In the great days of America's Cup racing, nobody followed the goings-on off Sandy Hook and, later, Newport with more interest—or more amusement—than the fishermen of Nova Scotia and New England. When one of the races in the 1920 Cup series was called off because the race committee thought a 23-knot breeze was too dangerous for the two contenders, hoots of derision rose in both Lunenburg, Nova Scotia and Gloucester, Mass. The competitive men who sailed the big fishing schooners out of both ports began demanding a series of races between "honest-to-God" vessels that could stand a blow; the publisher of the Halifax Herald took up their demand: and the result was a hard-fought series unequaled in the history of sport: the periodic races between working fishing craft for the International Fishermen's Trophy.
A Gloucesterman, the schooner Esperanto skippered by Marty Welch, took the first series in 1920, and the masters and shipwrights in Lunenburg and other Nova Scotian coastal towns immediately started talking of building a new and faster vessel to bring the trophy home. While they were talking, a group of Halifax businessmen commissioned a young naval architect named William J. Roue to start work on a schooner that would be both big and burdensome enough to succeed in the salt-fishing trade and fast enough to beat any like her from Gloucester. Roue produced the schooner Bluenose, a vessel that was to make both him and her skipper, Angus Walters, famous all over the world.
After Bluenose's entry, Gloucester never again won the trophy. She defeated the Gloucester schooner Elsie in 1921 in a series off Halifax; she defeated the Gloucesterman
off Massachusetts in 1922, the Gloucester schooner
off Halifax in 1923, the schooner Gertrude L. Thebaud off Halifax in 1931 and the same vessel in another series off Gloucester in 1938.
Captain Walters, who skippered her in all the races, became undoubtedly the best-known fisherman in the world. I met him for the first time in 1956, 18 years after the last race and 36 years after the first one. He talked as if the races had been held the day before yesterday. Every detail was printed in his mind. He did not recount the record, he relived it—his outrage at some damn fool on the race committee undiminished, his admiration for some feat of his old vessel plain on his face and in his voice. He was a small, quick-tempered bantam rooster of a man, completely single-minded, and so enamored of the schooner he shared his prime with that, although he was not by nature eloquent or apt with a phrase, he defined the relationship of man to sailing vessel better than I had ever heard or read. Gradually as he talked, it dawned on me that the story of the Blue nose was really the story, being told to me by a fiery old man, of a long love.
Yacht racing is an intellectual sport. A large literature covering such subjects as helmsmanship, the aerodynamics of sails, racing tactics, proper trimming of boats under various wind conditions has grown up over the past 50 years. Walters, of course, never read a book on racing theory. While the experts and yachtsmen were developing their formulas and refinements in the summer sun of elegant sailing centers, he was out on the fishing banks, usually wet, cold and tired. He nevertheless evolved some of the same formulas and refinements that the yachtsmen and their theorists were working out in the laboratory conditions of weekend races.
Angus Walters was born in Lunenburg in 1881, went to sea when he was 13, became a doryman at 16 and a captain in his early 20s.
"Before I was ever master," he told me, "I used to stay onto the wheel when I didn't have to, to see if I could beat another boat. Lots of fellers used to be crazy for their hour trick at the wheel to get done with. To tell you the truth, I liked to steer."
Walters learned early in his career that an important element in a vessel's speed is in the trim, how the cargo is placed in the hold. The difference of six inches or a foot in fore and aft trim could markedly affect a schooner's sailing qualities. The schooners stayed out on the banks two or three months sometimes, gradually filling their holds with codfish. It was a precise matter to load them evenly, and many fishing masters never acquired the know-how or took the care to do the job right. Their schooners would come back to Lunenburg down by the bow or down by the stern, which made them, Walters said, slow in ordinary weather and hard to manage in a gale. "Saddled by one end, I called it," he said.
Shifting a crew forward and aft to improve trim is something Olympic sailors became expert at. In a small racing boat weighing, say, 500 pounds, the position of a 200-pound crew member is crucial. That Walters would take the same precaution in the 285-ton Bluenose helps explain his record.
At the wheel, when Walters was steering, the Bluenose was sending constant messages to him about her performance, perhaps by the shudder, the vibration in the rudder, perhaps by the amount of pressure needed on the helm to keep her on course, perhaps by the little quiver in her mainsail near the mast, or the curve of her jib, or the sounds she made or the way her bow lifted to a swell—signals that a stranger on the Bluenose would neither see nor hear nor feel. But for all the mystical affinity he had with his vessel, Captain Angus Walters was a shrewdly practical man—as the businessmen of Halifax, who built Bluenose, soon found out.