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In Gloucester, racing dory boats is a test of tradition

Will Wells of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, applauded fellow dory rowers while his teammate, Walter Nickerson, prepared their dory.Erin Clark for The Boston Globe

GLOUCESTER — In the winter of 1951, a fisherman from Gloucester named Tom Frontiero was taking shelter from a storm in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, when he engaged in one of fishing’s oldest traditions: He got into an argument in a bar.

For centuries, Gloucester and Lunenburg had been competing for cod and bragging rights on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. During the 1920s and ‘30s, they even held races to see who had the fastest schooners.

But on this night, Frontiero and a local fisherman named Lloyd Heisler were arguing over rowing — namely, which of the famed fishing cities had the best dory rowers.

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On Saturday in Gloucester, as it has for 68 years, that argument continued in the form of the competition that was born from that bar banter — the International Dory Races.

Since 1952, when Heisler and his rowing partner arrived in Gloucester and crushed their opponents, the two cities have sent their best rowers against each other in head-to-head matchups to see who can make the heavy, flat-bottomed wooden boats do the one thing they were not designed to do: move fast.

Now a relic, dories were for centuries the workhorses of the fishing fleets. Schooners would sail to the fishing grounds, dropping the hulking two-person boats over the side. The fishermen would lower long lines laden with hooks, pull up the catch, and row or sail the dory back to the mother ship to unload it. Dories were designed to be stable when laden with fish.

Dory oars rested on the dock.The Boston Globe

Skilled dory rowers were celebrated in their respective cities, and a man named Howard Blackburn became perhaps the most famous person in Gloucester’s history for rowing his dory all the way to Newfoundland in 1883 after he became separated from his mother ship in a blizzard on the Burgeo Bank. Blackburn’s rowing partner died on the five-day journey, and Blackburn survived by intentionally freezing his hands into a curved position so they would slide over the oars and allow him to keep rowing. The move cost Blackburn all of his fingers and half of each thumb, but he returned to a hero’s welcome in Gloucester, where the townspeople raised $500 for him, which he used to open the famed Blackburn Tavern.

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The dory races, from their inception, have been about celebrating and holding on to that tradition, but that mission is becoming more challenging with each passing year.

“Once this is gone, there’s no one to tell the history,” said Geno Mondello, 68, who owns the Dory Shop in Gloucester, a small boat barn on the waterfront that still builds dories but is more of a mini museum to the craft. “That’s why I have this shop. To tell this story.”

Keeping that story going with the younger generation is not going so well, organizers in both countries say. A dory is a simple boat, “but everything about a dory is a challenge,” said Robert Fox, the 45-year-old president of the Canadian Dory Racing Association, who is running an initiative in Nova Scotia to attract younger people to the sport. “They’re heavy. The oars are heavy. You have to control your direction with every stoke. A lot of people get in them once and find them too challenging.”

Indeed, the organizers of the International Races — which happen in Gloucester in June and Lunenburg in August — canceled the juniors race on Saturday because they didn’t have enough competitors.

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Like too many stories involving the fishing industry, this one is a tale of how good it used to be, when thousands of fans would line the state fish pier and cheer on the teams. On Saturday, there were maybe 100 people in attendance.

Alexis Novello (center) pulled a coin from a hat to determine where and when her team will compete in the International Dory Race. Erin Clark for The Boston Globe

But in the water, as always, the rivalry is hot. Teams want to win.

“If you ain’t nervous, then don’t play,” Jimmy Tarantino, a 57-year-old from Gloucester, said as he put his seat in his dory and got ready for battle. Jimmy T, as he is known, is a famed local character (he competed on a season of the reality show “Survivor”), and has been rowing in the races so long he’s “now beating the children of the guys I used to beat.”

Tarantino and his partner, Stephanie O’Neil, were competing in the mixed pairs division against the Canadian Fox and his partner, Lisa Tanner, who was a nervous wreck before the race. “I’m a little intimidated by Jimmy T,” she admitted.

The Canadians narrowly prevailed in the mixed race, but it was the only blemish for the home team. Gloucester won the men’s and women’s races, and the senior’s race.

With her race over and the nervousness gone, Tanner came up to the pier and let out a sigh of relief. Then she cracked a bottle of tequila and passed it around.

“It’s a tradition,” she said with a smile. And that’s what these races are all about.

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Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com.