mahone Bay islands — a tangible if not impenetrable barrier between the land and the blue sea beyond. There is magic here, and sometimes on days like this, as I look out over the bay, I swear I can see the ghost of a tall Atlantic schooner racing across the ocean. I see her topmasts bending under a press of sail, and I hear the whistle of the wind in her rigging. Her huge, white bow wave rolls gracefully away to leeward, and I can almost hear the creak of block and tackle.
But this is no dream or fancy of my imagination; it is a memory. Looking over to the mantelpiece where the wooden ship model sits, it all comes back to me. The 3-foot reproduction of the great schooner stirs powerful yearnings in my heart.
I built that model over a period of years, carefully and without haste, a labor of love. My recollection of the work is warm and comfortable, the hours spent sitting at my desk in the study pinning small basswood planks to their frames, rigging a backstay aft and a jib halyard forward. Building her from scratch, with only my memory as a guide, the hull emerged from the hundreds of small wood strips as if by magic, my big hands almost instinctively knowing how to shape her.
Perhaps this was because I knew her so well, but it had not always been so. There was a time all those years ago when the life she offered had truly been a dream.
I was but a youth when I went to sea in her, a young man following his heart to sail across oceans in search of adventure. It had been a time of great awakenings when, like an open ledger, the pages of my mind were filled. What was written then has had much to do with what has since come to pass.
Taking my old, leather-bound journal from the side table, I run my hand over the cover. Nearly 50 years have gone by, and the words Bluenose II, which I inscribed with the tip of my seaman’s knife, have almost disappeared. I can see them if I tilt the journal slightly, better catching the light. Smiling, I close my eyes. The years roll back, and I am standing on the legendary vessel’s deck again. I am struggling to hold the big schooner to her northerly course, and my hands are beginning to cramp. The pressure of the big wheel’s thick spokes has molded my palms into two almost paralytic claws. I’ve been on the helm for only 40 minutes of my scheduled two-hour wheel watch, but the time seems like an eternity.
We are on the starboard tack under storm trysail, foresail and headsails beneath an ever-darkening sky, and as another of the strengthening gusts hits us, the 143-foot hull heels until her varnished caprail disappears under the white water rushing down her lee side. The big brass compass to port that we polished so religiously during previous months is green-streaked and coated with North Atlantic salt. Looking inside its casing, I catch the lubber line moving almost imperceptibly to the west. Handing a couple of spokes to port, I haul her down again. The skipper is standing, as he always does, just to windward and forward of the helm position, his legs spread with feet planted firmly on the deck to brace against the roll. He purses his lips; am I handling her right?
Opening my eyes today, I have a yearning for more. The pages of my journal are well-worn, and I finger them carefully. Reading from the beginning, I relive the day I joined the Bluenose II and the voyage of 1968. I was 17, in Marigot Bay, St. Lucia, where my father ran his windjammer cruise business.
The Bluenose II sailed the following day. After boarding our passengers at about 10 a.m., we heaved anchor and headed south, bound for the Tobago Cays. Under the able command of Capt. Ellsworth T. Coggins, the schooner spread her white wings and reaped a good northeast trade wind, just off the quarter.
The Bluenose II was a fine vessel, and I soon began to feel pride in my ship. Whenever her tall spars glided gracefully into harbor, people lined the shore to admire her long, sleek hull. They must have felt the same sense of awe that I did, remembering a time when her namesake was the best and fastest in the world.
Ahead, the open sea awaited. But before getting sail on, we had to stow the dock lines, fenders and the like. We checked that our two tenders were secured in their chocks and lashed to the big padeyes in the deck. Each boat had a canvas cover, which we snugged down. The 300-pound port and starboard fisherman anchors were lashed to the cat heads and to eye bolts in the deck. The port and starboard chains that ran from the anchor shackles to the hawsepipes and into the ship were pulled tight so they couldn’t swing around. The first mate, Skodje, had us lash some old canvas around each chain so the links wouldn’t damage the hull paint. We stuffed “puddings” in the holes where the chains led from the deck down to the chain locker. (In heavy seas, water will find its way below any way it can.)
We’d motored from land a ways, at least a mile. As the schooner began to turn slowly into the wind, Skodje went below. “All hands on deck to make sail!” he shouted.
The Bluenose II slowed, coming dead into the wind. The skipper carefully held her there as we went about the hoist.
The main went up first. The throat and peak halyards were run through fairleads on each side of the deck to the big hydraulic anchor winch drums forward. The chain clutches were disengaged, and the winch could then be used for hoisting sail. I tended the main peak downhaul. It was in a coil on deck, and I had to make sure it didn’t foul as it went up. The mate stood at the main tabernacle. I stood aft by the main sheet and quarter tackles. We’d rendered a few feet of slack into the main sheet, and the topping lifts and end lift raised so that the boom sat a good foot above the gallows frame. Skodje watched the topsail sheet, which had to be rendered as the sail went up.
The skipper gave Skodje the thumbs-up and signaled the winch to start hoisting. The two halyards came tight, and the sail climbed the mast. The Bluenose II was awakening. Her spirit stirred. The creaking of the blocks and the sounds of the sail going up were signals that, soon, she would be about that for which she was built. She shuddered, anticipating the moment her wings would fill with the freshening breeze.
