A Brief History of the Marblehead to Halifax Ocean Race

The Marblehead to Halifax Ocean Race is rooted in the prosperous trade that existed between Nova Scotia and the ‘Boston States’ during the 18th and 19th centuries. This north-south trade route existed before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock and started soon after John Cabot landed in Newfoundland in 1497 (or Nova Scotia or Maine, depending on whose history you read). The movement of people, money and goods between what would become New England and the Canadian Maritime provinces was the economic engine of British North America.

With so much commercial and fishing traffic moving along this northeast-southwest corridor, and with the rise of recreational yachting in the 19th century which saw the establishment of yacht clubs including the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Club (1837), the Boston Yacht Club (1866) and the Eastern yacht Club (1870), it was almost inevitable that a race along this same familiar corridor would come to mind. As reported by William M. Thompson in the sailing magazine The Rudder, the yachtsmen of the Eastern Yacht Club decided, after watching the success of the race around Nantucket Lightship from New York to Marblehead, that it was ‘enough of a success to prompt a desire for something better in 1905, and a course to Halifax was decided on.’

Being rather uncertain how the participants of such a race might be received by their Canadian neighbours, the Eastern sent a committee ‘to feel out the ground at Halifax’. They returned to report that ‘they were ambushed, so to speak, and rushed into camp in such a hurry, amid such vigorous friendly acclaim, that they were quite taken from their feet, and came back to report that Halifax was O.K., and its people had declared that they were anxious to entertain American yachtsmen.’ The race was on.

The original entry list consisted of 15 yachts but for a number of reasons was whittled down to six: the schooners Hope Leslie, Elmina, Corona, Agatha, and Black Hawk, and the sloop Sauquoit, all of the Eastern Yacht Club save Elmina (New York Yacht Club). The race began inauspiciously from Marblehead on 21 August, 1905 in light airs. As reported, ‘So spiritless was the start that the photographers who tried to make pictures of it got nothing worth reproducing. The boats barely drifted away from the line, and all the afternoon they remained within sight of the shore they were trying to leave behind.’ Of course, the wind eventually picked up and the 125 foot Elmina (New York Yacht Club) was the first to finish in just under 46 hours. The visitors were hosted by the Squadron for several days at their clubhouse on the Halifax waterfront, then situated where the Westin Hotel now stands.

This informal race continued sporadically until 1939 when BYC (the third oldest yacht club in the US) teamed with RNSYS (the oldest yacht club in North America) and formalized the biennial event. There was a break in the race during WWII, but it resumed in 1947. Since that time, the MHOR has run continuously, alternating years with the Newport to Bermuda Race, and is considered the pre-eminent North Atlantic Ocean race. Oddly, in Boston it’s called the Halifax race and in Halifax it’s called the Marblehead.

Whatever its name, the race begins in the early afternoon on the first Sunday after July 4th at Tinker’s Gong just outside Marblehead Harbor. It runs approximately 360 Nautical miles northeast across the Gulf of Maine and through the strong tidal currents at the entrance to the Bay of Fundy (a blessing or a curse and sometimes both) thence up the shore to a finish in Halifax Harbour.

In 2017, this race has been running, with a hiatus or two, for 112 years. It predates the first running of the Newport-Bermuda and the Transpacific yacht races by a year (both began in 1906) and is believed to be the longest running offshore ocean race in the world. (The America’s Cup (1851) is not an offshore race and the Chicago-Mackinac race (1898) is not an ocean race.)