To his admirers, he was the Wizard of Bristol, but to his friends, he was simply Capt’n Nat. Born in Bristol, Rhode Island, Nathanael Greene Herreshoff (1848-1938) was an exceptionally gifted naval architect and mechanical engineer who may well be the US’ finest boat builder and certainly the nation’s most successful with five winning yachts and six victories in the prestigious America’s Cup alone.
Reliance, which was built in 1903, has become a legend as the largest of all yachts to ever race in the event; a size as impressive as the crew who managed to control her. While the vessel was under construction, another boat — a steel-hulled schooner — was ordered by Morton Plant and built in the neighbouring shipyard. The American industrialist persuaded the Capt’n, who hadn’t worked with such a ship in 30 years, to take on the project. Despite being rather unimpressed of the complicated brief (Plant asked for a winning Class B schooner to race in American waters before heading to Europe for the Cape May Cup) and underwhelmed by the relatively poor sailing qualities of this category of yacht initially, upon completion, it would be the birth of Herreshoff’s first great schooner: the Ingomar.
Railway magnate Plant won at the Astor Cup in New York during the Ingomar’s first outing. A year later, he hired acclaimed Scottish skipper Charlie Barr, who had just defended the America’s Cup title against Thomas Lipton’s Shamrock III to win the trophy for the third time. Under Barr’s command, the Ingomar also won a dozen races in British and German waters. Before being lost to a reef in 1931, she was transformed into a luxury cruising yacht.
In the years that followed the Ingomar’s launch, Herreshoff’s diary was bursting with new orders for boats of the same type. Next followed Queen Mab (a lesser known 24-metre schooner that now goes by the name Vagrant) then the third great steel schooner by the Wizard: the 41-metre Westward, which was completed in 1909. Flying in the face of the yacht’s name, its owner, A. S. Cochran, headed east across the Atlantic to compete in regattas with considerable success. She won eight out of nine races in England and it became clear that the European designers of the day were struggling to match up to Herreshoff’s mastery.
In 1910, Plant called on Herreshoff again to build a yacht ‘fit for victory’ and one that could take on the Westward. Capt’n Nat obliged and designed a boat the same size as its rival, but lighter and better balanced: the beautiful Elena. She gave Plant the win he was chasing, beating the Westward, but sadly her fate was ultimately lost to the sea (the Westward was scuttled in 1947).
Between 1912 and 1915, two schooners of a similar construction and size followed: sister vessels Vagrant II (owned by Harold S. Vanderbilt, who later acquired Elena) and Mariette respectively. The latter is the only one of nine Herreshoff yachts that survives in its originality today and actively participates in regattas. All others are either sunk, scrapped, lost or their existence unknown.
Herreshoff built the largest of his schooners in 1914; the 48-metre Katoura. She’s currently sailing somewhere in the Mediterranean, but doesn’t take part in racing or the charter industry. In 1919 and 1922, he built Ohonkara and Wildfire. The former was stranded on a reef near Bermuda in 1967 and the other continues to sail the waters off South America. Little is known of these vessels’ history otherwise.
Nearly a century on from Capt’n Nat’s first construction of this kind, interest began to grow in the schooner scene once more when, in 2002, Dutch real estate giant Ed Kastelein ordered a replica of the Westward (now known as Eleonora).
Another spectacular replica followed in 2009 with the re-building of Elena in Spain according to the many technical plans, some of which were donated to the cause by Herreshoff’s university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or MIT.
Most recently, Kastelein devoted himself to the reconstruction of the Ingomar, but unfortunately, the yacht remains unfinished albeit with the hull up for sale for a million euros in Holland. Today, three of Herreshoff’s designs remain in competition and available for charter around the world: the original Mariette and two replicas (Eleonora and Elena). They are living pieces of history, dating back over a century, that bear witness to the great era of the legendary schooners and ‘big boat sailing’ of the early 20th century.