America’s Early Sailing Legends

Published on August 4th, 2022

by Lexi Pline, US Sailing
What does it take to become a Sailing Legend? These days, the criteria may seem obvious – an Olympic gold medalist, America’s Cup winner, or venerated ocean racer. But, like many things, the word “legend” has changed over time. One of America’s first venerated “sailing legends” was not revered for his racing abilities but rather his engineering talent.

Known as the “Wizard of Bristol,” Captain Nathanael Herreshoff was born in Bristol, RI (current home of the US Sailing office!) in 1848. He was an early graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s mechanical engineering program, and went on to found his own manufacturing company with his brother.

Herreshoff designed and built five successful America’s Cup defenders: Vigilant, which won the cup in 1893; Defender in 1895; Columbia, sailed in 1899 and 1901; Reliance in 1903; and Resolute in 1920. He helmed Vigilant in 1893 and sailed on all his Cup defenders.

The name Herreshoff is synonymous with American yacht design. His engineering achievements include many things we use and recognize in the sport today, including the development of the bulb keel, the invention of the cross-cut sail and hollow aluminum mast, and the evolution of apparent-wind catamarans (he was the first to be issued a US patent for a Catamaran design).

He was also the pioneer of the Universal Rule (first proposed as the “Herreshoff Rule”), which governed eligibility for boats racing in the America’s Cup from 1914 to 1937 – ushering in the era of the J-Class.

While Herreshoff was obviously an accomplished sailor, successfully defending the America’s Cup six times, his legacy lies mainly with his designing and engineering capabilities. His National Sailing Hall of Fame biography (he was inducted in 2011) makes no note of his racing talent, choosing to focus on his outstanding innovations in marine design.

These days, the title “sailing legend” often comes with performance accolades. Modern day sailing legends – think Dennis Conner, Betsy Alison, or the others outlined in US Sailing’s most recent video, Legends of Sailing – all have numerous titles, championships, and Rolex awards to their names.

While some have design talents (as CEO of Stars & Stripes, Dennis Conner certainly had input into his radical catamaran design for the 1988 America’s Cup, as well as his other winning Cup designs), most are known for their abilities on the racecourse.

What they do have in common, however, is their impact on American sailing. While Herreshoff was not the only well-known sailor in the early years of US Sailing (then NAYRU), his name has some of the most powerful staying power. Many still race his designs, from the Herreshoff 12 ½ dinghy to the elegant New York 30. When asked to speak about the popular nature of his designs, Herreshoff deferred, saying “we prefer to let the work speak for itself,” which it certainly has over the last 125 years.

Editor’s note: Bill Trenkle, who raced and worked with Dennis Conner in eight America’s Cup campaigns from 1979 through 2003, provides this correction: “While Dennis Conner was involved in the design of the 12 Metres he skippered to success such as Freedom and Stars & Stripes 87, he was not involved with the design of the catamaran in 1988. He was not a fan of the cat, but it was a means to an end, to respond to the surprise Deed of Gift challenge, that left no time to design and build a like kind 90-foot waterline boat like New Zealand. Just wanted to make sure that was understood.”

Examples of, and stories about, the work of Nathanael G. Herreshoff can be found at the Herreshoff Marine Museum, located at the former site of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. in Bristol, RI (a short drive from the US Sailing office). More information about the museum can be found here:

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