May 28, 2020

Q&A from Virtual “Night at the Museum” Tour

Follow up questions from last week's live tour and interview at HMM

Whether or not you were able to tune in last Wednesday for our "Night at the Museum" tour, we got so many great questions we didn't have time to answer that we thought we'd share them with you all here too. We often get a lot of these same questions from our in person visitors. Feel free to post follow-ups or further questions in the comments! We'd be happy to answer more and follow up.

Does Herreshoff still build boats?

The Herreshoff Manufacturing Company closed down in 1945 and no longer builds boats. That said, Captain Nat's grandson Halsey Herreshoff has a business called Herreshoff Designs Inc. and has a partner brokerage called Herreshoff Yacht Sales, so you might see those names around online. Additionally, the original plans from HMCo. are now in the collection of the MIT Museum of Cambridge, MA, and you can still order copies of those plans and the tables of offsets from them. As a result, there is a very active community of professionals and backyard boatbuilders alike still restoring originals and building replicas and models to the original HMCo. drawings and specifications. 

Where can somebody go to see boats like this sail?

There are still Herreshoff boats - both classics and replicas - sailing all over the world! The original fleets are especially active on the East Coast in the United States (and particularly in New England), and there is a classic yacht racing circuit in the summer where you can see wooden boats (including quite a few Herreshoff boats) racing almost every weekend. Probably the next highest concentration is in Europe, but both restorations and replicas have been spotted much further afield too - Hawaii, Australia, South America, you name it! It is estimated that around 28% of HMCo.'s original output still exists, which is somewhere around 560 boats of more than 2,000 originally built. We've also sent out links to a number of great videos and other footage online featuring some of these boats under sail - check out more on our "links" page.

Did HMCo. sell many catamarans?

Very few - catamarans were definitely not a very successful part of the business. Technically, the majority of Captain Nat's early catamarans in the 1870s were built before HMCo. was incorporated so that makes the number. even smaller! Captain Nat built seven catamarans between 1875 and the company's incorporation in 1878. Two more were built after N.G.H. joined with J.B.H. to form HMCo. between 1878 and 1890. Two final catamarans were built in the 1930s and 40s when N.G.H.'s son (and by that time, lead HMCo. designer) A. Sidney was interested in revisiting the design. 

I assume the Great Depression killed off the HMCo., but was it something else that ended the run?

Great question! HMCo. weathered the Depression, but their last profitable year until WWII was in 1934 (an America's Cup year). Though the finances were certainly not good, the Haffenreffer family kept the workforce employed throughout the 30s, largely through capital improvements to the plant during times when contracts were slow, and through storage and repair services. According to oral history, the Haffenreffers also engaged HMCo. carpenters on other local projects, such as the interior joinery and paneling in the Haffenreffer's museum in Bristol. The extensive damage of the Hurricane of 1938 was also a significant financial blow for the company and by that time they were doing very little new construction. The WWII contracts must have come as a strange sort of relief after the start of the war, at least in terms of finances for the company and its employees. It wasn't until after the last of those "Hundred Fighting Ships" built for the war effort were launched that the Haffenreffers announced the plant would be closing down. There was almost a ten month gap between the last launching and the end of the war (though no one knew that at the time, of course) and supplies for civilian projects would be dear for some time even after wartime restrictions were lifted. In November 1944, the Haffenreffers had no further contracts in sight, and no way to sustain a workforce or plant at the peak employment scale (about 400 people) they were able to maintain during the wartime boom. It was announced in late November of 1944 at the last launching of their "100 Fighting Ships" for the war effort that the company would be disbanded.

Can you go into a little more detail how the half-hull shapes were translated into construction drawings?  Were the X/Y measurements manually plotted onto paper, then drawn in by hand?

We didn't do a great job explaining this on the fly, let us try again! First, there is a difference between a construction drawing and a lines drawing. A construction drawing shows you the detail of how the structural elements in a boat come together. A lines drawing shows the overall shape of a hull, with no detail or interiors or information about how the hull is put together - purely contour.

To produce construction drawings, all you need is a profile view (general outline from the side of the boat) of the model and a few sections (looking down the length of the boat). N.G.H. used a combination of tracing and a pantograph to get those profiles which were then filled in with construction details.

A little more on lines drawings and the offset reading machine: there are a number of ways to derive a table of offsets from a carved model. Perhaps the most common method involves: 1.) cutting the model into sections, 2.) tracing them onto paper to get a lines drawing, 3.) measuring the intersections on the paper at each waterline and section to get those (x,y) coordinates for each section. All of those coordinates taken together are called a "table of offsets" and are then scaled to build full sized molds for the boat.

