To learn about Nathanael Greene Herreshoff is to want to know what made him great. Herreshoff, a member of the second entering class at MIT and a son of Bristol, R.I., is recognized as the most influential American yacht builder who ever lived. For nearly three decades his boats dominated the America’s Cup race, and today the hundreds of his boats that remain are regarded as marvels of design and engineering.
And now, if the money allows, an exhibition at the MIT Museum will make Herreshoff’s designs widely available to the public for the first time.
Herreshoff was born in Bristol in 1848 to a boat-building family. His older brother — and subsequent business partner — John Brown Herreshoff, was blind due to a childhood accident involving a stick in the eye. Working alongside John gave Nat a different way of thinking about boat design. “He had this acute sense of feel in his designs,” says Christopher Pastore, a historian at the University at Albany and author of a book about Herreshoff called “Temple to the Wind.”
Herreshoff enrolled at MIT in 1866, excited about the potential of marine steam engineering to create high-performance boats. “Speed was a big deal at the time,” says Kurt Hasselbalch, curator of the Hart Nautical Collections at the MIT Museum.
Herreshoff had a few notable successes harnessing this new form of power. He designed the first steam-powered fishing boat and the first steam-powered spar torpedo boat. The latter was just fast enough to inflict a crude form of violence. “You ran up, jammed the torpedo into the boat, smashed it into reverse, and got out as fast as you could,” says Hasselbalch.
Herreshoff’s greatest success — and the place where his genius really shined — was in yacht design. Between 1893 and 1920 his boats won the America’s Cup six times with names like “Vigilant,” “Defiance,” and “Resolute.” Their designs, says Pastore, embodied a perfect combination of mathematical precision and artistry.
“One thing he was able to do so well is design these boats with every piece working in unison: the sails, lines, hardware, the twist of the boat, twist of the mass, the boom and various spars,” says Pastore. “That is what makes an exceptional boat exceptional.”
The boats also benefited from Herreshoff’s forward-thinking around the rules of sailing. In a sense, he was the Bill Belichick of yacht design, seeing possibilities within the existing rules that others didn’t.
In 1876 he introduced multi-hulled boats to yacht racing when his catamaran “Amaryllis” won the New York Centennial Regatta in a walk. “He trounces everyone,” says Hasselbalch. “His boat was going 19- to 20 miles an hour, and most yachts were going 8 to 10 miles per hour.” Despite his convincing win, Herreshoff did not take home the trophy. “Shortly thereafter they disqualified him,” says Hasselbalch.
Herreshoff found other ways to innovate within the rules. Boats in sailing races have to conform to formulas, which require that the dimensions and proportions fall within certain parameters. It’s a way of keeping things fair by ensuring that similar kinds of boats race against each other. One important measurement is a boat’s length, which in Herreshoff’s time was defined as the distance along a boat’s waterline. Herreshoff exploited this definition by designing boats with long overhangs off the bow and stern. At rest, the length of the boats fell within the rules; in motion, the boats would heel over and the overhangs would increase the boats’ length at the waterline, allowing them to sail faster.
“He was constantly seeing these loopholes and maximizing designs,” says Pastore. Eventually Herreshoff himself devised a new rule for measuring boat length that closed the loophole he’d exploited.
That rule, like many of Herreshoff’s innovations, is still an important part of yacht design today. Herreshoff died in 1938, and in the 1960s, MIT acquired 14,000 of his plans. They currently occupy an entire room in the Hart Nautical Collections, and Hasselbalch is now raising money to make the collection more accessible to the public. He envisions an exhibition on MIT’s campus combined with an online presentation of Herreshoff’s designs, to open in late 2017 or early 2018. The working title for the project is “Lighter, Stronger, Faster.” Hasselbalch says it will be “the first major maritime design collection available online,” a fitting distinction for a boat builder who was always ahead of his time.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at email@example.com.