Porter Hoagland, Boatbuilding & Restoration Student Ambassador

From early days, IYRS boatbuilding and restoration students are imbued with a unique form of self-improvement often referred to as “muscle memory.” The skill involved in creating a complex tool from a formless block of wood, such as a backing-out plane, begins to emerge naturally after regular practice. How this occurs is truly magical; failures become successes, and the latter grow geometrically. One key though is to follow the maxim followed by practitioners in disciplines as diverse as technical rock climbing and special military ops: “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” This paradox resolves itself as one pares the very last shaving to fit, say, a trunk standard into a keel slot for a centerboard.

The making of New Year’s resolutions is motivated by a belief in self-improvement. It is said that the practice was first adopted by the Babylonians, who resolved to return things (including money) that they had borrowed the previous year. This may be a bit of lore that’s hard to verify, as there is little left of Babylon but piles of rubble along the Euphrates. And today most legends of Babylon give the place a bad rap. Babylonian resolutions fit into the general scheme of self-improvement, however, as a hasty googling finds such things as “make a better budget” on the top of lists for the best resolutions for 2021.

IYRS boat-building and restoration student Danny Tavares works through the intricacies of carving the interior surfaces of a maple “backing-out plane.” This plane has a curved wooden sole; it’s used to shape the inside of cedar planks for fitting over the curvature of oak frames on a Beetle Cat. 

At IYRS, we are heirs to the boatbuilding legacy of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company of Bristol, Rhode Island, which more than a century ago built sailing yachts for customers of all types, including many for clients of extraordinary wealth. Two IYRS-restored Herreshoff sailboats have been with us on the Restoration Hall shop floor this year: a Herreshoff 12½ and a Buzzards Bay 14 (Fish class). Herreshoff yachts seamlessly conflated function with beauty, yielding a marvelous—if eventually ephemeral—art form. Too, the yachts were made to sail competitively against others, and, from 1893 to 1920, Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, also known as “Captain Nat,” designed and built five yachts that won six successive America’s Cup challenges.

The last of Captain Nat’s America’s Cup winners was named Resolute. The story of Resolute is fascinating for many reasons but especially because it embodied the apex of Herreshoff technological prowess, subject to the constraints of a mathematical rule. A challenge laid down by Sir Thomas Lipton (the fourth of his five unsuccessful challenges for the Cup) in 1914 had to be put off because of World War I. Consequently, Resolute had to compete in defender trials twice, before and after the war, besting Vanitie in both contests, often on corrected time.

Resolute at the time of the 1914 America’s Cup defender trials. From a collection in the Library of Congress:

The design of the boats competing in these contests was governed by an algorithm, known as the Universal Rule, meant to equalize yachts of different characteristics in the interest of a fair contest. The rule calculates a yacht’s rating based upon a complex function of length on the waterline, sail area, and displacement; the resulting ratings could be converted into time corrections to handicap yachts competing over a fixed course. Resolute was described as minimalist in the sense that her design took full advantage of the rule to achieve the lowest rating, thereby forcing other comparably-sized yachts to give time to her in any head-to-head competition. This of course was no accident, as Captain Nat was the author of the Universal Rule.

In July of 1920, Resolute met Sir Thomas’ Shamrock IV in five races for the America’s Cup off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, a coastal barrier marking the southern entrance to New York Harbor. The yachts were fairly matched, but Shamrock IV had to give between six and seven minutes of time (depending upon its sail configuration) to Resolute. Resolute lost the first two races due to a broken block on its mainsail halyard in the first and light, fluky wind conditions in the second. Down 0-2 in a 3-of-5 series, legend has it that the US Navy, a longstanding Herreshoff customer, sent a destroyer up to Bristol to bring Captain Nat, who was then 72 years old, down to New York to ensure a Resolute comeback. (This makes a nice story, but it seems unlikely, as Captain Nat’s own diary has him sailing to New York on a navy destroyer before the series began.) Under the skillful skippering of Charles Francis Adams, who was known as the Dean of American Helmsman, Resolute came back to win the last three races. In the fifth and deciding race, Captain Nat joined the afterdeck of Resolute, perhaps for extra insurance, and, after coming from behind, the winning margin was nearly 20 minutes on corrected time over a 40-mile windward-leeward course.

Another legend has it that Captain Nat had to be talked into building Resolute, the last of his Cup contenders. He had become disaffected by the “freakishness” of the yachts that were competing for the Cup prior to the Universal Rule. These yachts were fragile, designed to race only for the America’s Cup, testing the limits of canvas, wood, bronze, and steel, and becoming dangerous to sail in any kind of heavy air and chop. Although flawed in many ways that would lead to refinements of the means for rating yachts, the Universal Rule comprised a resolution to pull back from the technological brink so that the competition could depend upon a better balance of engineering and seamanship. As with most resolutions, this one has since been broken many times.

Resolute (the 103-year old Herreshoff “destroyer power launch”) sits on the floor of Restoration Hall.

Examples of historical connections to Herreshoff can be found everywhere at IYRS. One of the best is the eponymous tender Resolute, a destroyer power launch built in 1918 by Herreshoff Manufacturing to tend Resolute (the yacht). Resolute (the tender), now owned by Mystic Seaport Museum, sits among us on the floor of Restoration Hall, where it awaits the final touches to its own refurbishment. One hundred years ago, this very boat may have ferried Captain Nat back and forth to help secure his sixth and final America’s Cup victory.