April 21, 2022

From the Vault: The Herreshoff 15-Footer

A tribute to Roger C. Taylor, excerpted from his book "More Good Boats"

By Roger C. Taylor

The Herreshoff 15-Footer - Length on deck: 24 feet 6 inches - Length on waterline: 15 feet - Beam: 6 feet 9 inches - Draft: 2 feet 4 inches (board up) - Sail area: 330 square feet - Displacement: 2,800 pounds - Designer: Nathanael G. Herreshoff

The original construction drawing for the Buzzards Bay 15; plan courtesy the MIT Museum, Haffenreffer-Herreshoff Collection

One of the great things about growing up on the Pawcatuck River was that a half mile downstream lived Ed and Dave Cabot, father and son, just as crazy about boats as Pop and I were.

Ed had sailed and raced a lot on Buzzards Bay, mostly in the Herreshoff 15-footers. When his old boat, the Ptiloris, came on the market, he snapped her up, and then there was one of the early gaff-rigged Herreshoff 15s on a mooring right down the River at Avondale. We already knew the Marconi-rigged version, these being raced farther down at Watch Hill. Plenty of times, a Saturday afternoon sail in the yawl Brownie would include a leg over to see how my older cousin, Danny Larkin, was doing in the Black Arrow. Most of the time he'd be in the lead, running for home in Fishers Island Sound, spinnaker set perfectly to the sou'wester. Just knowing someone who raced a Watch Hill Herreshoff was heady stuff for a kid who still had to wear a life preserver to go out on the bowsprit.

Not long after the Ptiloris arrived in the River, Dave said his father allowed as how the two of us, then 14, could start sailing her. We were some excited.

I remember clearly the strong impressions the Ptiloris made on me both at the mooring and sailing the first time we took her out 35 years ago. We went on board and at first just sat in the cockpit, drinking her in. Her bow went out and up forever. It seemed to have unconquerable power and grace. What sea could worry us behind a bow like that? Underway, it was that quiet, smooth hiss of bubbles sweeping along the lee side that became indelible. To me, the long, lean Ptiloris was like a cup defender. She had a huge, delicately proportioned rig with a great long boom overhanging her fine counter stern, low freeboard on the proportion of a much larger vessel, and a general feeling of steady speed.

Little wonder, for she had been designed by Nathanael G. Herreshoff. Her ancestors, a few generations back, were Herreshoff’s experimental fin-keelers. She descended directly from a class of 15-foot-waterline racing sloops built with shoal hulls and conventional keels of moderate draft. These were the Newport 15s, of which eight were built.*

Herreshoff Hull Number 503, the first of a 15-foot-waterline racing class for Buzzards Bay, to be designated the E class at the Beverly Yacht Club and to become so popular that they were known simply as Herreshoff 15s, was built at the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company, Bristol, Rhode Island, in 1898. The contract price for the first boats in the class was $666.66. They were built from the same molds used for the Newport 15s but were given shoaler keels and sizable centerboards.

L. Francis Herreshoff estimated that over the years his father's company turned out about 150 Herreshoff 15s. On the company's list of the boats for which building contracts were written, I can count 71 E boats, but not all the relatively small craft built are on the list, so Mr. Herreshoff's estimate may well be right.

The 15s are 24 feet 6 inches long on deck, with a beam of 6 feet 9 inches and a draft, board up, of 2 feet 4 inches.

Captain Nat experimented with the draft on the 15s quite a bit and evidently settled on raising the lead ballast one inch to give a draft of 2 feet 3 inches. Forty-three of the 71 15s on the Company's list were built this way, including the Ptiloris and all of the Watch Hill Yacht Club 15s, which didn't come along until 1923. The Toby, Number 550, had her lead lowered 1 ½ inches, and 10 15s that followed her were built with their lead lowered five inches, bringing them to within an inch of the draft of the Newport 15s. The Flicker, Number 674, was built with a draft of 3 feet 4 inches, 6 ½ inches more than the Newport 15s. Like them, she had no centerboard.

Raymond Coleman, who still sails a Herreshoff 15 on Seneca Lake, New York, has made quite a study of the design. He says the displacement of the boats is 2,800 pounds. A Herreshoff Manufacturing Company catalog gives the weight of the lead outside ballast as 1,000 pounds.

Like most racing boats, the Herreshoff 15 gets her speed from very easy bow and buttock lines. Look at her long, flat run.

The boats differ a bit in shape. The high bow that so impressed me on the Ptiloris was notably absent on the Watch Hill boats - nor does it show up on Edson I. Schock' s drawings of the Fiddler, the Herreshoff 15 preserved at the Mystic Seaport. I believe it was the older Herreshoff 15s that had the higher freeboard at the bow (we're talking about a difference of perhaps a couple of inches), and I don't think the later, gentler shape was an improvement.

