When Herreshoff ruled the waves


Newport will be the final stop of the 2011-2012 AC World Series June 26 to July 1. Designed to expose millions more people to the sport of high-performance racing, the new professional circuit was created to bring the America’s Cup to a number of international ports and introduce people to a new style of yacht-building and a new style of yacht.

But people who were brought up on dramatic pictures of classic-looking Herreshoff-like beauties attempting to steal each other’s wind will be in for a bit of a surprise. It’s been a while since Newport was the sole focus of international sailing competition and they may have missed the introduction of a radically different type of sailing craft, the AC45 wing-sailed catamaran.

Bristol historian and Cranston native Richard V. Simpson figured now would be a good time to put all the America’s Cup history he has been gathering for years to good use.

As a retired graphic designer for the Navy, he has never been more than a stone’s throw from salt water, so it’s no surprise that he just published “The Quest for the America’s Cup: Sailing to Victory” (The History Press 2012).

“I grew up in Cranston, on Bay View Avenue, and I was always impressed with sailboats I saw in Edgewood,” he said. “I thought sailing looked pretty nifty, but I didn’t know how to go about it.”

But young Simpson, a product of St. Paul School and La Salle Academy, did know how to go about history.

“I always liked history and I did much of my early reading at the Hall Library,” he said, “but I went on to the School of Practical Art [now the Art Institute of Boston] and became a graphic artist.”

After a variety of positions in that field, Simpson ended up working for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, where his love of history merged with the excellent library and archives there and he spent a good deal of his spare time poring over old letters, manuscripts and books about naval warfare. When he retired in 1996, he began spending even more time at the center doing research for what turned into a book, “Building the Mosquito Fleet: U.S. Navy’s First Torpedo Boats,” which introduced him to the Herreshoff family and its legacy of boat designs.

“Captain Nat Herreshoff designed one of the first torpedo boats and I had the good luck to have access to all the records and drawings,” Simpson revealed in the Center’s research material on torpedoes. “It was a great place to study old torpedoes. You know, most people think of the torpedo as a modern weapon, but the first wire-guided torpedo was done long before the first wire-guided missile. Torpedoes go back over 150 years.”

Simpson said he already has more than 55,000 works on the subject of torpedoes and admits it’s probably time to put the book out to publishers, but he has been distracted by other subjects, like local history, since 1967, when he wrote “A History of the Italian-Roman Catholic Church in Bristol, RI;” “Independence Day;” and a number of other local subjects.

But, as a longtime resident of Bristol, it was inevitable that Simpson would become familiar with the Herreshoffs and the legacy of that family in Bristol and Rhode Island.

“When I first came to Bristol, I started seeing some of the really great sailboats and I started researching the Herreshoff designs that came out of that company, which, of course, led to the America’s Cup. In fact, it was the America’s Cup coming back to Rhode Island that prompted me to do the book. I already had the research done. It was just a question of organizing it and sending it off.”

The material Simpson pulled together comes from all sorts of sources, from memoirs of Nat Herreshoff to magazines from the 19th century, Leslie’s and Harper’s and even English journals, including a visit to the first America after it won the first competition off the Isle of Wight in 1851.

“As Commodore Stevens was handing the young monarch down the companionway, the Prince Consort was sternly ordered by Captain Brown to wipe his royal feet. ‘I guess you don’t know who I am,’ said the Prince. ‘I don’t give a damn who you are, you’ll wipe your feet before you go down to my cabin [the writer describes how the Queen herself ran a glove over a shelf on the boat looking for dust she didn’t find]…A gold compass with a letter from Her Majesty, expressing the hope that he would keep it as neat as he had the America, was Captain Brown’s reward [for cleanliness]…’”

Simpson traces the history of the cup’s most famous designs, its triumphs, its defeats and its many characters, from the ill-tempered and un-sportsman-like Earl of Dunraven, who refused to accept that he was beaten by the Americans and accused them of cheating. He was ultimately expelled as an honorary member of the New York Yacht Club, apparently the only person ever to be disrespected by the club that way.

There is also Sir Thomas Johnstone Lipton, the fabulously successful tea merchant who couldn’t buy an America’s Cup design anywhere but remained in the memory of American yachtsmen as the exact opposite of Dunraven, even though some people thought he was as much interested in keeping Lipton tea in the public eye as he was about sailing extravagantly expensive boats.

Simpson does call a spade a spade in his book and very early on reminds the reader that the boats that contested for the America’s Cup were pretty much useless for any other purpose and they were usually scrapped for the bronze sheathing on their hulls.

“They used to polish the bronze so it looked like gold,” said Simpson. “Beautiful to see but also to make the boat move through the water faster.”

One yacht that survived to the present day, but that was an extreme exception, the Endeavor, was a challenger representing England in 1934. It passed through several owners after avoiding the scrap heap and ended up in Narragansett Bay and owned by Elizabeth Meyer, who completed the restoration of it and chartered it out for about 15 years before it was sold to an international businessman for $13.1 million in 2006, who intended to base it in the Cayman Islands, of course.

It remains to be seen if today’s America’s Cup challengers and defenders will fetch such prices when they are retired. Right now, it’s hard to imagine the composite-based catamaran with wing sails will stir the nostalgia for the old boats that Richard V. Simpson’s book evokes, but the most amazing thing about Simpson’s book is that he brings those old boats alive even though he has never actually sailed a boat himself.

“I’ve been on power boats, but I have never been out sailing,” said Simpson. “Halsey Herreshoff has promised to take me out but we haven’t got around to it yet.”

The America’s Cup races will be held Sept. 7 to 22, 2013 in San Francisco.


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment