Rebirth of an icon

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Canada’s floating ambassador sails again, thanks to those who are keeping Nova Scotia’s boatbuilding tradition alive

There are few places in the world more tied to the sea than the Maritime Provinces of Canada. And no place in the Maritimes is more legendary for boatbuilding, especially wooden boats, than the historic, picturesque town of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

The new Bluenose II

Lunenburg is the birthplace of the original Bluenose, perhaps the world’s most famous wooden fishing schooner, which for almost 20 years beat every competitor the Americans could put up against her for the International Fisherman’s Trophy. The same boatyard in Lunenburg is where her successor, Bluenose II, was built in 1963. It’s also where that boat’s replacement — a very modern but still traditional wooden schooner — has recently been built and is being fitted out.

Sea trials for the new Bluenose began in early June, then the boat will tour Nova Scotia, carrying on the role of Canada’s best-known floating ambassador.

Such is the depth of skill among the many generations of shipwrights, carpenters and metalworkers here that tall ships from all over the world set sail for Lunenburg when they need repair and maintenance — as does the Canadian navy, with some of its modern steel supply ships and warships. Lunenburg is also a destination for many commercial and recreational boat owners who want to commission or repair vessels, whether in fiberglass, metal or high-tech composite wood/epoxy construction. The new Bluenose is helping to keep alive not only a proud maritime tradition but also a wide range of local boatbuilding expertise and skills that go back more than 250 years.

Whether you arrive in Lunenburg by land yacht or by boat, you will find it to be among the most charming and remarkable harbor towns in Canada. It is one of only two entire communities in North America to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site — Old Quebec City is the other — an architectural gem, a perfect harbor and a center of world-class boatbuilding.

Bluenose I and II

The original Bluenose, designed by William Roué as both a fishing schooner and a raceboat, was launched by the Smith & Rhuland Shipyard in Lunenburg in 1921. The Halifax Herald had established the International Fisherman’s Trophy the year before to test the mettle of the working schooners out of Canada and Gloucester, Mass. that fished the Grand Banks.

The contest stemmed partly from the friendly rivalry and informal races between the Canadian and American fishermen. The schooners always raced each other, as the first boat back with a full load of fish usually got the best price. Another major factor was the disparaging view that all schoonermen had of the America’s Cup boats, which they considered to be ridiculously expensive and fragile toys sailed by dilettante “yachtsmen,” especially after the New York Yacht Club canceled a 1919 race because 23-knot winds were considered too much. For the tough old “saltbanker” schooners and crews, sailing through full-blown gales and storms in the North Atlantic was just another day’s work.

The Fisherman’s Trophy rules called for a “real” fishing schooner that had worked the Grand Banks for at least a full season. The sleek Bluenose was Lunenburg’s response to the challenge: 161 feet overall, 112 feet on the waterline, a 27-foot beam and a 285-ton displacement. Under its legendary captain, Angus Walters, Bluenose defeated its first American challenger in October 1921, and in an 18-year racing career she never gave up the trophy, winning her last race in 1938. The exploits of Bluenose became an intense source of pride and entertainment to Canadians, especially during the brutal depths of the Great Depression.

Bluenose captain Angus Walters, with the International Fisherman's Trophy.

The marriage between Walters and his schooner is considered one of the most perfect unions ever struck between man and boat. Such was his command of the vessel that his crew kept silent during a race so he could listen to what Bluenose was telling him as he pushed her limits.

The toughest contest he ever won was against a massive storm that ripped through the fishing fleet working the shallows off Sable Island in April 1926, sinking several boats and drowning dozens of men. Walters spent eight hours lashed to the helm, beating into the worst of the storm and guiding Bluenose through sandbars and boiling surf, saving his ship, his crew and himself from otherwise certain death.

Ultimately, wooden sailboats were no match for motorized steel trawlers, and the era of fishing schooners came to an end with the advent of World War II. Despite the efforts of Walters and others, Bluenose was sold to the Caribbean freight trade in 1942, and her masts were cut down. She grounded and sank on a reef off Haiti during a storm in 1946. Years later, out of respect and regret, the Canadians placed a plaque on the wreck to honor its watery grave.

In 1963, the Oland & Son brewery commissioned a replica of Bluenose to promote its new Schooner beer. Constructed from the original plans in the original Lunenburg shipyard by some of the same shipwrights who had built the original, Bluenose II was sold to the government of Nova Scotia for $1 to serve as a goodwill ambassador, tourist attraction and symbol of the province. To enshrine the unblemished record of the original Bluenose, the replica was never allowed to race. Almost 50 years later, leaking, “hogging” — an upward bending of the hull about amidships — and worn out, she was decommissioned in 2010 and disassembled in Lunenburg.

New build or restoration?

The new Bluenose was built at the Lunenburg Industrial Foundry in Nova Scotia.

The new Bluenose was deemed by Transport Canada (the national regulatory agency) to be a “restoration” because it uses just enough of the old boat — masts, sails, rigging, some ironwork and interior paneling — to carry on the name Bluenose II. This is a matter of some controversy because the entire structure of the vessel (the hull) is totally new, from keel bottom to cabin top and from stem to stern. This technicality preserves brand-name recognition and avoids the potential marketing problem of calling her Bluenose III.

