Go See Amaryllis – The First Catamaran

Herreshoff Amaryllis

Once upon a time, Amaryllis II, a replica of the first catamaran ever to be built, was dangling from the ceiling in the impressive Hall of Boats at the Herreshoff Marine Museum. This boat was the brainchild of Nathanael Green Herreshoff, who was busy inventing other important yachts and marine innovations in the late 1800s when Amaryllis was “born.” This week, the Bristol, RI Herreshoff Marine Museum finally lowered the famous replica from the ceiling to maintain and clean the 1933 hull.  It’s worth a trip to Bristol to see this amazing design and engineering feat.  If you can come tonight, you’ll catch Amaryllis and also a great lecture on Boston Light

Check out this very complete writeup from SailCraftBlog on the history of this amazing yacht and the stir it caused in the sailing world. This boat was deisgned and built in the 1800’s by a man building America’s Cup Boats at that same time. And here we are – over a hundred years later – using catamarans in the America’s Cup. It’s safe to say NG Herreshoff was clairvoyant. Or maybe just brilliant. Read on in this very complete story and then head over the Bristol Museum to behold this yacht for yourself. It’s quite a sight.

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From SailCraft Blog: The Real Story of Amaryllis and the First Racing Catamarans

Nathanael Green Herreshoff, commonly known as “the Wizard of Bristol” is considered the most innovative sailboat designer of all time. He designed and built five winning America’s Cup boats, Vigilant, Defender, Columbia, Reliance and Resolute, and, was an excellent sailor in his own right. Other innovations from Herreshoff were the folding propeller, modern turnbuckle, fin and bulb keel, and the modern winch, all of which are still in use today.

But it was NG Herreshoff in 1875 who popularized catamarans when he designed and built his first, Amaryllis, and evolved the idea of connecting the hulls flexibly with ball and socket joints which allowed the connecting hulls to pitch freely. He was granted a patent entitled “Improvement in Construction of Sailing-Vessels” for this novel idea in 1877, featured in PatentWear’s Herreshoff Catamaran design. To quote Nathanael from his patent application: “An improvement to sailing vessels by which I can obtain great speed and safety and comfort.”

Herreshoff entered Amaryllis in the annual Centennial Regatta at the New York Yacht Club in 1876, and won by a hefty margin. The cat was so much faster than traditional monohulls that catamarans were forever banned from racing in conventional yacht races. Herreshoff would build several more catamarans, but the “establishment” never came any closer to accepting them as legitimate sailing craft in his lifetime.

Fast forward another 70 years to Hawaii in 1947 when the legendary big wave surfer and waterman Woody Brown designed the first truly modern (and light) seafaring catamaran.  Woody had designed and built his own record-setting sail planes and spearheaded the development of the modern surfboard. Post WWII such materials as plywood, fiberglass, light metals, waterproof glues and synthetic fibers for sails and cordage became inexpensively available. Considered the Orville Wright of catamarans, Woody utilized modern wooden aircraft-type construction methods to build his first catamaran, Manu Kai.

Later, names like Rudy Choy, James Wharram, Arthur Piver, Dick Newick and Jim Brown became synonymous with the multihull revolution, and all contributed to further developments in construction techniques. Somehow, multi-hulls had become the preserve of eccentrics and mad inventors. But it was this small group of visionary surfers, sailors, and naval architects using these new materials and concepts that created boats the likes of which the world had never before seen.

With the advent of carbon fiber, epoxy and winged masts large ocean racing multihulls, catamarans and trimarans have been built with outstanding performance records. The Jules Verne Trophy, a prize for the fastest circumnavigation of the world by sail is now 45½ days with a record 24 hour run of over 908 miles at an average speed of 26.5 kts (30.4 mph)! Phileas Fogg where are you now?

Even the notoriously conservative America’s Cup has finally shelved the slow and ponderous 12-meter boats for state-of-the-art 72-ft wing-sail catamarans. Featuring boats that can accelerate to over 40 knots, the America’s Cup of 2013 was essentially guaranteed to be an exciting spectacle. Hang on! [Update: Oracle Team USA has won and retained the America’s Cup 2013 in an historical comeback effort against Emirates Team New Zealand, in San Francisco on September 25th, 2013].

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An enlarged “replica” of Amaryllis was made in 1933 for a president of the vast Chrysler Corporation. It was later placed on display in the Herreshoff museum.

There aren’t many myths in sailing that are better known than the fictional tale of the ban of Nat Herreshoff’s famous catamaran Amaryllis in 1876.  The most common version of the fairytale says that Amaryllis swept the fleet in a New York Yacht Club race, causing the stuffy big-boat establishment to ban catamarans from racing and setting the cause of multis back for decades. The reality is very different.

