Feature Story

Sailing Into History

The past, present and future of the Herreshoff Marine Museum


Sailing and Bristol’s Herreshoff Marine Museum share a common affliction – many people get them wrong. Outsiders often view sailing as elitist and inaccessible, while those contemplating a visit to Herreshoff might shrug off looking at a bunch of boats. Herreshoff’s new Executive Director, Bill Lynn, is out to change that. Lynn came on board in March and brings a wealth of professional experience in advertising, marketing and brand positioning as well as a personal love of sailing. This experience helps him see the problem – and the opportunity – with the museum: “the first impression of this place, the wave that washes over you, is all the pretty, varnished boats. It’s easy to see why people interpret the elitism. But the Herreshoff story is much more than sailboats… it’s about innovation and entrepreneurship.”

How it all Began
The story begins in 1878, when brothers John Brown (J.B.) Herreshoff and Nathanael (“Captain Nat”) Greene Herreshoff formed the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company where the museum sits today (while the Hope Street location is original, the buildings are not… most were lost in the Hurricane of 1938). Their complementary skill sets – J.B. a blind boatbuilder and Nat an MIT-educated naval architect and steam engineer – were initially applied to steam engines. Some of their improvements included heat transfer systems that made water boil faster and steam delivery systems that generated more horsepower – improvements that caught the attention of navies around the world.

While their steam engine work initially centered on commercial and military nautical applications, by the 1890s the Herreshoffs had expanded into designing personal steam yachts and sailboats for recreation and sport. This niche called for additional design elements that yielded speed and efficiency. Every part of the boat was fair game, and modern-day influences range from the cross-cut sail to the catamaran’s double hull. In fact, the museum houses a replica of an early catamaran (Nat is credited with the first patent in 1876), although it causes Lynn to identify another handicap at the museum – free space. “It’s one of the coolest things we have but it’s hanging from the ceiling,” he laughs.

From Designing to Manufacturing Boats
The Herreshoff legacy went beyond design and engineering and into manufacturing itself. Everything was built on-site in Bristol, a vertically integrated enterprise that employed diverse specialties from steel workers to wood workers. It was a remarkable operation that holds lessons for companies today. As Lynn describes, “today, design and product are often separated. With the Herreshoffs, design and product were the same guys. On top of that, they figured out how to make it profitable, de.liver it on time and build it to last.”

The museum’s nod to manufacturing comes in an unexpected way – there is actually a manufacturing of sorts taking place today. In a workshop across the street from the museum, there is a “working exhibit” where visitors can watch a team of volunteers build a 1/6 scale replica of the Herreshoff’s most famous boat – the America’s Cup de.fender Reliance.

Built for Speed
Reliance was a racing boat built for one purpose, and that was to defend the 1903 America’s Cup (the museum also houses the America’s Cup Hall of Fame). It was one of the largest and fastest boats of the era, the last of the “90-footers” with a 90-foot waterline. The Herreshoffs built many successful America’s Cup boats, including all the winners from 1893 to 1920, but with Reliance, the Herreshoffs were given a mandate to build something extreme to defeat longtime British rival Sir Thomas Lipton (of Lipton Tea fame).

Bristolian Arthur “Sandy” Lee is the project manager for the scale replica, and he leads a team of approximately 15 volunteers that have been at it for almost three years. They expect to finish the current phase in the fall, when they will reach a space limitation due to the model’s impressive size. With a background in the aerospace business, model ships are more of Lee’s hobby: “none of us (the volunteers) are professional model makers. We just have an incredible attitude and make it work.”

The real-life Reliance was a steel-hulled beast – 201 feet long from tip to tip (144 feet on deck, crewed by 64 men) and over 16,000 square feet of sail area. At 220 feet tall, Reliance was taller than a space shuttle and too tall to make it under the Newport Bridge (which didn’t exist at the time). The replica is being built to a 1/6 scale, which Lee jokes is a result of the “1/6 scale G.I. Joe dolls that we use to represent the crew members. There’s no other reason to use 1/6, it makes the math more complicated than it needs to be.” At 1/6 scale, the model will still be an imposing 33 feet long and 37 feet high.

The volunteers work off original plans and as-designed blueprints, though Reliance received a few post-production adjustments for safety and speed. The museum decided the model would reflect Reliance’s configuration as of its first race, which means the volunteers also work off photo.graphs to fine-tune the details. It’s a process that Lee says goes far beyond model building: “It’s an archaeology project into the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company itself. They were the modern, high-tech firm of their day, and they had solved many engineer.ing, manufacturing and business is.sues to get Reliance built in 177 days. Those issues were issues that firms to.day grapple with, and there are many lessons to be learned.”

Modeling the Future
It’s these lessons and stories that anchor Lynn’s plans for the museum: “My long-term vision is built on five pillars. The first three are ‘engineer.ing’ embodied by the three Herreshoff product lines – steam-engine yachts and naval craft, wooden-hulled sailing vessels and the metal-hulled mega-yachts. The fourth is innovation, and the fifth is entrepreneurship. We need to tell these stories in a more compelling way, because that’s not the impression you get right now. The challenge is to bring these pillars into the exhibits so people understand the level of depth of this place. The Reliance is by far the coolest example of that, which is why the model is so important.”

Since the Reliance model will soon outgrow its workshop, the museum has taken steps for the next phase. A recent gala raised initial funds to engage an architect who will explore how to best display the fully-rigged model as well as re-think and expand a variety of interactive displays. Lynn envisions a glass pavilion for the mod.el and an Innovation Center: “There are lessons here about geometry, chemistry, calculus… they say people will change careers over ten times in their lifetime, which means a lot of what we learn in high school could become important to us in ways we’d never predict at the time. There’s an opportunity here to connect history to education in a fun way.”

Lynn hopes to see even more community engagement in the years ahead. The museum already offers sailing and educational programs, and plenty of opportunities to volunteer. But there are too many locals that haven’t yet experienced what the facility has to offer. “Visitors come from all over the world because they’re sail.ing enthusiasts and they know Herreshoff. But there are people who live ten minutes away that haven’t come. This place needs to tell its story. It’s an undiscovered gem.”

Herreshoff Marine Museum
1 Burnside Street, Bristol


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