That day Canada almost lost Bluenose II – and lost a Bluenoser

The fateful winter crew of the Bluenose II came aboard the ship in sprinkling and sadness in late 1968. By New Year’s Eve, they were all on board and ready for what should have been an easy trip to the Caribbean.

Craig Harding had grown up in Liverpool, NS, and had just fled Acadia University. His father found him working on a fishing trawler, but it dried out.

He went to Lunenburg to work on a scallop, but no employees.

“There was a sign along Water Street with a picture of Bluenose on it. I was thinking out of the blue, aren’t they hiring someone?”

Launched in 1921, the original Bluenose won several International Fisherman’s Cups and became a Canadian icon worthy of a spot on the 10-cent coin. But Bluenose hit a reef and sank off Haiti in 1946.

Craig Harding joined Bluenose II as other work fell through. (CBC)

Bluenose II was built privately in 1963 to continue the legacy. And in 1968, it needed manpower.

Harding, 21, was hired on the spot. His longtime best friend, Dave Rawding, also came on board – a happy occasion for both men.

Rawding had a film camera with him to record the trip. The recordings have never before been shown in public.

Stephen Boyd mostly gave up sailing after the fatal trip on the Bluenose II. (CBC)

Stephen Boyd, 20, had also fled the university before joining Bluenose II. The ship had 14 crew and five guests for the Caribbean voyage.

On the last day of 1968, Boyd found himself scheduled for guard duty on the private vessel while Halifax’s bright lights twinkled ashore.

Bluenose II crew member Dave Rawding brought his camera to film the trip. This is from footage recorded in Halifax in late 1968 or early 1969, just before sailing to Bermuda. These photos have never been published before. (Dave Rawding)

Crew member Neil Robitaille, an experienced 22-year-old sailor from Tusket, NS, took pity on him.

“Neil came up and said, ‘Look, I’m not going home. Why are you not leaving. I will take care of 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,” says Boyd.

Bluenose II sailed out of Halifax Harbor on Monday, January 6, 1969. They sailed past Sable Island to capture the Gulf Stream to Bermuda.

An ominous red moon hung full over the Black Sea. Creedence Clearwater Revival would be released Bad moon rising that year and connects its apocalyptic texts forever with that turn in Harding’s mind.

Things can become a dime.

An ominous red moon hung over the Black Sea the day Bluenose II encountered a storm that nearly sank it. (Craig Baltzer for CBC)

Harding and Boyd took off at 4-8 in the morning at the wheel, which was quiet the first night.

The wind blew hard all Tuesday. Bluenose II reached a point that triangulated them equally between Bermuda, Halifax and Boston. The Gulf Stream heated the air and the water.

The night fell on. Storms overturned the sea. Problems were on the way.

Harding and Boyd returned on duty.

Neil Robitaille, 22, had sailing experience when he joined Bluenose II. This photo comes from One Yarmouth Summer, a book by his friend, Cora Doucette. (CBC)

“Wednesday morning the eighth of January, that was when hell broke loose,” Harding says.

The storm pushed the ship up and down water mountains. The captain ordered all hands on deck. They struggled to get the sails rolled and under control. Boyd remembers a vicious sea.

A huge wave crashed over the deck and hit the helmsman.

“I could hear the crack of his head hitting the boom,” Boyd says. “But he was a cool guy and he managed to keep monitoring us and got everything under control and got the sail wound up on the boom.”

Robitaille slept by a seasickness down below, but Harding looked up to find the sailor by his side and rolled the sail. “That’s how he was. ‘No no, I have to help’.”

An illustration of the moment Harding and Robitaille struggled with the sail before a wave threw them both into the sea. (Craig Baltzer for CBC)

Harding secured his stop with a reef knot and put his shoulder in the sail.

“That was when the wave hit. I did not see it at all. I just felt water. I did a complete backward somersault from 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 so I could see the entire outline of the boat. The diffuser light was on, but other than that it was dark. I started swimming.”

He wore no safety equipment – only his heavy winter clothes. His rain boots quickly slipped to the bottom of the Atlantic. Schoolless, he tried to stay calm on the stormy sea. He did not feel the big waves, for he had become a part of them.

The crew of the Bluenose II threw every rope into the black water in hopes of a miracle.

‘I almost let go of that rope’

“I started swimming back to the boat and I literally ran into the primary rope – hit me in the nose. And I grabbed it. Then I realized Neil was in the water behind me. At the time, he was probably 25, 30 meters away from me and I shouted to him: ‘Neil, I have a rope. Come on,’ “Harding says.

