In August 1877, the first great test for the Oak Bluffs came. The Sixth Ward, cocky despite the upset at Philadelphia the previous September, was back to race at Oak Bluffs. Here also appeared the Sixth Ward Jr., and two entries representing the Vineyard, Norton's Oak Bluffs and the Yankee.
At the signal, off went the Sixth Ward, taking a good lead, as expected. But in about a quarter of a mile Oak Bluffs drew even. For all of three minutes the two whaleboats fought it out, beam on beam. Then Oak Bluffs shot out front and stayed out front for the rest of the course. Ike Norton held the long steering oar under his armpit and, leaning over, added his weight and strength to the after oar. He and his boys were not only without fancy shirts, but they raced, as always, in their bare feet.
The course for this race measured two miles and a half, and the sea was rough. The winning time was 24 minutes 50 seconds; Sixth Ward, in second place, had been able to chop off only 27 minutes 55 seconds.
The margin by which the famous Sixth Ward had been beaten was sensational, and many a longshore expert scrutinized the new whaleboat Uriah Morse had built for Ike and his boys. But no one could discover any deviation from the standard design and construction of an able whaleboat. She was regulation in all respects—so far as any eye could see.
THE UNSEEN SECRET
What couldn't be seen was this: Uriah Morse had made the thwarts of oak and he had put no supports under them. When the oarsmen pulled, an irresistible collective force was transmitted to those oaken thwarts. They yielded, they sprang, they gave a little, and in doing so they pulled in the sides of the boat just enough to make the whaleboat a trifle more slender and more like her spiritual mother, the Indian canoe.
After Ike Norton beat the Sixth Warders again the next summer, their rivalry was then directed toward the Fourth of July races on the Acushnet River at New Bedford, which would open the 1879 season. Ike Norton's boys rowed their craft to the city, and tradition recounts that they left the Vineyard dock later than the steamboat, overtook her and rowed ahead of her all the way, a distance of almost 25 miles. It helped some that they did not have to observe channel buoys.
The sea that July Fourth was rough, even in the Acushnet, and the start of other classes in the regatta was postponed for more favorable conditions. This gave the whaleboats a rightful priority. They could not be stopped by anything in the weather line. But the Sixth Ward and Sixth Ward Jr. demanded that the prize money be divided $30 and $20 instead of $40 and $10. This is the objection that stands in the record, but the loud whisper of history is that nobody wanted to row against Ike Norton's boat again.
The authorities stuck to the original rules, so Norton and his boys prepared to row the course alone. They rubbed the outside planking of their craft with black lead and let her delicately from a float into the water. Oars dipped. They were away. As the rowers warmed up, they tossed their coats and shirts into the bow; but three strokes later all these garments were in the stern. The boat lifted right out of the water as they pulled her through the seas.
In practice sometimes, Ike's brother Cyrus had broken an oar, and Ike cautioned from time to time, "Don't break your oar, Cyse!" Now, as the champion whaleboat from Oak Bluffs crossed the finish line after making, in that day's heavy seas, the fastest time ever known at New Bedford, Ike called out, "Break your oar, Cyse!" And Cyrus dipped the blade once again before the eyes of all that multitude, and the long midship oar was snapped apart in two places.