The gallery that day was augmented by a notable spectator fleet that included the immortal cup yacht
, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, owner, and the sloop Maggie B., Charles S. Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, owner. Tom Thumb, about 3 feet tall, paced the deck of his yacht, and Ben Butler, considerably taller, stood under the Chinese lanterns that decorated the
from boom end to bowsprit.
A pistol shot punctured the air and the whaleboats were off. That is, all were off except the Vineyard boat, the crew of which were engaged in an argument. The cause of the dispute is lost in history's maze. But it was settled when Isaac Norton, a young man raised on a farm, got into the boat and took the deadly midship (long) oar. Off went the late starter in the wake of the others.
A NEAR MISS FOR VINEYARD
In a little while the Vineyard boat passed the Squid, then she shot by the coy Laetitia. She had little trouble getting by Black Fiend, Marengo and Currier, but it took more pulling to overtake Winder. After the turn around the stake boat an unfavorable wind and strong head tide made the going more rugged. At the finish line, Sixth Ward, the strong favorite, led with elapsed time of 20 minutes 30 seconds. The Vineyard entry finished with a time of 22 minutes 30 seconds—only 10 seconds ahead of Winder. The trailing whaleboats took 25 minutes for the course.
There was so much honest thrill in this contest and others that followed, and so beautiful a combination of strength, endurance and skill, that whaleboat racing seemed marked for a brilliant future. When a race was scheduled at the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia in early September 1876, the new sport suddenly hove into national prominence.
Elaborate preparations were made and three New Bedford crews went down to Philadelphia. The Sixth Ward outfit wore white shirts and blue pantaloons, the shirts of the Centennials were also white, and those of the Vestas were blue. All oarsmen wore white handkerchiefs about their heads, and the boatheaders donned fancy turbans and body sashes. If those costumes sound a bit gaudy for the strong men of whaling it may be recalled that one New Bedford whale ship, embarking on a long Pacific voyage, drifted out into the stream to the gay music of Pinafore played by a band on the dock. The captain's wife was aboard.
There were 35,671 paid admissions to the exposition that day, and contemporary reports say that the big crowds lining the Schuylkill River were in a state of excitement. The first start of the New Bedford crews was a bad one, but they were recalled and got off the second time in good shape. Cries were heard of "Whale ahead!" and "There she blows!"
The Sixth Ward worked ahead by half a length; then the Centennial crew drew even. Vesta pulled up, and the race was anybody's. Centennial rounded the flagboat first, followed by Sixth Ward and Vesta. Vesta finally gained a length and held this lead until the finish, making a time of 25 minutes and 51 seconds for a distance that was not recorded in press dispatches.
The Vesta men got $100. The others got nothing. This was a cause for dissatisfaction, and in general the outcome seemed indecisive. The race had been a good show, but the waters of the Schuylkill, lacking salt, were not a proper fluid for whale-boats. Perhaps, too, the whaleboats were not set off enough from the other fair attractions, such as the Centennial chimes, silkworms, Egyptian mummy, electromagnetic orchestra and kiosk of stuffed birds.
While the New Bedford crews were racing, Ike Norton, the young Vineyard man, went to see Uriah Morse, one of the great whaleboat builders. Norton ordered a fast whaleboat from Morse, one that could be used for racing. As Norton told Morse, the boat would never have to go to the Pacific in search of whales. Morse observed all the rules, but he built into his whaleboat his own mystery of speed. He produced a masterpiece. It bore the appropriate name, Oak Bluffs.