The Grand Banks
The creation of the International Fisherman’s Cup Race between Nova Scotia and Massachusetts fishing schooners is to be much less pretentious than that of the rule-laden America’s Cup yachting races. But, there are rules and the primary one is that a fishing schooner and its captain must have fished the Grand Banks in order to be eligible to race.
The offshore fishing banks, stretching from Newfoundland’s Grand Banks to the Georges Bank off Cape Cod, are a chain of underwater plateaus that alter the ocean depths from 30 to 180 metres deep in some areas. They are also home to such highly sought-after fish species such as cod, haddock and halibut. At the height of each fishing season, there are more than 200 schooners fishing the banks with nearly 40 from Lunenburg.
The 1921 International Fisherman’s Cup Race
On October 22nd, the first race between Bluenose and Elsie takes place in winds ranging from 23-35 knots and sea swells up to 3-metres. During the race, Bluenose raises her jib topsail, to increase her speed. Elsie follows suit, but her foretopmast breaks from the strain. In a gesture of true sportsmanship, Captain Angus Walters lowers hers and rolls up her fore-topsail to even the odds. Bluenose is still victorious.
During the second race on October 24th, as the two schooners are approaching the final buoy, Bluenose finds herself seconds behind Elsie. In a strategically brilliant bit of seamanship, Captain Walters slips Bluenose into the tight space between the buoy and Elsie. After nearly clipping the buoy, Bluenose surges ahead to victory to win the Cup, two races to none.
Soon after Bluenose won the right for the International Fisherman’s Cup to reside in Nova Scotia, a Bluenose crewman allegedly jokes with the wife of Elsie’s losing Captain Marty Welch, saying that Elsie would have won today but for something in the water. She asks the Bluenose crewman, whatever could that be? The crewman replies, the Bluenose!
The 1922 International Fisherman’s Cup Race
Less than 24 hours before the first race on October 21st, Henry Ford’s Captain Morrissey is told is mainsail is too big. He shows up the next day with a trimmed down mainsail to face Bluenose, but there is little wind. The race committee decides to delay the start by 30 minutes. Both Captains ignore the order and sail ahead. Henry Ford wins the race, but both schooners are disqualified for false starts. The race is declared a no contest even though Bluenose’s Captain Walters acknowledges Henry Ford’s victory. An enraged Captain Morrissey threatens to leave and go off fishing.
During the second race on October 23rd, Bluenose sails under a protest flag. The day before she had settled on a rock at low tide while tied up and suffered damage to her keel. Racing under light winds Henry Ford is victorious but, once again, the race committee declares a no contest. Both Captains challenge the ruling and the decision is overturned. Henry Ford’s win stands.
Henry Ford’s captain, still convinced that he had actually won the first disqualified race, is adamant that he has now fairly won the Cup. The race committee disagrees and orders the races to continue. Captain Morrissey again threatens to go off fishing. After much backroom cajoling, he and Henry Ford’s crew agree to resume racing. With stronger winds in the forecast that are more to Bluenose’s liking, she wins the next two races and retains the Cup.
The townsfolk of Gloucester are angry, feeling robbed of the Cup. Captain Walters forbids his crew to go ashore to celebrate. Walters’ nephew, Bert “Boodle” Demone sneaks out and is found dead the next morning. Bluenose leaves Gloucester with the silver Cup and her flag at half-mast.
The 1923 International Fisherman’s Cup Race
On October 29th, the two majestic schooners, Bluenose and Columbia, are neck and neck for most of the 1st race. As they head towards Halifax Harbour, Columbia pushes Bluenose out of the channel towards a treacherous shoal. This is a tactic not only against the rules of the race, but also against the rules of the sea.