By whatever name, this is a dramatically different boat on the inside that merely looks like her ancestors on the outside, and modern electronic and navigation gear is the least of it. Perhaps the most important change is that its owner, the province of Nova Scotia, decided to build it both to Transport Canada requirements and to the more exacting class standards set by the American Bureau of Shipping. This was done out of an abundance of caution and to ensure the highest level of safety for the crew and paying passengers that Bluenose will carry around the world during the next 50 years or so. It also added greatly to costs and time: What started as a $14 million project is now $16 million and climbing, and the launch date was pushed back months.

The shipwrights deliberately exempted regulatory delays from their bids. “Everything must be approved in advance, and as we go we are subjected to rigorous tests,” says John Steele, head of Covey Island Boatworks, one of the three local boatbuilders to work on the new Bluenose. “It’s an extremely bureaucratic process and not normal at all.”

Because of Transport Canada and ABS requirements, the new Bluenose is heavier and stronger than either of her predecessors. In addition to the laminated and cold-molded keelson and frames, the keel and planking are made of Angelique, a gypsum-infused teak-like South American wood that is very dense, heavy and rot-resistant. Between the cold-molded epoxy laminates and the Angelique, carpenters at Snyder’s Shipyard — another of the local builders — burned through more than 200 industrial-strength band-saw blades.

The regulators also required double or triple the amount of fasteners in the hull, including heavier-gauge bolts throughout. Not only are the deck beams made of laminated wood and epoxy, but they are also glued and mated to the hull with stainless steel knees for support — part of what is described as the “silver bullet” that will force the new boat to keep its shape into old age. “The structure is hugely massive and bonded and cold-molded together. It’s unbelievably strong,” Steele says.

Two 225-hp John Deere diesels provide power. The rudder, which was buoyant wood in the first two Bluenoses, is 6,000 pounds of solid steel in the new one.

It takes an alliance

The new Bluenose was built to Transport Canada and American Bureau of Shipping standards.

To build the new Bluenose, three local shipbuilding/repair firms with different but complementary skill sets came together to create the Lunenburg Shipyard Alliance, the entity that received the Bluenose contract.

• Covey Island Boatworks is a composite wood/epoxy builder known for its custom sailing yachts and motoryachts. It built the laminated keelson, laminated frames and deck beams, and other cold-molded elements that add tremendous strength to crucial structural parts of the boat. www.coveyisland.com

• Snyder’s Shipyard is a wood and fiberglass builder that has specialized in commercial fishing boats for more than a century. Snyder’s built Bluenose’s traditional centerline structure, including the keel, forefoot, stem and deadwoods, as well as the planking and the decking. www.snydersshipyard.com

• Lunenburg Industrial Foundry and Engineering is a major commercial shipyard, the biggest local employer and the successor to the Smith & Rhuland yard, where the original Bluenose was built. “The Foundry,” as it’s locally known, provided the mechanical systems (including engines, shafts and props), tanks, plumbing and electrical work. It’s where the new Bluenose was built and launched, practically on the same site where the original one was 91 years earlier. www.lunenburgfoundry.com

Although all of these firms are shipbuilders, their core skills do not overlap. “It’s a perfect relationship because everyone works within their area of expertise,” Steele says. “The reality is we could have bid against each other and then hired each other as subcontractors, or we could have cooperated. It made a lot more sense to collaborate.”

Adds Kevin Feindel, general manager of The Foundry: “We’re more diversified. The other firms don’t have the facilities we do, but we couldn’t have reconstructed Bluenose without them.”

Wade Croft, co-owner of Snyder’s Shipyard, notes that his business had done maintenance on Bluenose II for many years, including an extensive renovation in 1995. Many of the 40 to 50 carpenters and shipwrights his yard had working on the new Bluenose are sons or grandsons of men who built the first two Bluenoses, and the Nova Scotia Boatbuilders Association brought in many apprentices to learn traditional wooden boatbuilding skills.

One of the most poignant moments came in early 2012 when carpenters attached the final plank, which was autographed by every man and woman who had worked on the hull before it was painted. Because of insurance regulations, this particular “whiskey-planking” ceremony marking the completion of the hull exterior was alcohol-free, unlike the tradition among boatbuilders that gives the ritual its name.

With three or even four generations of Lunenburg boatbuilders having a hand in creating a Bluenose, local pride in this schooner — and the skills to build it — runs very deep. Whether you call her Bluenose II, Bluenose 2.1 or Bluenose III, the new boat keeps alive a strong local tradition, an illustrious national symbol and a beautiful schooner. “It’s a craft and an art that’s being rejuvenated,” Croft says.

See related articles:

- The builders of Bluenose

- Lunenburg: a special place

- Why was she named Bluenose?

Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer Stephen Blakely sails an Island Packet 26, Bearboat, on the Chesapeake Bay.

July 2013 issue