Gerald Carbone: Herreshoff + RI’s Yacht-Design Genius

Saturday, September 28, 2013


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I wanted William “Dyer” Jones to stop me from looking foolish. So we agreed to meet on the Bristol waterfront at the Herreshoff Marine Museum, where he is the CEO.

I told him I planned to pan the America’s Cup races for using these high-tech catamarans whose hulls spend more time airborne than in the water. Why not just race airplanes? I yearned for a return to “traditional” monohulls, boats that look like boats.

And Dyer Jones told me, nicely, why this was a stupid stance.

A while ago, every state chose a design to represent it on the obverse side of a 25-cent piece. Rhode Island chose a sailboat. That is not a generic sailboat on Rhode Island’s quarter, it is the profile of “Reliance,” a yacht that Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. designed and built to defend the America’s Cup in 1903.

I see the profile of that single-hulled yacht with billowing sails and I think: traditional.

Jones looks at that same image and sees “the most extreme boat ever built,” even more cutting edge in its day than those catamarans slicing up San Francisco Bay.

Jones has done everything in the America’s Cup from crewing in the 1967 defender trials to directing an entire Cup regatta. From his office overlooking the old Herreshoff piers he said:

“My view is this – the matches [in this year’s Cup] have actually proven to be quite exciting. Part of it is because of the speed. Part of it is because of the innovation, the dramatic innovation that is taking place.

“And America’s Cup has always been about pushing the boundaries. It’s always been about experimentation – sometimes very successfully, sometimes abject failure. … So I applaud the effort. Trying something new, in my view, is always good.”

Nobody pushed the boundaries more successfully than Bristol’s Nathanael Greene Herreshoff whose family firm, between 1893 and 1934, designed eight consecutive Cup winners.

“Captain Nat” invented hollow cleats that were stronger than lighter than what came before; he invented sail track for easier hoisting, and pioneered the use of aluminum in “Reliance,” a monster of a vessel that stretched 200 feet from bowsprit to boom.

“It’s my firm belief that if Nathanael Herreshoff were alive today, instead of building out of wood and steel, he’d be building out of high tech materials. He’d be building the same kind of boats that we had out in San Francisco,” Jones said.

To prove his claim, Jones led me to the museum’s “Hall of Boats,” which displays dozens of the museum’s collection of 60 Herreshoff-built boats. Hanging from the rafters is a wood-and-steel catamaran that incorporated ball joints to let the pontoons flex without snapping. Herreshoff built this one in 1933 to replicate “Amaryllis,” one of his early racers, a catamaran he built in 1876 to race in New York’s Centennial Regatta.

“It sailed circles around the monohulls,” Jones said. “Subsequently the boat was disqualified – it did not have adequate accommodations – no bunks, no toilet.”

A yacht named America won the first challenge cup race off the Isle of Wight in 1851, so the trophy became known as America’s Cup. For the first few races, entrants had to be a “proper yacht,” Jones said. “You could eat on them, you could sleep on them. But that was a long time ago.”

By the time Captain Nat built “Reliance” there were few limits – the waterline could be no longer than 90 feet, but Herreshoff managed to stack 200 linear feet of rigging atop that, enough to crowd 17,000 square feet of custom-cut sail.

“I’m excited by what they’re doing,” in this year’s race, Jones said, “by that kind of pushing the envelope. I really believe that that’s what this game is all about.”

And in the end, the AC72 wing-sail catamarans put on one entertaining show.

Gerald M. Carbone is the author of Nathanael Greene, and was a journalist for twenty-five years, mostly for the Providence Journal. He holds a Master's in Public Humanities from Brown University and has won two of American journalism's most prestigious prizes--the American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award and a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. He lives in Warwick, Rhode Island.


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