Story & Photos by Ellen Massey-Leonard | Article courtesy of Classic Boat Magazine
Upon my return from sailing around the world, the first thing I did was to take out my family’s Herreshoff 12½. My cruising yacht is evidently better for ocean crossings, but there’s something about the 12½ that hooks you, no matter how many sea miles you have travelled, no matter how many boats you have handled.
In a sunny but cool ’smoky sou’wester’ on Eggemoggin Reach in Downeast Maine, the 12½ flew along, water gurgling under her forefoot and a bubbly wake streaming behind her. With only a finger or two on the delicate tiller, I could feel her respond to every puff and lull. Moving only my arm I could tack, and gybing was almost as effortless, hauling in and letting out the mainsheet the only added task. As she glided back to the harbor in a dying zephyr, I thought how wonderful it was that she’s been doing this for almost 80 years.
I’m not the only one to love the simplicity and sailing qualities of the Herreshoff 12½. Two-thirds of the original 364 boats survive today, 101 years after the first was launched, although unfortunately that first (Robin, Hull No 744) is not among them. A thriving H-Class Association actively races these boats and their replicas, with about 80 racing on any given summer weekend. The class is still mostly American, ranging from Maine to the Chesapeake Bay, but a few boats are also to be found in England, France and Norway. It’s possible that there are more 12½’s sailing today than ever before.The Herreshoff 12½ has more than stood the test of time. Steady and seaworthy, she points well, can stand up to a stiff breeze and scoots along in light air. With her ballast and roomy cockpit, she feels like a little ship, and yet is as responsive as a dinghy. This responsiveness – coupled with a way of forgiving mistakes – makes her a perfect boat in which to learn to sail and to sail solo into your 90s, as one of my family’s friends did. Finally, she’s elegant: her quiet beauty has inspired many people to take good care of these boats over generations.Captain Nathanael Greene Herreshoff designed what was then called the Buzzards Bay Boy’s Boat in 1914. The ’Wizard of Bristol’ was at the peak of his eminently successful career. In 1893 he had designed and skippered the victorious America’s Cup defender Vigilant. Two years later his Defender again kept the cup in New York, and in the 1899 and 1901 America’s Cups, Herreshoff’s Columbia was the successful defender. Here two stories about the origins of the 12½ diverge slightly, as is apt to happen with anything of legendary status.
Both stories involve Robert W Emmons II of Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, American football player and banker. In 1898, Emmons and friends commissioned Captain Nat to design and build a new class of gaff sloop for racing on their bay. The Buzzards Bay 15 (24ft 6in/7.5m LOA) was born. These fast and agile yachts, with their sleek and narrow profiles, came to be known as “little Columbias” and by 1914 had grown into a significant class, with 91 built, 32 of which survive. But they were too much to handle for young sailors who were starting out. Therefore, goes one story, Emmons and friends went back to Herreshoff for a boat in which their sons could learn to sail in the robust conditions of Buzzards Bay.
The second story, the one told by Halsey Herreshoff, Nat’s grandson, is really only an expansion of the first, and it explains why Herreshoff designed something quite different from the Buzzards Bay 15, something with much less overhang and with larger beam for her length.
After Columbia’s defense in 1901, the New York Yacht Club worried that Sir Thomas Lipton would return with a very fast challenger, so they influenced Herreshoff to push his extreme designs even further. The result was Reliance, 201ft 6in (61.4m) from the tip of the bowsprit to the end of her boom. Her mast soared over 199ft from deck and was balanced with a 20ft draught and 100-ton keel. Her extreme overhangs took advantage of the Seawanhaka Rule and her vast sail area of 17,000sq ft (1,580m2) required a crew of 66 to tend it. She was undefeated in every 1903 America’s Cup race.
According to Halsey Herreshoff, the NYYC wanted no more of these dangerous, expensive yachts so asked Nat to devise a new rating rule, the Universal Rule, which took displacement into account. The more modest Resolute, drawn for the 1914 America’s Cup (which in fact took place after World War I, in 1920), was the result. Robert Emmons was one of her owners. It was while sailing with Emmons on Resolute that Herreshoff learned of Emmons’s desire for a boat in which his sons could learn to sail and prepare for the boats he expected them to have later in life, namely, yachts like Resolute.As he did for all his yachts, Herreshoff designed the 12½ by making a half-model of the hull and then taking offsets from it. These were then used to build skeletal mould frames around which the frames and planking of each vessel would take shape. This ensured uniformity, as did the specific instructions Herreshoff gave to his workmen about the size and types of materials to be used. Herreshoff supervised every stage of construction, down to the hardware that he himself designed and which was cast in the Manufacturing Company’s foundry. Although Herreshoff died in 1938, the experienced and well-trained men of the company continued to produce the 12½ until 1943.While Emmons and Resolute were instrumental in bringing about the class, Herreshoff’s breakthrough boat, and the one which perhaps most strongly influenced the design of the 12½, was his own Alerion, built in 1912. The Universal Rule promoted shorter ends, so Alerionabandoned the ’little Columbia’ look in favour of short but shapely curves at bow and stern. No detail was too small for Captain Nat.Alerion’s curving house sides come together in a point just aft of the mast, a bit of elegance reflected in the meeting of the 12½’s coamings before the mast.
For one thing these are keel boats, with a hefty ballast ratio (approaching 50 per cent), a healthy beam/length ratio and modest rig; your chances of capsizing one are vanishingly small. Then they are deep enough to offer security when it first starts to heel; it’s large enough for friends to share the experience and move about without imperiling anything; and lastly it is responsive enough to reward, but forgiving enough not to punish inexperience.You can forget everything else and concentrate solely on the pleasure of sailing, that hugely satisfactory process of obtaining near-silent propulsion by capturing the wind; a compelling idea for beginners and experienced alike.
With that behaviour in mind the lines and sail plan hold few surprises. This is small for a keelboat; just 16ft long, and 12ft 6in on the waterline. Her waterline beam is relatively narrow to keep her moving when it’s light; she needs the help, with just 140sq ft of sail and 1,500lb of weight.
The flared topsides add stability as she heels and give her a generous cockpit for her size. Any piece of water that you can sail a boat with a draught of 2ft 6in on is going to have enough fetch to throw up at least some chop, so her bold sheer and buoyant bow sections make sense, and she looks capable of handling a reasonable swell if called on. Much is made of her hollow waterlines; they certainly put the boat in good company with Herreshoff’s own Alerion(1912) and Pleasure (1925), and the near–legendary Newport 29s, but the hollow is pretty modest (about ¾in over 4ft/1.2m, according to Alec Brainerd of Artisan Boats who probably has the most authentic set of data on the original design) so it’s probably mostly that the fine entry helps keep her moving when the going is light.
Here is a boat which is a perfect match to the original design brief – her enduring appeal may well be that she is such a great boat to learn on, and the affection that generates. First loves are unforgettable, after all.
Herreshoff gave both designs lovely sculpted sheerstrakes and a stem that rises above the sheerline. Thanks to his practice of designing from half-models, all his boats are fair to profile, all the way to the bottom of the keel: there’s no knuckle to increase friction and decrease beauty. Further, Alerion and the 12½’s have hollow bows at the waterline, one of the reasons they do so well in airs that most sailors would consider calms. Alerion’s transom is wider than the Buzzards Bay 15’s and very carefully curved, yet another touch of beauty that carried forward into the 12½. Alerion was a centreboarder built for shallow Bermudan waters, and for Captain Nat’s personal use. He wanted to get out on the water quickly, easily and by himself. So she was beautifully simple, with a self-tacking jib, clean decks and the barest minimum of hardware.
Every piece of the boat was well thought out, such as the delicate tiller that tapers from its strong base to a slender shape under the helmsman’s fingers, or the lead block that allows the helmsman to know without looking where to find the mainsheet. At 20ft (6.1m) on the waterline and almost 26ft (7.9m) overall, Alerion is significantly bigger than the 12½; so the later boat dispensed with Alerion’s small cabin and, in my opinion, increased the simplicity already evident in the clean decks, self-tending headsail and delicate tiller. The 12½ is also a keelboat, not a centreboarder, which many 12½ sailors prefer for the uncluttered cockpit it allows.
Other details one finds in both boats include wide and slightly outwardly-flared coamings that feel perfectly comfortable against your back, and long seats that run the length of the cockpit, enough to hold a crowd. Although they are really day boats, some 12½’s have been taken on longer coastal cruises: they can carry gear enough for camping on an island (CB305) or simply slinging a tarpaulin over the boom and sleeping on the sole boards.
The magic of these little ships – for young and old, novice and old salt, racer and picnicker – means that they not only had a long run at Herreshoff Manufacturing Company, but are still being built today, as we will see. Very little changed about the boats from 1914 to 1943. The design and essentials were never altered (for example, the planking was always white cedar) but minor details did evolve. The trim of the first boats was oak, a local wood that was easy to work with but that stained black if water got behind the varnish. Fairly late, in 1936, the trim was changed to mahogany, including the varnished transom. Also in the 30s – 1931 – the bulkheads and decks were changed from cedar planks to plywood. Early boats had rowing thwarts and removable bench seats whereas the later boats had only fixed bench seats. As for the rig, the majority of the boats were gaff-rigged, although the bermudan rig was first available in 1924: my family’s boat is one of these.
The hardware also evolved and is a good indicator of a boat’s age if she is missing her builder’s plate, a problem more frequent than one might expect as these cherished plates are sometimes kept by a previous owner when he sells his boat, or are even stolen. 1936 is the benchmark year for hardware alterations: the traveller changed from completely straight rod to one curved at both ends and the mast partner became one piece instead of an opening model. The shape of the builder’s plate also changed (from a rectangle until 1924 to a small oval until 1930 to a larger oval until 1943) but this is, of course, irrelevant for dating a boat if you can read the date on the plate.
Bigger changes came when the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company closed in 1945. The Quincy Adams Yacht Yard in Massachusetts bought the licence to the design in 1943 and built 51 between then and 1948, all of which were planked in mahogany instead of cedar. In 1947, Cape Cod Shipbuilding acquired the rights and built 35 wooden ones before producing a fibreglass 12½ in 1950, which it still manufactures today. These GRP boats currently cannot race with the H Class, despite being called Herreshoff 12½s. At the same time, a different GRP replica, the Doughdish, can. The Doughdish is perhaps a more faithful replica, maintaining the same weight as a mid-season wooden 12½ despite being built in glass, but is not permitted to call itself a Herreshoff 12½.There has been much controversy over the years as to the rights to the name and design, but this has occasioned two creative offshoots by Joel White. One is the Haven 12½, a centreboard version of the original with a slightly increased beam and smaller sail area. Professionals and home-builders alike have built these carvel-planked, strip-planked and cold-moulded. Their shallower draught and centreboard allow them to be beached and trailed and make them different enough to avoid intellectual property tangles.The second is a similar centreboard variation on Herreshoff’s Fish Class sloop, a version Joel White called the Flatfish. Herreshoff’s original Fish Class sloops (first produced in 1916) are essentially bigger 12½s; he even took their offsets from the same half-model. They’re longer, at 20ft 9in (6.3m) overall, and have slightly more overhang in the bow. Like Alerion, the Fish Class boats have cuddy cabins, and they were popular enough that Herreshoff designed yet a larger version, the Marlin, for coastal cruising, with a cabin big enough to sleep in. Only four Marlins were ever built, but 40 Fish Class sloops came from his yard, half of which survive.
Joel White’s Flatfish and Haven were designed in the 1980s, but much more recently the discovery of Captain Nat’s original offsets led to the creation of perhaps the most authentic 12½ since the last original was built in 1943. Alec Brainerd of Artisan Boatworks in Rockport, Maine stumbled upon the offsets in the spring of 2011 and then set about learning as much as possible about the design from Steve Nagy, who compiled the Herreshoff Registry, and from the Herreshoff Marine Museum and Mystic Seaport. Brainerd wanted his 12½ replicas to use exactly the same construction practices and materials as the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company – cedar planking, oak frames, mahogany trim, spruce spars and bronze hardware – and to be eligible to race with the H Class. He also improved upon the originals by using bronze threaded rod across the grain of the transom rather than iron drifts, a trick learned from restorations. The result, in late 2011, was the first wooden 12½ from the shop, and two more followed.
Thus the magic of the 12½ continues for a new generation of sailors. In Center Harbor, Maine, where my family’s boat is moored, at least half-a-dozen originals race and day-sail in the summer, accompanied by a few newer vessels and a few Havens. It’s a lovely sight to sail past another, and always occasions a smile and shout of “Beautiful boat!” from skipper to skipper.