The Birth of the International Dory Races

By Sophie Frontiero

It all started when Tom Frontiero of Gloucester and Lunenberg, Canada’s Lloyd Heisler met in a Lunenberg bar in the winter of 1951. They were both fishermen.

During their conversation, the prowess of the dory rowers of their famous fishing cities and who was superior was hotly debated. Finally it was agreed that there was only one way to settle the argument that had gone on for years. A challenge was issued to have a race between the best rowers of the two cities. Tom Frontiero took that challenge back to Gloucester, hence the berth of the International Dory Races. Now, it was time to form a Gloucester crew.

It was decided that the four rowers would be Steve D’Amico, Jerry Nicastro, Serafino Frontiero (me) and Leo Brancaleone. The first three rowed on the St. Peter’s Fiesta 1950 and ’51 seine boat champions led by the late Captain Salvatore (Tally) Nicastro, the scuttler and coxswain John Parisi, leader of the annual St. Peter’s Fiesta. Brancaleone rowed on the 1948-49 Fiesta champs. The 1950-51 crew had beaten the best rowing crew of the U.S. Coast Guard in an exhibition race and was going for its third straight seine boat title. This was our chance to see if beside local domination, we could do likewise internationally.

Now the story gets weird. Somehow, the Gloucester crew misunderstood that four rowers and a scuttler (or steerer) were needed in a dory. Even today no one has taken the blame for the mistake in the transmission of the challenge. Anyhow, on a Thursday in June, 1952, two days before the race was to be held on Saturday, we, the four rowers, began to practice in the dory with the scuttler, who was Tom Frontiero, the originator of the challenge.

Frontiero was a commercial fisherman out of Gloucester who often went to Lunenberg for shelter during bad weather. So, he was familiar with that city and had many Lunenberg fishermen as friends. Being a follower of the horses at Suffolk Down he knew that in any contest, knowing the speed of your opponent and the distance of the race and the time that our foe rowed that race was valuable information. Through a contact in Lunenberg he was able to find out that our future opponents had rowed the distance of about a mile in 8 to 8 and 1/2 minutes. He had that distance measured off, placed a buoy half way out and in secret we rowed that distance. We covered that distance in about 6 to 6 1/2 minutes. Our joy was released with a loud and resounding cheer and we all agreed this was going to be a piece of cake, a walk in the park, no contest, no sweat! We were all in for a rude awakening.

What we did not know was that the Lunenberg crew rowed with only two rowers and no scuttler. On Friday, while loosely practicing for the race, we were called to the beach by Sam Linquata. He wanted us to meet our opponents, Lloyd Heisler and Russell Langille, who had just arrived from Nova Scotia. On the beach we all shook hands with the two men who seemed to be two of the friendliest gentlemen I had ever met. I remember to this day the size of Heisler’s massive arms and large hands; they were the most powerful looking hands and arms I had ever seen. Langille was a normal sized man with steely eyes but a quiet demeanor. What Mr. Heisler said next was something that 47 years later I can still hear: “Why are you rowing with four men and a scuttler?”

Someone answered that is how we understood the race was to be contested. He laughed and said that they only rowed two men but if we wanted to row four men, they would row two and still beat us. He said it in a friendly way and we all laughed, but I looked up at his eyes and I could see that he was not kidding. We all shook hands and said we would correct the mistake and pick our two best men to row against them.

It was at that moment that I decided that discretion was the better part of valor, my scheming mind was already devising a way to get out of the race. The confidence in Heisler’s eyes and size of his arms and hands were two major factors for my exit. I convinced Steve D’Amico and Jerry Nicastro that they were the best rowers of the four of us, and I was sure that they could win. I was lying.

Saturday morning the day of the race I walked into the St. Peter’s Club where everyone was celebrating the Fiesta and getting ready for the seine boat races which was the biggest part of the sports events. The first international dory race was not the attention getter it has become today. I saw Mr. Heisler at the bar, and he called me over and said have a drink sonny. We talked and I bought the next round. I found out that day than underneath that powerful body was a friendly, funny, big-hearted human being. We had a few more, and I left. I was in awe of this guy.

I came back to the club, and I saw Mr. Heisler. I shook his hand and wished him luck, and he poured me a drink from his bottle. I asked him where his partner Langille was and he said right behind me. I turned and saw Langille off by the back wall quietly sitting at a table with a drink in front of him. I think it was soda water because I had never seen him at the bar. I told Mr. Heisler that it seemed that Langille did not talk much and seemed to be a very quiet person. He agreed but said he can row like hell and is the best navigator that ever sat in a dory. He said he had eyes in the back of his head. I glanced at the clock and told Mr. Heisler, I called him Mr. because he was 23 years older at 46 than I was, and reminded him that the race was going to start in about a half-hour. He told the bartender to save his bottle and he would be back after he won the race. He was not kidding. He got up, called Langille and walked out, straight as an arrow; he reminded me of a young John Wayne. I felt that I had just spent time with a special kind of person.

I walked down to Pavilion Beach where the race was to be held. The race was a forgone conclusion, and that is when my two buddies Steve and Jerry found out that dory rowing and seine boat rowing were two different balls of wax. The Lunenberg rowers took the lead and kept it all the way to the buoy, staying in front of the Gloucester boys and leaving them behind in their wake. Heisler was right when he said that Langille had eyes in the back of his head, their dory went straight to the flag as though it had a compass. As they approached the flag they easily lengthened their lead to about four boat lengths. They made the turn around the one buoy; there weren’t two like there are today. On the way home they opened up to a comfortable margin and then showed their class and sportsmanship by easing up and not making a rout of the race, which they could have easily done. I knew that the crowd and I had just watched greatness.

After the race I went back to the St. Peter’s Club, saw Mr. Heisler at the bar and congratulated him. He thanked me, poured me a drink and said that maybe next year that Brancaleone and I would row against them. I told him that I had retired from dory racing. He said how can you retire, you never won a race. I told him I never lost a race so I was quitting undefeated. We both laughed. I shook his hand and said goodbye. When I got my hand back, I felt like it had just been in a vice. Before I left Mr. Heisler told me to tell the Gloucester rowers not to get discouraged that when the get experience and learn the tricks of dory racing, strategy, pace and that navigation were big factors in the race.Mr. Heisler, I found out later, was also a prophet.

The Lunenberg rowers reminded me of a great ballet dancer with great power, but also with smooth grace and rhythm. Their four oars were as one and they would dip without a splash or a sound. Their boat would glide like an eel through the water.

The race has now gone on over 50 years. As the years passed on and as the Gloucester rowers gained the experience and mastered the strategy factor the race has become competitively equal and the Gloucester men and women have won more than their share of races. More importantly, it has created a strong bond of friendship between two famous similar fishing cities of friendly, hardworking and fun-loving people.

Today both our program, and that of our counterparts in Lunenberg, N.S. (hyperlink to their site) are in a rebuilding phase. We have made some changes to our program to better suit the needs of today’s members, families, communities and businesses.