L. Francis Herreshoff: Genius against the odds

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Let’s admit it: Misfits are fun. Exiled to the fringes, they provide entertainment when they enter the spotlight. I’m not talking about Hulk Hogan and the Gawker tapes. I invite you to reacquaint yourself with Lewis Francis Herreshoff, aka L. Francis, Francis or LFH, who struggled for some time to escape the shadow of his redoubtable father, Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, the patron saint of American yacht design.

L. Francis at his drafting board at Burgess, Swasey and Paine in 1925.

Francis was eager to try on his progenitor’s giant shoes, and as it turned out, he had the gift for it. But Capt. Nat, approaching the apex of his career when Francis was a young lad, could not or would not see it. Instead, he had Francis shipped off to the family farm to manage a herd of bovines and all the manure that came with it. Luckily that was not the end of the tale but the beginning, and it is reviewed in grand fashion in a new biography, L. Francis Herreshoff Yacht Designer, by Roger C. Taylor and published by Mystic Seaport.

There are many sagas of succession in the yacht business. Take Argentinean Germán Frers, for instance, or going back more than a century, the William Fifes in Scotland and W. Starling Burgess in the United States. All of them were scions of larger-than-life father figures who decided to take the baton and the associated risk of being crushed by their ancestor’s fame. Yet they managed to balance the burdens and the benefits of their decision to find fame and recognition in their own right.

Francis followed a similar playbook, but he first had to overcome the challenges presented by dyslexia, which gave him trouble with spelling and reading and held him back in school. An unsympathetic teacher and classmates who bullied him made life miserable. As a result, his “thoughts were almost altogether either in working at the shop or sailing.”

Furthermore, he had to realize that the most logical place to learn his craft, Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. in Bristol, Rhode Island — a stone’s throw from his childhood home — was a dead end. Sure, he helped in the workshops and as a munchkin is said to have crawled inside the tube of an America’s Cupper’s mast to back the rivets so they could be pounded flat. He assisted with sea trials and deliveries but never held any real responsibility. If he wanted to move ahead, he had to move away.

And that he did in 1921, at age 30, after a stint in the Navy. He took up with Starling Burgess, the son of Edward (Ned) Burgess, who was famous for designing three successful America’s Cup defenders in the 1880s. Starling, who was orphaned at age 13, ran his own firm in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and hired Francis. The two knew each other because Starling in his younger years was a frequent guest at the Herreshoffs, but later fell out of favor with Nat, who was wary of competitors.

Burgess gave Francis a chance to learn about yacht design and show his artistic talent as a draftsman, working alongside the likes of Frank Paine and Norman Skene. In Burgess he found a mentor and kindred spirit who filled a role that his father hardly did.

Ahead Of His Time

Working in the Boston office of what now was Burgess, Swasey and Paine, Francis came into his own as a designer, drawing on what he had learned by “osmosis” and on his intuition and imagination. He picked boats that were built to the Universal Rule, which his father devised and which included the famous J Class, as well as the R, Q and M classes. The rule left latitude for his intuitive approach, which served him well.

For the same reasons, he loved the 30 Square Meter, a popular class in Scandinavia, which he helped start in his chosen home port of Marblehead, Massachusetts. “They appear to me the prettiest boats I have ever seen,” he enthused, because they looked like something he loved to draw: long and narrow, with low freeboard, a small coach roof that did not ruin the proportions, well-suited for the canoe stern and terrific to sail in protected waters.

LFH loathed the International Rule, which Europeans favored. He believed the rule was too restrictive, and it mandated that construction comply with Lloyd’s specifications, which required sturdier fasteners and closer frame spacing than he preferred.

