A Star is Reborn

The restoration of the largest entirely wooden sailboat ever built by Nathanael Herreshoff is on course for completion in 2025
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DORIS-archive-18829-Retouched

A few decades ago, the once lovely wooden Herreshoff racing yacht Doris, built in 1904, was floating, hogged and peeling, in a secluded cove off a residential street on the lower Connecticut River. Yet despite the decay, the yacht radiated grandeur, as it harkened to a time when craftmanship counted and wind power drove international commerce and the recreational pursuits of those who derived their fortunes from it.
Later, the classic beauty sat moldering and abandoned in a New London, Connecticut, shipyard, seemingly destined for destruction by chainsaw.

At 78 feet, Doris was the largest entirely wooden sailboat ever built by Nathanael Herreshoff and was significant as the first vessel built to the Universal Rule for Yachts, which determined a boat’s eligibility to race in the America’s Cup from 1914 to 1937. Even so, Doris was long a rotting mess and seemingly just too far gone for any sane person to consider restoring.

“It’s the kind of job you’d never touch with a 10-foot pole if you ran a business,” says Dave Snediker, who runs Snediker Yacht Restoration, where Doris is currently being restored.

Doris could have been hauled to a landfill, but she was rescued at the last possible moment by Joe Robillard, of Oxford, Maryland, who is funding the slow and careful restoration that’s been ongoing since 2017 at Snediker’s yard in Old Mystic, Connecticut. The project is just now reaching an important inflection point.

Snediker says work on the skin is almost complete and the molds will be removed by Thanksgiving. The restoration focus will then shift to the interior, the deck mechanical systems and the rig.

To visit Doris in the shop is essentially to experience the sights, sounds and smells of a new boat construction project. It evokes the ancient Greek thought experiments of the ship of Theseus: Does an object in which all components have been replaced remain fundamentally the same object?

Dave Snediker is managing the restoration of Doris at his yard in Old Mystic, Connecticut.

Dave Snediker is managing the restoration of Doris at his yard in Old Mystic, Connecticut.

“It’s like the Boston Red Sox,” says Snediker, rolling his twinkling eyes at a comment he’s heard many times before. “In restoration, the rule among the cognoscenti is there can never be no boat, and there can never be two boats. You have to do it within the envelope of the old boat. We have the photographs to prove it!”

But for a few bilge stringers, nearly all of the wood on Doris has been replaced. A bronze knee where the horn timber hits the keel is also original. To Snediker’s delight, parts of the old Doris have miraculously reappeared at the yard.

Decades ago, a large portion of the interior was discarded at a Mystic shipyard. A wharf rat of yore (now a respectable lawyer) was among the dumpster divers who retrieved the pieces.

“One day out of the blue he pulled into the parking lot in a pickup truck filled with parts of the interior and gave them back to the boat,” says Snediker, who adds that locals have basically crowdsourced long-hoarded pieces of Doris. “We have 80 to 90 percent of the drawers, bunk faces and settees.”

Just as reconstruction of the hull was guided by Herreshoff’s original offset books that exist in the archives of MIT’s Hart Nautical Collection, so will Herreshoff’s original specs drive a full resurrection of the interior,“right down to the hardware and cabinet catches,” says Snediker. The Universal Rule, he adds, resulted in racing boats that were also comfortable for cruising.

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The restoration is on track for completion in 2025. That’s when Robillard will press into use Doris’ dual functions, just as Herreshoff designed them. He said he plans to race the boat in New England’s Classic Yacht Series and to one day cruise it in New England, Europe and possibly the Caribbean.

Robillard, a hedge fund manager, is a nautical history buff who owns 12 antique vessels, including a 1902 Crowninshield named Kidd. He said he got hooked on classic boats early, as a child of 11 or 12, when a family friend took him sailing on a Howard Chapelle 24-foot sloop.

According to Robillard, the Doris project provided an opportunity “to save an important piece of maritime history and preserve it for the future.”

“There are not that many boats like that around anymore,” he says. “These boats are for everybody.” 

This article was originally published in the November 2021 issue.

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