Victory of the Rose Dorothea, 100 years later
|Photo Pru Sowers
Francis “Flyer” Santos built the half-scale model of the Rose Dorothea that now sits in the children’s room of the Provincetown Library.
|Photos courtesy Detroit Publishing Company
Provincetown fishing schooner Rose Dorothea won the Lipton Cup despite breaking one of its masts on the last leg of the race (left). The Rose was barely two minutes ahead of the Jessie Costa during the entire race.
Remembering the nexus of the age of sail & the age of fishing
By Pru Sowers
PROVINCETOWN — One hundred years is a long, long time.
But the impact Provincetown felt on Aug. 1, 1907, when a local fishing schooner won the first and only Lipton Cup in the Fishermen’s Cup sailing race, still reverberates, particularly among the town’s older residents, who light up when asked to remember stories their grandparents told them about that day. The victory allowed the then-largely Portuguese fishing village to look beyond the ethnic slurs it often heard; past the smug superiority of nearby Gloucester, which was famous for building the wooden fishing schooners; and even past Boston, where the wealthy upper class raced yachts that cost more than an entire fishing crew made in their lifetime.
“The Portuguese are an awful proud people. And one thing you can’t beat is the Portuguese at sea,” said Francis “Flyer” Santos, whose Portuguese grandfather was a crewmember on the Rose Dorothea. “We won the Lipton Cup. That’s the highest honor you can give anybody for sailing.”
The victory of the Rose Dorothea, captained by Marion Perry, whetted the town’s appetite for an even bigger event three weeks later: the laying of the cornerstone for the Pilgrim Monument, a 252-foot-tall granite beacon designed to remind the world that Provincetown, not Plymouth, was the landing place of the Pilgrims.
There was no way residents could have known that 1907 was one of the last golden years that Provincetown and its way of life — fishing under sail in elegant and yare wooden boats — would see. World War I would begin seven years after the Lipton Cup race, forcing many of the schooners into use as cargo carriers. The diesel engine would be invented, replacing graceful sailing ships with belching fishing boats that didn’t need a fair wind, fair tide or skilled crew. And the short-lived collaboration between working class fishermen and yacht-racing boat owners, based on a mutual appreciation for what it took to master the wind and sea in a wooden vessel, faded away.
“The Rose Dorothea was a symbol of everything: the Portuguese subculture, the fishing industry rise and fall, Provincetown’s rise and survival,” said Karen McDonald, assistant director of the Provincetown Public Library, who is producing a short film on the Rose Dorothea. “The age of sail. The age of fishing. A time when the upper and working classes came together. The nexus was at the Rose Dorothea.”
The race began on Aug. 1, 1907, in Boston and involved a 39-mile dash between lighthouses to Gloucester and back again. Sir Thomas Lipton, the Irish sports enthusiast who made his name and fortune by inventing the tea bag, had grown tired of racing fabulously expensive gentlemen’s yachts whose masts often snapped in winds over 20 knots. After hearing stories about the legendary speed and durability of the New England fishing fleet, Lipton crossed class and ethnic lines by offering an elaborately carved, three-foot-high solid silver trophy — the Lipton Cup — to the winner of what was officially called the Fishermen’s Cup, an alongshore race where winds were unpredictable and sail and helm handling were critical.
There were five fast schooners from New England’s fishing fleet that entered in the first class of the Fisherman’s Cup but they were reluctant initially to participate. Racing wasn’t what put food on the crew’s table, fishing was. And Capt. Perry, a big barrel-chested man with a short neck who named the Rose Dorothea after his wife, was a no-nonsense “Porty-gees” who had earned a reputation as the best “fish killer” among the fleet plying the Grand Banks fishing grounds.
Perry’s first response when Lipton approached him about racing in the Fishermen’s Cup was to decline, the price of fresh fish being at an all-time high that summer. But Rose Dorothea Perry intervened after seeing a picture of the fantastic Lipton Cup and imagining it on her mantle. As stories relate, she “liked nice things,” a distant cry from Perry about whom, it was said, “an old shoe was not plain enough for him if it still had a tongue in it.”