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Herreshoff’s brilliant invention broke onto a regional sailing scene that was bursting with more innovation than sailing has ever seen before or since.  The sailors of north-eastern USA had introduced international racing in the early 1850s with the schooner America and the little centreboarders Truant and Una.  They pioneered ocean racing when the New York schooners Vesta, Henrietta and Fleetwing raced across the Atlantic in 1866. They had popularised the centreboarder and developed beamy, lightweight “skimming dishes” that carried vast rigs. By 1876 the indigenous New York centreboarder had reached its extreme with the vast schooner Mohawk, which spread her sails 235 feet from bowsprit to mizzen end but had a hull only 6’6” deep and capsized in New York harbour, killing five people including her owner and his wife.  In the same year, a sailor from America’s north-east (Alfred Johnson) became the first person to singlehand across the Atlantic in the tiny 20’ dory Centennial.  A little over a decade later, sailors of the region were to pioneer the lightweight racing sailing canoe, complete with fully-battened roachy rig, hiking plank and hollow masts.  They had even experimented with catamarans decades before – John C Stevens, the lion of the New York sailing establishment, creator of the New York Yacht Club and head of the syndicate that owned the schooner America, had spent thousands of dollars on the unsuccessful sailing cat “Double Trouble” in the first half of the century.IMG_0733

When Amaryllis was launched, New York’s small-boat racing scene was dominated by the sandbaggers. Ranging from about 20 to 30 feet in length, the sandbaggers were developed from the beamy centreboard oyster-fishing boats that were worked and moored on the shallows of New York Harbour.  Over the previous two decades the sandbaggers had evolved to carry vast rigs that stretched fore-and-aft over twice the length of the hull, and were balanced by paid crews who dragged movable ballast sandbags full of gravel to windward each tack.

Although they were the crack racers of their day, in many ways the sandbaggers remained true to their workboat roots.  As government studies of the time and modern museum curators both noted, many of the racing sandbaggers had been built as workboats, and some were to return to oyster dredging when their racing days were over. The sandbaggers were, in effect, like supercharged monster trucks.

The close racing and big prizes attracted both working watermen and rich amateurs.  This was a scene where bluebloods of high society like Adrian Iselin raced hard against professional gamblers and immigrant working men, where vast sums were gambled on match races and knives and guns were used to settle protests. Nothing could be further from the myth of a conservative sailing scene ruled by reactionaries than New York small-boat racing of the 1870s.

The famous race that Amaryllis won in 1876 was not held by the New York Yacht Club, or any other club. It was held under the auspices of the United States Centennial Commission, and run by a special committee of members from clubs other than the NYYC.[1] The cash prizes that were normal at the time were absent (as were many of the big boats) but the event stirred so much enthusiasm that several new sandbaggers were launched specifically for the regatta.

Amaryllis raced on the second day of the regatta. The events that day was restricted to boats rating 15 tons and under according to the NYYC rating rule – a rule that was could not measure a catamaran fairly.[2] Sailboat racing was still young, but sailors had already realised that they only way to get good and fair competition was to break the entries into separate classes based on size and type.  Even among the smaller classes, where many boats could be rigged as either a catboat (mainsail only) or as “jib and main” sloops, the two rigs were normally raced in separate classes. “All-in” events, where widely separate designs raced all together, seem to have been basically unknown in those days.

Amaryllis’ fleet was broken into a class for small cabin yachts; a class for boats under small “working sails”; and two classes full of sandbaggers. The bigger sandbaggers included legendary racers like the 28 foot Suzie S.  The 25 foot long Amaryllis was in the smaller class where she faced the champion Pluck and Luck, sailed by Jake Schmidt. Although the four classes raced over the same course, there were two separate starts and no overall prize.

There were no class rules in Amaryllis’ day. It wasn’t just that they hadn’t been invented yet; there wasn’t really much need.  Decades of development had stereotyped the sandbaggers into the 19th century equivalent of a tight restricted or box rule class. As authorities like sailing historian Howard Chappele noted, they all followed the same style of vertical bow and stern, massive beam, slack bilges, deep vee sections and a huge low-aspect rig.  There was also no one to create class rules; there was no inter-club association, no national body, and no class associations.  In the informal racing scene of the time, regattas were normally held according to the individual rules of each organising club or committee.

As one of the few out-of-town entries, Herreshoff’s cat was an outsider in more ways than one.  Some of the racers were already aware of her speed, but according to the contemporary yachting writer and authority Captain Coffin, many in the fleet laughed at the odd-looking “double boat”. The cynics must have felt justified in the early part of the race. Back in 1876 boats were not timed from the sound of the starting gun, but from the time they actually crossed the start line. Amaryllis was one of the last to start, and in the light winds and flukes of the first few legs she showed little pace. By the first mark she had lost three minutes on the class leader, Pluck and Luck.  She lost even more time on the beat back when she had to tack and “being slow in stays” (to quote both Coffin and Herreshoff himself) lost five minutes more.  One little puff then sent her flying past about a dozen boats, but even two marks later she was still slower than Pluck and Luck and the big boats.

It was only in the second half of the race when the wind picked up that Amaryllis showed her true paces. While the sandbaggers struggled to stay upright, “the Amaryllis began to develop the wonderful speed that she possesses, and she fairly flew along the Long Island shore, passing yacht after yacht as if they were anchored..”  In the words of the enormously experienced Captain Coffin, Amaryllis could “justly claim to be the fastest thing of her inches under canvas that floats, and it is doubtful if there are any steamers of her size that could out-speed her in a straight reach with the wind abeam.”

Despite her slow start Amaryllis came home in 3h 19m 32s, seven minutes ahead of the next boat, the famous 27’ sandbagger Sophie S, and a massive 20m in front of Pluck and Luck which has lost almost 10 minutes with broken gear.  As Amaryllis crossed the line, she was “saluted by guns from the yachts that were lying at anchor, and the excursion steamers screeched their loudest in honour of her victory”.[3]

It wasn’t only the sirens that screeched.  The captain of the Clara S screeched in protest too, protesting that Amaryllis was “neither a yacht nor a boat.”  The World reported that “it was the general opinion that the protest came too late, and should have been made before the start. Had it been, there is little doubt that the judged would have barred her out.”[4]  The committee ruled Amaryllis out of the event, arranging that instead of the first place diploma Amaryllis would receive “a diploma and a certificate that she had attained the highest speed ever made by a vessel of her length”.[5]

Was the committee wrong to disqualify Amaryllis? It wasn’t the way we’d handle things today, but we have the advantage of 150 years of experience in organising sailing races and still even in the 2000s, classes as innovative as Moths still retrospectively ban boats built to the existing rules.[6]  The Centennial Regatta organisers had no ISAF rulebook, no precedent and no Notice of Race or class rules to guide them. Even at the time Captain Coffin called it a “curious” decision, but just a few years later another committee reacted the same way when an unusual local mono, a sharpie with her cat-ketch rig and long “leaning planks”, was disqualified on similar grounds after winning a similar event – proof that post-races disqualifications were not restricted to cats.

Were the committee the bigoted reactionary snobs they are often painted as? There’s no evidence for that notion, and some against it. When the committee disqualified Amaryllis they took the prize from Herreshoff, the educated descendant of an Imperial courtier, and handed to the immigrant hatmaker, saloon keeper and boatbuilder Jake Schmidt of Pluck and Luck.  At least one of the race committee was later invited to act as judge in catamaran class races.

These days there’s a tendency to romanticise the lawless side of the sandbagger era; to fantasise that drawing a gun on a race judge or punching the race committee was a healthy alternative to the modern system of formal protests. It seems a tad hypocritical, then, to spend 140 years complaining because one protest in that environment didn’t match up to modern notions of procedural fairness.

One man never seemed to have complained. “It made little difference to Mr. Herreshoff” wrote Captain Coffin.  Captain Nat had made his point, and as the Herreshoff noted later, “some yachtsmen saw the joke was one themselves and cried shame on the protesters.” [7] [8]

Amaryllis was the sensation of the regatta, and the press were loud in their praise for the “fastest craft in the world”. Despite all the publicity, other cats were slow to hit the water.  The delay had me puzzled for years. Perhaps the claims of bias were true, I thought; perhaps there was stubborn resistance to the brilliance of Herreshoff’s design. The truth is very different, and it is revealed by Nat Herreshoff’s own pen. “During the summer of 1876 I had many applications for a description and plan of the Amaryllis, to all of which I turned a deafened ear” he later wrote in the Herald. “I chose to wait until such a time when I could faithfully lay before the public a full account of the Amaryllis and my ideas on double boats generally, ideas which had some practical basis and proved by actual experiment.”

Once Herreshoff had laid his account before the public, he took a few months leave from his day job and settled down to feed the demand for his amazing new invention.  “I got leave of absence from Corliss Steam Engine Co. for 3 months in summer of 1877, and started a trial business of building four, at contract price of $750 apiece” he recalled to his son Francis decades later. “I gave my time and there was no shop rent or overhead, and so came out just even. They should have been $1100 or $1200.” [9]

The rich and influential sailing men were at the front of the queue for Herreshoff’s cut-price speedsters.[10] Keenest of them all was Fred Hughes, Commodore of the New Jersey Yacht Club, who bought a series of cats; first Amaryllis, then Nat’s second cat Tarantella, Jessie and Cyclone.[11]

3 thoughts on “Go See Amaryllis – The First Catamaran

  1. First catamaran ever built…by westerners. I am certain that the Polynesians pre-dated this by roughly 1000 years. Still cool though.

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