Last week, though, it was just Watson and I inside the vessel as it sat moored in its winter berth, talking about other things that can be felt but not seen.
How, for example, the summer crew of 14 young deckhands who board Bluenose on April 1, will be “changed forever”, as he was in 1987 when a friend persuaded him that a summer crewing aboard the ship would be fun.
“I’m the kid who ran away to join the circus,” said Watson, who joined the crew as third mate in 1991, and a decade later, became the vessel’s ninth skipper,
How he still feels like the “guy with the Stanley Cup” when he brings the replica of the fabled racing schooner through the islands towards his hometown of Mahone Bay and Watson, and after all this time, can still see himself in his dinghy there, when captaining the Bluenose was the dream of any South Shore kid.
How he feels a surge of pride when, at 10 o’clock at night, he comes across an Albertan in a cowboy hat and boots and wearing a big rodeo rider’s belt buckle, lying down on a wharf just so he can touch the boat, or someone standing on deck, crying because “they never thought they would be able to be aboard the ship that is in their pocket every day,” or the old-timer he met in Toronto who told him that he had once won a film Oscar but, nonetheless, “still held his time aboard the Bluenose as the most valuable thing he had ever done.”
But mostly Watson spoke of how it feels to be the latest custodian of tradition that began when the original Bluenose first slid into the water in Lunenburg harbour a century ago March 26.
The tradition that goes back to Angus Walters, known to this day for retiring undefeated after captaining Bluenose to five international sailing victories, but also for being a fabled highliner captain, who landed record amounts of fish, in a place where such a thing mattered.
“He must have been quite a guy, all of those highliner captains were,” said Watson. “No GPSs, or weather forecasts. A couple of barrels of water and salt pork and it was ‘let’s go.’”
The sailors who had to stand up to Walters’ expectations were no slouches either. But it was Walters who, the story goes, strapped himself to the mast behind Sable Island during a storm and took the vessel home. It was the skipper with his glassine eyes and angular Bing Crosby face, who, while sailing to the Silver Jubilee of King George V of England, captained it through weather in the Bay of Biscay so vicious that it blew Bluenose’s bulwarks clean off.
“Tenacity,” said Watson when I asked what made Walters special. “A belief in mission.”
His feats—whether as a racing or fishing captain, taking Bluenose to King George’s Silver Jubilee or representing Canada at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933—still echo a century later.
“You had to be strong of mind, and strong of will, to do all those tasks,” said Watson.
Which is why young boys along the South Shore of Nova Scotia used to grow up dreaming of become a schooner captain like Angus Walters, in the same way that young Montrealers wanted to grow up to be Rocket Richard, and kids in Inverness County, the next Buddy MacMaster.
By the time Watson was getting his sea legs Bluenose was gone, sold to the West Indies Trading Company in 1942. Four years later, while carrying a load of bananas, she struck a reef off Haiti, where it broke apart.
Watson had had the good fortune to serve under five different captains of Bluenose II, which was launched in 1963 and has endured scandal and controversy: Don Barr, his first and longest skipper, who himself had served as a second and then first mate, under various captains; Doug Himmelman, who started out on the Lunenburg dories and was full of stories about the old schooner days; Wayne Walters, Angus’ grandson, a stickler for details; Delbe Comeau, who did 24 years aboard the Bluenose II even though only captain for a short period; Orval Banfield, who had been a fishing captain before his stint running Bluenose, and afterwards took the wheel at another east coast nautical icon, Theodore Tugboat.
“From all of those men you learn all kinds of different things, which is what a captain is supposed to do,” Watson said.
Soft skills like leadership and how to remain calm in a difficult situation and how to lead the hundreds of young Nova Scotians who have signed on as deck hands during the sailing season. But also, hard skills like how to handle a big schooner under sail, and the tricks of the trade that get you out of messes. “Most of all how to be caretaker of this icon,” he said.
Being captain of a vessel like Bluenose II “will keep you very, very humble he said, “adding, “You just pass through and hopefully you keep it going till the next person comes and replaces you.”
At which point a proud, century-old tradition is passed into the hands of a new custodian.
See the full story: https://www.saltwire.com/atlantic-canada/opinion/regional-perspectives/john-demont-the-protectors-of-the-bluenose-nova-scotias-fabled-racing-schooner-566616/