Once Perry agreed to enter the race, the other local captains in Provincetown and Gloucester couldn’t watch from the sidelines. Next to sign up was the Jessie Costa, another beautifully built Provincetown schooner, captained by Manuel Costa, and four other vessels from Gloucester.
On the morning of the race, however, only three schooners showed up at the starting line, the Rose Dorothea, the Jessie Costa and the James W. Parker, which had a musical band on its decks, not having much hope of actually winning. As the starting gun went off, the Rose Dorothea and Jessie Costa stayed neck and neck, each trying to get upwind to steal the wind out of the other’s sails. As the two ships reached Gloucester and rounded for the return trip, the wind and seas picked up, pushing the boats even faster and heeling them over so their rails were tipped to the water line. The Rose Dorothea held the lead but the Jessie Costa was never more than two minutes behind, and that distance diminished as she gained at each mark.
Just as the Rose Dorothea came around the last mark, a sharp crack was heard by the crew, who looked aloft to see the foretopmast had snapped in the middle, causing the sail attached to it to dangle, held only by its ropes. The crew of the Jessie Costa reportedly began cheering and ran to tighten their sails to take advantage of the disaster.
But because the Rose Dorothea had lost its jib topsail, it was able to point higher into the wind, allowing it to sail a straighter course. The Jessie Costa was forced to tack more often, and the Rose Dorothea crossed the finish line first, two minutes and 34 seconds ahead. Hundreds of spectators and boats in Boston gave a rousing cheer to the Portuguese princess as she docked.
But that welcome was nothing compared to the mood in Provincetown when Capt. Perry returned to his homeport. The Advocate, the local newspaper, wrote about the homecoming ovation in detail.
“Volleys were fired from small arms by men stationed at intervals along the route, the tin-horn brigade blatted a discordant fan-fare between brass band selections. … And the hustling, bustling, good-natured crowd voiced their approval in cheers for the skillful captain, his doughty crew and the trim hull that successfully fought for the grandest racing trophy known in fishing annals the world over.”
While Flyer Santos’s stoic grandfather rarely told stories about crewing on the Rose Dorothea that day, Santos has heard many others. He tells them excitedly, sitting in the living room of his house, which is the same one Capt. Perry lived in with Rose Dorothea.
“They were firing cannons. Guns were going off. People were all lined up along the waterfront. The whole town was in a roar. Maybe they had a few drinks besides,” he says, chuckling.
The honor of that day inspired Santos to build a half-scale model of the Rose Dorothea, which today takes up most of the second floor children’s reading room inside the Provincetown Public Library. The Lipton Cup, encased in all its silver glory, is displayed next to several posters explaining details of the race and the cup.
But the posters can’t fully explain the impact the Rose Dorothea’s win had on the town or why the changes that occurred in the years shortly afterwards were so difficult for residents to accept.
“This was the swan song of fishing by sail and wooden boat,” said McDonald. “The war came and that changed everything. The diesel engine was invented and you didn’t need skilled crews. You didn’t have to have a good wind. You didn’t need a good harbor.”
The Rose Dorothea itself had a terrible end. Santos relates the story slowly, as he looks at pictures of old sailing ships that hang on the walls of his living room. Perry’s grand schooner was sold in 1910 to another Provincetown fishing captain, who sailed her in local waters until October 1916, when she was sold to a Newfoundland company that used her to ferry salt and other supplies to Portugal. In February 1917, a German submarine surfaced next to the schooner as she neared the coast and after allowing the crew to evacuate in lifeboats, sank her. The crew landed safely in Lisbon with all hands.
Her rival, the Jessie Costa, was sold to another Newfoundland company in December 1916. She sailed for her new homeport and was never heard of again. And Provincetown — rousing, rollicking Provincetown — is today feeling pressure to sustain the tourism industry it turned to after fishing all but died out.
The town is planning an elaborate celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Pilgrim Monument in August. There is no official commemoration scheduled, however, of the Rose Dorothea’s victory. It will be marked quietly by the old Portuguese families who still live here and remember when Provincetown was one of the grandest villages on the eastern seaboard.
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