He was lucky, too, with one of his stalwart customers, Charles Welch, who commissioned more than a dozen boats, the most notable being Live Yankee, an R Class yacht that was called “freakish” by the press. Even on paper the boat was frightfully different, with her rounded ends, streamlined deck profile and radical rotating wing mast (not class legal). As with Yankee, her successful predecessor, Francis employed full frames and longitudinals, a construction method pioneered by his father, which kept hulls light and stiff. On the water she was a brute to handle and initially took many sterns. When Welch and his wife got the hang of the yacht’s peculiarities, Live Yankee started to win — and didn’t stop for many years.

As the trophy count increased, so did the appreciation of his father, with whom Francis corresponded despite the misgivings he might have had. “I want to congratulate you on the sweetness of the present form,” Nat wrote to his son in his critique of the plans for Istalena, a magnificent 87-footer that went on to set the pace in the M Class. “I believe it is a model that will be hard to beat.”

LFH’s M-Class yacht Istalena on a close reach during the 1930 Block Island Race.

The old man wasn’t just giving praise where praise was due, but sought to make up for sending Francis to the cows. It was encouragement for Francis, who didn’t just design pretty hull shapes but also was dreaming up stuff we take for granted today. He toyed with the idea of adding daggerboards to keelboats, which are now used on Volvo Ocean racers and maxi boats. He designed a push vang like those used on modern dinghies. And in 1920 he drew a catamaran with a rig on each hull, a precursor to the megacat Team Philips launched 80 years later. He also designed custom hardware, each piece perfect for its purpose.

Seeking New Horizons

Francis remained an artist throughout his career, considering not only intent but also style, even on the J Class Whirlwind, his failed 1930s America’s Cup defender. She was a “bitch to steer,” as one sailor put it, but she had the nicest wheel, with black walnut trim that matched the rail and an inlaid pattern of white holly. Badly sailed and badly beaten, Whirlwind became the first yacht excused from the defender series in 1930.

Why success eluded Francis at the America’s Cup — the stage he craved, the stage his father’s designs dominated for nearly three decades — remains a subject for discussion. One reason might be that racing-yacht design started to shift away from artistry and intuition toward crunching cold, hard numbers derived from methodical testing, not one of Francis’ strong suits.

Francis, who had spent little time on board Whirlwind, soured on the racing scene, which turned out to be a blessing. He turned his attention to cruising yachts, such as the clipper-bowed 72-foot ketch Ticonderoga, which was launched as Tioga of Marblehead in 1936. To this day “Big Ti” is the most famous of his creations and holds the all-time high score on the combined pretty-and-fast index for oceangoing sailing yachts. 

Another upshot of the Cup flop was finding an outlet and an audience for his writings, which were published in books by International Marine and by The Rudder magazine, which also printed plans of his designs. Among them was the Rozinante, a simple but capable 28-foot canoe yawl for daysailing and light coastal cruising that found favor with amateur builders and still has a following.

His eloquent explanations of design and his nautical knowledge resonated with readers who longed for an authentic voice. Never short on opinion, Francis gave them the lowdown on the advantages of a cedar bucket over stinky plumbed heads, compared fiberglass to “frozen snot” (a quote for the ages), called show-offs “gigolo yacht jockies,” and warned of the consequences “if you have yachts that are so expensive to run that only the very rich can afford them.”

Thoreau In A Kayak

Burgess introduced Francis to the “double paddled canoe,” a kayak in today’s terms, which became one of his favorite craft. “One of the joys … was the extreme simplicity of the equipment, for my conveyance consisted principally of two rather nicely shaped parts, one the canoe and the other the paddle, and experience has shown that neither would give trouble or break down if carefully handled,” he wrote in one of his essays.

He admired nature and was adept at wandering without getting lost. A day on the water put him “in a state of transcendentalism where the body seemed untiring and the spirit full of song. … [It] made me a better man and … helped me to be happier ever since, perhaps only by contrast.”

We’re fortunate that the “misfit” did not get stuck on the farm but found success as a designer, even without formal training. It proves that given half a chance, genius anchored by intuition and an innate understanding of subject matter doesn’t need certification to produce stellar results.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue.