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Preview: Herreshoff Marine Museum, Part 1 – The Model Room with Halsey Herreshoff

August 6, 2014

When we launched OffCenterHarbor.com, we hoped to give our members access to special boats and places that is not available elsewhere.

Recently, OCH received a unique invitation to visit the Herreshoff Marine Museum’s legendary model room.

The model room houses the half-models carved by Nathanael Greene Herreshoff as a critical step in his design process. Not only were we able to film the model room close up, we were guided on our tour by Nathanael’s grandson, Halsey Herreshoff, who describes in detail many of the most notable Herreshoff designs.

This tour of the model room goes a long way toward fulfilling our hopes.

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– We’re in Bristol, Rhode Island today at the Herreshoff Marine Museum, where Halsey Herreshoff will show us some of the half models carved by his grandfather, Nathanael. It represents the entire life’s work of N.G. Herreshoff, from the very first to his very last model which is Belle Siris, it’s quite a marvelous thing to go in and understand that unlike other great artists, you have to go to museums all over the world in order to see them all, but here, you’re able to see the entire work of one man and compare them in a way that isn’t possible in any other place that I know of. Halsey, this is like a kid in a candy store. I’d like to live here. We’re lucky to have you available today to show us around this great model room.

– This model room is the invention of the shapes of the boats that my grandfather had such success with. His method was to actually construct the three-dimensional shape very rapidly and efficiently, translating from his own mental image of a shape, to these forms which then could be measured and become scaled up to the real boat.

– So he would start with a very simple sketch as I understand. Is that right? The profile, maybe?

– Well, he would start with a very small piece of paper like 8 1/2 by 11, and he would draw the profile and generally preliminary of the rig and then in tiny figures at the edge of the paper he’d put the principle dimensions and the weight and the amount of ballast and the sail area and these are just tiny figures there and then he would ask the patent shop of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company to glue up some pieces of white pine, with a certain dimension to it and when those were delivered to him, he would take his mental image of a boat shape and, quickly and decisively and efficiently he would carve the model which became the design. And, it’s a wonderful thing that these models, some of them well over 100 years old, probably look exactly as they did when he made them except they may have gotten a little darker with age but he simply shellacked them and we never even touched anything about the surface of any of these and they just remained with just good old shellac on them.

– Without a great deal of humidity control, they’d been in a decent environment but not a, not a museum quality environment ’til they came here.

– That is absolutely right because it’s interesting, they were about somewhat more than 50 years in, where my grandfather lived and made so many of them, and then they were about 50 years in my father’s house at 125 Hope Street, and they’ve been here now for about 25 years. And as you say, particularly in that second period when they were in our house, the house was closed in the winter and temperature was way down and we didn’t worry about humidity and yet, I don’t think that anything has gone wrong with the models.

– Here they are.

– Here they are.

– As good as ever.

– Well, would you like me to kind of give you a runaround of some of the boats?

– Yeah, I’d love to have you just walk around and–

– All right.

– Tell us what you think we should know.

– Well, of course, this is a portrait of Nathanael Greene Herreshoff. We’ve arranged around the portrait boats that Captain Nat himself had. He made a trip when he was 26 years old to Nice, France, and he made a model over in Nice of a boat that he’s then built named Riviera, which is a very elegant small sailboat, about 16 feet long and of course, in those days, it was a longbow spread and a gaff rig, and he and his brother, Louis, two young gentlemen, sailed from Nice along the Mediterranean to Marseilles and they had difficulty going up the Rhone River because of the strong current, so with the assistance of a train, they went to the high point of the Rhone-Rhine Canal and they went to the Rhine River and down the Rhine River to Rotterdam, put the yacht on a ship and went over to the Thames River and sailed up there and all the time, he visited ship building companies in Europe, and again, in England, and picked up a lot of information. In fact, Maynard can comment on this, but I’m led to believe that the whole idea of using wood screws was something he’d picked up over there.

