What’s not to like about a good birthday bash? The more festivities, the better, I say, which is just what the Herreshoff Marine Museum has planned for the remainder of 2021, its golden jubilee year.
Located on the waterfront in Bristol, Rhode Island, on the site of the storied boatbuilding company that bears the family’s name, the museum has a number of events planned, including a Classic Yacht Rendezvous to run in conjunction with the annual Herreshoff Classic Yacht Regatta the last weekend in August, and a Jubilee Gala in late September. Several educational events are also planned, both in person and virtually, as COVID-19 restrictions allow, executive director Bill Lynn says. And up and down the New England coast, the museum plans to host a dozen or so celebrations in conjunction with local one-design fleets of Herreshoffs, such as the 12½’s, Alerions and S Class boats.
The museum opened in 1971 to showcase the works of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company and brothers John and Capt. Nathanael Herreshoff, who built more than 2,000 yachts and assorted naval boats over the course of six decades, beginning in 1878. Those included seven successful defenders of the America’s Cup between 1893 and 1934.
Today, the campus includes a museum building that houses the Hall of Boats, the Nathanael Green Herreshoff Model Room, the America’s Cup Hall of Fame, a museum store and other exhibits. The Boat Shop, a working classroom for area school students, is located just up the street. Each summer, kids pick up tools and learn how to build boats, polishing their science, technology, engineering and math skills along the way.
It’s all a pretty nifty place to visit, which I did one day this past March for an offseason tour with Lynn. Out of a collection of 70 or so Herreshoff-designed and -built vessels, about 40 are on display at any one time. To wander through the steam launches, sailboats and tenders—some renovated, many still original—was a bit overwhelming, I’ll admit. Everything—hulls, sails, keels, steam engines, even the machinery to build the machines—was manufactured on-site. Talk about a vertical organization!
Our tour included a visit to the Model Room, where scores of half-hulls hang on the walls alongside boatbuilding tools used to transform Nat Herreshoff ’s carvings into yachts and warships that were launched from the construction sheds across the street. Fin keels, spade rudders, a bowsprit surprisingly similar to one I saw this past fall on a just-designed French sailboat—well, who knew they were playing with those things way back in the 1880s?
According to Lynn, the museum these days is focused as much on education as celebrating the past. In a normal summer, 900-plus kids might cycle through sailing lessons taught in a fleet of donated Sea Sprites, Pearson Ensigns and, yes, Herreshoff 12½’s. And dozens more might take part in projects at the Boat Shop. In the museum store we passed a recently completed skiff from an 1899 Nat Herreshoff design. It looked pretty cool, and ready to sail.
As with most of us, COVID made 2020 an interesting time for the museum. Spring looked bleak, with the whole world seemingly locked down. But by summer, restrictions eased and the staff got creative. Boats were rearranged, and a recorded audio tour was tweaked to create a one-way walk through the exhibits. Visitors were greeted at the door, temperatures were taken, hand sanitizer was dispensed, and then they were free to wander.
Down on the waterfront, the large event tent was divided in four, and “bubbles” of up to 15 students and an instructor were each assigned a partitioned-off quarter where they could gather daily and then jump into boats for sailing lessons. All told, 197 kids participated.
Another positive, Lynn said, was that the staff has increased efforts to digitize museum offerings, including an interactive tour of the Model Room that will marry what’s on-site with documents and drawings now housed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Nat Herreshoff ’s alma mater. All this should make the Herreshoff story all the more accessible.
Who knows what summer 2021 has in store, but with COVID seemingly loosening its grip, people beginning to travel again and a season full of sailing about to unfold, is there a better time for a jubilee?
Fin keels, spade rudders, a bowsprit surprisingly similar to one I saw this past fall on a just-designed
French sailboat—well, who knew they were playing with those things way back in the 1880s?