09/28/2012 12:16 EDT | Updated 11/28/2012 05:12 EST

A closer look at Bluenose II on the eve of her relaunch in Lunenburg

HALIFAX - When the rebuilt Bluenose II slides into the waters of Lunenburg harbour on Saturday, the sight of its sleek, black hull will call to mind what seems like a bygone era.

But looks can be deceiving.

This latest incarnation of the Queen of the North Atlantic is no museum piece.

Beneath its gleaming paint is a thoroughly modern vessel built with a combination of traditional techniques — still routinely practised at the Lunenburg Shipyard — and the latest in high-tech know-how.

Nova Scotia's sailing ambassador has undergone a two-year restoration that cost at least $15.9 million in public funds — the final figures are not in. The project included replacing the schooner's entire hull and much of its Douglas fir deck.

Some are calling her Bluenose 2 1/2.

Its two masts, canvas sails and rigging — to be installed after the vessel is launched — were taken from the first version of Bluenose II, built in 1963 by the Oland family of Halifax to promote sales of Schooner beer.

Even though the rebuilt vessel shares the same name and overall look as the Olands' reproduction, it is a substantially different craft.

While the hull of the Oland Bluenose was made from red oak and pine — as was the original Bluenose — the newer edition is sheathed in angelique imported from South America.

The russet-coloured wood is renowned for its strength and resistance to rot and termite-like creatures known as marine borers. It is also very dense and can be difficult to work with.

"We went through over $10,000 in band saw blades just cutting the laminates for the frames," says Alan Hutchinson, president of Covey Island Boatworks and a director of the Lunenburg Shipyard Alliance, the consortium that rebuilt Bluenose II.

"We had to cool the blades in water continuously."

Aside from the hull, the internal structure of the ship was strengthened using steel floors and cold-molded, laminated wood-epoxy components that are up to nine times stronger than steel.

These modern boat-building techniques will help Bluenose II keep her graceful shape longer. The previous version had a bad case of "hogging," which means her bow and stern were sagging.

"Bluenose II had hogged more than 3 1/2 feet in the stern," said Hutchinson. "Her sheer line (across the top of the hull) was radically different than when she was launched."

Not only is the new Bluenose II structurally stronger, it will be a much safer vessel, Hutchinson says. Unlike her predecessor, this Bluenose II complies with nautical engineering standards set by the American Bureau of Shipping.

Hutchinson says meeting those standards while staying true to the original plans of the Bluenose was the most challenging part of the rebuild.

There were some parts from the Oland Bluenose that didn't pass muster. Its portholes, hatches and companionways — the shed-like structures on the deck — were cast aside for safer designs.

Despite the safety and structural overhaul, the new Bluenose II will actually look more like the original Grand Banks schooner built in Lunenburg in 1921, says Peter Kinley, CEO of the Lunenburg Shipyard Alliance.

"This vessel will have a deck layout and a look that is much closer to the original," he says.

"The Bluenose II was first launched in 1963 by the Oland family (and) the use of the vessel since that time has changed. She's more of a goodwill ambassador ... that people would like to view in the light of the original."

While the original Bluenose was a big, brawny workhorse — at one point landing the largest haul of fish Lunenburg had ever seen — the Oland Bluenose was a showpiece, complete with a larger assortment of polished metal fittings and varnished woodwork.

"She had more brightwork and was more yachty than the original Bluenose," says Hutchinson. As well, the first reproduction had a larger deck house and a well-appointed salon where the fish hold would have been.

But these details will mean little once the restored Bluenose II raises her sails for the first time in the months ahead. At a distance, Bluenose II is an imposing vessel at 43 metres long, its sails as tall as a 10-storey building.

Hutchinson says the consortium had no trouble finding people to rebuild the vessel, mainly because the skills are still in demand.

"Lunenburg and the south shore of Nova Scotia is still a hub, a mecca for wooden boat building," says Hutchinson, whose company has built more than 90 custom wooden vessels since the 1990s, including sailing yachts, lobster yachts and shoal draft motor yachts.

But the Bluenose II project has been the company's most ambitious venture.

"A number of the shipwrights who have worked on this project, their forefathers had worked on the original Bluenose and Bluenose II," he says. "In many cases, we had the third generation working on this project. The skills had been passed down over the years."

And those skills are ready to be put to work on other projects, Hutchinson says.

The Lunenburg Shipyard Alliance, which includes Lunenburg Industrial Foundry & Engineering and Snyder's Shipyard, is no one-off operation. The joint venture has collaborated on other projects and is already looking for new work.

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter will be among the thousands expected to gather along the Lunenburg waterfront Saturday at 7 a.m. when Bluenose II begins its slow descent into the harbour aboard a marine railway platform.

"Our marine history is part of the psyche of the province," Dexter said in a recent interview.

"It's a matter of provincial pride that we've had this extraordinary ship that, over its lifetime, filled so many roles — tourism ambassador only being the last of them. It was a working ship for many, many years. And it raced and brought about considerable pride for the province in its original form."