– Oh, I think that’s correct.

– Yeah, I mean we take that for granted today–

– Yup.

– But that was the first time it happened.

– And it became the system.

– And it became the system.

– Upside down construction. And wooden screws.

– Yes, I guess he saw that. And over here are the boats and it’s quite interesting that this is the last large boat that he built, named Osiris. It was built for family friend Cal Rockwell, and we’re very fortunate that that boat is in the collection of the Herreshoff Museum. She was a 56-foot yawl. Over here, some of the very significant models. This is the famous Gloriana. The New York Yacht Club decided to have a new class of 46-foot racing boats. Which was to become the racing class of the yacht club so they invited members to build new boats from the designs of all the leading naval architects of America, and this was a very new concept. He cut away the bow profile and made the keel shorter. He had outside lead ballast which was a new idea in 1891. New methods of construction and Captain Nat himself steered the boat. Well, this was meant to be a competitive class and the only thing that went wrong was the Gloriana won all eight races that summer which did two things. It destroyed the class because of the competition was too one sided and it elevated Nat Herreshoff two years later to design the America’s Cup Defender. Next year, he designed the Wasp, which you see is a little more extreme. More cut away, also outside ballast, and, I’m given to understand the Wasp was superior to the Gloriana, and then he designed a series of classes for the New York Yacht Club and these are all stated according to the water-line length. The New York 30s, which came out in 1905, the New York 40s which was built to a different scale which is why you see this is looking smaller than the 30. They came out in 1916 and others were built in 1926. And the New York 50s, which came out just before that, and then there was even one design New York 70 class, 70 feet on the water line and somewhat over 100 feet overall. At one point in his development, he designed and built a lot of schooners, and these were brilliant big schooners. The biggest one was named Cotura. They came out in 1914. She was about 162 feet long on deck, and then he was called upon to design a lot of medium and smaller sized racing boats and in the 1890s, he got into going to further extremes in reducing the wooden surface, but these boats with the short keels, and, further extreme of that was boats from these models, for which the keels were bronze plates with a lead bulb, rather like the keels of the boats that are built to race today, the same idea. And, a part of that was the Thunderbolts which were built for a class developed in Germany, and this to me is a very interesting sequence because you can see that as one year follows another, these Thunderbolts get more extreme. They were built to a particular rule which involved principally the water line length and a limit on the sail plan. Well, this is a boat that won about every race it went in, named Bibelot. You see, it’s longer than the earlier ones, but the measured length of the boat is from about here to here because if you look carefully, you’ll see there’s a reverse curve to the profile so that when you measure the boat in still water, all that part was out of water, all that part was out of water, and the boat was only this long, but once you sailed, it was this long, when heeled over. That boat, regrettably, was destroyed during World War II. And then, an element of his work which is less appreciated was that he designed the earliest U.S. Navy torpedo boats. And, probably if it wasn’t for the glamour and intense interest of the sailboats, you might have to think that his greatest engineering accomplishment was these boats. He designed every part of them including the boilers, steam engines and all the systems, and, one of these, the U.S.S. Cushing was called seagoing torpedo boat number one. These are interesting power boats. In my youth, my family, my father and mother and my older brother Nat III and I went to Florida in this boat named Lang Syne, and this is a wonderful boat, 46 feet long, designed by my father. See the easy run of it. He used to get five miles to the gallon of fuel on this boat, running at about nine knots. And we had very nice accommodations and we went all over Florida and Eastport, Maine, cruises in the summer. It’s one of the great pleasures of my youth is that boat. This is a boat named Clara that was a family boat that he built in 1886 and named for his wife, Clara DeWolf Herreshoff. And we also have that boat in the collection of the museum, here. And they built numerous steam yachts of which these models are representative. This was, of course, a war ship here, and, it’s interesting, the people who come here seem to be mostly interested in the sailboats, but, I think the powered craft are equally interesting and equally innovative. In 1893, he was asked to design some large