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Steaming for speed

Say the name "Herreshoff," and sailboats come to mind - great sailboats, innovative sailboats, fast and beautiful sailboats that have stood the test of time and emerged as classics. But from their beginnings as partners in their Bristol, R.I., boatbuilding venture in the latter part of the 19th century, brothers John and Nathanael Herreshoff had a fascination for powerboats, too.

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In those days, that meant steam. And Nat, in particular, was intrigued by its possibilities for efficient propulsion. As both an engineer and machinist, he produced a host of steam power plants for various uses before making headlines with his 1885 compound-engine steam yacht Stiletto, which raced and beat the Hudson River passenger steamer Mary Powell - considered the fastest vessel of her time - with a steam plant of Nat's design and construction.

But Stiletto was just the beginning. In the winter of 1890-91, the shops at Love Rocks turned out Vamoose, pictured here. It was built for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and he got what he wanted. There was nothing else quite like Vamoose.

At 112 feet and with a 12-foot, 7-inch beam, she was long, low and narrow, almost like a sailboat. To power the revolutionary vessel, Herreshoff designed an enormous 5-cylinder, quadruple-expansion steam engine (and a boiler to go with it) that swung a 52-inch propeller. Launched in 1891, she took on and defeated the suddenly not-so-fast Mary Powell, and Vamoose, with Hearst driving her up and down the Northeast coast at breakneck paces, quickly earned the sobriquet "fastest steam yacht in the country."

Her top speed? About 30 mph.

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue.