The day Canada almost lost Bluenose II — and did lose a Bluenoser
Footage of Bluenose II reveals how 1969 trip to Caribbean nearly sank iconic ship
The ill-fated winter crew of Bluenose II came aboard the ship in dribs and drabs in late 1968. By New Year's Eve, they were all aboard and ready for what should have been an easy run to the Caribbean.
Craig Harding had grown up in Liverpool, N.S., and had just flunked out of Acadia University. His dad found him work on a fishing trawler, but that dried up.
He went to Lunenburg to land work on a scallop dragger, but no one was hiring.
"There was a sign along Water Street with a picture of the Bluenose on it. I thought, out of the blue, I wonder if they're hiring anybody?"
The original Bluenose launched in 1921 and won multiple International Fisherman's Cups, becoming a Canadian icon worthy of a spot on the 10-cent coin. But Bluenose struck a reef and sank off Haiti in 1946.
Bluenose II was built privately in 1963 to continue the legacy. And, in 1968, it needed crew.
Harding, 21, was hired on the spot. His longtime best friend, Dave Rawding, also came aboard — a happy coincidence for both men.
Rawding brought a film camera to record the trip. The footage has never before been shown in public.
Stephen Boyd, 20, had also flunked out of university before signing up to the Bluenose II. The ship had 14 crew and five guests for the Caribbean trip.
The last day of 1968 found Boyd scheduled for watch duty on the private vessel, while the bright lights of Halifax sparkled onshore.
Crew member Neil Robitaille, a seasoned sailor by age 22 from Comeaus Hill, N.S., took pity on him.
"Neil came up and said, 'Look, I'm not going home. Why don't you take off. I'll look after everything for you.' So it was fun on New Year's Eve. But Neil made it fun. He allowed me to go and join my friends," Boyd says.
Bluenose II sailed out of Halifax harbour on Monday, Jan. 6, 1969. They sailed past Sable Island to catch the Gulf Stream to Bermuda.
An ominous red moon hung full over the black seas. Creedence Clearwater Revival would release Bad Moon Rising that year, connecting its apocalyptic lyrics forever to that trip in Harding's mind.
Things can turn on a dime.
Harding and Boyd took the 4-8 a.m. watch at the wheel, which was quiet on the first night.
The wind blew hard all that Tuesday. Bluenose II reached a point that triangulated them equally between Bermuda, Halifax and Boston. The Gulf Stream heated the air and water.
Night fell. Storms churned the ocean. Trouble was on the way.
Harding and Boyd came back on watch.
"Wednesday morning, January the eighth, that's when all hell broke loose," Harding says.
The storm pushed the ship up and down water mountains. The captain ordered all hands on deck. They fought to get the sails furled and under control. Boyd remembers a vicious ocean.
A huge wave crashed over the deck, striking the first mate.
"I could hear the crack of his head hitting the boom," Boyd says. "But he was a tough guy and he managed to continue supervising us and got everything under control and got the sail wrapped up on the boom."
Robitaille was sleeping off a seasickness below, but Harding looked up to find the sailor at his side, furling the sail. "That was the way he was. 'No no, I'm going to help.'"
Harding secured his stop with a reef knot and put his shoulder into the sail.
"That's when that wave hit. I didn't see it at all. I just felt water. I did a complete backward somersault off the boat deck and went to put my feet down on the deck, and there was no deck. I was in the water," he says.
"Looked up and the boat was far enough away I could see the whole outline of the boat. The spreader lights were on, but other than that, it was dark. I started swimming."
He wore no safety gear — just his heavy winter clothes. His rain boots quickly slid to the bottom of the Atlantic. Shoeless, he tried to stay calm on the stormy ocean. He didn't feel the huge waves, because he'd become part of them.
The crew on the Bluenose II threw every rope into the black water, hoping for a miracle.
'I almost let go of that rope'
"I started to swim back to the boat and I literally ran into the main sheet rope — hit me in the nose. And I grabbed that. Then I realized Neil was in the water behind me. At that point he was probably 25, 30 feet away from me and I yelled to him: 'Neil, I've got a rope. Come,'" Harding says.
"And I almost let go of that rope to go get him and then I thought, If I let go of this rope, I'll never find it again. And the boat was still moving. I just yelled to Neil and he didn't really respond. He was looking at me and he seemed OK."