Columbia’s Captain Ben Pine has the option of either giving way to Bluenose and risk losing the race, or maintaining his course and crowding Bluenose onto the rocks. Bluenose’s Captain Angus Walters has three options: slow Bluenose down to let Columbia through, but also risk losing the race, put Bluenose onto the rocks, or hit Columbia which was also against the rules. But, hit her she did! Bluenose’s 24-meter boom swings over and damages Columbia’s fore rigging and catches a jib stay. For almost two minutes, Bluenose tows her adversary until she breaks free and onto victory — winning the closest finish in the Cup’s race history by a mere eighty seconds.
Because of the illegal maneuvers executed by both skippers, there are great protests by both sides. Both Angus Walters and Ben Pine keep silent throughout and the result stands, one win for Bluenose.
During the second race on November 1st, in a strong nor’easter, Bluenose passes a buoy on the landward side instead of the seaward side. Even though this action gives her no advantage, it is a direct violation of a newly instituted rule. Bluenose wins the race. Captain Angus Walters now believes he has successfully defended the Cup. The race committee views it differently, disqualifying Bluenose for the infraction and awards the race to Columbia.
A 3rd race is needed to declare a winner. Captain Walters won’t have any of it and sails Bluenose back to Lunenburg. The International Fisherman’s Cup can return to the Americans with Columbia simply sailing around the course by herself. Her Captain, Ben Pine, sportingly declines and sails Columbia back to Gloucester. With the series deadlocked at a tie, the prize money is equally divided and Bluenose retains the Cup.
The 1931 International Fisherman’s Cup Race
After losing the Lipton Cup to Gertrude L. Thebaud in Gloucester the year before, Bluenose is looking for revenge in the only race series that her Captain, Angus Walters, strongly believes really matters. It had been eight years since the last International Fisherman’s Cup race and many wondered if Bluenose, now well waterlogged, is still up for the challenge.
On October 17th, the first day of racing, 30,000 spectators line Halifax’s shores in great anticipation. But the winds are so light that neither schooner will finish the course within the six-hours required. The race is cancelled, despite Bluenose’s six-kilometer lead.
For the second race, the winds are again calm. Bluenose, who usually performs much better in heavy winds, still wins handily, but barely manages to finish within the time allotted – just six and half minutes before the 6-hour deadline. Gertrude L. Thebaud crosses the finish line 32 minutes later. The Boston Post sarcastically reports that perhaps Gertrude L. Thebaud had forgotten to haul up her anchor.
During the third race, the two schooners are neck and neck but, after turning towards the windward leg, Bluenose shows her true colours and sprints to the finish line. Once again she retains the Cup.
The 1938 International Fisherman’s Cup Race
The age of sail has long been over, but with the popularity of the 1937 MGM film, Captains Courageous, starring Spencer Tracy, the town of Gloucester feels the time is right to have one more International Fisherman’s Cup race. This time it’s a best-of-five series against the two most famous salt-bankers of them all Bluenose and Gertrude L. Thebaud. The race is to be held off Boston and Gloucester. This is the last chance for the Americans to win back the Cup.
After much controversy about such things as Bluenose being accused of adding too much ballast, where the races were to take place, wind delays, the switching of Gertrude L. Thebaud’s captains, and many more of the trivial things that plagued most past races, the 1st race takes place on October 9th off Boston’s shores. After Bluenose cracks her foretopmast, Gertrude L. Thebaud wins to the roar of the huge hometown crowd, which includes Greta Garbo.
The 2nd race is called a no contest, as both schooners exceed the time limit in light winds. During the 3rd race, Bluenose chases down its rival to win. The 4th race is again deemed a no contest with both schooners again exceeding the time limit.
Bluenose wins the 5th race. Gertrude L. Thebaud wins the 6th. With both schooners now tied with two races apiece, the Cup is up for grabs. Bluenose wins the 7th and final race ever, even after her topsail halyard had parted nearing the finish line.
At the awards banquet, the prize money and the Cup are not present. The Cup has been mysteriously stolen. A few days later, the Cup is discovered wrapped in newspaper at an orphan’s home and is given to Bluenose.
Bluenose sails for home once more as the last and reigning International Fisherman’s Cup champion and the undisputed Queen of the North Atlantic Fishing Fleet.