Tom Cunliffe introduces an extract from 'A Race for Real Sailors', the story of head-to-head battles between two giant Grand Banks fishing schooners, Bluenose and Elsie, which made for dramatic racing

America’s Cup yachts had become so extreme by 1920 that they didn’t race in anything more serious than a moderate breeze, but the racing designs of the day were not the only high-performance craft around, as you can discover in A Race for Real Sailors.

The big fishing schooners of the Grand Banks sailing from Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, were certainly fast and not bothered in the slightest by wind, so a movement arose to put on schooner races between the US and Canada, ‘to show what real sailors can do’. A newspaper in Nova Scotia donated a trophy that started a series of races between the wars that became legendary for hard driving in sometimes desperate conditions.

The story is told with real pizzazz by Keith McLaren in A Race for Real Sailors. I couldn’t put it down, not only for the tales of sailing but also for the thrilling contemporary images. In this extract, the Lunenburg schooner Bluenose, honoured to this day on the Canadian dime, takes on Elsie, a flier from Gloucester designed by the great Thomas McManus. Hang onto your hat!

Extract from A Race for Real Sailors

As the Elsie and her crew made their way up the coast to Halifax, grumbling began to surface from the New York papers about the differences between the two vessels. The Bluenose was much larger than the Gloucester boat, with a longer waterline, much more sail, and an 11-year age advantage.

Critics agreed that the real test would occur when the skills of the American Marty Welsh were pitted against those of Angus Walters of the Bluenose. Welsh had a reputation as a remarkable sail handler in rough weather and rumour had it that the Elsie had topped the unlikely speed of 17 knots during her voyage north.

Walters had a formidable reputation himself. He was only 13 in 1895 when he had first gone fishing and was still in his early 20s when he became master of his first ship. He was known as a ‘driver’, a no-nonsense, hard-nosed skipper with a flinty character and a caustic edge to his tongue.

The Elsie, designed by Thomas McManus, was built in Essex, Massachusetts, in 1910, lean and low with black topsides, a red underbody and a broad green strip along her waterline. In contrast, the Bluenose had longer overhangs, higher sides and a lengthier hull.

Her black body carried a yellow moulding stripe with a white boot-top and a copper-brown underbelly. Once Welsh caught sight of the Bluenose, the size of the schooner, nearly 20ft (6m) longer than his own, must have given him pause for thought.

Captain Angus Walters at the wheel of Bluenose. Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

Racing the Bluenose

Saturday, October 22, 1921, was crisp and frosty. It was the perfect day for a race, the north-west wind rising from 20 to 30 knots as the race progressed over the 40-mile course off Halifax.

Everything that could float was on the water: government steamers, cable ships, fishing boats, yachts, tugs and ferries – all loaded heavily with spectators. At the five-minute gun, both schooners swung into position, the Elsie easing her sheets and running the line towards McNab’s Island, hoping for the seconds to pass quickly.

The signal cannon from the breakwater sounded the start and Welsh cranked over the helm, shooting over the line 10 seconds later. With the Stars and Stripes snapping at the main peak and a 20-knot nor’westerly snorting over her starboard quarter, the Elsie flew down the course as if she had an engine in her.

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She was several boat lengths ahead of the Bluenose at the outset. However, it was not long before the Bluenose perked up and fairly smoked after the Elsie. A luffing match on the broad reach for the first mark ended when the Elsie crossed over her opponent’s bow and took the weather berth.

Walters attempted to pass on her weather side, but Welsh sheeted in and stood up towards the unyielding granite rocks of the western shore, two miles to windward of the course.

Walters put his wheel hard up and swung across the Elsie’s wake, making for the Inner Automatic Buoy. The Elsie followed suit and covered her rival. The two fairly flew across the water, all sails filled in the stiff quartering breeze and hulls rolling heavily in the deep chop.

The end of Bluenose’s 80ft boom was now in the water, now halfway up to the masthead as she gained on her rival. The Elsie rolled still harder and three times brought her main boom across the Bluenose’s deck, between the fore and main rigging.

The skippers strained at the wheels of their vessels, see-sawing back and forth in increasingly heavy seas. Walters finally gave up the fight for the windward berth and managed to shoot past the Elsie by coming up under her lee.

By this time, both vessels were logging 12 to 13 knots, the Elsie a mere minute and a half astern of the Bluenose as she rounded the Inner Automatic Buoy.

A fisherman’s sea

As they turned the mark, the wind piped up to 25 knots. It was a good fisherman’s sea, with plenty of ‘lop’ to it. The competitors eased off on their sheets for the run to the Outer Buoy, just over six miles away.

Every kite was flying, booms were off to port and lee rails buried in the boisterous sea. It must have been a wild ride for the masthead men, whipped around the sky in that cool October wind.

The diminutive Elsie burying her bows in a fierce swell. Wallace MacAskill Collection/Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management

The Elsie stuck to the stern of her rival and hung on during the run to the second mark. At times, the Bluenose would haul ahead. Back and forth they went. As they neared the mark, both doused the ‘fisherman’ staysails from between the masts and clewed up the fore-topsails, preparing to gybe around the buoy.

