In the 1870s, Capt. Nathanael Greene Herreshoff was having a bit of a wrestling match in his mind as he worked on a new monohull design. He wanted to reduce the wetted surface area imposed by the deep keel of most sailing yachts from the era. A long, narrow hull needed a deep ballast keel to counteract the force of her tall rig, he reasoned. Increasing the beam and reducing the draft gained him form stability, but neither solution made a significant difference in speed. A canting keel was a worthy alternative in theory, but the materials to make it light and the hydraulics to actuate it didn’t exist in the late 1800s. So, instead of placing ballast to windward, Herreshoff put another idea out there. He substituted another hull for ballast. He mounted a pair of hulls to the cross beams via ball joints, allowing the hulls to pitch independently. This feature eased the wracking that occured in rough water when each hull was in a different sea state. And to make the yacht tack faster, Herreshoff designed a differential rudder system that the helmsman could adjust from the cockpit. On April 10, 1877, he received a patent for the design, which would go on to popularize the sailing catamaran.
Today, that patent model lives in the Model Room of the Herreshoff Marine Museum & America’s Cup Hall of Fame in Bristol, Rhode Island, and the story of how it came to be is one of countless tales Executive Director Bill Lynn hopes patrons will learn. “The boating thing is the medium through which the stories are told,” he says. “That’s what’s so much fun for me running this place.”
The more you look around this charming museum that borders Narragansett Bay, the more you learn about the man known as “the Wizard of Bristol.” For instance, the patent model for the design with the differential rudder system came with Herreshoff’s creation of the catamaran Amaryllis, a replica of which was built in 1933 for K.T. Keller, the president of Chrysler Corp. That replica hovers above the “ordinary” boats on the hard at the museum. There are so many boats here, and so many stories about so many ideas, that museum patrons can return multiple times and still find something new to learn. “For a lot of people,” Lynn says, “Herreshoff equals wooden boats, but in reality it is defined as both innovation and entrepreneurship.”
A stroll through the museum also offers insight into the founding of The Herreshoff Manufacturing Company (HMCo), which started life in 1859 at the Tannery Shop on the waterfront in Bristol. Nat (age 11), his brother John (age 18), and their father, Charles Frederick, built Sprite, a 20-foot catboat that is now the oldest boat of its type in Rhode Island. During the next 20 years, the company grew into a vertically integrated giant, housing a foundry, machine shop, sail loft and spar shop. A diorama in the museum’s store shows the campus as it was in the company’s heyday.
That diorama is neat to see, as is just about everything here, but the Hall of Boats is the most popular exhibit. Visitors not only can see Herreshoff hulls, they can also touch them and inhale the aroma of the old wood.
“It’s a scratch-and-sniff museum,” Lynn says, adding that Herreshoff devotees love to interact physically with the boats. “They think everything in this place is beautiful, even though Capt. Nat never had aesthetics anywhere on his list of what he was trying to accomplish.”
Lynn speculates that the museum has a larger following outside the United States than among Americans. On a busy day of tours, you can expect to hear unfamiliar languages—and many of these visitors, no doubt, are having conversations about the manufacturing diversity that’s highlighted in the exhibits. To capitalize on that interest, Lynn and his staff are creating an exhibit behind the Hall of Boats. Among other things, it will house steam engines, with a steam launch done as a cutaway to reveal components of the propulsion system. Lines for the launch are from Herreshoff design No. 94, and the engine is the original triple-expansion unit that powered design number 95. It belonged to a gentleman from Louisiana who was reluctant to sell it to the museum—until “we made him an offer he just couldn’t refuse,” Lynn says.
Although Capt. Nat didn’t invent the triple-expansion engine, he refined the concept, developing a more compact and lighter machine to fit into small launches. Today, the engine is under cover at the back of the building. It’s not part of the regular tour, but plead with a docent for a peek back there.
During Lynn’s tenure, he’s rearranged the Hall of Boats to improve visitor access. This is especially important when viewing the boats from the second floor. Belisarius (design No. 1,266), a 56-foot cruising yawl built in 1936, rests in her cradle directly beneath the second floor. A staircase leads to her deck. She’ll be open for boarding as soon as the volunteers finish rehabbing her interior.
The Reliance project alone is worth a visit to the museum. A handful of experts volunteering their time are finishing construction of a one-sixth scale model of this 201-foot, gaff-rigged cutter that was launched in 1903. The finished model is 33-feet long and 37-feet high, and fully rigged with sails and deck hardware. Lynn says all of the model’s features have been made “the Herreshoff way.”
The Herreshoff Marine Museum is a nonprofit corporation. It accepts donations, but does not rely on them to stay solvent. Revenue for operations comes from the marina, store, educational programs, lecture series, summer seamanship program, boat shop and mentoring program, field trips and an in-school program called Classic Yacht Symposium. Some money also comes from commercial and residential rentals of the spaces. (The venue is drawing interest from couples in search of a unique location for weddings—at this writing, 20 nuptials had been celebrated in peak season.) But it’s the educational programs that Lynn likes to talk about.“ The education thing is so exciting,” he says. “Then you wrap that into the lecture series, which draws up to 100 people at each event. It’s going great guns.” Whether you’re a fan of Herreshoff or innovation in general, you won’t be disappointed after a visit here.
Visiting The Herreshoff Marine Museum
Located in Bristol, Rhode Island, the Herreshoff Marine Museum is 30 minutes south of T.F. Green Airport in Providence and 25 minutes north of Newport. Boaters can access the museum by water via Bristol Harbor. Moorings and dockage (with water, electric and WiFi) are available. Memorial Day through Columbus Day, the museum is open seven days a week. After Columbus Day, it’s closed Monday. Visitors can arrange a guided tour with a docent by contacting the museum in advance—winter tours may be arranged with one week’s notice. The museum maintains the Peacock Alley House for overnight guest lodging. herreshoff.org
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue.