Friday, May 15, 2009

Classic wooden yachts

Nathaniel Greene Herreshoff is, undoubtedly, the greatest American yacht designer and builder ever. Most notably "Captain Nat" Designed and built the five winning America's Cup yachts from 1893 to 1920. (He also built the winning cup yachts in 1930 and 1934 ...every winning America's Cup Yacht from 1893 to 1934 was built by Herreshoff). He was a fantastically prolific innovator, inventing the folding propeller, the two speed winch, cross cut sails, the modern catamaran, the streamlined bulb keel, and other devices and practices too numerous to list here.

What I admire most about Captain Nat is the way he handled relations with clients. In 1903, following the brilliant success of Ingomar, Kaiser Wilhelm (yes, that Kaiser Wilhelm, the supreme leader of the German Empire) contracted Herreshoff to build him a new racing schooner. When the model (Herreshoff designed hull forms using wooden models) was complete, the Wilhelm cabled Herreshoff and instructed him to make certain modifications to it. Herreshoff famously replied that he would build the vessel but could accept no design input--basically cancelling the contract with the Kaiser! (and thereby setting the gold standard for client management to which all yacht designer must aspire.) Anyhow, at the end of April, 1910, the Herreshoff schooner Westward crossed the Atlantic to take part in the Kiel Regatta, winning three out of four races, leaving a frustrated Kaiser Wilhelm II behind on his Meteor IV. (This was, of course, the true underlying cause of WWI).

His smaller yachts were also justly famous and are considered classics today with the old vessels patiently restored and new ones painstakingly built to his designs. Almost every issue of WoodenBoat magazine has an article about a Herreshoff restoration or new build. He was truly the "Wizard of Bristol", his designs were great and innovative, and the vessels were wickedly fast...for their era. Now, I don't relish a shit storm of angry responses on this, because NGH truly is like a god to me; however, design and technology have advanced since then.

I had this epiphany Wednesday night at the local SNAME meeting. Former TCM employee Brooks Dees was presenting his latest sport yacht design (I wrote about it previously), a GP-26. Part of the presentation was boat rides. I watched from the dock as Brooks backed out of the slip in front of the restaurant and proceeded to close reach up the Oakland Estuary at nine knots (in about 10 knots of true wind and with seven, somewhat overweight, naval architects on board). In minutes they were out of sight to windward. A moment later, a Buzzard's Bay 15 (much like this picture) dragged its classic wooden ass past us to leeward at a sedate two or three knots. The owner seemed content at the helm, wearing a Greek fisherman's cap.

Yachting in a Buzzard's Bay 15

Although the two boats are similar in size and intended use, they are separated by a hundred years of change. Now, not all change is good, and I'm sure that there are many traditionalists out there who (will rage on me as soon as I publish this)believe that one "can't improve on perfection". They would rather arrive sedately at three knots in a vessel of highly varnish wood than operate something made from carbon fibers.

I feel otherwise. Without parsing perfection, I suppose my argument is that sailing is always uncomfortable, so you might as well get it over with as fast as possible (which is why I windsurf). I don't know if Nat Herreshoff would necessarily agree with that, but I suspect (if he were alive today) he would be appalled that people still build, and claim to enjoy "racing" his 100+ year old designs.

No comments: