Here in Newport, Rhode Island, the works of Capt. Nathanael Herreshoff are still very much on hand for all to see. A fleet of handsome S boats races weekly on Narragansett Bay. Several sweet little Herreshoff 12½s bob on moorings around the harbor. The cool little town of Bristol is just a short hop up the bay, and once there, the mini cruise is not complete without paying a visit to the Herreshoff Marine Museum, which commemorates the historic works of the famous Herreshoff Manufacturing Co., where the so-called “wizard of Bristol” plied his trade.
And once a year, at least, classic yachts from all over gather in town for racing in a waterborne spectacle that must be seen to be believed. Like almost everything to do with boats, the classics are a mad, glorious obsession, and those who pamper them, restore them, compete aboard them and pass them down through the generations have nothing but my respect for maintaining a wonderful, beautiful link with the past. Every classic boat has its own unique story to tell.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than the tale of a yacht called Marilee, which has earned more than her fair share of accolades and hardware in recent years during Newport’s annual Classic Yacht Regatta, as well as many other venues. And a new documentary from marine photographer Alison Langley does so in spectacular fashion. NY40 Marilee: Restoration of a Herreshoff Classic is a vivid, detailed account of the nearly three-year-long project to bring the 92-year-old beauty back to strong, contemporary fighting trim.
Making the movie, said Langley, “was a labor of love and learning for me.” The same could likely be said for everyone who was involved in this amazing restoration.
Launched in 1926, the 59-foot Marilee was one of the last boats designed and constructed under the auspices of the NY 40 class, one of several one-design classes founded by the New York Yacht Club and designed by Herreshoff. Lightly built, she was also one of the few members of the class to survive the intervening decades. She was restored once, in 2000, and then purchased by a new owner in 2014. He opened the checkbook to give the old girl what ultimately amounted to not only a full restoration, but almost a complete rebuild, from keel to masthead (including not one but two interchangeable rigs, a gaffer like her original setup and a more modern Bermudian sloop). As the saying goes, no stone was left unturned.
The work was completed in two stages, with a season of racing in between, at the French & Webb Boatyard in Belfast, Maine. Some of the film’s best footage — including some very cool time-lapse imagery showing how the new deck was overlaid — is of the craftsmen lovingly and painstakingly carrying out their work. The dudes clearly care.
The restorers had a wealth of information to access and employ thanks to the extensive, wondrous collection of Herreshoff plans, photographs and models housed at MIT’S amazing Hart Nautical Collection, which could easily be the subject of its own documentary. It’s one of my favorite parts of the story.
And so is the segment on fitting out the new interior. To fashion the furniture, bulkheads and fittings, boatbuilder Todd French sourced a stash of old-growth cypress logs that had been sunk in a North Carolina river for more than 100 years, but those weren’t quite ancient enough for the owner, who wanted a deep, rich patina. The laborious process of distressing the wood even further — oxidizing it, bleaching it, beating it with chains and taking out the grain with wire wheels — is fascinating. And the end result is simply stunning. I’ve never seen the interior of a yacht quite like it.
With many in-depth interviews, there are several stars in the show, including French, the Herreshoff Museum’s Bill Lynn, and especially Marilee skipper Dennis Gunderson, who proves to be a passionate, knowledgeable guide to both the restoration process itself and to the entire world of classic-yacht racing. Langley had plenty of material with which to work.
The fruits of everybody’s efforts, lavishly shown in the sailing footage from many popular, familiar New England venues, speaks for itself. It’s just lovely.
Not everyone, of course, has the time, money or desire to immerse themselves in such a rarified world. But if you call yourself a sailor, and you appreciate tradition and splendor, you can only smile and tip your cap to those who do. Well done, Team Marilee.
Like almost everything about boats, classic yachts are a mad, glorious obsession, and those who pamper them, restore them and pass them down the generations maintain a wonderful link with the past.
The amazing restoration of the stunning NY 40 Marilee is the subject of a riveting new documentary.