The big Lunenburger rounded first, followed a mere 30 seconds later by the tough little Gloucesterman. It was during this leg that the Bluenose began to run away from the defender, and she made the nine-mile reach in just 42 minutes, taking the buoy two minutes ahead.

Now began the real test: the thrash to windward. The ability to drag herself off a lee shore in a gale and claw her way to safety proves the real worth of any vessel.

When the Bluenose rounded the mark and sheeted in hard on a starboard tack for the upwind trial, the wind was cresting at 30 knots. Her fisherman staysail and fore topsail doused, and a roaring ‘bone in her teeth’, the Bluenose began plunging into the heavy sea, burying her lee rail and heeling to 40°. The boat appeared to revel in it, her long body punching through the heavy sea and her crew stuffed up under the windward rail ‘like bats to a barn rafter’, with Walters and his mate at the lee and weather sides of the wheel.

As he passed the mark, Welsh threw his helm over and quickly hoisted his ballooner. The old Elsie rolled over onto the starboard tack with every sail aloft. Welsh desperately raced after her. If carrying more sail alone could win a race, it would have been the Elsie’s.

Perhaps these fisherman skippers lacked the refinement of the yachtsman, but they had far more experience and skill in handling their boats under these rugged conditions. The America’s Cup contenders would most certainly have been hunkered down under the lee of Sandy Hook waiting for the weather to settle. This was not the environment for those fined-tuned yachts, but a real fishermen’s race that James Connolly later called ‘the greatest race ever sailed over a measured course’.

The combination of wind and too much sail proved to be more than the Elsie could bear. First to go was her jib topsail halyard. As a crewman scampered out onto her bowsprit to re-reeve the halyard, the bow plunged deeply into the sea, burying the bowsprit to the third hank of her jib. Moments later, the foremast snapped off at the cap and both jib topsail and staysail came down in a mess of wire stays and rigging.

Without missing a beat, the crew set about clearing up the wreckage. The mate and a couple of fishermen headed out on the bowsprit to cut away the jib topsail that was now dragging under the forefoot. Down into the jumping sea went the bowsprit and the three sailors were plunged under five feet of water.

They cut away the sail and brought it in with the crew behind them hauling it inboard through the green-white smother. Those aloft worked frantically to secure the topmast, assorted wires, blocks and halyards.

Within six minutes the Elsie, under forcefully shortened sail, appeared to be making better time than she had before. Angus Walters reacted in the spirit of sportsmanship by immediately dousing his own jib topsail and clewing up his main topsail.

Welsh stood inshore on a port tack and raised his main gaff topsail, risking his main topmast. Once again he was carrying more sail than his rival in the 30-knot breeze. However, what he needed was more hull in the water, not more sail aloft. Bluenose streaked for home ‘like a burning cat through Hades’, with her lee rail buried so deep that the press reported, ‘you could drown a man in her lee scuppers’.

After four and a half hours of hard sailing over a distance of 50 miles, the Bluenose ploughed a furrow of white water across the finish. Walters and his crew became instant heroes, arriving home to a chorus of steam whistles and sirens. The valiant Elsie followed 12 and a half minutes later.

The rematch

The second race, on October 24, appeared to be more to the Americans’ liking, with lighter winds over a smoother sea. The little Elsie, sporting new topmasts, streaked across the start at nine knots, a full minute and a half ahead of her challenger.

Bluenose heeling hard and carrying her waterline advantage. Leslie Jones/Peabody Essex Museum

Bluenose had loafed too far back and, as she moved lethargically to the start, one wag was heard to comment that ‘Angie must have stayed up late last night’. Observers became even less charitable when the Yankee banker began to widen the gap. Walters later rebuffed his critics: “It ain’t who crosses the starting line first that counts. If we can cross the finish line first – that’s the main thing.”

It was a grand, crisp, clear day for sailing, the ruffled blue water flecked with snappy white crests. Both vessels’ sails filled beautifully with eased sheets and booms over their port quarters, an absolute delight to the eye in the brilliance of the morning sun.

Both racers gybed around the Sambro Buoy mark in 20 knots, the Bluenose 26 seconds behind the Elsie. Walters kept tight onto Welsh’s weather quarter, looking for a break on the 9½-mile leg to the Outer Buoy. For 27 miles the little Gloucester schooner had led the way and it was beginning to look as if she might come home the winner.

Supporters of the Lunenburger, however, were waiting for the windward work to begin. When the vessels closed in on the Outer Automatic Buoy, Walters performed a masterful bit of helmsmanship and capitalised on the small opening between the Elsie and the buoy. He came up on her inside, leaving only a foot between his boat and the buoy.

The Elsie’s slim lead gave her no chance to tack and cover her rival. Both vessels sheeted hard and boiled along, but it was the Bluenose that could point higher. They were showing 12 knots and the big white bone which the Bluenose carried in her teeth suggested the old comparison of a big growling mastiff and a little fighting terrier.

Despite a valiant effort, it was all over for the Elsie. The Bluenose had the windward legs and walked away from her opponent. Bunting and flags flying from scupper to truck, the great Lunenburger entered the harbour a champion.

When they tied up to the dock, Angus Walters was, as someone graphically remarked, ‘like a piece of chewed string after almost five and a half hours of constant strain and anxiety’. The International Fishermen’s Cup trophy was back in Canadian hands.

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