Boyd remembers eight people pulling on the other end of Harding's rope. Robitaille caught a second rope and hung on as waves and wind battered him. The crew pulled them close, but feared the lurching ship would crush the men if they got too close.
"It must have been heaving 10, 12 feet. It was just phenomenal, the distance the stern of the ship was moving," Boyd says.
"And of course Craig was in the middle of it, in the mean of the high and low. It was a challenge to get him up and in. Every time the ship went down: grab the rope, bring it in a little further."
Harding and Robitaille were dragged behind the ship for 20 minutes.
"The funniest things you remember. I had a wool cap on and it kept falling down on my eyes. I got mad and threw it away and cursed at it," Harding says.
"Then I heard one of the guys say, 'Grab his knees' to pull me on the deck. I think I brought my knees up around my ears. Then they rolled me on deck."
Boyd and the others focused fully on Robitaille. "There was no protection for him. He must have been 25 feet to the stern of the ship. And he just lost strength. He couldn't do it any longer. He just lost the strength and had to give up the line."
The crew watched helplessly as he vanished into the ocean.
Waves smashed the skylights over the salon, and water poured into the heart of Bluenose II. The two inflatable life rafts fell into the ocean. The ship was at risk of sinking.
"We had to start bailing the ship. The pumps weren't keeping up with the water coming in and we had to start bailing water out of her to keep the engines running," Harding says.
"I was at the captain's shoulder. And I heard him do the mayday. That scared me," Boyd adds, his voice cracking. "I thought that was it. I didn't think we'd ever make it. It was a shock, an absolute shock."
Winds of 110 km/h changed direction three times in 60 minutes. The crew kept bailing.
Hours into the disaster, they heard a plane. Soon, a U.S. Coast Guard aircraft flew overhead and dropped a pump into the ocean.
The plane searched for Robitaille. Boyd, Harding and the crew couldn't get the pump hauled on board before they lost it.
The coast guard plane left.
"We were alone out there. And this boat could have gone down. We had nothing. We didn't wear survival suits or anything back then. We didn't even have life jackets on," Boyd says.
For 24 hours, the sleepless crew bailed the Bluenose II out to keep it afloat. Finally, a full day into the disaster, a miracle broke on the horizon: a mighty U.S. coast guard cutter, sent to rescue them.
"We knew that even if the ship went down, we were getting off," Boyd says.
It lent them a pump, which kept the ship afloat. Two days later, the cutter escorted a limping Bluenose II into Bermuda.
"We did a ceremony. David Rawding said a prayer, everybody stood around, just as soon as we got tied up in St. Georges," Harding says.
They called Robitaille's family and broke the news.
The crew were exhausted and shell-shocked. Boyd spent two days in bed. He'd been awake since Halifax. Six days later, Bluenose II was repaired and ready to get back to work. They had passengers to ferry between islands.
"There's an underlying sadness that doesn't show up most of the time. I felt that. We're partying or having fun and you know, and then you think: 'Oh yeah, we lost Neil,'" Harding says.
"It was maturing," Boyd says. "We all grew up. It was such a shocking event and it did imprint the rest of our lives."
In May, they brought Bluenose II home to Nova Scotia. Harding and Rawding took the sombre road to Tusket to sit with Robitaille's mother. "Probably one of the hardest things I've ever done. She was distraught."
He also left behind a sister and his friend, Cora Doucette. Twenty years after the tragedy, she would publish a book of his letters and her memories, called One Yarmouth Summer. Yarmouth created a memorial for him. Some people still think of him every time they look at a dime.
But nothing marks his passage on Bluenose II, or in Lunenburg.
"It would be nice if they did something here to remember Neil Robitaille as part of the Bluenose," Harding says.
He still thinks of his friend four or five times a week, even after half a century.
"People call it survivor's guilt. You know, I survived and he didn't. You live your life and go on, but you still think of him pretty regularly. More regularly than I thought I ever would," Harding says.
"I think of him often as well. Particularly over the Christmas season," Boyd says.
Boyd mostly gave up sailing after that 1969 trip.
But in 2000, Harding was invited to sail from Nova Scotia to Bermuda with friends. After much thought, he joined them. He made sure they sailed over the same seas that took Robitaille in the prime of his life.
"I thought it might bring some closure. Which I think it did."
Bluenose II is now owned by the province of Nova Scotia. The American Bureau of Shipping inspects it yearly to keep it safe. Robitaille remains the only crew member of Bluenose II lost overboard.
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