boats. It was the Navahoe and the Colonia, and the Vigilant. The most remarkable things is that they had never before built really large sailboats. These had a length of nearly 90 feet on the water line and yet in that one year, they built these three and, I suppose that it’s also fascinating that his ideas developed from one to the other to this, and this boat, the Vigilant, was the one that raced for the America’s Cup and it won the America’s Cup in 1893, so these all are boats built for the America’s Cup. That’s the Vigilant, 1893, the Defender in 1895, and you see, she’s gotten a more extreme keel, deeper, outside lead ballast, and then the Columbia which was built for the America’s Cup of 1899, and after that, he designed a boat named Constitution for the 1901 America’s Cup, and my father has stated to me many times that that was a big disappointment to Captain Nat because he felt this boat was an improvement over the Columbia but the Columbia was taken over by J. Pierpont Morgan who could buy all the sails he ever wanted and he got the main element of what happened was that he brought on Captain Charles Barr who was the greatest American skipper of that time and maybe of all time, and so, the Columbia narrowly beat out the Constitution in the trial races, but anyway, the Herreshoff boat still won the America’s Cup, the Columbia won the cup in 1901. And then, the New York Yacht Club was quite concerned that the challenger, Sir Thomas Lipton, would come with a very, very fast boat and so they influenced Nat Herreshoff to go even bolder than his normal boldness which resulted in this boat, the Reliance. 144 feet on deck, 201 feet, six inches from the end of the bow straight to the end of the boom. A rig that went to 199 feet, six inches in the air, the draft was 20 feet, the lead keel weighed 100 tons, more than 200,000 pounds, and, these were amazing boats. Lead keel, bronze-bottom plating, steel top sides, aluminum deck, hollow steel mast, and they worked out a method where the top mast, instead of being fastened to the mast like that, the top mast went down inside the main mast much like a fishing pole. Well, this boat was very extreme. She had a crew of 66. Together with the after guy, there were 72 people on board in the America’s Cup. She was run by Captain Charlie Barr, and it was without a doubt the fastest Cup defender of the time. And she was so fast and so extreme that they got Nat Herreshoff to design a new rating rule called the universal rule. It was a long lapse between the race of 1903 and the race planned for 1914, which actually wasn’t held until 1920, but this boat, the Resolute which actually was smaller, again, this is a difference of scale. This boat, if it was the same scale as the Reliance would have been about this long rather than this long. But since Captain Nat had developed the universal rating rule, he no doubt had a better idea than anybody how to make it take advantage of it, and that’s one of the reasons the Resolute was able to win the America’s Cup. All together, the Herreshoff Company built yachts that defended the America’s Cup eight times, six of which were designed by Nat Herreshoff. You see, most of these are the port side but there’s one there that’s the starboard side, and, that would have been chosen because of the piece of wood but the curious coincidence is that of all these one, two, three, four, five, six models, this is the only one that did not win the America’s Cup. Whether Captain Nat ever reflected upon that or not, one has to wonder, but maybe he did. Today, when I meet people, very often I hear the comment of the beauty of these yachts, but in that regard I recall an interesting letter that I came across in Captain Nat’s file. It was a latter that he wrote to his son Francis, and this letter was written in the 1930s, complimenting his son Francis on the beauty of Ticonderoga, which was a boat that Uncle Francis designed which was very beautiful and in the letter, Captain Nat had two parts. The first part was he made the remark. He said, Francis, referring to his son, you are it would seem much more artistic than I am. He said, I never really directed my efforts particularly towards the beauty of the boats. I simply tried to design them to succeed as successful sailing boats and ones that can sail fast. Then, the second part of the letter was, he drew diagrams of the heating system proposed for his son’s house with the boiler pressure and the diameter of the pipe and how they should be connected and that whole engineering part. Well, now, my conclusion from the letter was, the second part showed his terrific interest and intelligence for mechanical design and his willingness to state that, but I think in the first part what he said was that he wasn’t an artist doesn’t give himself proper justice ’cause I don’t think he ever drew an ugly line in his life. They’re all great curves. So he may not have thought he was an artist, but he really was. You think that’s the correct way to put it, Maynard?

– I do, but I thinkto the profile to me is one of the secrets of beauty in a boat.

– Yeah.

-to here instead of to here which a lot of architects did because it made the boat cheap to build. Here’s one not cheap to build, , hook on in the right place, so it’s the, timber keel wasn’t too wide or too narrow, wide enough for bearing, but not wide enough–

– Wide enough to take the torque sideways.

– He made a stronger boat but a more expensive one and certainly a more beautiful one.

– Yes, and probably a boat with less drag in the water.

– Oh, yes, less wide-edge surface, sure.

– Less wide-edge surface. Yeah. These are particularly interesting models. These are all one design boats, and we are in the year 2014, so it’s very satisfying to think back that these three boats came out of design in 1914. This is the famous Herreshoff 12 1/2 footer. It was originally called the Buzzard’s Bay Boys Boat, and the reason that came about was that when Nat Herreshoff was sailing with the owners of the Resolute, those gentlemen mentioned to him, they all had sons who they wanted to learn to sail, and they asked him if he wouldn’t design a boat that would be suitable for Buzzard’s Bay for those boys to learn to sail and the way my grandfather put it was, to learn to sail, to get ready for the larger boats that they would have later in their lives, so, this, he designed very quickly and it’s an iconic boat for which imitations have been made ever since. Like, Herreshoff’s built around 370 of them and since them, there’s been thousands of imitations built. 16 feet over all, 12 1/2 feet in the water line, this was the Buzzard’s Bay 25 which my father told me was Captain Nat’s favorite hull shape, and you can see how elegant it is, lightweight, straight lines, easy run, and they only built a few of these boats but they are probably one of the greatest things that he ever did and they are efficient, fast, and certainly very beautiful. Captain Nat had a boat named Alerion 3 which he brought out in 1912. It didn’t have this lower portion here, it was a keel centerboard boat, and he built it for his own sailing and then a couple of years later, when they decided to enlarge this model which is an example of the fact that a model made for one type boat not only could be used for successor identical boats but could be used larger, so he enlarged the Alerion model with a ratio of 4:3 and built what was called a Newport 29 which is one of the finest classes they ever built. They only built four, though, and one of them was wrecked in the hurricane of 1938 and the other three are still going strong and sailing every summer. This piece here used to be laying around here but I glued it on to show the keel of the Newport 29. Some models are big and some are small. So, I think that the actual choice of the model size was more his own convenience than it was the ratio to full size. And, of course, as we’ve said before, we know that many of these models were the basis of a large number of boats and in certain cases, the succeeding boats might be a different size than the original boats, and, we’ve discussed a little while ago the fact that in some of those re-tread boats you might call them, boats that were subsequently built, he may have altered the variation in scale differently in the longitudinal direction than he did in thevertical direction so it’s kind of like a rubber boat. It’s stretched a certain way but not necessarily stretched with the same ratio in every direction. One of my favorite boats is the S Class. These came out in 1920. So they’ll soon be 100 years old, and they’re an elegant 28-foot boat with, you see, again, this nice easy shape, a little heavier in proportion to the length than the Buzzard Bay 25, but they have a lot of keel so they’re very stiff and these boats still race very aggressively with all kinds of sailors, both in Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound. That’s one of the interesting things that he made these models and they came out the way he wanted and he didn’t have to have second thoughts of putting back some material he removed.

– It’s wonderful that he saved as much as he saved. We’re very fortunate in that, in that, I think.

– He not only saved it but what he did was so special, it was very worth saving.

– Without a doubt, yup.

– So I’m glad we were able to get together today and talk about it.

– It’s always a pleasure. Thank you again.

– Thanks a lot, Maynard.



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