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Sitting down with the 'other Herreshoff'

Classic book written by L. Francis Herreshoff entertains with handsome designs, candid writing and horse sense

Boats, designers, builders and sailors are a nautical writer’s daily bread. However, there are times when I try to go on a diet by picking up a hoe, a shovel or a rake to work the soil in the garden. And when the dirt gets old, I try the Body, Mind and Spirit aisle of a used-book store, taking my chances with serendipity.

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On one such occasion I picked up a little volume about meditation, but before I reached the cash register my Zen went to pot because I spied a copy of “Sensible Cruising Designs” by L. Francis Herreshoff, published in 1973 by International Marine. Instead of going home and rolling out the yoga mat, I plopped my rear end into a seat at the coffee shop to examine my acquisition, which I justified as commemoration of the man’s upcoming 120th birthday.

It didn’t take long to realize this is not your usual book about classic yacht design.

Of words and lines

“Sensible Cruising Designs,” which was published posthumously with the help of Stuart James at Rudder magazine and Muriel Vaughn, Herreshoff’s longtime secretary, is a collection of plans that L. Francis contributed to Rudder’s “How to Build” series. At the end it includes a sizeable appendix that discusses numerous LFH sailboat designs and three paddleboats. What I enjoyed most, though, was his personal writing: always candid, sometimes opinionated and never afraid of ruffling feathers.

For this reason, some of his other books like “Capt. Nat Herreshoff: The Wizard of Bristol,” “The Common Sense of Yacht Design” and “The Compleat Cruiser” are still treasured by nautical history buffs and armchair sailors. In the preface the book’s publisher, Roger Taylor, quotes a letter from famed yacht designer W. Starling Burgess: “Mr. Herrshoff’s is the sort of writing, which many people long for and seldom find … Has it occurred to you that he writes as Thoreau would have written had he been a sailor?”

L. Francis Herreshoff in Marblehead in the 1930s.

Lewis Francis Herreshoff was born in 1890 in Bristol, R.I., to famous heritage. His father was Nathanael Herreshoff, arguably one of America’s greatest yacht designers, builders and innovators. So he had big shoes to fill — which he did, after a brief detour through agriculture, (something I’ll remember next time the hoe beckons). As one of six children (five boys and one girl), L. Francis was chosen to run the family farm.

“He attended Rhode Island State College, which was an agricultural school then,” remembers his nephew Halsey Herreshoff. “One day he probably woke up to milk the cows and thought ‘to hell with this’ and took off.” He joined the U.S. Navy in World War I and later worked with the yacht design firm of Burgess, Swasey & Paine in Boston. “In many ways, my uncle was like his father,” Halsey says. “He could design and make anything.” L. Francis went into business for himself in 1926 in Marblehead, Mass., and later lived in the replica of a Viking castle. It became known as Herreshoff Castle, which is now a bed-and-breakfast. There he worked on a humongous 25-foot drafting table.

“People say he was a loner, but I don’t agree,” says Halsey, who visited the castle frequently when he was a student at MIT. “Usually we had stew for supper and afterwards we sat in the lounge and had pleasant conversations. But he knew his likes and dislikes, so there was no discussion. Perhaps that’s what made him seem more standoffish than he really was.”

The artistry of design

There was an exchange of letters between L. Francis and his father. In one of them, Capt. Nat congratulated him on a successful design and commended his artistry, which he thought was superior to his own. And Nat was not the only one who thought so. “He had a fine eye for the right proportions in a ketch rig and knew what doesn’t belong on a boat,” notes California yacht designer Tom Wylie, who modernized the catboat concept and applied it to oceangoing yachts with unstayed ketch rigs. “I don’t agree with all of L. Francis’ ideas, but I definitely subscribe to his KISS approach.”

To many classic-boat fans, L. Francis has been synonymous with Ticonderoga, a magnificent 72-foot ketch that was launched as Tioga II in 1936 and renamed 10 years later. Big Ti, as the vessel is also known, is a refined descendant of two other large ketches with clipper bows, Tioga and Bounty, and for decades was the benchmark for style and performance in ocean-racing yachts. In Ticonderoga’s wake followed Quiet Tune — a simple and fast ketch that was designed as a weekender or daysailer — and Araminta, which was slightly bigger and carried a clipper bow like Ticonderoga. A vintage 1954 Araminta is available for charter at the Mystic Seaport museum, where the L. Francis Herreshoff collection of papers and plans is part of the Daniel S. Gregory Ships Plans Library. Other famous boats in the book include the H-28 cruising ketch, the canoe-yawl Rozinante, the 23-foot sloop Prudence and the Buzzards Bay 14, a larger version of Capt. Nat’s famous 12-1/2.

Calling a spade a spade

As I flipped through the pages, I found ruminations about the differences between a plumbed head and a cedar bucket that informed many old salts’ attitude. L. Francis considered a toilet on a boat pricey, hard to maintain and the source of “a certain suggestive odor,” while he praised the bucket as easy to keep clean and fit to use “without disturbing the tympanic or olfactory nerves of your shipmate.” Invariably I also stumbled across some unusual topics within his building advice, such as keeping guns from rusting, taking pictures on board, choosing the proper sailing wardrobe and deploring the decadence of nautical magazines such as Rudder, “which once had … pictures of men who went down to the sea in ships, [but] now features mostly photographs of young females who go down to the sea in slips …”

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He reminds his readers that company has greater impact on the enjoyment of a cruise than any cabin arrangement and illustrates the pitfalls in a way that would have put him on the hot seat today: “Beware also of those beauties who are periodically rebuilt and refitted at the dockyard of some beautician, whose only ambition is to look “killing” … These females may be all right if you can afford a steam yacht with a French maid to assemble them in the morning and unrig them at night, but on the H-28 there will be no room for their spare gear and top hamper, and they will affect the smooth working of the H-28 like a monkey wrench in the crank case.”

Advice on many levels

L. Francis didn’t have family of his own. A tragic ice-boating accident one cold winter day on Bristol Bay, Halsey told me, left a lady friend seriously injured and resulted in an early and unhappy end of that courtship. Still, L. Francis offers a description of the ideal cruising maid. It’s one “who likes her east wind fresh from the Gulf Stream, or a west wind which has blown through the needles of ten thousand pine trees; who can enjoy the dramatic prelude of a thundersquall or, when the fog bank rolls in from the old Atlantic, will hand you the right chart and help you make a true fix.” Build a golden halo around her in your mind’s eye, and tell her about your appreciation once in awhile, L. Francis advised, “for you and she working together can bring out all the pleasure, charm and melody there is in a craft like the H-28.”

L. Francis Herreshoff sailing his famous father's first S Boat in Bristol harbor in 1920.

Wow. Maybe I ought to examine my proclivity for single-handed boating.

So that’s what I got by playing hooky in an attempt to escape the vessel virus: More about boats by a designer who mastered the art of drawing and the craft of writing and “the plain horse sense of it.”

Right up to the end, L. Francis called it as he saw it: “I don’t know whether it is horse sense or horse something else,” he stated in the introduction to “Sensible Cruising,” “but if they like it I know where there is a whole pile of it.” And that’s not just by serendipity.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.