Lou Boudreau knows his ships.
He should. He’s been sailing on schooners since he was a year old. By the time he hit the Bluenose II as a teen, it was old hat.
Boudreau’s father, who pioneered the sailing cruise business in Nova Scotia with Windjammer Cruises, moved to the West Indies, where Lou grew up. When he was barely 15 he went to work on a French schooner for $2 a day plus room and board and then on the schooner Mariette, which is still going strong as a world-class vessel at 100 years old.
He has seen it all: attacks by drug pirates, Venezuelan intrigue, massive storms, and fires. But his connection to the Bluenose II began while he was in his late teens in 1968–69 and got a job on the ship as a deckhand in St. Lucia because his father knew the captain. He only worked on the Bluenose II for about a year because his father wanted him home, but his connection to Canada’s most famous ship has lasted half a century.
“She was a fine vessel, a good vessel,” Boudreau, now 68, recalls from his Indian Point home near Mahone Bay, N.S., where he lives with wife Sarah-Jayne.
Built in Lunenburg and launched in 1921 under Captain Angus Walters, Bluenose was a working ship and an undefeated racer for 20 years until it was sold in 1942 to the West Indies Trading Company. Tragically, it sank after hitting a reef off Haiti in 1946. The Oland family built Bluenose II from the same design; it launched in 1963. And a couple of years later Boudreau stepped on board.
“We had some really bad weather once, south of George’s Bank near Bermuda, and the seas came right over the vessel,” he says. “It was rough, man.”
Then there were the funny moments. When they were running day cruises out of Halifax they had a group out on the water when Boudreau’s pants caught in a halyard block and were pulled off. “I was the butt of everyone’s joke for a month,” he recalls.
His last oceangoing job was captaining a wealthy woman’s yacht which caught fire on a run from Morocco to the Canary Islands in 1997. He badly hurt his back while fighting the blaze. “Someone was sending me a message,” he said.
But most of the memories are sublime. “When you’re standing at the helm of the Bluenose with a 30-knot breeze, she could really sail. She was a good, good vessel.”
Those treasured memories and an appreciation for this national treasure have made the controversy around the recent rebuild of the Bluenose II painful for Boudreau, now a shipbuilder and author. He says the people planning the work didn’t have the needed expertise for the job and didn’t consult with those who did.
“These people didn’t know. Had they gone to the good old boys in Lunenburg they would have been better off but they didn’t,” says Boudreau, who estimates a complete rebuild of the vessel “from scratch” should have cost about $14 million, not the $25 million it ultimately cost taxpayers (well over the original $14.4 million budget, revised in the early going to $19 million).
Plus, the work was two years behind schedule, largely due to the installation of a $500,000 steel rudder and the attempts to fix it (another $700,000) once they learned that the steering mechanism couldn’t move something that heavy. In the midst of the rudder controversy, Boudreau met with Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Geoff McLellan and offered to install a new wooden rudder for $75,000. But there were no takers.
“That’s all water under the bridge now,” says Boudreau. “Now they have a proper rudder and for the most part they’ve got themselves a good schooner, though it’s not as fast as the original.”
Yet the ship seems doomed to controversy. No sooner had the dust settled and it was back in the water ready for the 2019 tourist season, then it was announced that it would be away for all of July and August, participating in the Tall Ships Challenge Great Lakes Tour. That sliced into the profits Lunenburg, and indeed many Nova Scotian, businesses expected to make from the droves of tourists coming to see and possibly ride on the famous schooner.
“It’s our number-one tourist attraction,” said Lunenburg Visitor Information Centre trip advisor Maggie McAuley. “A lot of people come here to see it and when we have to tell them it’s not here, they’re obviously disappointed. More than 40 people a day ask for it and we have to tell them it’s away.”
Terry Baker, owner of the Admiral Benbow Trading Co. shop just off the Lunenburg waterfront, echoes those concerns. “It means quite a bit to us because it draws people to town. It’s going to be a bit of a challenge for this year when it’s not in Nova Scotia … The nuts and bolts of the tourism business is in July and August.”
But Leo Glavine, the province’s Communities, Culture and Heritage Minister, says having the Bluenose on tour this year will be worth it in the future.
“The national and international exposure during the Great Lakes 2019 Tour will help broaden the awareness of this Canadian icon, Nova Scotia and Maritime history, and be a wonderful opportunity to build momentum ahead of the Bluenose Centennial coming in March 2021,” he says. “This is a great opportunity to support provincial tourism by promoting future visitation to our province from major U.S. and Canadian markets.”
He adds the plan for the “foreseeable years to come” is to have the Bluenose remain in Nova Scotia waters for most of the tourism season.
Nevertheless, Baker says when the NDP government decided to rebuild the old Bluenose II they made “a big mistake” when they should have used some foresight, perhaps consulted local business owners, and built a new schooner from scratch, leaving the old Bluenose II in dock so it would always be in Lunenburg and people could see it all the time. Instead, government gets involved and the costs go up, he said, “and our town pays for it.”
Boudreau tends to agree and notes there was talk of having two Bluenoses: one stationed in Nova Scotia and the other racing and attending tall ships events. “That would be fantastic but it’s a bit of a catch-22 because it’s great to have it docked so people can see it but it’s also good if it can act as an ambassador.”
The Bluenose controversies indicate just how much the ship means to Nova Scotians; it’s as much a part of the province as the oceans surrounding it, or the people living here.
“There’s no question whatsoever, what it is and what it needs to be is the sailing icon that belongs to Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada,” says Boudreau, who plans to soon rebuild the famous U.S. schooner Yankee in a Lunenburg shipyard.
“It means a lot to the average Nova Scotian,” Boudreau says. “England, Holland, the U.S. eastern seaboard, they all have these ships but the Bluenose is this famous schooner the Americans couldn’t beat no matter what they tried. Nova Scotians are proud of it and it needs to be available for viewing. Otherwise, we’re missing the boat.”