June 25, 2020

Curator’s Log: The 100th Anniversary of RESOLUTE's Defense and the 13th Challenge (Part I)

Forming the Syndicates

Part One: Forming the Syndicates (1913)

By John Palmieri, Curator Emeritus

The three contenders to defend the Cup first met in June 1914. They included the George Owens designed, Bath Iron Works built DEFIANCE, the Nat Herreshoff designed, Herreshoff built RESOLUTE (HMCo. #725), and the William Gardner designed, Lawley built VANITIE. Had we been able to confidentially interview the three syndicate managers they all would have told us the same story; if they had their way, they would be racing in a Nat Herreshoff designed and Herreshoff built boat. If that was the objective of each syndicate how did things develop as they did?

The NYYC Defender Syndicate: RESOLUTE


According to our records, New York Yacht Club Secretary George Cormack gets to Capt. Nat first with his postal telegram in late April or May: "Do not do anything about accepting order for Defender until you hear from me." [1] This puts Nat on notice to await negotiations with the NYYC Syndicate then being arranged. From then on Cormack stays very close to Nat, keeping him apprised of the negotiations with Lipton and the Royal Ulster Yacht Club (sometimes sending the latest terms of agreement and asking for Nat’s comments), offering encouraging information about the formation of the NYYC Syndicate and downplaying Pynchon’s Philadelphia Syndicate.  He knows that Nat will be a reluctant participant; "I know very well that you do not care for the work and it is quite true that many former associates will not be in the game…." [2] Save for Cormack and Chris Christensen [3], all Nat’s former Cup associates (E.D. Morgan, C. Oliver Iselin, Charlie Barr), with whom he had had achieved a high level of trust and mutual respect, are gone from the scene. He is uncertain of the capabilities of the new syndicate (R.W. Emmons syndicate manager, Charles Francis Adams helmsman) and whether he can work with them.


There are other concerns; for his part Nat recommends the syndicate have, under one manager, two boats and crews racing in a set of controlled trials. (See Nat’s letter on this to Cochran below.) This is not high on George’s priority list so he bushes it off, “Do not think that can be arranged.” Nat also requests that no bonuses be offered the HMCo. workers “to hurry the work” as had been done for an early Defender; “It had the effect that they would hold off from doing a fair day’s work (on)…later defenders, until a bonus was offered….labor cost (was) nearly 50% more than it should have.” Cormack agrees. [4]


Cormack and the Syndicate are worried over 1. cost and 2. the design. This starts a three-way conversation about cost with letters between Cormack/syndicate and Nat and also separately with HMCo. Nat starts it off by providing the “extremes” of a 75 foot waterline Defender. "A yacht of this size, built of steel or composite, in our ordinary way, comparing to the 65 footers, or WESTWARD (HMCo. #692) and ELENA (HMCo. #706), and complete ready for racing or cruising, excepting silver ware and linen, would cost not far from $75,000.00, and a vessel of the same size, built expressly for racing (as RELIANCE), with all weights figured down to the minimum, all important parts of the rig and gear tested, elaborate construction, using nickel steel, Tobin bronze and aluminum principally, special winches, etc., would cost nearly 50% more or $112,500.00 as an outside limit.”

Three Contenders, 1914. RESOLUTE, VANITIE, and DEFIANCE; image from The Rudder Magazine, 1920

RESOLUTE before launch, April 25, 1914; image from the HMM

Nat offers the possibility of a time and material contract with a fixed overhead charge and profit percentage added, but this is later rejected. [5]


When the defender contract is submitted to the syndicate in mid-September at a price of $123,000 they are very upset and write Nat a sharp letter because the price exceeds both the “extremes” of his August 22nd letter and his assurances to the syndicate made at a September meeting when the order was placed. Nat’s records note that he responded by telephone the very next day. The contract remained at $123,000 – I suspect the message made loud and clear – and only J.B. Herreshoff signs for and commits the company. [6]

George M. Pynchon Defender Syndicate: DEFIANCE


From Nat’s correspondence with Cochran (below) we learn that HMCo. made a commitment to build for Pynchon (owner of HMCo. built ISTALENA, HMCo. #663) in April 1913. In early July he lets Nat know that he has the funds and asks HMCo. “keep a place open for me.” Nat offers that he is not up to designing the new boats to which Pynchon responds, “I am sure you will feel differently when you get to work.” But Pynchon does not have sufficient money to match the price of a RESOLUTE. and in September he unsuccessfully tries to have Cochran join with him. On Nov 5th he writes a long letter to Nat asking to meet the next day in New London; he has a considerable sum of money, “which will be almost sufficient …provided we get a boat complete in the neighborhood of $60,000.” He continues with ideas for the boat and how it might be done. Nat is not critical in his response, but declines on the “grounds of health”. [7]

Bain News Service photo of DEFIANCE on the ways; image courtesy the Library of Congress

