Designing yachts in the shadow of Herreshoff

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Marblehead: “The Greatest Towne for Fishing in New England,” “Birthplace of the American Navy,” “Sailing Capital of the World.”

: “The Greatest Towne for Fishing in New England,” “Birthplace of the American Navy,” “Sailing Capital of the World.” These titles have long been used to describe a town whose connection to the sea is par to none.

Read the other stories in this package: Destination Marblehead, Mass.   The club that puts kids in charge

As a yacht designer I don’t know if it is a coincidence that I landed in Marblehead or just sheer luck. I arrived in 1986 to visit with Linda Warren, who worked as a broker in Ted Hood’s Little Harbor brokerage office here in town. Linda and my family had grown up sailing together on the Great Lakes. In 1993 I opened Zurn Yacht Design.

This town’s tie to the sea starts in 1684, when British settlers purchased 3,700 acres from neighboring Salem for a mere 16 pounds and began building what is today one of America’s most preserved yachting communities. In the early 1600s fishing was king, and it lured many men and their families from Great Britain to take in the abundance of fish off Marblehead. Close to 100 fishing vessels plied the waters of Marblehead by the 1800s. Though not as prevalent as in the past, Marblehead is still host to a prosperous commercial fishing fleet.

In 1775 Marblehead resident Col. John Glover, serving under Gen. George Washington, organized the first American Naval vessel, under the name Hannah. The Hannah and three other Marblehead vessels were captained and manned with local crewmen to take on the commanding British navy in the Revolutionary War. During the War of 1812, the USS Constitution (the oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy) with Marblehead crewmen aboard, tactfully eluded the British navy by sailing the beloved ship into MarbleheadHarbor. The lack of local knowledge and the evidence of cannons at FortSewall distracted the British from pursuing Old Ironsides any farther.

Those early years of Marblehead history were serious business. By the late 1800s, however, there was a different competition taking place — one that included neither fish nor foe. Yachting had taken hold, and Marblehead was the place to be. Yacht clubs such as the Boston, Eastern and Corinthian were regularly hosting racing events. Regattas such as Marblehead Race Week were sailed locally, while numerous offshore events either originated or ended here. The tide had changed and designers, builders and competitors flocked to Marblehead to be a part of this new wave.

Bristol had “the Wizard” — Nathanael G. Herreshoff — but the list of successful designers who made their homes in or passed through Marblehead is astonishing. I count 12 in the 20th century alone, and I’m certain I’m missing a few. (You can read more about them in The Encyclopedia of Yacht Designers, www.eyd.net .) To be practicing yacht design in a town with such a rich history is energizing as well as humbling. What these designers accomplished is simply unheard of today. I’m hoping it’s in the water.

B.B. Crowninshield (1867-1948) and Starling Burgess (1878-1947) were the two leading designers from which numerous others have prospered. Crowninshield’s beautiful long-overhang daysailers, such as the DarkHarbor (17-1/2 feet LWL and 12-1/2 feet LWL), were prominent. He was able to use what he learned designing stable racing machines and apply it to the commercial fishing schooner trade in Gloucester, Mass., for which he was perhaps most famous.

Burgess was a jack-of-all-trades with a most interesting life. He settled in Marblehead, where, through various business partnerships, he designed and built many sailboats, as well as seaplanes, with permission from the Wright Brothers.

Three prominent designers worked for Burgess at some point early in their careers. L. Francis Herreshoff (1890-1972, son of Capt. Nat) was a draftsman before embarking on his own design and writing career. From L. Francis’ table came Ticonderoga and Rozinante. His boats were beautifully balanced — not only aesthetically but also in performance. Many L. Francis designs are still sailing today. And not far from our office is the castle he purchased in 1945, next to Marblehead’s CrockerPark.

Frank Cabot Paine (1890-1952) worked for Herreshoff as well as Burgess and later joined Burgess in building airplanes. After several associations with other design firms he finally struck out on his own, receiving many commissions, including the Marblehead 36, from affluent Eastern Yacht Club members. He designed the J Class yacht Yankee, which defended the America’s Cup in 1930.

John G. Alden (1884-1962) worked for both Burgess and Crowninshield and later founded Alden Design. Countless yachts were produced from the Alden design office, where the next generation of Marblehead designers was born. Carl Alberg (1900-1986) and Aage Nielsen (1904-1984) both went on to successful design careers with tens of thousands of boats built.

Around the same time, two other designers were striking out on their own, both of whom would become common names in the field. Ted Hood began as a sailmaker in Marblehead and went on to establish a successful design office, rigging business and boatbuilding operation. And the legendary C. Raymond Hunt, with his diversified portfolio of motor and sailing yachts — including, of course, the deep-vee hull — is someone I am certain I would have enjoyed getting to know.

When Hood’s operation left Marblehead for Rhode Island in the mid-1980s, it was the end of an era. The yacht clubs still host world-class events, and the houses that ring the crowded harbor are as beautiful as ever. But the business of producing world-class yachts has fallen to a handful of design offices, builders, service yards and a single sail loft.

Zurn Yacht Design, however, has stayed its course in Marblehead, working away on several new designs in both power and sail. Our first powerboat commission, the Shelter Island Runabout, continues to be a success, with more than 40 hulls sold. And Bob Johnstone’s MJMline has now surpassed 70 hulls, between the 34Z and 29Z. Our sailboats include the stunning Bruckmann Daysailer, along with the Zurn 65 Offshore Sloop in collaboration with Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding. In addition, we have several center consoles, sportfishing boats and larger motoryachts under construction at various yards around the world. Take a look at the fruits of our labor at www.zurnyachts.com .

Marblehead is a wonderful place to live and work. With all the history here in the old town, it would be a very hard place to leave.