September 1, 2016
The Curator’s Log: September 2016
One of the most interesting aspects of the Museum’s Hall of Boats is that one can view the bookends of Capt. Nat Herreshoff’s career as a designer and boatbuilder. At the front are the 1860 20-foot catboat SPRITE, in which Nat (age 11) gained his first construction experience, and the 1887 29-ft.-6 in. wl. CLARA, Nat’s second deep-hulled cruising yacht. While in the very back is his (Nat age 87) last large yacht, the 1935 40-ft. wl. cruising yawl BELISARIUS, recently moved alongside the mezzanine deck and being refurbished to allow future visitor boarding.
The story of BELISARIUS has been beautifully told in three Herreshoff Marine Museum Chronicle articles (attached to this Log). I recommend reading them as my short commentary is intended only to fill in untold parts of the record.
- “BELISARIUS and Charles B. Rockwell”– Recollectionsby Eleanor Rockwell Edelstein of her father and BELISARIUS written in two parts; Herreshoff Marine Museum Chronicle, Spring & Fall 1980. – Part 1, Page 2, Part 2, Page 4
- “Museum acquires BELISARIUS”- By Carlton J. Pinheiro. Summary of her career based upon notes provided by Charles (Carl) Rockwell, Capt. Nat & HMCo records, letters and news articles; Herreshoff Marine Museum Chronicle, 1994. – Page 3
- “The BELISARIUS in Hurricane Carol”- Riding out the storm in Cuttyhunk by Barbara H. Rockwell; Herreshoff Marine Museum Chronicle, Fall 1998. – Page 4
Design, Construction and Service
BELISARIUS was designed and constructed for the heavy service she was to experience with a bronze centerboard box, partial bronze keelson, bronze mainmast step and bronze floors extending from the mast to the sternpost. From 1935 through 1992 BELISARIUS was sailed year-round, by four owners, from Maine to the Bahamas, charter in the Virgin Islands, (1942-44) Coast Guard picket patrol and some years in the Mediterranean. The bronze structures are all in good condition. Unfortunately to cut costs galvanized steel diagonal straps were inset into the inner hull planking and galvanized steel was used for much of the bolting (wood frame to wood floors, deck beam to sheer clamp, shelf, and frames). These are all badly rusted and are the cause of much wood rot.
BELISARIUS was built under a cost plus contract with a final billing of $39,100.00. The Haffenreffer’s, who acquired the company in 1924, had started this practice in 1929, moving financial risk of large and unique one-offs to the customer, with the America’s Cup defender ENTERPRISE. While Carlton Pinheiro writes BELISARIUS was built in record time (a quote from BELISARIUS Notes written by Rockwell), Capt. Nat, no longer in control of the operation, was none to sure about the prospects for the job, writing to his son L. Francis, “(I) hope she will come out all right” and later, “The work at the shops is necessarily slow, at only 36 hours per week, and men don’t appear to have the vim.”1
Capt. Nat closely followed BELISARIUS in service, but it was not until May 15, 1936 (17 months after launching), that Rockwell told him of her tendency”to yaw and carry a little to much weather helm“. Wanting to see this corrected before the forthcoming Bermuda race Nat responded in writing the very next day with the design change to add a skeg to the bottom of the keel to give it a straighter bottom line and increase depth at the sternpost by 9 inches. The race was sailed in heavy weather and Rockwell later told Nat, “(BELISARIUS) was able to work out to windward of the best of fleet” and “after talking with others when in Bermuda he was convinced his was the best sea-boat“. BELISARIUS finished in the middle of the fleet because by going to windward she ran into a calm area “while others to leeward before the wind shifted, ran in with a breeze – so losing by ill luck“.2
The 1941 Races
In January 1941 E. S. (Stan) Branford, Jr. leading a seven-member crew from the Off Soundings Club chartered BELISARIUS for two weeks to compete in the Sir Thomas Lipton Challenge Cup, Miami-Nassau and Governor’s Cup races. Considering BELIRARIUS was designed as a cruising boat they did very well. BELISARIUS won the 30-mile Lipton Cup race beating Olin Stephens STORMY WEATHER, placed 4th in the Miami-Nassau and 2nd in the Governor’s Cup.3
BELISARIUS was requisitioned from Carl Rockwell and served from March to November 1942 out of Vineyard Haven on picket patrol in battleship gray as CGR-2533. She was outfitted with an all-weather rig, radio, 30 cal. machine gun and small 25 lb. depth charges (noise makers). Orders to the pickets were brief and to the point- “If armament sufficient- to attack and destroy; otherwise observe and report.” BELISARIUS’ volunteer crew, included owner’s representative Alden Thompson of Taunton who recounted the following.
Manned with a crew of six the, original schedule was three days out and two days in; later increasing to as much as six days out after power yachts proved inadequate sea boats for the service. The initial patrol was a line from Vineyard Haven to Nomans Land. One night they heard what they believed to be German sailors slaughtering livestock on Nomans and saw the silhouette of the submarine. They sighted other submarines charging batteries at night. Reporting submarine contacts by radio at night was dangerous because U.S. anti-submarine blimps and aircraft did not fly after dark, therefore not available to defend the picket if the submarine detected the radio signal.
Please watch The Current for more news about the forthcoming BELISARIUS Exhibit.
“BELISARIUS and Charles B. Rockwell”- Recollections by Eleanor Rockwell Edelstein of her father and BELISARIUS written in two parts; Herreshoff Marine Museum Chronicle, Spring & Fall 1980.
“Museum acquires BELISARIUS”- By Carlton J. Pinheiro. Summary of her career based upon notes provided by Charles (Carl) Rockwell, Capt. Nat & HMCo records, letters and news articles; Herreshoff Marine Museum Chronicle, 1994.
“The BELISARIUS in Hurricane Carol”- Riding out the storm in Cuttyhunk by Barbara H. Rockwell; Herreshoff Marine Museum Chronicle, Fall 1998.
All photographs are credit of the HMM Archives.
1L. Francis Herreshoff Collection, Box 17, Folder 10: Letter from N. G. Herreshoff to L. F. Herreshoff, Oct. 29 1934, and Box 17, Folder 8: Letter from N. G. Herreshoff to L. F. Herreshoff, Nov. 20, 1934. Blunt Library, Mystic Seaport.
2L. Francis Herreshoff Collection, Box 17, Folder 12: Letter from N. G. Herreshoff to L. F. Herreshoff, Nov. 9, 1936. Blunt Library, Mystic Seaport.
3Thomas M. Russell, BELISARIUS 1941 Scrapbook, Herreshoff Marine Museum Archives. Donated by his son, Sam Russell.