Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Classic Yacht Symposium


This past weekend I attended the Classic Yacht Symposium at the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol, Rhode Island. Held every other year, the symposium is a sort of academic conference for classic boat enthusiasts of all stripes: owners or aspiring owners of classic yachts, as well as builders, riggers, sailmakers and sailors. 

About two hundred people assembled for a full day of papers in the Hall of Boats, the main display room of the museum. Although it was a particularly raw spring day and the hall never quite warmed up, there was something powerful about sitting amongst examples of some of N.G. Herreshoff’s finest designs.

This symposium was different from prior years in that it focused the presentations to two topics: large schooners in the morning and the Herreshoff ALERION design in the afternoon. 

Hall of Boats

The day began with papers about large schooners, which I was interested in because of our work on ADVENTURESS. Especially noteworthy was the paper given by John Lammerts van Bueren and Ed Kastelein, titled “Recreating Large Sailing Yachts of the Past: The Defining Choices and Results.” Over the past 15 years, Ed Kastelein has recreated four classic yachts, including ELEONORA, a replica of N.G. Herreshoff’s famous WESTWARD. Van Bueren, Kastelein’s “right hand man,” is involved in many aspects of each project, including the initial historical research. Van Bueren spoke eloquently about the decisions a modern builder must make, a discussion that seems particularly relevant to our restoration of ADVENTURESS. He asked: “Why recreate a classic yacht of the past rather than commissioning a yacht to modern specifications?”

His answer rang true; he said, “the yachts of bygone days are often amazingly beautiful, they carry stories of romance, of famous owners, of races won and lost, of heroic men handling huge sails without aid of modern hydraulics and of hull shapes which hold a promise of speed, easy motion in a seaway and comfort.”


He went on to make an argument for following the designer’s original intent as closely as possible, both in her lines and her materials. He argues that, certainly, Herreshoff would have used modern materials had they been available to him. He writes: “But what about that eternal remark that if Herreshoff would have used epoxy if he had it available? I am very confident that this is correct but with the same confidence I feel he then would have designed a yacht like Mari Cha IV and not an Ingomar, Elena or Westward.” 

Mari-Cha IV

Van Bueren also made some interesting remarks on what constitutes a restoration, a topic of hot debate among classics enthusiasts, as many restorations have only the lead ballast keel remaining from the original boat. At this yard, we have several restorations to our credit in this category, the most extreme of the group is probably the restoration of the 6-meter JILL; she was restored with only her keel and the flag pole socket remaining of the original.

He went on to say, “During my travels with Olin Stephens we often discussed this subject. Although initial complexity and broadness of questions left us confused, we agreed on some clarity; it all comes down to the lines plan. This has to be adhered to at all costs. Any deviation from the lines creates a new design and thus any claim to the original is inevitably lost. On all other subjects one could be permissive rather than restrictive.”

It is interesting to think of ADVENTURESS in this context, and about the choices we have made throughout our restoration. The lines of ADVENTURESS are similar to the original plans, but not exactly the same. When the boat arrived at Rockport Marine, Andrew Williams measured it, and we produced a lines plan from his measurements. Sam Chamberlin then overlaid these measured lines over the original lines plan, and then reconciled the two. This resulted in jacking up the stern overhang and fixing the shear, to be both fair and closer to the original. The deck houses are slightly different in size and position. The original marconi main, gaff fore schooner rig is to be replaced with a gaff rig on each spar. The interior layout will have the feel of the Fife designs, but has been changed to accommodate modern equipment. 

In general, our approach here at Rockport Marine has been to approach restorations as interpretations of the original designs, with modifications made to suit the tastes, aesthetics and desired function of our clients, as well as the modern requirements of agencies such as Lloyds. Michael Brenner, owner of Trade Wind, an Alden motorsailer restored by this yard, put it another way. In a letter to us at the end of the project, he stated, “[this restoration] is more than emulating the style of a bygone era, this is taking the aesthetic vocabulary of then and raising it to a new and contemporary level of realization.”

Brendan Riordan added, “there would be little role for a designer working in a boatyard if all we did was restore exactly as new, or build new, exact copies of classic designs. It’s not the same as owning a Rodin sculpture or an Edvard Munch pastel where the owner’s role is to preserve and maintain a master work. These boats are meant to be used and I think we should maintain a philosophy that leaves room for the owners, for their tastes and preferences.”

Adventuress, shortly after her launch

The afternoon was devoted to papers about 26-foot Hereshoff designed ALERION, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful daysailer designs. The original ALERION is housed at Mystic Seaport, but made a special trip to the museum. It was a treat to sit next to her as each speaker sang her praises. 


Maynard Bray set the stage for the afternoon by describing his loving restoration of ALERION during his tenure as curator of the Seaport’s boat collection. Following his remarks were papers by three builders: Bill Sauerbrey, Eric Ogden and Brion Rieff who have each embarked on replicas or adaptations of the design. It was interesting to hear each builder’s approach to their respective projects and their decisions during the process. These papers really spoke to one another, and an interesting dialogue developed during the question periods about differences in design and technique, and what made a “true” ALERION. 

In short, you should all mark your calendars for 2014, because the Classic Yacht Symposium is worth a trip to Bristol. The quality of many of the papers is high and the discussions are lively. One attendee remarked to me that our business can be so frenetic, especially in the warm season,and we rarely get together for these sorts of discussions, instead spending the warm months shouting hellos from the decks of boats crossing paths at the start line, and the colder months in relative seclusion. The symposium offers us that opportunity to reflect on the work we do, which can be so rare in the pace of busy boatyards.

-Maria Simpson

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