Captain Nat was able to skip that step of translating onto paper (read: drawing a lines plan) in order to get the offsets by using the offset reading machine. He used the x/y gauge to derive these same coordinates straight from the model and recorded them in a notebook. The offsets were never plotted on paper, but instead the table of offsets in this notebook were sent upstairs to the mold loft straightaway. The loftsmen would then take the set of coordinates for each section ( i.e. mold / frame) and plot them out full scale in the mold loft to build the molds from there. With this method, the time consuming process of cutting up a model or otherwise translating its shape onto paper in order to derive the table of offsets from the lines drawing is completely bypassed - which is why there are no lines drawings in the HMCo. collection. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a million: click here to watch a short video of Halsey Herreshoff operating the offset reading machine and explaining how it works.

What are some of the boat design features they invented that are still used today?

"Invented" is a tricky word, as there were lots of super innovative techniques, materials and approaches to rigging and naval architecture in circulation at the time N.G.H. was most actively designing due to the maturing of industrial era manufacturing techniques and material innovations. That said, he was incredibly astute at recognizing the potential of these innovations, and refining and applying them in his work. A few that we recognize today as particularly effective were his use of screw fasteners, sail slides and subsequent early adoption of the Marconi rig, the use of cross-cut sails (changing the orientation of the panels to take advantage of the fact that fabric stretches less on the weft than on the warp for less stretch overall and greater lift), the fin keel, the bulb fin keel.

How involved was Nat in sail design to go with the beautiful hulls?

Very! As the company grew, the number of draftsmen in the drafting office also increased, but we know that N.G.H. continued to closely oversee much of the design operations until his son A. Sidney increasingly took on these duties in N.G.H.'s later years.

Can you make appointments to visit the model room in person?

At the moment due to the Covid-19 situation we are not open to the public or offering model room tours, but generally when we are open you can arrange an appointment to tour the model room. These appointments do need to be made at least two weeks in advance of your visit, because they are dependent on staffing availability; we can't guarantee that availability, but will be able to let you know in advance one way or another, and weekdays are usually the best bet on our end.

How much does a boat like TORCH sell for?

Totally depends. Classic wooden boats can go anywhere from "free, if you get it out of my backyard" to millions of dollars. It depends on what condition the boat is in, how original it is, how much work it might need, whether it comes with a rig and sails, what shape the engine is in, and on and on. If you are curious, there are a number of brokerages you can check out to get a sense of the price tag, or listings at places like Woodenboat, Off Center Harbor, Classic Boat, etc.

What is considered the pinnacle of HMCo.'s fleet?

That's a tough question. Every Herreshoff fan will probably give you their own answer depending on their personal preference - whether they prefer racing or cruising, power or sail, speed, style or comfort - there are infinite factors! We at HMM have RELIANCE (HMCo. #605) on our logo, so she's probably our go-to. To us, RELIANCE reflects our mission to educate about the history and future of innovation in the marine trades. You can read more about that remarkable vessel here and here if you'd like to learn more.

Did the brothers make a lot of money with HMCo.?

The brothers seemed to have been pretty comfortable, owning multiple properties, multiple yachts built by the Company and vacationing in Europe, Florida and Bermuda. At the Museum, we have yet to do a full analysis of the Company's finances because the business records are somewhat scattered between collections - we have some, the MIT Museum has some papers and some are still in private collections - but we would like to investigate further, and have been assisted so far by several outside scholars who are working across the collections, such as the creators of the Herreshoff Catalogue Raisonné. We do know J.B.H. was the brilliant business mind behind the operation that really made them financially successful, and that the Company struggled after his death.

Capt. Nat sounds like a bit of a character - no media! Any other good stories?

So many! You can read more in our "Curator's Log" or our "This Week in Herreshoff History" series. We'd really recommend you take a look at some of the favorite books on our reading list for more Captain Nat tales though:

Where can I go to get involved and stay connected with the Museum

Great question - Click Here to sign up for our seasonal newsletters and our weekly updates from the ongoing Code Flag Lima Project ("entertaining content for the quarantined"!). Our events page also has regular news about goings-on around the museum, and you can always check in on our Instagram and Facebook (@herreshoff) pages for content. Our Facebook is a little more events and news oriented, while our Instagram is the place to go if you're looking for stories and historic photos.

Is that shark still alive?

Tragically, it's demise is inevitable. Nora is the take-no-prisoners type. Currently, it has been renamed "Tad the Tadpole" because she's chewed off all of it's fins.