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Situated between Cape Cod, the Elizabeth Islands and the Massachusetts mainland, Buzzards Bay has a reputation for being a bit of a nautical grumpypants. Tides average 4 feet, tidal currents rip, and the prevailing winds often blow straight up or down its 25-nautical-mile-long fetch. The bay can go from calm to snotty in a few minutes.

So, it comes as no surprise that in 1898, when Robert W. Emmons II and his sailing pals were looking for a craft to race on Buzzards Bay, they approached someone who knew a thing or two about fast, seaworthy sailboats: Nathanael Greene Herreshoff.

The design Herreshoff drew, and that his manufacturing company ultimately built, was a 24-foot, 6-inch gaff-rigged sailboat with a 15-foot waterline. It would become widely known as the Buzzards Bay 15, according to the H Class Association. It was fast, nimble and seakindly, but often proved too much for younger skippers to handle.

So, in 1914, Emmons again approached Herreshoff, this time with a request for a smaller boat that would allow youngsters to learn the fundamentals of sailing before moving on to larger sailing yachts. Herreshoff cooked up a salty yet graceful gaff-rigged sailboat that measured 15 feet, 10 inches length overall, and that had a 12-foot, 6-inch waterline. It was easy to sail, competent in sporty weather and solidly built. Known simply as the 12½, it was an instant hit.

More than 100 years later, Herreshoff 12½s are still being built, from wood and from fiberglass. (Fiberglass 12½ replicas are often generically called Doughdishes though two different outfits build them). Many of the wooden hulls from the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company’s factory in Bristol, Rhode Island, are still sailing, and the design enjoys a devoted and enthusiastic following among owners from all walks of life. The boat is loved not only for its traditional and classic good looks, but also for being easy to sail, predictable, safe and, most important, fun. Some call it the perfect sailboat.

One particularly passionate owner is Shelter Island, New York, resident Dona Bergin, who owns a Doughdish. “I grew up sailing with my father, did some college sailing and sailed on larger boats with my husband,” Bergin says, “but it was an informal invitation to crew with a Shelter Island Yacht Club friend that introduced me to the 12½. The boat was made of wood, so my job was to bail out the boat. It leaked a lot.”

Sometime later, in 1995, Bergin’s husband, who owns two Doughdishes—C Toy and Bay Bird—bought her a Doughdish for their 15th wedding anniversary. She named the boat 15 and marked the transom with three sets of five-year jailhouse strokes, as a joke about her marriage (which is now in its 41st year). Bergin says she started using the boat casually for trips with her daughter and a lunchbox full of Barbie Dolls. As she watched other Doughdish sailors out on the water, her enthusiasm for sailing blossomed.

The 121/2’s voluminous cockpit is deep and wide, giving occupants a secure feeling underway. 

The 121/2’s voluminous cockpit is deep and wide, giving occupants a secure feeling underway. 

“I wasn’t particularly good, but I was stubborn,” Bergin recalls. “I saw that the kids were sailing five times a week at the yacht club, and to be as good as they were, I needed to sail seven times a week. I became obsessed. And I learned. People saw me sailing every day, and eventually I was approached about becoming an instructor.”

Today, Bergin sails as many as seven times a week. She will even shovel snow out of her boat if it comes between her and sailing. She is also active in the Shelter Island Yacht Club Doughdish racing fleet, which is the largest in the United States with 65-plus boats, according to the club.

“We have a great fleet and a talented group of Doughdish sailors,” Bergin says. “There’s a camaraderie that’s very enjoyable, and I really like working with and teaching women about sailing these boats.”

Bergin says the boat’s design is perfect because of its gaff rig (some Doughdishes and 121/2s are Marconi rigged), which takes time and experience to master, but is forgiving. “The Doughdish is also beautiful to look at because of the wood on the boat,” she says. “You can see and reach every single line. I’ve never heard about one of those boats capsizing, because it has ballast and a full keel. When you’re teaching people to sail on a gusty day, that is a very comforting idea.”

Today, among a sea of planing and hydrofoil racing dinghies made from fiberglass, carbon fiber and rotomolded plastic, the idea of owning a heavily ballasted, full-keeled, gaff-rigged boat—especially a wooden one—might seem crazy, but there is a healthy demand for 12½s and Doughdishes.

Alec Brainerd, founder of Artisan Boatworks in Rockport, Maine, is currently building the fourth 12½ replica his outfit has constructed using Herreshoff’s original shop plans, offsets and molds. The new 12½ is being built with Atlantic white cedar planks, white oak frames and black locust timbers in areas that are exposed to standing water, such as the bilge. The spars are Sitka spruce, and mahogany is used for the cockpit coamings, toe and rubrails, trim and transom.

