Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bluenose II setbacks an embarrassment

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LUNENBURG -- A highway billboard announcing the exit to Lunenburg proclaims the historic town to be the home of Bluenose II, a proud symbol of Nova Scotia's seafaring past. A smaller sign below informs visitors that the schooner, a magnet for tourists this time of year, is in port.

And that's the problem -- it may not be going anywhere for a long time.

More than a year after a massive rebuild was completed, the sleek, wooden-hulled ship remains tied up at dockside. Safety inspectors won't allow it to venture into the sheltered waters of Lunenburg Harbour, let alone go to sea.

Bluenose II was supposed to be under sail in the summer of 2013, resuming a busy schedule of cruises and port visits as Nova Scotia's "sailing ambassador." It's likely to miss another tourist season as its builders, the project manager and marine consultants squabble over what went wrong, who's to blame and what needs to be done to get the schooner sailing again.

The province has sunk almost $20 million into the rebuild -- about $5 million more than budgeted -- and the price tag could reach $25 million. Premier Stephen McNeil, whose Liberal government inherited this mess from the previous NDP administration, calls the project "a boondoggle" and has asked the provincial auditor general to investigate.

To fathom why politicians and taxpayers would want to spend millions to make an old boat new again, you have to understand the role this particular boat has played in Nova Scotia history.

The original Bluenose was built in Lunenburg in 1921, a Grand Banks fishing schooner built for speed and destined for a more glamourous life. It defeated American challengers in a series of races in the '20s and '30s, giving the Nova Scotian underdogs something to cheer about and earning the vessel a place of honour on the dime.

"It is the symbol of Nova Scotia," noted author Silver Donald Cameron, a Nova Scotian, who wrote one of the many books that chronicle the exploits of the schooner.

Bluenose sank in the Caribbean in 1946. Two decades later, a brewery commissioned a replica for use in beer advertisements. When the province assumed ownership in 1971, Bluenose II began a new career as a floating tourist attraction.

By the time a group of Lunenburg boat builders began reconstruction in 2009, the schooner was in such poor shape that little more than the masts, rigging, sails and some of the woodwork could be reused. Some joke the latest version should be christened "Bluenose Two-and-a-Half."

But with a hull of tough South American hardwood and a modern laminated frame, it could be sailing 50 years from now -- if a major problem can be fixed first.

The "boondoggle" stems from the province's insistence that the schooner be certified to American Bureau of Shipping safety standards. While that's good news for passengers and crew, it required the old wooden rudder to be upgraded to a steel one that weighs more than 3,000 kilograms. It's so heavy that Bluenose II is now difficult to steer.

Experts have been retained to lighten the rudder and design a hydraulic steering mechanism, which means more money and further delay. Government officials can't say when the additional work will be completed and the vessel will be back in operation.

The setbacks are an embarrassment for the McNeil government, which has been in charge of the Bluenose file long enough to bear some of the responsibility for cost overruns and missed deadlines.

The embarrassment is also being felt in Lunenburg, where building ships and sailing them has been a way of life for more than two centuries.

"The town's reputation has been tarnished," admitted David Darrow, the deputy minister Premier McNeil has called in to get the rebuild on track. "I wish I could undo what has been done, but that's not possible."

These days Bluenose II is tied up behind a cluster of weathered foundry buildings while the steering problem is worked out. It's a fair distance from the pier it usually occupies on Lunenburg's postcard-perfect waterfront, but the schooner still attracts visitors in search of a souvenir photograph.

Those who want to see it under sail, though, will have to sort through their pocket change until they find a dime.


Dean Jobb is the East Coast correspondent for the Winnipeg Free Press and teaches journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 11, 2014 A11

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