The 4,800-square-foot sail continued slowly up the mast. Sail hoops slid easily on the spar, having been well greased. The skipper diligently kept the schooner into the wind. As the throat reached the top of its hoist, Skodje gave the signal to stop the winch.
The main throat halyard needed to be made fast on the belaying pin in the tabernacle, but there was far too much strain on the line for the crew to shift it. If the man on the winch were to slack, it would just lower the sail back down. This was the mate’s job. Skodje put a rolling hitch into the halyard using the heavy line spliced to the eyebolt of the halyard block on the deck. He held it in place while nodding forward toward a crewmate on the starboard winch drum.
The crewman eased back slowly, letting Skodje’s rolling hitch gradually take the strain. As soon as the hitch held the full load, the mate whipped off the halyard, allowing another crewmate enough slack to make it fast. Skodje signaled for the peak halyard on the opposite side to continue up, and the winch started again. Soon the peak reached the top of its hoist, and the skipper let the Bluenose II come to starboard a degree or so.
She would be on the port tack, and he put just enough wind in the sail to stop it from flogging, but not enough to hamper its final hoist. The bosun put some slack into the lee topping lifts so they didn’t hamper the sail as it filled to starboard.
“Take off the lazy quarter tackle now,” the skipper said, with the peak almost all the way up. “You can take off the other one now, and go ahead and put 6 feet of slack into the sheet.”
Skodje and a crewman put the final tension on the peak and throat halyards, using the halyard purchases. The gaff-rigged sail, in order for it to set the way it should, has to be peaked up properly. If it isn’t brought up well, the sail will set baggy. Skodje brought her up good and tight.
The schooner fell off a little to starboard, just enough to fill the after third of the mainsail. We moved to the foresail, hoisting it the same way as the main. We handled the downhaul, guy and topsail sheets the same way, too. The skipper let Bluenose II come a little more to starboard, filling the main and foresail.
Next came the jumbo. Once more, we got to it. There’s a special rhythm for hauling the easier halyards by hand, and we began a chant: One two, one two, one two.
Imagine six arms reaching up and down, trying to grab a line and pull it down in unison. There’s a method to the hoist that’s like a well-rehearsed dance. Usually two men of differing heights start out. The shorter man always places his hand just below the taller man’s. This way, every time the chant calls for him to place his hand on the line, it goes below the other man’s hand and all goes smoothly. When the third man joins, he takes the last, or lowest, hand position.
The jumbo went up quickly, and Skodje trimmed it. The sail was well set, with no scallops on the hoist.
Of all the sounds aboard our schooner, the most musical to my ears came during days like this one: the creaking of the blocks, the gurgling of the sea as it ran aft along the lee rail, the whizzing of the big galvanized hanks up the headstays, the chanting of men on the halyard, working hand-over-hand. One two, one two, one two. It’s schooner music.
The skipper brought the Bluenose II onto her course on the port tack, and we trimmed. From the stern, I could see that the three booms — main, fore and jumbo — lined up together, with the angle decreasing only a few degrees or so going forward. And the jib’s outer curve followed the shape of the others exactly. The Bluenose II came alive.
The sky was blue, with scudding white clouds, and the wind increased to a good 20 knots. The sea was moderate, but as we left St. Lucia behind, the dark blue surface began to undulate, and a gentle swell began to roll in from the north. Our schooner feels it.
The occasional dollop of warm Atlantic spray came over the rail and flew aft. We laughed and wiped our faces, licking the brine from our lips. It was a good taste. This was our reward. She was dancing for us. We gave her free rein, and like a thoroughbred racehorse she took off as if the devil were after her.
She hit 10 knots. Her 15,800 square feet of canvas took the wind square on, and she surged ahead. The knot meter climbed even higher. Our lee rail was near the water level, and every time she took a good roll, under it went. The main deadeyes dragged for a moment, whipping the sea into a white froth. Then she’d lift again, shuddering slightly, as if shaking herself before flying on.
We all felt exhilaration, a quickening of the pulse. We were standing on an ocean valkyrie, and she was running wild and hard, a roaring white wave under her bow, foam rushing past along the lee rail. Bluenose II moved with the rhythm of sea. When a big swell came from the windward side, she rolled and her tall masts leaned to leeward, momentarily reducing the amount of sail presented to the wind. When the swell rolled under the keel, she came upright again. With the wind full on, we felt her shake as she took off. Over and over, roll and go, roll and go.
The sounds of the ocean were with us, the hiss of the spray as it flew aft and of the sea foam as it fell away to leeward. The creaking of the blocks, the cracks and groans of a sailing ship at sea: These are good sounds, real and true.
Our decks were wet, and as the spray came aboard, the wind drove it horizontally over us. It was cold, but we were so excited that we laughed — the sun was bright, the sky clear. It was the perfect day, the perfect schooner and the perfect time.
A perfect life? Perhaps. Even today, I cannot think of any place I’d rather have been. The feeling as she lifted unbidden to meet the oncoming sea was a thrill. As I close my old journal and gaze out toward the Atlantic, I realize the great schooner was my first true love.
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue.