Menemsha Pond hosts birthday party for Herreshoff 12-1/2

Local sailors got together for a weekend of friendly competition, and a celebration of the traditional wooden boat.

Diana Dozier (left) skippers 'Twas Brillig, with crew Dianne Durawa. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Legendary boat designer Nathanael Herreshoff was never much of a “people person,” according to historical accounts. But even the gruff old Captain might have smiled if he happened upon sparkling Menemsha Pond over the weekend, where local sailors gathered for friendly competition and a celebration of the 100th birthday of the Herreshoff 12-1/2.

The traditional wooden boats never looked better.

“I like the sound of the water and the wood,” said Edward Miller of Chilmark, who was one of the hosts of the weekend gathering. Mr. Miller, who owns a home at the head of the pond, went to great lengths to acquire his boat, Crow Dancer. “I bought a wreck of a 12-1/2,” he said. “Only a nut, as my wife told me, would get a wooden boat.”

But such is the devotion to the classic day-sailer. For some, it is love at first sight. The traditional lines and forgiving nature of the design make it easy for kids to learn sailing. The same characteristics make it enjoyable for sailors who have put wet and wild racing behind them.

Diana Dozier of Edgartown bridges both worlds. Her boat is named “Twas Brillig,” a phrase from Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky.

“It was the first thing I ever memorized as a child,” Ms. Dozier said. “This takes me back to my childhood. It’s just a kind boat. It does stand up to weather. It’s a great family boat.”

With a light sea breeze filling from the southwest, Charlie Shipway dominated racing on Saturday, and did well enough on Sunday to take top individual honors for the regatta aboard Southwind. “There’s a little local knowledge involved,” Mr. Shipway said. He is a competitive sailor in a variety of small boats at the highest levels, but he likes the traditional Herreshoff 12-1/2 for teaching.

“I love the gaff rig,” he said. “I love the 750 pounds of lead in the keel. I love the friendly competition.”

The Menemsha Pond Racers topped the Edgartown Yacht Club in team competition, to win the inaugural Vineyard Herreshoff Cup. There was far more congeniality than competition, as suggested in the racing rules.

“The Vineyard Herreshoff Cup is intended to be a Corinthian competition between like-minded devotees of both recreational racing and the Herreshoff tradition. Competitors are discouraged from aggressive maneuvers and/or threats intended to intimidate other sailors.”

Sailing with the mind’s eye

Capt. Herreshoff supervised the construction of the first Herreshoff 12-1/2 in 1914, and 100 years later, the stout gaff-rigged sloop maintains a worshipful following among New England sailors. Don McLagan of Edgartown is president of the H Class Association, which is charged with promoting activity and interest in the Herreshoff 12-1/2. He said Capt. Herreshoff didn’t put the original design down on paper for the first boats he built in Bristol, Rhode Island.

“He took a piece of poplar, and carved a half model,” Mr. McLagan said. “Here’s a guy who has the ability to close his eyes and imagine how the shape he was carving would take to the water.” After taking precise measurements from the original model, Capt. Herreshoff gave his skilled boatwrights detailed instructions and supervised the building process down to every last brass block.

The original idea was to build a boat that kids could handle, one that would introduce them to the kind of boat they might sail as adults. The design proved so versatile, however, that it became popular with sailors of all ages.

Approximately 360 of the vessels were built under the supervision of Capt. Herreshoff, according to the H Class Association. Production ended in 1943.

Capt. Herreshoff’s custom was to classify his designs according to the length on water line (LWL) known in his day as load waterline length. The length on waterline is 12 feet, 6 inches. The overall length of the boat is 15 feet 10 inches.

W.C. Forbes, a Boston financier, bought four Herreshoff 12-1/2s from the first order of 20 boats, according to records at the Herreshoff Marine Museum. Those same four boats are still sailed by his descendents, tied up to the same dock in Hadley Harbor on Naushon Island, where they were delivered in 1915.