Artist Craig Baltzer captures the moment Craig Harding grabs a rope and hangs on for his life while Bluenose II stormed through the storm. (Craig Baltzer for CBC)

“And I almost let go of that rope to pick him up, and then I thought, if I let go of that rope, I’ll never find it again. And the boat was still moving. I was just yelling at Neil, and he did,” he doesn’t really answer. He looked at me and he seemed ok. “

Boyd remembers eight people pulling at the other end of Harding’s rope. Robitaille caught another rope and hung on while waves and wind hit him. The crew pulled them close, but feared that the meandering ship would crush the men if they got too close.

“It must have raised 10, 12 feet. It was just phenomenal, the distance the ship’s stern was moving,” Boyd says.

“And of course, Craig was in the middle of it, between high and low. It was a challenge to get him up and in. Every time the ship went down: Grab the rope before it went a little further in.”

A wave crashes against Bluenose II in stormy seas on the trip in 1969. The crew ate salt water to ward off nausea. (Dave Rawding)

Harding and Robitaille were towed behind the ship for 20 minutes.

“The funniest things you remember. I was wearing a woolen hat 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 knee’ to pull me on the deck. I think I brought my knees up around my ears. Then they rolled me on the 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 anymore. He just lost strength and had to give up the line.”

The crew watched helplessly as he disappeared into the sea.

Crews are working to roll the sail during the 1969 storm on the Bluenose II. Dave Rawding recorded this recording, which was digitized by Digital Now Transfer in Halifax. (Dave Rawding)

Waves smashed the skylights over the salon, and water flowed into the heart of Bluenose II. The two inflatable life rafts fell into the sea. The ship was in danger of sinking.

“We had to start damping the ship. The pumps did not keep up with the water coming in and we had to start saving water out of her to keep the engines running,” Harding says.

“I was at the captain’s shoulder. And I heard him do mayday. It scared me,” Boyd adds, his voice cracking. “I thought it was. I never thought we would 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.

A US Coast Guard aircraft flies over Bluenose II. It dropped an emergency pump and searched the stormy sea for signs of Neil Robitaille. (Dave Rawding)

Hours inside the disaster, they heard a plane. Soon, a U.S. Coast Guard plane flew overhead and dropped a pump into the ocean.

The plane was searching for Robitaille. Boyd, Harding and the crew could not get the pump pulled on board until they lost it.

The Coast Guard aircraft went.

“We were out there alone. And this boat could have gone down. We had nothing. We were not wearing survival suits or anything at the time. We were not even wearing life jackets,” Boyd said.

For 24 hours, the sleepless crew rescued Bluenose II out to keep it afloat. Eventually, a full day inside the disaster, a miracle broke on the horizon: a mighty American Coast Guard cutter, sent to rescue them.

Relief swept through the crew as U.S. Coast Guard cutter Vigilant answered their Mayday calls. (Dave Rawding)

“We knew that even if the ship went down, we were going to get off,” Boyd says.

It lent them a pump which kept the ship afloat. Two days later, the cutter escorted a lame Bluenose II into Bermuda.

“We were doing a ceremony. David Rawding was praying a prayer, everyone was standing around as soon as we were tied up in St. George’s,” Harding says.

Harding saved a photocopy of the news reports. This picture shows the crew pausing to remember Robitaille. (CBC)

They called Robitaille’s family and told them the news.

The crew was exhausted and shocked. Boyd spent two days in bed. He had been awake since Halifax. Six days later, the Bluenose II was repaired and ready to return to work. They had passengers to ferry between the 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 marked the rest of our lives.”

Boyd and Harding reunited on Bluenose II recently to tell their story publicly for the first time in 50 years. (Robert Short / CBC)

In May, they brought the Bluenose II home to Nova Scotia. Harding and Rawding took the gloomy road to Tusket to sit with Robitaille’s mother. “Some of the hardest I’ve ever done. She was desperate.”

He also left a sister and his friend, Cora Doucette. Twenty years after the tragedy, she wanted to publish a book with his letters and her memories, called A Yarmouth summer. Yarmouth created a memorial for him. Some people still think of him every time they look at a penny.

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 Bluenose,” Harding says.

He still thinks of his friend four or five times a week, even after half a century.

Harding saved his crew jersey from the 1969 trip. (Robert Short / CBC)

“People call it the survivor’s fault. You know I survived, and he did not. You live your life and go on, but you still think about him pretty regularly. More regularly than I thought I ever would,” Harding says.

“I also often think of him. Especially at Christmas time,” Boyd says.

Boyd mostly gave up sailing after that trip in 1969.

But in 2000, Harding was invited to sail from Nova Scotia to Bermuda with friends. After much deliberation, he joined them. He made sure that they sailed over the same seas that took Robitaille in his life.

“I thought it could 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 annually to keep it safe. Robitaille remains the only crew member on the Bluenose II lost overboard.

Bluenose II sails on calm water in this 1969 photo from Harding’s collection. (Robert Short / CBC)

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