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Discussing the three Rs of classic yachts

When is it a repair, reconstruction, refit or something else, ask authorities at R.I. symposium

When is it a repair, reconstruction, refit or something else, ask authorities at R.I. symposium

I love my trusty old ax. I’ve had her for nigh on 30 years, and my father for 30 years before me. She’s had her head replaced twice and she’s had six new handles, but she’s the same great old ax today that she’s always been.

Translated to the subject of classic yachts, this was a recurring theme throughout the recent Classic Yacht Symposium, jointly hosted in Bristol, R.I., by the Herreshoff Marine Museum and Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, April 1 to 3.

As the director of the Landing School (, where we strive to teach the traditional trades of boatbuilding and yacht design while integrating modern design, materials and building techniques, I was interested in exposing some of our students (and myself) to the discussion of yacht restoration and replication at the biennial symposium.

Through the written and oral presentation of six separate and distinctly different classic yacht restoration projects recently completed, the central questions on the minds of many of the 165 classic yacht owners, restorers and students of the craft who attended was, “When is a classic yacht a restoration, a renovation or a replication?”

Asked another way, when does the trusty old ax cease to be the “same great old ax she’s always been,” and when does she become a new ax altogether? Is it a question of adhering to the original design? Or is it a question of original materials, as well? And if so, what percentage of original materials differentiates between a restoration and a reproduction? And what of safety? Performance? Or other improvements in a classic yacht’s design, repair or reconstruction?

After a cocktail reception the first evening, held inside the Herreshoff Museum, the symposium started early the next morning in the Feinstein Lecture Hall of Roger Williams University, also in Bristol. Halsey Herreshoff — noted naval architect and racing skipper, heir to the Herreshoff legacy, and president of the Herreshoff Marine Museum and America’s Cup Hall of Fame — welcomed all to the packed auditorium. Scanning the audience, it was easy to see that the participants included a broad range of people interested in the topics of restoration and classic yachts, from the blue jean and flannel-shirted rebuilders and restorers up to their elbows in cedar shavings and Bristol varnish, to the neck-tied and navy-blazered owners who care for and sail their classic yachts around the globe.

Day 2’s schedule included six presentations and two panel discussions drawn from a hefty 231-page compilation of 12 papers offering different perspectives within the broad subject of classic yacht restoration. Entitled “Proceedings: The Classic Yacht Symposium,” the tome was distributed to all participants of the symposium upon registration. I found it contains often-fascinating accounts of restoration projects, from the famous 16-foot Herreshoff 12-1/2 sloop to the 138-foot replica of the Herreshoff schooner, Westward (launched in 1910 in Bristol, R.I.), Eleonora (launched in 2000 in Holland), and everything in between. Not surprisingly, the boats discussed were mostly Herreshoffs, but there was a variety of other designers’ and builders’ work, including Clinton Crane, William Fife, Starling Burgess and Olin Stephens, a participant in the symposium.

Six projects were selected for presentation at the symposium from among the 12 described in the “Proceedings.”

1. “Building the Racing Schooner Eleonora”

2. “Building a Classic Herreshoff, Sadie, Using Modern Cold Molded Construction Methods”

3. “Restoration of a 1929 Fife 6-Metre Yacht Alana: The Designer’s Perspective”

4. “A Century of One-Design Racing: Restoration of IDEM Class Sloop Shadow”

5. “The Undertaking of a Few Minor Repairs: Restoration of Joyant, a Herreshoff P Class Sloop”

6. “Complete Restoration of the Herreshoff Fishers Island 23 Rose.”

Each of the presentations differed significantly from each of the others in perspective and purpose, approach and technique, purity and pragmatism, emphasizing the breadth of the term “restoration.” It was informative, and in some cases, amazing to see just how many different ax heads and handles had been applied in how many equally different ways to achieve the common goal of preservation of classic wooden yachts dating back over 100 years.

The Day 3 presentations were followed by the first panel discussion, “Using Historical Resources to Expand the Value of your Work.” Librarians and curators from Mystic Seaport, MIT, and the Herreshoff Marine Museum pleaded well the case for thorough research and accurate documentation in restoration projects.

Following the three afternoon presentations, the second panel, comprising a sailor and preservationist of classic yachts (Halsey Herreshoff), an owner and reproducer of classic yachts (Bob McNeil), and a builder/restorer of classic yachts (Ed McClave) ignited a very animated discussion around the question, “What is the truly correct perspective for yacht preservation, restoration and reproduction?”

Predictably, there were almost as many opinions in the room as there were participants. At one end of the restoration spectrum, arguments were made in support of the purist approach that uses only original materials from the restored vessel, refastened in the original method and using only original tools and hardware. And at the other end, there were the pragmatists in favor of function over form with cold molding, composite spars (wood grained, of course), and, yes, the F- word … fiberglass.

As the last element on the formal symposium agenda for the day, this discussion provided an excellent springboard for discussion for the next biennial Classic Yacht Symposium scheduled for April 2007. Many participants expressed the need for clarification and specific definition to the terms refit, restoration, preservation, replication, and redesign.

It was generally agreed that each has its place, depending on the intention and purpose of the project. Halsey Herreshoff felt that it is better to do even an imperfect restoration than none at all, while Ed McClave suggested that valuable engineering lessons from artifact boats could be obscured or eliminated in the restoration process. Bob McNeil posed that classic yachts were originally designed and built to be used; therefore, the use of modern methods and materials in the restoration process is justified for their improved performance characteristics, durability and cost of maintenance.

When asked his feelings about modern materials, Olin Stephens asserted that, had they been available earlier in his career, he certainly would have used them in his designs and construction. All agreed with designer and naval architect Dave Pedric that classic wooden yachts represent a blend of art, craftsmanship, engineering and history.But no one could answer the rhetorical question posed by Ed McClave, “How many carbon fiber boats built today will still be around in 100 years?”

In the face of such an unanswerable question, there was only one place to go — for cocktails and dinner. The group reassembled in a waterfront restaurant on Bristol Harbor for casual but nautical conversation stimulated by the day’s presentations. As a special after-dinner treat, keynote speaker and famous classic boat and yacht photographer Benjamin Mendlowitz offered a narrated slide show of a hundred or so of his best shots — all beautiful vessels under sail or power on perfect, sunny, breezy days. Just the way boating should be. Despite the stormy weather outside that night, Mendlowitz’s images were enough to inspire the appreciative audience to begin pulling off the winter tarpaulins, get out the sandpaper and varnish, and begin preparations for an early season start.

The weekend event concluded back at the Herreshoff Marine Museum for a continental breakfast and guided tours provided by the museum’s paid and volunteer staff. A lovely supplement to the many historic vessels on display was a newly completed reproduction of an 1889 16-foot, 8-inch Herreshoff, Coquina Cat Yawl trailered all the way from Brooklin, Maine, by her builder, Doug Hylan.

Reflecting on the weekend with our Landing School students, it was clear to me that a fire was ignited and a passion stirred in them for every aspect of classic yachts. We all agreed that this first Classic Yacht Symposium was an education, an appreciation, and an inspiration to us all.

And as for that old ax … I have found any number of new ways of looking at her and thinking about her … and I love her all the more.