Bristol, R.I. — Once locked away in a secret safe at the
New York Yacht Club, a collection of letters emerged in the mid-1980s
and has been woven together as Their Last Letters, a lively dialogue from 1930
until 1938 between naval architect Nathanael Greene Herreshoff and yachting
historian and journalist William Picard Stephens. Published by the
Herreshoff Marine Museum (Bristol, R.I), Their Last Letters is annotated
with inspired notes by another prominent yachting historian, John Williams
Streeter, and provides a first-hand account of yachting history in
Maynard Bray, co-author of the ultimate biographical reference Herreshoff of
Bristol, describes the correspondents as two who “shared a passion for
yachts of the sport’s Golden Age: Herreshoff as a creator, Stephens as a
chronicler, and Streeter as their latter-day interpreter whose encyclopedic
knowledge of yachting history puts the letters into context and stylish
writing breathes life into this fascinating book.”
The exchanges, “sometimes tilting lances between the writers,” represent
unabridged history and cover topics ranging from yacht design to catboats,
catamarans, early sailing canoes and one-design boats. Their Last Letters
also unveils the drama of an age during which the fortunes of new
capitalists carried the competition for the America’s Cup to extremes
unmatched until recent times.
Herreshoff, whose disdain for journalists was well-known, had little reason
to warm up to Stephens, as is obvious in the first letter written by
Herreshoff in 1930. Herreshoff wrote to correct many of the statements made
in Stephens’s landmark text “The Match for the America’s Cup,” published as
a supplement to The Sportsman, a well-known sporting magazine of the time.
Stephens’ polite reply, however, led to a total of 36 missives before
Herreshoff’s death in 1938. His retention of carbon copies of the
correspondence was fortunate in that his daughter turned them over to the
New York Yacht Club. The letters, however, were never catalogued, and
easily could have remained a lost treasure.
Their Last Letters is an historical read at 220 pages and is packed with
information and three appendices, including a reprint of the official
program for the 1930 America’s Cup and captivating, long-forgotten photos.
In addition to Streeter, who passed away before completion of the book,
Henry Harry Anderson Jr., Irving Sheldon and Marianna Wilcox contributed to
the editorial process.
A synopsis and order form is available at www.herreshoff.org or by
contacting the museum at P.O. Box 450, Bristol, R.I. 02809-0450; phone
401-253-5000, fax 401-253-6222. Cost per copy is $49.95 plus $7.00 shipping
Letter 1: Herreshoff throws down the gauntlet challenging certain facts in Stephens’ article in The Sportsman that starts the exchange between the two writers.
Letter 2: Stephens picks up the gauntlet by laying the blame on the difficulty of obtaining information from overly security conscious owners and designers.
Letter 3: Herreshoff lets Stephens partly off the hook, attributing the deficiencies “likely to ignorance and to a certain extend haste,” and graciously explains the problems with Vigilant and her centerboard.
Letter 4: Stephens recites instances when he was thwarted seeking information and deplores the selective secrecy on the part of certain yards and designers.
Letter 5: Stephens encourages Herreshoff to record his memories and talks about his first visit to Bristol which Herreshoff does not recall.
Letter 6: Herreshoff recounts some history of the sail making Ratseys and the use of moveable interior ballast on a succession of his family’s JULIAs.
Letter 7: Stephens: more on outside ballast and then ranges from WHIRLWIND (1930) to the Twelve Metre MITENA (1935).
Letter 8: Poor health restricts Herreshoff to a two-liner. Streeter in his Notes lists most of the significant yachts owned by the Herreshoffs with comments.
Letter 9: Stephens, having turned 81, encourages Herreshoff to record more of his reminiscences and then describes early racing in catboats in the vicinity of Manhattan.
Letter 10: Ann R. Herreshoff writes to explain that her husband is still too weak to write.
Letter 11: Herreshoff discusses th various types of boats from New Haven to Vineyard Sound — a comprehensive and unusual account seldom, if ever, duplicated in yachting histories.
Letter 12: Stephens on catboats in the New York area and England, sharpies, canoeing, ‘cutter cranks’ and the early America’s Cup yachts.
Letter 13: Herreshoff admittedly rambles touching on Stephens’ favorite SNICKERSEE and early designs and sailing on Narrangansett Bay. He recounts studying at MIT, working at the Corliss Steam Engine Company, and describes his first meeting with Commodore E. D. Morgan and how it led to the GLORIANA and a plethora of commissions.
