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Scuttlebutt News:

Deer Isle to the Rescue

By John Rousmaniere

(April 29, 2007) If we are to believe the sometimes frenzied charges shouted out from Valencia, the America’s Cup is a hostage to greed, the race schedule is a wicked conspiracy, the town is a sewer, and the Cup’s managers are profiting from the first, are behind the second, and deserve to be swimming in the third.

Maybe there’s something to all that; I’ll be in a better position to know when I’m in Valencia for the Cup races. But I am certain that, over the past 156 years, the America’s Cup has survived far worse than light winds and aggressive protection of intellectual property. When someone seriously suggested the other day that the New York Yacht Club step in and clean up the mess that he and others believe was created by iniquitous Swiss landlubbers, I replied, “This is rich! For 132 years the world screamed that Morgans and other non-sailor Wall Streeters were soiling the holy grail in countless ways.”

It was a relief, therefore, to read about a high school junior from Deer Isle, Maine, named Alison Turner, who showed up in Valencia with an aluminum ring passed down by her ancestor, Charles Scott. This ring was fashioned from remains of the two America’s Cup winners, Defender and Columbia, in which Scott crewed with other Deer Isle lobster fishermen in 1895 and 1899.

Those lobstermen were part of a fascinating story that carried on for seven decades, safely outside the roar of outraged purity that surrounds the typical America’s Cup match. During the Cup’s first professional period, which ran from the 1870s through the 1930s, most boats were handled by fishermen who, come Spring, put aside their traps and nets for summer yachting. Some were from Maine, others from Long Island, N.Y. Still more came from fishing towns in England and Norway. This heritage is such an important part of the Cup’s gene pool that I and the other members of the America's Cup Hall of Fame selection committee have elected one of the Norwegians from the J-Boat era, Willie Carstens, to the hall.

Non-American crews dominated, even on Cup defenders. Many yachtsmen were sure that Americans were too independent to follow orders and be well-drilled “forward fighters,” as foredeckmen in these immense vessels were called. Hank Haff, Defender’s thick-bearded skipper, knew better. He had fished off Long Island, his tactician had been the captain of a coasting schooner, and his first mate had served his apprenticeship as a boy on a square rigger in the West Indies trade.

Haff did not dodge the question when he stood up before Charles Scott and his friends. “I have been told that some of you have been mates and even masters of vessels,” he opened. “But you will not be either during the service for which I have come to Deer Island to ship you. You will be in the forecastle, and the work on the yacht will be hard, and there will be plenty of it, night as well as day sometimes.”

He continued: “There has been a great deal said about an American crew . . . not wanting to obey orders, of jealousies arising, and that all hands in a short time would want to be the captain. If there are any of you here who have the faintest suspicion that they will feel so in the future, I don’t care to go any further with such. But if you come with me and help me, as you know how, to keep the old Cup, you’ll never regret it. You will be treated like men, and next fall, if we are successful, we’ll have some fun.”

They were successful, and they did have some fun.

Let’s hope that the old Cup is providing at least some fun in Valencia.

Click here for Haff’s speech and more on the Deer Isle crews.

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