Nathanael Greene Herreshoff,  1848-1938
Bristol, R.I. USA

 
As Vigilant leaped across the line with her splendid sails bellying out to the boisterous blast, a hundred brazen throats saluted her; and there was just as loud and hearty a welcome to the great English cutter when she too crossed the line.
-- A. K. Kenealy, Outing Nov. 1893
 

V
igilant, snatched her win by a mere forty seconds from Lord Dunraven’s Valkyrie, over a course of thirty miles, on corrected time -- with every inch of her astounding 11,272 sq' of sail drawing to the max. A 125’ gaff sloop, with a mere 84’ along her waterline, she was Nathanael G. Herreshoff’s first America’s Cup defender. No one has yet matched his infinite capacity to harness speed to sail.

Raised in the lively seaport of Bristol, Rhode Island, Herreshoff became his brother John's eyes and hands at the age of eight when John went blind at fourteen. That handicap kept no one ashore: Nat would steer, John command. Their uncommon trust and remarkable talents would go on to re-shape the world of American yachting for nearly fifty years.

The marvel and range of Nathanael Herreshoff’s gifts, honed by three years at MIT and nine at Corliss Steam works, remain unparalleled. From torpedo boats, to steam launches, to sailing yachts of any size, everything waterborne proved a fascination to him. He modeled, designed, drew, invented, fabricated, supervised and built steam engines; sail tracks, winches, propellers; fin keels, full keels, bulb keels and centerboards; catamarans and pirogues. He used wood, bronze, aluminum, steel; he forged fittings, stitched sails and trimmed lumber. Whatever took to water became more beautiful, moved more swiftly and proved more resilient when he put his hand to it.

Herreshoff’s notable first yacht, Shadow, a 33’ 6" gaff sloop, was built in 1870. Her hull shoaled the deep English cutters' wineglass shape and deepened the saucer of the American 'skimmer' to introduce the first 'compromise' design of transatlantic yacht racing. She swept the races against George Watson's 'unbeatable' Madge off Seawanhaka, NY, in 1881.

‘Captain Nat’ only turned his full attention to sail in 1890. And his yachts dominated the sport for the next thirty years. With 70’ Gloriana in 1891, the first of a new 46' LWL racing class, he advanced every conceivable component of yacht design and build: hull shape, weight of rig, cut and shape of sail, choice of keel and ballast, displacement, the application of favored ratings and overall strength. Gloriana sailed so successfully she withdrew from this new class at the end of her opening season.

Gloriana was prelude to a run of yachts that dominated the waters of the 1890’s on both sides of the Atlantic. Herreshoff's magnificent list of legendary winners, among them, Wasp, Navahoe, and Westward and the four other Cup defenders, Defender, Columbia, Reliance and Resolute, all reflected a genius wrapped in a measure of awe. When one of these great yachts hove into sight, she appeared as a "cathedral of sail".

Herreshoff led the effort to create the USA’s Universal Rule of 1906, which birthed the celebrated new America’s Cup J-Class, first seen in 1930.

F
or sheer joy, Herreshoff sailed alone, tossing off a dock line, and stepping aboard a small boat of his own devising. These handsome and nimble designs -- the Newport 30, the New York Yacht Club 30, the Alerion, the Buzzard’s Bay 15 and 25 and the Herreshoff 12 ½ -- today offer the same delight.

‘Captain Nat's' last yacht, Balisarius, built in 1935, designed when he was 87, anticipated the work of yet another era: the offshore cruiser/racer that new generations would make famous. Though the famed Herreshoff yard had already passed into new hands, his sons, L. Francis Herreshoff and A. Sydney Herreshoff, would continue his work in rich and inventive ways.

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