The Building of a Storied Sailboat

“The Wee Winn, which Herreshoff designed in 1892 for Miss Winnifred Sutton of England, proved so exceedingly fast that she was the talk of the Solent for many years,” said Captain Nathanael Herreshoff of the Half-Rater Fin Keel design. A fitting name for the speedy racer, win she did against everything in her class, with Winnifred Sutton winning 21 of 22 races that season in Wee Winn against both men and women sailors. That 22nd race?  She finished second.

Who among boat lovers could resist such a description?  Certainly not Warren Barker, Senior Instructor of Boatbuilding and Restoration at IYRS School of Technology & Trades in Newport, RI.

Warren stumbled across Miss Sutton’s original Wee Winn during a visit to the Herreshoff Museum in Bristol, Rhode Island in 2017. Thinking about a project for his second year boatbuilding students, Warren was intrigued by the Wee Winn’s strikingly modern and ambitious design and thought it could be a fitting boatbuilding opportunity for his students who were looking for a challenge. Barker says, “It’s the spectacular shape of the Wee Winn that got us into the build of the boat. And now that we are building her, it’s like unlocking a door to history.”

Plans were needed. A student field trip to the archives at The Francis Russell Hart Nautical Collections at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, MA was made. The museum houses one of the largest and most important collections of nautical technology in the world.  There, patrons can access more than 14,000 plans and related design records from the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company, including plans for the 23’ 10” Wee Winn.

Warren’s research turned up still more interesting historical tidbits. The Saturday Review of August 1, 1891 stated that these newly designed small sailing yachts were “scarcely dignified (but) many well-known yachtsmen are found sailing them.” Many Britons of the time saved face by owning a large tonnage steam yacht along with their Half-Rater. In spite of their small size, the cost of owning the boat was more than most Britons at the time earned annually. The Herreshoff Catalogue Raisonné notes that Miss Winnifred Sutton’s Wee Winn cost $525 in 1892 – the average salary in Victorian England at the time was just under that amount.

At a time when a female sailor could be described not only as skillful but “plucky,” the combination of Winnifred Sutton’s sailing ability and Nathanael Herreshoff’s innovative design was a clear winner. Looking the part of a yacht designed for the Spirit of Tradition class popular in today’s classic yacht regattas, it is astonishing that the model for the boat was shaped more than 125 years ago.

Build of the reproduction Wee Winn at IYRS began in October 2018. The two-man (woman!), cedar planking on oak frame hull was built in Restoration Hall on the IYRS campus in Newport by a team of six skilled students in IYRS’ Boatbuilding & Restoration program. Wee Winn was launched to great fanfare on Graduation & Launch Day on June 1.

It was on Launch Day that IYRS celebrated not just the completion of the reproduction Wee Winn, but also Nathanael Herreshoff’s brilliantly fast design and the forward-thinking yachtswoman Winnifred Sutton who made her shine in 1892.  It is hoped the IYRS reproduction of this exquisite little racer will provide another “plucky” sailor the opportunity to compete, or just sail about, and again prove that shape a winner.

- Kim Norton-O’Brien & Warren Barker of IYRS, as printed in the Antique & Classic Boat Society's Rudder Magazine

The original Wee Winn at the Herreshoff Museum in Bristol, RI. 

 Plans for Wee Winn.

 The Wee Winn in progress at IYRS.

The Wee Winn is launched during Graduation & Launch Day in June 2019!