It started as a friendly challenge between two fishermen in a bar.
Now, 60 years later, the challenge lives on.
The International Dory Races, an idea hatched on a cold winter day in 1951, is celebrating its 60th anniversary in Gloucester today. For the competing "sister cities" of Gloucester and Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, it's as much about friendship and fun as it is about winning, says Erik Dombrowski, who, together with fellow members of the International Dory Race Committee, is "kind of running the show these days."
"The show," which attracts about 500 people to Gloucester's harborfront each June, has evolved into something of an unofficial starting line for the city's summer tourism season.
Dombrowski, whose father, Hilary Dombrowski, is a Gloucester fisherman and something of a living legend in dory rowing circles, has for years played a leading role in running the Gloucester International Dory Racing Committee Inc., which runs the annual event.
The committee has also evolved since it was founded more than 50 years ago. Today, it doubles as a club, maintaining a small, but shipshape fleet of eight dories that offer a growing contingent of local enthusiasts year-round access to open harbor rowing.
Many of those members row annually in the International Dory Races, hosted in June in Gloucester, and in the fall in Lunenburg. And while competing is fun, says veteran dory racer Dombrowski, it's not as easy as it may look.
Unlike narrow, lightweight sculls or shells, says Dombrowski, dory boats are built for fishing, not racing. They are heavy, weighing about 600 pounds. The vessels are typically 20 feet long, with a wide beam and a flat bottom, all of which makes them very sturdy but very tough to navigate, particularly when speed is of the essence. Successful turns can determine winners on a race course.
Dories were known for over a century as "the work horses of the Atlantic," Dombrowski says, and capable of catching and carrying more than a 1,000 pounds of fish in a single haul. Two dory men would row the massive catch back to the mother schooner, so, by necessity, dory men became extremely practised rowers.
In the fishing ports of the North Atlantic, the power and prowess of dory rowing made living legends out of many a fisherman. One of those living legends, Canada's Lloyd Heisler, was the fisherman who, back in that bar in 1951, challenged Gloucester fisherman Tom Frontiero to compete in that first international dory race.
At the time, the days of dory fishing were dwindling down to a precious few. Within just two years, the dory schooner Adventure would make its last fishing trip, and working dories would be gone for good in Gloucester. But the almost superhuman rowing that defined the era of dory schooner fishing would live on in dory racing.
In that first International Dory Race 60 years ago, Heisler led Lunenburg's oarsmen to victory over their "host team" in Gloucester Harbor. Gloucester's defeated oarsmen — Steve D'Amico, Jerry Nicastro, Serafino Frontiero and Leo Brancaleone — had dominated local rowing competition. But in Lunenburg's Lloyd Heisler, they had met a formidable opponent, with "massive arms and large hands" — the "most powerful looking arms and hands" the Gloucestermen had ever seen, according to the International Dory Racing website.
Heisler — who would earn a spot in Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in Toronto — definitely raised the bar on dory racing as an competitive sport, says Eric Dombrowski. But, he adds, "he met his match when he raced my father."
Dombrowski's father Hilary was just 18 years old when, together with local lobsterman Jack Sultan, he beat Heisler. Likewise, Heisler's sons, Sonny and Garnet, were unbeatable "'til they met my dad," Erik says proudly.
Eric Dombrowski says dory rowing is probably in his family's Gloucester DNA. He still competes in the senior men's division, but won't be competing in today's races, he says, because he lost out in the final elimination round.
Today, the races are open to women as well as men, and this year, for the second time, a team from New Jersey will represent the U.S. in the senior men's division. According to Dombrowski, dory racing is attracting more and more rowers in all parts of the U.S. — Gloucester natives, for instance, who've moved out state, have taken their love of the sport with them, and their enthusiasm has proved contagious in unlikely states such as Texas and Colorado.
Dories, once considered cheap, utilitarian, toss-away "work horses of the Atlantic," are now prized like racehorses. Gloucester's International Dory Racing Committee holds fundraisers to maintain its fleet of eight, which, at an initial cost of $6,000 each, represents an investment of $48,000.
This morning's 8 a.m. pancake breakfast, an annual fundraiser at Gordon Thomas Park, organized by Brent "Ringo" Tarr, has become a popular kick-off to the race day schedule. The breakfast is open to the public for a modest charge, with all proceeds going ti keep the International Dory Races afloat.
This year, Ray D'Amico, the son of Steven D'Amico, who paired with Jerry Nicastro against Lloyd Heisler and Russell Langille, is looking to represent the U.S. 60 years after his father rowed in that first race.
"We just hope," says Eric Dombrowski, "we can keep it going for another 60 years."
Joann Mackenzie can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3457, or firstname.lastname@example.org.