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Nathanael Herreshoff, the Wizard of Bristol, is conceded by many to have been this country's finest yacht designer and is the only one to have produced boats for five successful defenses of the America's Cup. But Cap'n Nat was not an isolated phenomenon. He came from a large and inventive family, learned his trade at the age of 11 as the seeing eyes of a blind and gifted naval architect brother and exercised his genius for the most part in collaboration with other Herreshoffs. The following is an excerpt from "Boatbuilders of Bristol," an account of that collaboration soon to be published by Doubleday & Company, Inc.
Although there was still, in the 1890s, an ample supply of tycoons who liked to pace vast decks with important business associates or pretty women, free of the cares of piloting or crewing, the demand was subtly shifting. More and more in the last decade of the last century the sporting thing was sail. And Newport, R.I. was the center of sail, just as it was the center of society.
Linked to and set apart from the mainland by a toll bridge controlled by the Vanderbilt family, Newport viewed mainlanders, like the poor, with well-bred tolerance. The definition of a mainlander was a simple, geographic statement: he did not live in Newport. The definition of poverty was more elusive. "A man is not necessarily poor if he has only a million dollars," John Jacob Astor conceded. It was reasonably certain, nevertheless, that no one could build one of the "cottages" ranged along Newport's Ocean Drive for a single million.
Almost every one of the houses on the bluff above Newport indulged the baronial privilege of flying its owner's standard or colors, from Vanderbilt maroon to Astor blue. Over the Crusaders' Castle on Beacon Rock, which Stanford White had designed for Edwin Morgan, floated a Maltese cross, twin of the device above Nathanael Herreshoff's more modest home at Love Rocks. The only other point of resemblance between the two houses was that both looked out over water dotted with Herreshoff boats. Morgan himself had a collection of them, and many another Newporter possessed at least one; John Pierpont Morgan ferried to and from the Corsair and Arthur Curtiss James to the Aloha in Bristol-built tenders. For such men, possessions had to be the best, and for the best boats they went to the boatbuilders of Bristol.
They went in the literal sense. The Herreshoffs, being the ultimate arbiters of sail and steam, did not stir from home to seek out commissions. They themselves were sought out, and future boat owners were never pampered. If they were so rash as to lay down specifications, Nat's blind brother, John, was likely to say in his slow-spoken way: "I don't think that's what you want. I'll tell you what you want...."
Ironically, the bellwether of the Herreshoff swing into sail was a brainchild of the eldest brother, James. Years later his daughter Jeannette recalled how, when she was a little girl, her father took her, one cold winter day, to the frozen harbor to help him try out a model. It had been inspired by the racing craft he had seen in England. With a carpenter's hatchet he hacked out a pond, across which the sailboat scudded at a furious pace.
Satisfied that he had something, James took his craft to John and Nat for approval. What he held out to them was a racing sloop with unconventionally large sails made practical by the depth and weight of the keel—a knifelike metal blade formed like a fin and attached to the hull by torpedo-shaped lead tubing that ran along the bottom and provided extra ballast.
John felt it slowly, with critical fingers, and was noncommittal. Nathanael muttered something about the plan being a little radical, but he probably was simply manifesting his habitual resistance to any of James' ideas—the crazy galoot! But Nat Herreshoff was no man to dig in his heels against pioneering. He carried James' small ship off to his workroom, studied it and improved the design. The creation of the fin keeler, as it came to be known in American racing, was subsequently attributed to Nathanael Herreshoff by most authorities.
When John and Nat decided to name their first full-scale fin keeler Dilemma, James was disgusted. He took occasion to explain, to anyone who asked, that the word referred to a donkey trying to choose between two bales of hay. Rancor, however, evaporated in success. Dilemma performed far better than even James had dared hope.
In practical terms, a measure of its success was that Edwin Morgan promptly ordered two new boats added to his armada. They were not, strictly speaking, fin keelers, but they did embody Dilemma's seminal principle: outsized sails counterbalanced by depth and weight. Their real importance lay in their paving the way for Gloriana, the true forerunner of the modern yacht.