The Pynchon Syndicate builds a cost-constrained 100-footer. DEFIANCE is a George Owens design with a composite mahogany planked hull and forward stepped mast with small fore triangle. To reduce cost building is divided between six or seven concerns; BIW steel framing, Hodgdon Bros. wood planking and decks, spars, fittings, blocks and sails to others. She is never fully completed or tuned up and does poorly. [8]

Alexander Cochran’s Defender: VANITIE

Now for Alexander Cochran owner of the successful Herreshoff racing schooner WESTWARD (HMCo. #692). In a July 21 1913 letter he asks Nat to design a defender. This is not the first time Cochran has approached Nat on the subject because in his reply declining the work, Nat writes, “Having had some talks and some correspondence with you relating to possible construction of yachts for defending the Am Cup I want to explain my position in this matter.” Nat, age 67, goes on to expand on his difficulties, “keeping on my feet“ and attending to, “the detail matter that comes up all over the shops as has been my custom …” Nat concludes by offering, “We appear to have several very … yacht designers in this country that are anxious to take up the work so I don’t think the Am Cup is in any danger if the Lipton challenge (materializes).”[9]


Cochran’s response on the 23rd of July makes his commitment to Herreshoff very clear, “I quite understand that you are engaged to build for some New York parties if they decide …to defend the Cup. In that case I should not care to build at all….I shall not go in any syndicate but I would enjoy doing this with you as we did WESTWARD.” The correspondence continues by wire and letter through the summer concluding in mid September with Nat advising Cochran that a challenge has been accepted, and HMCo. is “shop-full” with an order for a Cup defender by the NYYC syndicate. Cochran, possibly influenced by Nat’s reference to other American designers, portends his ultimate decision to build his own defender; “It would have been interesting to have built the defender with you, But it is better as it is…I missed not having a boat this summer very much and I must have something next year.” Nat volunteers, “…also we pledged

Bain News Service photo of VANITIE on the ways; image courtesy the Library of Congress

ourselves last April for another to be headed by Mr. Geo. M. Pynchon, who is with this sailing master, about the best man to handle one.” Nat goes on to encourage Cochran to join Pychon’s syndicate; and continues his desire to see two boats vie for the defense; “…Mr. P. has not his syndicate completed. It would be of the greatest advantage to have two boats- so controlled that they can try each other out to be able to get the best boat and best crew. If this second boat does not go thru, I believe we will be in great danger of losing the Cup for the reason that the British yachtsmen have been racing along with this class of vessels and are better prepared- both as to vessels and crew.” [10]


Cochran goes to William Gardner to design and Lawley to build the 118 foot Tobin bronze hull plated VANITIE. She was at a disadvantage to RESOLUTE because of her high rating, low freeboard and bulwarks along her topsides causing her to carry water at all times and the lack of mechanical devices like that developed by Capt. Nat starting with his 1899 COLUMBIA (HMCo. #499). [11]

John Palmieri


Originally published in the HMM Curator's Log, September, 2015


[1] George Cormack to NGH undated postal telegram. Herreshoff Marine Museum, NGH Collection Subject Folder; RESOLUTE and Her Construction 1913-14. Access courtesy of Halsey C. Herreshoff.

[2] George Cormack to NGH letter 8/23/1913. NGH Collection. RESOLUTE and Her Construction 1913-14. Access courtesy of Halsey C. Herreshoff.

[3] Chis Christensen had been first mate of RELIANCE under Charlie Barr.

[4] NGH to Cormack letter 8/28/1913 & Cormack’s response 8/29/1913.  NGH Collection. RESOLUTE and Her Construction 1913-14. Access courtesy of Halsey C. Herreshoff. (NGH’s 8/22 letter has not been found. Its content is inferred from Cormack’s response.)

[5] NGH to Cormack letter 8/22/1913 on HMCo stationery & Cormack’s response 8/23/1913 & 9/16/1913.  NGH Collection. RESOLUTE and Her Construction 1913-14. NGH letter provided courtesy of the New York Yacht Club.

[6] H. Walters, Chairman Cup Defender Syndicate letter to NGH 9/23/1913.  NGH Collection. RESOLUTE and Her Construction 1913-14. Access courtesy of Halsey C. Herreshoff.

[7] George Pynchon letters to NGH, 7/2/1913, 7/7/1913, 9/22/1913, 9/25/1913, 11/5/1913 & 11/6/1913. NGH Collection. RESOLUTE and Her Construction 1913-14. Access courtesy of Halsey C. Herreshoff.

[8] L. Francis Herreshoff, An Introduction to Yachting. Sheridan House, White Plains, NY 1963. Pg. 177

[9] Alexander Cochran letter to NGH, July 21, 1913. Undated pencil draft of NGH response to Cochran. NGH Collection. RESOLUTE and Her Construction 1913-14. Access courtesy of Halsey C. Herreshoff.

[10] Alexander Cochran letters to NGH, July 23 & Sept. 11, 1913. NGH Sept. 19 pencil draft response to Cochran. NGH Collection. RESOLUTE and Her Construction 1913-14. Access courtesy of Halsey C. Herreshoff.

[11] LFH, An Introduction to Yachting.. Pg. 178.

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