“It takes about 1,400 man-hours and four months to build one,” Brainerd says. “Our goal is to build these as accurately as we can to match the original 12½, right down to the sailing hardware. We even have a guy in Hull, Massachusetts, who builds replica bronze blocks with ball bearings and bronze cam cleats that look very authentic. Tradition and accuracy are important to our clients, and it’s something we take pride in when building these boats.”

Having expertise in all things Herreshoff, Artisan is also able to build and repair the offshoot models that sprouted from the original 12½ plans. The Fish Class, which includes models such as the Seawanhaka, Mattapoisett, Warwick, Bulls Eye, Marlin, Fishers Island and others, has iterations with lots of 12½ design cues. Some are lengthened, and others, such as the Marlin, have small cabins below. According to the Herreshoff Marine Museum, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, 409 12½-style hulls were built, including Fish Class models.

Doughdishes are also currently in demand. “At the moment, we have three new boats underway,” says Amy Ballentine of Ballentine’s Boat Shop in Cetaumet, Massachusetts. “We normally produce about two new Doughdishes a year, but it feels as if the pandemic accelerated demand for boats in general.”

Aside from the fiberglass hull, bulkheads and deck, much of the rest of a Doughdish is trimmed in or made of wood, from the Sitka-spruce spars to the mahogany and teak used for the toerails, cockpit coaming, benches and sole. “People like the Doughdish because the maintenance is quite easy compared to a wooden 12½,” Ballentine says. “Some folks like to keep the wood varnished, while others are happy to let it fade and develop a nice patina.”

Cape Cod Shipbuilding Co. in Wareham, Massachusetts, builds fiberglass 121/2 replicas, having originally constructed molds for fiberglass layup from the first 12½ plans in 1972. A standard hull with a gaff or Marconi rig currently runs $52,000, but each boat can be customized with options, including spinnaker and spinnaker gear, sail and boat covers, oarlocks, seat cushions and more. Most folks are surprised to learn that the 12½ is trailerable. The company offers a galvanized trailer for around $4,000.

The design’s ace in the hole—no matter whether it’s built in wood or fiberglass—is its versatility. Owners describe the boat as a joy to day sail casually, and as being easy to single-hand, even for novices in challenging conditions. The voluminous cockpit is wide and deep enough to give its occupants a safe, secure feeling, but also just the right size to keep control lines within easy reach from the helm. The self-tending jib is a cinch to trim, and while dialing in a gaff rig involves a bit of a learning curve, the sail plan is forgiving.

A reflection of beauty and grace, a 121/2 rests at its mooring on a calm evening.

A reflection of beauty and grace, a 121/2 rests at its mooring on a calm evening.

“It’s the most fun you can have at 5 knots,” says Tim Dobuler, an avid racer who belongs to the Edgartown Yacht Club and owns a 12½ built in 1938. “I first noticed the 12½ when I came up to Edgartown,” he says. “I’ve always been attracted to classic, traditional sailboats, and I just found the Herreshoff boats to be absolutely gorgeous. A friend of mine owned a Doughdish, and even though we didn’t have any real racing experience, we decided to dip our toes in the water and give it a try. Our tactic was to just follow the person in front of us so we wouldn’t get too deep into trouble.”

Eventually, Dobuler set about finding his own 12½. “I was at the Herreshoff Marine Museum and came across these little ramshackle boat sheds across the street,” he recalls. “So, I went in and ended up meeting Dan Shea of the Bristol Boat Company. He’s an expert at restoring 12½s and pretty much anything made of wood that floats. The museum had several old 12½s for sale, and with Dan’s guidance, I eventually bought one that needed a lot of help. Dan and his students spent eight months restoring her to like-new condition. Her name is Thimble. I’ve been sailing and racing her for about five years now.”

The big five Northeast yacht clubs with significant Doughdish and 12½ participation include the Edgartown, Buzzards, Beverly, Quissett and Shelter Island clubs. Class rules and regattas are organized under the H Class Association, including the Class Championship, which takes place annually at rotating yacht clubs and has been ongoing for almost 40 years. Though racing in the class is competitive, there’s an easygoing nature among owners.

“I got my Doughdish in 1982,” says Chuck Tiernan, a longtime member of the Shelter Island Yacht Club. “It’s really neat watching younger people pick up these boats and go with them. Seeing that and enjoying the camaraderie among club members is almost as much fun as sailing the boats against each other.”

He especially likes watching fathers and mothers who sail the boats with their children, as well as married couples who race.

“There aren’t many boats that can bring people together like that,” he says, “but the Herreshoff can.”

So, is the 12½ the perfect small sailboat? Plenty of owners will say you’re never going to break speed records, and if it’s windy on the racecourse, you’re definitely going to get wet. But for most of them, that doesn’t matter. This little boat’s warm friendliness, forgiving nature, and classic looks far outweigh any spray that comes over the rail. 

This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue.

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