“Capt. Nat,” as he is affectionally known in sailing circles, stands for Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, a legend in American sailing circles. Sheila and I had the good fortune to visit the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol, Rhode Island to become better acquainted with “The Wizard of Bristol.”
While I am not into sailing, it is hard not to be impressed with the Herreshoff credentials as summarized below from Wikipedia:
- Designed and built five winning America’s Cup yachts. He could sail them as well, earning a reputation as a skilled helmsman. Additionally, his firm built the winning Cup yachts Enterprise – 1930, and Rainbow – 1934 (designed by Starling Burgess). Every winning America’s Cup Yacht from 1893 to 1934 was built by the Herreshoff yard.
- Designed well over 2000 craft and produced more than 18,000 drawings. Between 1890 and 1938, the number of yachts he designed that won the Astor Cup, Puritan Cup and Kings Cup outnumbered the winning yachts of all rival yacht designers combined.
- Built the first torpedo boats for the U.S. Navy.
- Developed the first handicapping formula (the Herreshoff Rule) to allow yachts of different sizes and types to race together.
- Developed yacht scantlings (specifications) based on scientific load calculations; prior to Herreshoff, most yacht designers simply relied on traditional rules of thumb to determine the proper dimensions for planks, frames and rigs.
- Invented streamlined bulb and fin keels.
- Invented the sail track and slide in its present form along with many other patterns of marine hardware.
- Developed long overhangs on racing yachts that produced longer immersed waterlines, hence greater speed, when underway.
- Developed the first light steam engine and fast torpedo boats.
- Developed nearly all of the methods of constructing light wooden hulls.
- Introduced screw fastenings for planking to this country.
- Invented the crosscut sail, with panels running at right angles to the leech, in order to combat cotton canvas’ tendency to distort under load.
- Designed more types of steam engines than anyone else.
- Designed the web frame and longitudinal construction for metal hulls afterward patented and known as the Isherwood System.
- Developed light hollow metal spars combined with scientifically engineered rigging.
- Developed the flat stern form of steam yachts capable of being driven at high speed/length ratios.
- Designed the first folding propeller.
- Designed below-deck winches – Reliance 1903.
- Developed the method of splicing rope to wire.
- Herreshoff yachts were the first to attach shrouds and stays to mast tangs.
- Invented the modern turnbuckle.
- Invented sail tracks on masts and slides attached to the luff of sails to ride in the tracks (up until then, sails had been attached with mast hoops or laced to masts).
- Invented the modern winch.
- Received the first U.S. patent on catamaran sailboats (the Amaryllis, 1876).
While this list of “firsts” is most impressive, Capt. Nat’s relationship with his elder brother is quite unbelievable. Brother John had glaucoma and was blinded in his good eye at the age of 18. Nat (then age 10) became the eyes of John as John went on to establish Herreshoff Manufacturing. After Nat graduated from MIT, Nat was persuaded by John (the “blind boatbuilder”) to join him as a partner in the firm. Under the terms of the partnership, Nat supervised all aspects of naval design and John ran the business. There is no question that John was a genius himself and could price complex naval contracts in his head, while still running the day-to-day business of Herreshoff Manufacturing.
As described in the documentary, Nat created revolutionary naval designs using a simple block of wood and “saw” design and manufacturing solutions where others fell back on tradition. No detail was too small as the brief list of accomplishments shows above. His use of bronze and aluminum and metal “stress braces” placed diagonally across the wooden hull allowed Herreshoff to create lighter boats that were able to carry more sail. In layman terms, that translates into speed.
All-in-all, this is a remarkable story of how two very different – but driven geniuses – were able to create sailing boats that still awe modern-day designers. If you happen to be in Rhode Island, do make a point of visiting the Herreshoff Maritime Museum. It is certainly worth a detour.