Herreshoff museum awakens passion for yachts

Herreshoff Marine Museum and America's Cup Hall of Fame. Photo by Capt. John Campbell

June 29, 2010

We were in Newport with the boat and I had a day off so I decided to explore the East Bay bike path. That is another tale, but suffice it to say it is a great ride along the track of a disused railroad. (The path runs from Bristol to Providence and is well worth a ride. www.riparks.com/eastbay.htm.)

As I was riding up to the beginning of the path in Bristol, I went past a couple of buildings with a sign saying Herreshoff Marine Museum. I completed the ride to Providence and on the way back, I spent an enjoyable afternoon at the museum. 

Nathanial Herreshoff was one of the most prolific -- perhaps the most influential -- yacht designers the world has ever known. His thinking, 140 years ago, has affected the form and design of the yachts we sail today. So maybe we should start with a brief biography of the man, before I describe the delights of the museum.

Capt. Nat was born in 1848, three years before the schooner America went to England to win the Queen’s Cup, which was to precipitate the America’s Cup. He was a teenager during the American Civil War.

His oldest brother, James Brown Herreshoff, was an inveterate inventor. He experimented with a number of boat-related items, including steam engines. He is credited with inventing the sliding seat for rowing boats.

Of all his siblings, the one who would affect Nat’s life most profoundly was the third son, John Brown Herreshoff, known as JB. Like his oldest brother, JB was an inventor and good with his hands. By the age of 13 he had built a rope walk, using machinery that he had largely made himself. He went into production making and selling a stiff, tightly twisted cotton rope that was used for making hoops in ladies’ skirts. With the money made from that and with a little help from his mother’s family, he set up a machine shop the following year.

That same year, at the age of 14, JB began to build his first boat, which he would call Meteor. Sadly, part way through the project he became blind. (Blindness was to afflict two of Nat's brothers and one sister. Out of nine children, four were to become blind at an early age.)

JB was determined to finish his boat, and did so with help from his father. Spurred on by the success of this project, he started building boats for sale. By the age of 22 he had established not only a boat building company, but also had his own steam-driven sawmill to cut the timber for his own use and for paying customers. His business was to become the Herreshoff Company.

While JB was setting up his boatyard and sawmill, young Nat went off to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study mechanical engineering. While there, he joined the Boston Yacht Club. During his first year at MIT, he invented and developed a handicap system for yacht racing. This was the first of the so-called time-on-distance methods of handicap and is the basis for several of the methods of handicapping that are still used today.

After Nat graduated in 1876, he went to work for the Corliss Steam Engine Company. He worked not only as a draftsman but also supervised the setup and running for several large steam engines. Both trades were to stand him in good stead working with JB in his later life. In his spare time at Corliss, Nat worked on designs for boats and for engines for JB’s company to build. 

Oldest brother James had designed a revolutionary coil boiler for steam engines that allowed the Herreshoff Company to build smaller, lighter, more powerful engines for its steam launches.

The Herreshoff Company was unusual in that it made the engines as well as the boats themselves. At this time there were few companies that existed to make propellers, at least in suitable sizes that the Herreshoffs needed. To get around this problem, Nat set about learning how to design propellers and the company cast them in its foundry.

We will see that this idea of making everything continued when Nat got involved full-time with the company, as he decided to make all the spars and sails for their yachts as well.

While still working at Corliss, Nat designed and built a revolutionary 31-foot racing catamaran called Amaryllis. With his two blind brothers crewing for him, he handily won the Open Centennial Regatta of 1876. People were jealous of the speed that his boat showed, and he got orders for six more. He took leave from Corliss to build these boats. 

The success of this project convinced him to leave Corliss and go into partnership with JB. JB took care of the business side of things; Nat concentrated on the designs and overseeing the building.

Perhaps because of the knowledge gained while Nat worked at Corliss, their focus moved almost entirely to steam yachts and steam-powered torpedo boats, which they made not only for the U.S. Navy, but also for the Russians, French, British, Chilean and Spanish navies. 

By the end of the 1880s, their interest returned to sail, and they built several large steep sloops in 1891. Nat was experimenting with towed models. At this time all vessels, power or sail, were built using a half model. This was largely carved by hand, using little more than the basic dimensions and a good eye for what was required. 

Nat developed a machine that could take measurements off the half-model, to allow the full-sized sections to be lofted. Measurements from the half model would also be used to draw the construction plans from which the boat would be built. Nat also used a system of immersing the half model in water and weighing the water it displaced, allowing him to accurately calculate the displacement of the finished vessel.

Nat now took to building complete models for some projects and using one of his steam launches -- he towed them in pairs -- using a balanced yoke. He could quickly see which version had the least resistance to being towed through the water. This was the forerunner to the modern towing tank that is still used today, even despite the enormous advances in computer simulations.

In the same year, Nat designed and built a 26-foot sloop for himself. She was the first known fin-keeled yacht, the Dilemma. Fin and bulb keels had been known in the model-yacht racing circles for a number of years, but nobody had had the structural knowledge or been brave enough to try it on a full-sized yacht before. 

Nat and his blind crew members cleaned up in all the races they entered, and the company built about a hundred more of the boats over the next six years before they were effectively ruled out for racing.

These were the glory years, often referred to as the Herreshoff Era. From 1893 to 1920, the Herreshoffs built all of the defenders for six consecutive America’s Cup series. Enterprise was designed by Starling Burgess, but Nat designed all of the others. Such a period of dominance by one designer is unique in the history of the America’s Cup.

It was during this period, 1894 to be exact, that Nat invented the cross-cut sails. Up until this time, all sails had been cut with the cloths running parallel to the leach, as most sailmakers felt that this reduced the stretch, and if a seam split, the sail would still stand. Nat decided that if the cloths were cut at right angles to the leach, it would be possible to better control the shape of the sail.

No sailmaker was willing to risk their reputation on the strength of a seam, so the Herreshoffs opened their own sail loft. As well as the boats themselves, they designed and made the sails for the America’s Cup defenders.

Nat worked into his late 80s and died soon after his 90th birthday. However, his genes obviously passed down to other members of the family. His son, L. Francis Herreshoff, became a successful designer. Perhaps his most famous boat, and perhaps one of the prettiest yachts to ever sail, is Ticonderoga, which still turns heads today. 

Nat’s grandson, Halsey Herreshoff, continues the tradition to this day. He has designed several boats, but perhaps his greatest claim to infamy is that he was sailing as navigator aboard Liberty when Australia II came from behind to take the America’s Cup from American hands for the first time in history. Halsey is now president of the Herreshoff Marine Museum.

Today the museum complex is effectively two museums. There is the actual Herreshoff Museum and the associated America’s Cup Hall of Fame.

Outside the Hall of Fame is the America 3 of William Koch. He surprisingly beat Denis Conner to win the right to defend the cup, which he did successfully, in 1992. The Hall of Fame itself has a fantastic selection of photographs of all the main players going back pretty much to day one of the event. What interested me most was a series of half-models of all the challengers and defenders. It is fascinating to see how the designs have changed over the years.

It was the Herreshoff museum itself though that I was most interested in seeing. The main entrance hall has a good selection of photographs, lots of models and several examples of the Herreshoff steam engines. That area alone was worth the visit, but when I passed through the door at the back, it was like entering another era.

The first area you come into is a large shed, jammed full with the most amazing collection of yachts. Most are without their rigs, and the spars are lashed up in the roof. It is just like it must have looked a hundred years ago when Herreshoff laid up boats for the winter.

From here you pass into a larger hall, which has the boats more systematically displayed, including several that you are allowed to board. The oldest boat is Sprite from 1860, the second boat that JB built. It is claimed to be the oldest private yacht in the United States.

Among the many and varied boats is an example of Nat’s revolutionary catamarans. For me, perhaps the prettiest boat is the so-called 12 ½ sloop. These are actually 15 feet long; 12 ½ feet on the waterline. This was designed in 1914 and examples are still raced today.

There is a mezzanine floor running along the side of this shed. From here you can get a wonderful overview of the boats, but also it houses a replica of the sail loft and a recreation of Nat’s model room. As mentioned, Nat, like almost all designers of that era, designed his boats by carving half models. Almost all of these still exist and are on display in a recreation of his model room at home. 

The museum is not trying to rebuild the boats so they look new, but to preserve them as they are. It is easy to imagine Nat stepping ashore from any one of them, after a pleasant day sailing on the bay, or after winning yet another race, crewed by his blind brothers.

When I got back to my boat, I was banging on about what a great museum it is and what an amazing man was Capt. Nat. With the exception of the chef, who at least knew who Herreshoff was, the crew all looked at me a bit slack-jawed. Captain who?

I found it hard to believe that they knew so little of the history of the industry in which they choose to make a living.

The museum is well worth a visit. Location and opening times can be found at www.herreshoff.org


Herreshoff Museum

Thanks, Capt. John, for spreading the word about a gem of a museum and an amazing American family. I sailed on three Herreshoffs in the 1970s as racing crew, and Capt. Campbell's article has inspired me to revisit the museum when I am in New England in October. 

Merrily Boyde
Retired in Southwest France