Nova Scotia·Atlantic Voice

The love story behind the lost Bluenose II sailor

Neil Robitaille caused a stir when he spent the summer of 1966 in Yarmouth, N.S. The love affair that followed would outlast his tragic death.

Atlantic Voice tells the story of a star-crossed love that ended in tragedy on Nova Scotia's iconic schooner

Neil Robitaille caused a stir when he spent the summer of 1966 in Yarmouth, N.S. (Submitted by Cora Doucette)

The stranger made a stir that summer of 1966 in Yarmouth, N.S.

Strong and handsome, blond hair and blue eyes, he seemed like something dropped out of a movie. 

With his Quebecois accent, the well-dressed, clean-shaven young sailor turned a few heads.

Cora Doucette, then 19, noticed him. She didn't know his name at first, so she called him Cute Guy.

"I forgot — or I chose to forget — my mother's words about fishermen," she said.

"Mum was concerned about us falling in love with a fisherman. Because she knew of friends who had lost loved ones like that. I never thought it would happen. I didn't think my sisters or me would fall in love with a fisherman."

His name was Neil Robitaille. He'd just turned 20. 

Doucette did indeed fall in love, and the two spoke of marriage in a succession of love letters. But that hoped-for wedding never happened.

Robitaille took a gig crewing the Bluenose II, and on Jan. 6, 1969, it sailed out of the Halifax harbour bound for Bermuda. Two days later, a storm caught the ship, and towering waves washed two sailors overboard.

One, Craig Harding, made it back to the Bluenose.

The other — Neil Robitaille — didn't.

Cora Doucette and Neil Robitaille grace the cover of her memoir, One Yarmouth Summer. (Robert Short/CBC)

Doucette woke up that morning to the news that her beloved was missing at sea.

"It was awful. I kept praying, I kept hoping that they would find his body," she said.

They never did.

Doucette moved away to Alberta, to escape his memory. She married, and has had a happy life. But the love she had with Robitaille more than half a century ago remains.

"We loved each other, even though it was short lived. It seemed the kind of love that would endure through anything," she said.

A part of Canadian history 'few people know about'

She published their love letters in a memoir, One Yarmouth Summer. One year, visiting friends and family back home in Yarmouth, she took the trip to Lunenburg to see the Bluenose II.

"It was difficult for me," she said. Particularly difficult was no mention of Robitaille on the ship, or in the town. He was the only sailor the ship ever lost at sea.

A U.S. Coast Guard plane flies over Bluenose II. It dropped off an emergency pump and searched the stormy seas for any sign of Neil Robitaille. (Dave Rawding)

"It's part of Canadian history, you know, that few people know about," she said.

Despite the loss, Doucette said she is still happy she has memories of her short time with Robitaille.

"It was the kind of love that few people are ever fortunate enough to know in their lifetime," she said. "For this I felt blessed."