Lines developed at the Mystic Seaport Museum for FIDDLER; plan courtesy the MIT Museum, Haffenreffer-Herreshoff Collection

 As with all Herreshoff boats, the 15s have rather light scantlings. Frames are 3/4 inch by 3/16 inch, spaced with their centers 8 inches apart. [sic] Deck beams are 5/8 inch by 1 ¼ inches. Clamps are 1 1/4 inches square. Planking and deck are 9/16 inch white cedar.

 The boats were built with bulkheads sealing off big air tanks in the bow and stern for flotation. Each tank had a small deck plate, but most people cut holes in the bulkheads and installed more-or-less-watertight doors, so the tanks could be ventilated and even used for stowing gear if housekeeping outweighed safety.

Dave Cabot and I had a lot of fun in the Ptiloris. It wasn’t long before we were cruising in her. We'd put a tarp over the boom and sleep on the cockpit floor. For comforts we had a mantle lantern, a portable radio, and a big picture of Jane Russell taped up across the frames in the crawl space up by the mast. We ate a lot of sardines. We had one of the early inflatable dinghies, which we deflated every day instead of dragging it from the stern.

The Ptiloris' shoal draft gave us courage to poke into harbors that our fathers' deeper cruising boats couldn't visit. For instance, one fine afternoon we worked her in through the obstructed entrance to Hay Harbor on the west end of Fishers Island and were rewarded with the adventure of The Night of the Swimming Girls (which, like Conan Doyle's tale of "The Giant Rat of Sumatra,'' shall remain untold).

Pop was a bit worried about our going off cruising in the Ptiloris and said we should not go outside Fishers Island Sound. We came back from Hay Harbor, however, by going outside Fishers Island. When we got back, Pop asked me if we had stayed in Fishers Island Sound. "Well," I replied, "we stayed on the Fishers Island Sound chart.'' Pop looked squally, and I felt small instead of big. My guilt vanished later when I learned that at that age he and a pal were supposed to be cruising on Quonochontaug Pond in a big St. Lawrence skiff, but when they got to the end of the Pond, they managed to drag her up over the beach, launched out through the surf into the ocean, and went merrily off to Point Judith to explore the ponds back of that rough, oceanic place.

At any rate, after a couple of summers of sailing the Ptiloris without drowning, Dave and I were allowed to go anywhere we pleased in her. We circumnavigated Shelter Island to the westward, and we went up into Narragansett Bay to the eastward.

On the latter trip we were sailing easily into Potter's Cove on Prudence Island at the end of a long day's sail when suddenly she refused to answer her helm. We trimmed sheets to get where we wanted to anchor and after furling up, donned flippers and face mask to see what was going on down there. A lot had happened. Most of the bronze drift pins holding the rudder to the stock had carried away, and the appendage was moving independently rather than merely carrying out the whims of somebody up in the cockpit holding the tiller.

The next day we beat down the bay to Newport, steering with the sails. With the main eased off a little, she would neither point nor foot at her best, but she was manageable. We spent that night in Brenton's Cove. Next morning we sailed her in to the dock at Williams and Manchester's yard in Newport, but they were too busy to haul us. We went across to Jamestown and tied up at the Round House Boat Yard, which hauled the boat, made and installed a new rudder, and put her back overboard in 24 hours. That gave us a night of camping at the yard, during which we were able to do a good deed. The lovely 60-foot Herreshoff powerboat Thania was tied up at the yard's dock and began pounding against it when a squall came up in the middle of the night. We helped her out with fenders until the yard folks came down and moved her around to the lee side.

With our new rudder we went out to Block Island, where we fell in with Pop and a couple of cronies in the Brownie. Next day we had a fine sail home across Block Island Sound just able to lay Watch Hill Point in a moderate westerly breeze. We started even with the Brownie (waterline length 23 ½ feet, one of Sam Crocker's best designs, shown in Good Boats) at Block Island and beat her by about a quarter of a mile at Watch Hill Point after 13 ½ miles of sailing full-and-by, rail down.

On that trip we sailed about 120 miles at an average-speed-made-good of just under four knots, including some drifting and a fair bit of beating.

Raymond Coleman says the rig of the Herreshoff 15 came in for a lot of experimentation also. The original sail area was 330 square feet, with 256 square feet in the mainsail and 74 in the jib. Bigger spreads of sail were tried, one rig including a bowsprit.

The Ptiloris had the 330-square-foot rig, or something close to it. That mainsail was a handsome sail, with its long boom, high-peaked gaff, and perfect, rather flat cut. The jib had a three-quarter- length club, which made it set very well indeed. You shifted the sheets when tacking; they belayed with a slippery hitch on horizontal oak pins on the after side of the forward end of the coaming. Her deep cockpit let you pull on her sheets, backstay tails, and halyards (which led aft) at a high enough level so that you could easily put some weight on them. With her big cockpit and her vast amount of deck space, she was a very easy boat to sail. Dave and I got so we could put her through her paces quickly and easily. We sailed in her together enough so that each knew what to expect of the other. We shared steering and sail handling, thought alike about how she should be sailed, and so could maneuver her smartly while talking about something else.

Ed Cabot used to tell us stories about his racing days with his brother Nelson on Buzzards Bay. It always seems to blow harder there than almost anywhere else, and we came to understand that the Beverly Yacht Club sailors drove the Herreshoff 15s for fair. If the mast broke during a race, it was all in the day’s work, we were told.

The 1898 sail plan; plan courtesy the MIT Museum, Haffenreffer-Herreshoff Collection

So we used to do a little sail-carrying ourselves when we were out in a breeze. We'd run with the spinnaker ‘most any day and many a time would look back to see the stern wave bubbling merrily away, an inch or two above the top of the transom; and look up to see the forestay so slack it was starting to kink. Running like that, the helm would go all light and funny when she took off down a sea.

There are theories about how to trim the boat to take utmost advantage of such exciting conditions. Dave believed one of us should be riding the bow, legs dangling as the sea lifted under her and then stretched out straight ahead as she dipped her bow and tore down the face of the next one. He said having weight forward like that kept her going down the sea longer· Yet Lloyd Bergeson, racing in his New York 30 (which is sort of a big, deep-keel version of this design), made us all huddle on the stern for the same reason. I like to stay sort of amidships.

Ed Cabot had an old spare mainsail for the Ptiloris, and Dave cut it into a big triangle for a balloon jib. Then we tried reaching along on a light day with two ballooners, the ex-mainsail set on the forestay, and the spinnaker set flying to the spinnaker pole lashed down as a huge bowsprit. That rig turned a few heads in Fishers Island Sound, I can tell you, as we whizzed through the ripples.

In a breeze, the Herreshoff 15 sails at a large angle of heel. Heeling way over doesn't seem to slow her down much, though. Her long, rather flat bow can do some pounding going to windward in a steep chop. She can really punish herself a bit on occasion.

It's all right to lug sail off the wind, but all wrong to lug sail on the wind. Dave and I thought we had to be big sail carriers for quite a while. It took us a few years to learn that when thrashing to windward we wouldn't be flogged for tying in a reef or two to ease things up all around yet not slow her down.

We learned to grin and bear her considerable weather helm in a breeze on a broad reach. We'd slack the main and trim in the jib all we could stand to (which wasn't very much because we refused to do anything that would slow her down), held on to the tiller for dear life, and just watched that quarter wave hiss out astern. Maybe she would have gone faster with the jib trimmed flat and a little less weather helm, but we didn't think so at the time.

We used to keep asking the folks at the Watch Hill Yacht Club if we could race the old gaff rigged Ptiloris against the Marconi-rigged Watch Hill Herreshoffs. The Powers That Be said no, because the Ptiloris had too much sail. We persisted. Finally they gave in.

We got our chance, and we blew it. We made our big mistake out in Fishers Island Sound at the leeward mark, past which a healthy flood tide was flowing. The leaders rounded up on the wind to start the beat home and left the tide on their weather quarters. We, back in the middle of the fleet, tacked right after rounding to put the tide on the lee bow. We were allowed to go off like that all by ourselves with the tide setting us up to windward like anything and the tide knocking the other boats down to leeward like anything. We finished way ahead of the fleet and were never allowed to take that big gaff mainsail on a Watch Hill Yacht Club race course again.

When the Watch Hill Herreshoff s began to get a bit creaky, the Club set about replacing them with fiberglass replicas. A very nicely built class of new Herreshoff 15s was turned out in 1970. Allan Vaitses built the hulls at Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, and they were finished off by the Frank Hall Boat Yard at Avondale, right down the River. Sandy Van Zandt designed a tall Marconi rig for the boats. The sail area was reduced to 296 square feet.

When word about the new class got around I asked Emma Dean Larkin, Danny's sister, also a lifelong sailor of Watch Hill _Herreshoff 15s, what she thought of the whole idea. She shook her head doubtfully and said, "It's sure going to be different not having that big mainsail to look up at." I'll say. In fact, I'd go all the way back to the gaff rig. If you want to go fast, spread a lot of sail.

A mere 15 years ago, I had another sail in the Ptiloris. John Hall, Frank's son, owned her by then and kindly lent her to me on a nice southwest day. My crew was our three young children. We beat down the River, close-reached across Little Narragansett Bay, beat around Stonington Point, and ran up into the harbor for lunch. The afternoon produced a single-reef breeze, and we let her go, full-and-by, out through Catumb Passage between Watch Hill Point and Fishers Island, stood off shore a couple of miles, then tacked and came rollicking back in on a great roller coaster ride.

The Ptiloris is still on the River. I’d love to look up along that high bow again and let her play one more time her siren song of bubbles hissing down the lee side.

Roger Taylor (1932 - 2022) was a lifelong sailor and prolific author and contributor to the world of maritime publishing. His appreciation for all things Herreshoff was broad, from the 15s and his proud ownership of the Buzzards Bay 25 ARIA, now in the collection at HMM, to his definitive two-volume biography of L. Francis Herreshoff. HMM gratefully acknowledges Roger's permission (and encouragement) to reprint a selection of his HMCo.-related essays, granted in the early days of the pandemic.