Letter 14: Stephens also rambles providing a thumbnail sketch of his life history as a designer , builder of canoes and small boats and a writer. Streeter’s Notes for Letters Thirteen & Fourteen contain a wealth of yachting history.
Letter 15: In a pithy letter Herreshoff refers to Stephens as more of a copyist than an innovator, such as himself, who disdains being influenced by the work of others.
Letter 16: Stephens, always gracious, replies by inquiring about NGH’s health and deplores the passing of several of the famous one-design classes that came off the Herreshoff drawing board.
Letter 17: Herreshoff predicts a decline in the size of America’s Cup yachts; also discusses his design of anchors.
Letter 18: A review of historic tidbits that Stephens has uncovered in the course of writing the history of the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club followed by reference to Herreshoff’s catamarans.
Letter 19: Herreshoff expands on the catamarans.
Letter 20: Stephens talks bout early aboat shops; also Russian tools at the New York City Centennial exhibit.
Letter 21: Herreshoff describes the latter part of the cruise with his brother Lewis in RIVIERA on the rivers and canals of Europe.
Letter 22: Stephens responds with comments about the stories by John MacGregor sailing his renowned canoe, ROB ROY. He elaborates on Charles P. Kinhardt and Tom Clapham, whom Herreshoff had mentioned in the previous letter, and how he had replaced the former as an editor with Forest and Stream.
Letter 23: More by Herreshoff about the cruise on RIVIERA. He refers to the article by his brother, Lewis, about their trip on the catamaran TARANTELLA from Bristol up the Hudson River and return which Lewis surreptitiously leaked to Spirit of the Times.
Letter 24: Stephens bemoans the tedious task of responding to incoming mail. He describes articles that he has collected on yachting history and worries whether he will have the energy to launch his boat next year.
Their Last Letters, Chapter Descriptions
Letter 25: Herreshoff describes the last boat that he sailed and its features that made it easy for him to handle in his later years. He advises Stephens to give up sailing his boat at his age.
Letter 26: Stephens replies that he hates the thought of swallowing the anchor; also hopes to see the 1937 America’s Cup Match.
Letter 27: Herreshoff explains how he had to improvise because of lack of woods and hardware when building RIVIERA and L’ONDA in Nice. He comments on RANGER’s keel.
Letter 28: Stephens about boat building in his youth in the horse and buggy days. Talks about some of the larger one-design classes and the era of WHIRLWIND, YANKEE and WEETAMOE.
Letter 29: An intimate insight to Herreshoff working as a youngster with his brother John after the loss of the latter’s eyesight and some of the small craft they built.
Letter 30: Stephens on hand for the launching of Ratsey’s ZAIDA III; relics of WHIRLWIND at City Island.
Letter 31: Herreshoff continues to be upset over the failure of CONSTITUTION to have won the America’s Cup trials and her subsequently being broken up.
Letter 32: Stephens likewise comments on CONSTITUTION and reports on America’s Cup boats in Newport such as ENDEAVOUR II, RANGER, etc.
Letter 33: Stephens discusses tank testing, especially respecting RANGER and astutely sizes up Harold Vanderbilt.
Letter 34: Herreshoff regrets the poor performance of WHIRLWIND. He also expresses great admiration for Harold Vanderbilt and his capabilities.
Letter 35: A brief letter from Stephens after attending the annual meeting of the Society for Naval Architects and Marine Engineers.
Letter 36: Stephens inquires about Herreshoff’s health and reports both the absconding by the Treasurer of the New York Yacht Club of its cash and hypothecating of is securities.
“In closing” A denouement by Streeter.
Nathanael G. Herreshoff obit: by W.P. Stephens published by the Society for Naval Architects and Marine Engineers.
W.P. Stephens obit: author unknown, also published by SNAME
Appendix A: Supplement to The Sportsman, The Match for the America’s Cup, 1930
Appendix B: SPIRIT OF THE TIMES — Lewis Herreshoff recounts cruising up the Hudson River in the catamaran, TARANTELLA, with his brother Nat.
Appendix C: BADMINTON LIBRARY —”Yachting in America” by Lewis Herreshoff.
Appendix D: “Transactions” — paper by Nathanael G. Herreshoff for the Society for Naval Architects and Marine Engineers.