When Columbia, the replica of a 141ft Gloucester Fishing Schooner, rounded the point into Antigua’s Falmouth Harbor for the first time, nearby bars and eateries emptied out. Customers fled their seats, hurrying dockside to check out the vessel that had taken the yachting industry by storm. She was there for the 2016 Classic Yacht Regatta, one of several stops on an inaugural Caribbean voyage, to race in a fleet she would dominate in size, beauty and historical significance.
Launched in 2014, Columbia was built in Panama City, Florida at the famed Eastern Ship Building Group, but her incredible backstory began nearly a century before.
The original Columbia, designed by William Starling Burgess, was built to withstand the wrath of the Grand Banks. Launched on April 17th 1923 from the Dana Story Shipyard in Essex, Massachusetts, she was rigged with few sails for a short fishing season – just enough to qualify for an impending race. Official measurements were taken in October, right before the match with the 160ft Canadian schooner Bluenose that would land her in the history books.
Captain Ben Pine sailed the schooner to Halifax intent on winning the International Fisherman’s Race but Bluenose, captained by Angus Walters, was the victor in the first contest. The second race was awarded to Columbia after a protest when Bluenose passed to the wrong side of a buoy. Captain Walters refused to accept the committee’s decision and left for Lunenburg … taking the trophy with him. That disagreement caused the race a seven year lapse and left all to wonder, which was the fastest boat?
Sadly, the world would never know. On August 27th 1927, a wicked storm struck the fishing banks off Canada’s Sable Island in an area known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Five vessels, including Columbia, went down with all hands. The schooner was lost but not forgotten, thanks to the drive and dreams of one man.
Brian D’Isernia, the heart and soul of Columbia’s replica, is a man of determination. He’s also the founder and owner of Eastern Shipbuilding Group, a yard known for building big tugs, fireboats, ferries, supply ships and fishing boats – all tough, all steel. Columbia was their first yacht.
The idea to one day replicate a fishing schooner began early on for D’Isernia and was reinforced when he gave up a job in law to fish the Grand Banks. Fishing turned to boatbuilding when he went on a hunt for the perfect vessel and found nothing to meet his standards. Among the first boats built at ESG was D’Isernia’s own Andrea Gail and Hannah Boden, both made famous by The Perfect Storm.
In 1997, D’Isernia found the original blueprint drawings of Columbia in the archives of the Essex Shipbuilding Museum in Massachusetts. He sent them to John W. Gilbert & Associates in Boston, to be adapted for construction with steel.
Jake Stevens, a renowned shipbuilder, began his job as project manager by studying the plans, researching and recruiting the perfect team of talented craftspeople. “I can build a ship,” he said, “but we had no experience building from the deck up.”
John Steele, from Lunenburg’s Covey Island Boatworks, was instrumental in the construction of the masts and booms, laminated with select Douglas fir. The topmasts are Sitka spruce. Steele enlisted his son Dorian, a master of traditional rigging who began the job knowing “Brian wanted to do the rig as if it was going in a museum.”
Deadeyes are sculpted of lignum vitae. Over 100 blocks came from third generation builder, Arthur Dauphinee, in Lunenburg. Hand stitched leather covers some blocks along with hoops, chafe spots and gaff clappers. The entire rig is old-school perfection.
One of Jake Steven’s points of pride are the stanchions, 65 per side, each different. His objective – to make it impossible to see where steel ended and wood began – paid off. Anyone lucky enough to stand on that deck feels wood, history – the soul of the Gloucester Fishing Schooners.
The interior of the boat is understated elegance, created for the large and growing D’Isernia family. The galley and main salon are one ‘great room’. Crew bunk out in the foc’s’le as the fishermen did, in staggered formation along the hull.
There wasn’t enough wind at Antigua’s Classic Yacht Regatta to test the talent of Columbia but no one complained. The lucky sailors aboard felt the honor and wonderment for the men who fished from similar decks for days and weeks at a time.
Someday, Columbia will have a race not unlike the contest between her predecessor and Bluenose. In the ESG yard sits a second schooner hull. Masts, rig, and sails are finished; all awaiting a new owner. That match, like the one between Angus Walters and Ben Pine, will carve a deep mark in the history of sailing.