Bluenose captain sails into history

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Captain Phil Watson of Bluenose II was presented the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tall Ships America 45th annual sail training and tall ships conference, held in New Orleans.</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Captain Phil Watson and deck hand James Tilley aboard Bluenose II.</p>
  • <p>FACEBOOK PHOTO</p><p>Captain Phil Watson holds court as a crowd gathers around the Bluenose II.</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Captain Phil Watson (centre) and crew of Bluenose II as the ship departs Lunenburg.</p>

As if being in charge of one of the most iconic tall ships in the world weren't enough of a wind beneath his sailing career, Captain Phil Watson of Bluenose II has just been recognized by a prestigious group of peers with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

On February 17, Tall Ships America presented Watson with the honour at its 45th annual sail training and tall ships conference, held in New Orleans.

"This is a huge award for Captain Watson in recognition of his 30 years on Bluenose," commented Alan Creaser, director of operations for Bluenose II, who contacted LighthouseNOW with the news.

The award is given to an individual who has dedicated his or her life's work to getting people to sea under sail, and who has worked to preserve the skills and traditions of sailing training.

According to Creaser, there are about 150 to 160 members of the non-profit group, which is focused on youth education, leadership development and the preservation of maritime heritage. Members represent vessels from throughout North and South America.

"It's pretty humbling," Watson admitted in a telephone interview, explaining that his was somewhat of an "accidental career at sea."

The award caps a wave of memorable personal and public achievements for the sailor who has been on the water since he was a youth.

Preserving the skills and traditions of sailing, particularly as they apply to the Bluenose, has been an ongoing passion of Watson, who, to this day, ranks sailing the internationally famous vessel into Mahone Bay as one of his most stirring moments.

"I grew up in Mahone Bay sailing a little dinghy in the harbour. And so to sail the ship back into there, that's the kid taking the Stanley Cup back to his home town," Watson said emphatically.

"And you know, the ship-building history. It just sort of tied the whole thing together for me."

Another highlight was last spring, when the Bluenose sailed into Boston to lead a fleet of tall ships to Canada's 150 celebrations.

Watson told LighthouseNOW it's been suggested that one in four people in Boston have some relationship with Nova Scotia.

"You know, people were waiting for two hours to get on the ship. And they wanted to tell us their story."

He says sailing with other tall ships is like being in a sailor's parade.

But there are challenges to the job too, such as head of the crew pulling the ship into huge port cities or along the St. Lawrence Seaway, particularly up through the Thousand Islands and its small and narrow locks.

"And then you're dealing with big bulk carriers and tankers - things you just wouldn't see sailing in Lunenburg Harbour," adds Watson.

There were sea trials after Bluenose II's lengthy and controversial retrofit, restoring the replica of the original Bluenose, the 1921 Grand Banks fishing schooner that won worldwide acclaim for its graceful lines and speed.

The 300-tonne, 43-metre replica was launched in Lunenburg in 1963.

Watson prefers not to dwell on the restoration.

"It's done. It's over with. The boat has been renewed, and hopefully we can all be renewed along with it and continue to tell the story."

However, some of the greatest challenges for the captain may lie ahead as he works to ensure the Bluenose remains an ongoing passion of others as well.

Now entering his 31st year with Bluenose, Watson first set sail on the ship as a deck hand in 1987. He worked his way up the ranks: third mate, second mate, chief mate, "and then bus driver," he recalls with a chuckle.

Watson was named captain of Bluenose II in 2001.

He estimates he spends about 100 days a year on the water, in charge of the vessel as it takes visitors on Lunenburg harbour tours, trains novice sailors, and acts as Canada's ambassador at sea.

The Bluenose sails throughout the Eastern Seaboard, the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes.

Another rewarding aspect of his job as ship's captain is bringing young people aboard for training, says Watson, who still calls Mahone Bay home.

"Most of them have never sailed before and have no idea about the ship or the sea or anything. And watching them gain appreciation and gain self-confidence, that's a lovely, lovely thing," he said.

However, he recognizes that it's also youth who present some of the greatest challenges for the ship.

Watson points out that long ago "everyone's grandfather" had been involved in the fishing or the lumber industry in Nova Scotia's largely resource-based economy. And "everyone had a model of the Bluenose in their living room or on the mantle...

"That's changing," he says, adding that fewer youth today share that sentiment or have any direct contact with the sea.

"And you need to make the ship relevant," said Watson.

School programs help, he suggests.

"There's this whole world these young people have never seen before, and you can expose them to it and show them, teach them what it took to sail a schooner back in the day," he enthuses.

"That's work ethic and pride, pride in your boat and pride in your town and your country. That's tremendously rewarding stuff," said Watson.

Moreover, the Bluenose captain is confident a large portion of the public still rides high on a wave of emotion over the ship.

"It's interesting, you know, we see someone from Alberta, 10 o'clock or 11 o'clock at night, lying down on the wharf , reaching out just so they can touch the boat.

"Or they'll stand on deck with tears in their eyes and say, 'I never thought I would have the chance to do this.'

"And it's like, 'Wow. She still is important to people.'"

So what lies ahead for the captain of Canada's most famous ship?

"I carry on I think. It's not a push to retirement," he says of the award, laughing.

"There's a never-ending learning curve, for myself for everybody. You can't go to sea and just one day arrive and say well I've learned it all. It's always changing and there's always more to learn," says Watson.

Tall Ships America handed out its first Lifetime Achievement award in 1995.

Captain Daniel Moreland of the Picton Castle won the honour in 2015.

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