Rac­ing The Big Ones

Soundings - - Captain’s Table - BY CAPT. LOU BOUDREAU

Surely, above all, the sights and sounds of a fine schooner at sea move the spirit of man. The move­ment of her hull through the wa­ter is the sea­man’s bal­let. The wind fill­ing her sails is the sailor’s aria, and the love that a mariner feels for a ship is the same as for a beloved.

Per­haps more than most coastal folk, we Nova Sco­tians know this. There is a sense of the ocean here in sea­farer coun­try. We are now, and al­ways have been, a sea peo­ple, born to a legacy of great schooners and strong, ad­ven­tur­ers who loved and un­der­stood the ocean. Our fore­fa­thers built ships and sailed them from this coast since the very be­gin­ning, and even those of us who claim to be lands­men have an un­cle, grand­fa­ther or dis­tant cousin who went to sea. We were fa­mous schooner men in days gone by, and when peo­ple talked of us, the words were spo­ken with re­spect. Fine sail­ing ships were born on this coast, and our her­itage is just as surely steeped in the salty At­lantic as it is rooted in the soil.

I left Nova Sco­tia on one of my fa­ther’s schooners when I was but 1 year old to live a life be­fore the mast. As a young lad grow­ing up in the West Indies, I was lucky to have a fa­ther who was in the wind­jam­mer cruise busi­ness. In fact, my fa­ther, Capt. Wal­ter, was a pioneer in the in­dus­try. He, along with Lou Kennedy and Irv­ing John­son, re­ally started the whole thing af­ter World War II. They were able to buy large sail­ing yachts for a few thou­sand dol­lars, and there seemed to be an end­less sup­ply of folks will­ing to pay to sail the un­spoiled Caribbean on them.

At one time, in the late Six­ties and early Sev­en­ties, we owned two re­mark­able sail­ing ves­sels, Ra­mona and Le Voyageur. Both were steel Her­reshoff schooners built in 1918 and 1921, re­spec­tively. Lovely 138-foot schooners with 24-foot beams and about 15 feet of draft, each had a lead ballast keel of more than 50 tons. They were lux­u­ri­ous and they were fast. Both were weath­erly and ex­cel­lent in light airs. With a good deck gang, the two schooners han­dled well, and un­like some of their cousins, tacked eas­ily.

The Ra­mona set a record in the Transpac race some years prior to our own­er­ship, log­ging some 367 nau­ti­cal miles in 24 hours. The Le Voyageur, un­der her pre­vi­ous name,

Ma­ri­ette, was the only schooner other than the famed Bluenose to beat the great Amer­i­can chal­lenger Gertrude L. The­baud (1930). Much later, I was her cap­tain for a time.

The two schooners, although 100 per­cent alike in hull shape, ton­nage, rud­der and ballast, had dif­fer­ent rigs. The Ra­mona was gaff rigged, and the Le Voyageur, Mar­coni.

Ra­mona’s gaff rig was slightly larger in to­tal square footage, and her main was big­ger. The Voyageur’s fish­er­man top­sail, which flew above the main stay­sail, was much larger than the Ra­mona’s. The Voyageur’s larger bal­loon jib also was big­ger than the Ra­mona’s tra­di­tional jib top­sail.

Ev­ery year be­fore the start of the win­ter char­ter sea­son, the two schooners would be an­chored at their home­port of Marigot Bay, St. Lu­cia, and my fa­ther and an­other cap­tain would select and train their crews for the up­com­ing sea­son. This in­volved a num­ber of train­ing days up and down the coast. What bet­ter way to put a shine on a new gang than to let them race? And race, we did.

Dawn saw us up and get­ting ready for sea,

lay­ing out the run­ning rig­ging and hoist­ing boats. Ties were taken out of top­sails, and twine stops were put in the fish­er­man. We closed all port­holes, and then the two skip­pers would give the or­der, with a small cir­cu­lar mo­tion of their fin­gers, to heave an­chor.

The Ra­mona and Le Voyageur would round up to set sail in the lee of the is­land. They were an awe­some sight, these tall-sparred ocean Valkyries sail­ing close-hauled un­der full sail to the north and then run­ning down­wind to the west of the is­land. I was lucky enough to sail on both schooners over the train­ing pe­ri­ods. It was a thrill on those balmy is­land days to be aboard two of the finest schooners ever to grace the brisk trade winds.

We raced the two schooners a num­ber of times to the west of St. Lu­cia and into the Mar­tinique chan­nel. We com­pared them on all points, run­ning, off-reach­ing and close­hauled. Although the re­sults were slightly in

Ra­mona’s fa­vor, the schooners were a close match, with nei­ther tak­ing a big lead. The gaff-rigged Ra­mona did bet­ter on any point reach­ing or off the wind, while the Mar­conirigged Voyageur seemed to point a bit higher and was able to hold her speed a lit­tle closer to the wind. My rec­ol­lec­tion is that the Ra­mona was slightly ahead more of the time.

The sur­prise came when the skip­pers changed ships one day. My fa­ther, who had been sail­ing the Ra­mona, took the

Voyageur and gave Ra­mona to the younger cap­tain, Joel Dres­sel, who had been sail­ing the Voyageur. The Voyageur did bet­ter on that day. It was clear that the per­for­mance of two closely matched schooners de­pended on the skill and ex­pe­ri­ence of the skip­per.

Although I did not re­al­ize it back then, it was the only time that these two lovely Nathanael Greene Her­reshoff sis­ters would ever test each other in the warm wa­ters of the West Indies. I was truly a for­tu­nate young fel­low to have been a part of it.

Le Voyageur un­der sail. She was iden­ti­cal to her sis­ter­ship, ex­cept for her Mar­coni rig. Ra­mona sported a gaff rig.

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