On a sun-kissed summer afternoon in Newport, Rhode Island, in June, three meticulously restored sailing yachts are tethered to New York YC’s Harbor Court landing. All are wooden, of course, and each a masterpiece of Captain Nathanael G. Herreshoff and the craftsmen of the eponymous manufacturing company in nearby Bristol. Representing different eras of one-design club racing at the New York YC are Amorita, a New York 30; Marilee, a New York 40; and the strikingly maintained and heavily-raced New York 50 Spartan, soon bound for the Mediterranean in search of better competition.
The occasion to display these preserved icons of yacht racing is the Herreshoff Marine Museum & America’s Cup Hall of Fame’s Golden Jubilee, a summer-long celebration of wooden spars, white sails and buried rails. In a few hours, the bar will open and dinner will be served to 200 or so paying guests, but first it’s time for tours and the hushed admiration of these multimillion-dollar restorations. Spartan’s owners have restricted access to the deck, but even here there’s plenty to admire and quiz boat captain Judd Burman who’s delivered the boat from across the harbor.
On the western face of the dock is Marilee, the new acquisition of New York YC member Ken Colburn who recently sold his New York YC ClubSwan 42 and joined the classic yacht keepers club. He and his wife, he says, had been longing to own a wooden yacht of sorts and this one practically fell into his lap a few years ago. Texan Tim Rutter, Marilee’s previous owner, had poured more than $3 million into Marilee’s restoration before cleaning up on the classic yacht circuit in 2018 and then vanishing from the scene. Even Colburn, who I’m told bought the boat for a steal on auction, says he has never spoken to Rutter directly. But he sure is thankful Rutter got Marilee up to speed for the next 100 years.
“The joking comment is that there’s only one time to buy a boat and that’s after someone’s restored it,” Colburn says. “And that’s not to be rude, but restoring a boat is an unknown expense.”
So too is the upkeep.
This summer’s early-season races have been learning experiences for Colburn who has campaigned a J/105, the ClubSwan 42 and the New York YC’s latest fleet of IC37s by Melges. Colburn says coming to grips with Marilee has been rewarding for himself and his mostly amateur crew. His first step in preparing for the switch to Marilee’s big underwater appendages and sails, he says, was spending the offseason on a stationary rowing machine.
“She’s heavy,” Colburn says. “She’s wet [although less so for the bowman—Ed.] and has lots of weather helm. She’s a beautiful boat, but she is a workout.”
Colburn’s most noticeable addition to his area is a telescopic tiller extension, which allows him to see the telltales on his headsails. He also added a portable display box that houses chart plotter and boatspeed displays: “Telltales…speedo…telltales…speedo, that’s how I like to sail,” he says.
Marilee’s latest keeper is also learning the nuances of a unique sail plan that essentially requires filling the foretriangle with as much sail area as possible and balancing that against the big mainsail towering overhead from Marilee’s gleaming wooden spar. Sail changes don’t happen on the fly, says Colburn, so planning ahead and knowing the course angles is critical to establishing the right balance and heel angle—and not getting overpowered. “In the [New York YC] Annual [the wind] was high teens and it was a beast,” Colburn says, “but she has a sweet spot at 12 to 16 knots.”
Applying a similar ethos as he has with his previous one-designs, he says the learning process will be a gradual and methodical one, with the assistance of longtime sailmaker Jack Slattery. “It’s the same learning curve [as with any one-design]—get on a boat and try and tweak,” Colburn says. “I have not raced it enough to know [what is fast]. What I see in a race is 15 degrees either side of my headstay and the speedo, so we approach it like a dinghy.”
The appeal of the New York 40 class was that it could be raced by amateur crews and family teams, unlike the New York 50s that preceded them in the early 1900s. The New York 50s were a handful, and even today, racing Spartan requires a crew that knows what they’re doing, especially when the call comes to set or strike the jackyard topsail.
Burman, Spartan’s current boat captain of seven years, says New York 50s were raced with nine crewmembers in the class’s heydays on Long Island Sound, but today, Spartan gets around the racecourse with nearly twice that. “The boat was quite crew intensive for that period—they were a handful,” he says. “We race with 15, and in a breeze, it’s still a handful.”
Spartan’s current owners, according to Burman, joined the restoration while it was underway with the previous owner who started the restoration in the late 1980s, slowly picking away at the project as funding came available. The 72-footer was eventually moved from Connecticut to the Herreshoff Museum’s waterfront facilities in Bristol, where it sat on the hard for eight years or so.
The current owners, Burman says, fell in love with the boat at first sight. “They were fascinated by the gaff-rigged sloops of that era. And the fact that Spartan was designed by Herreshoff and built by Bristol—they’re both Americans—was quite enticing as well,” Burman says. “Plus, the fact that she needed to be saved.”
While the boat is now museum quality, Spartan’s owners have been racing it extensively, and they’re not afraid to press the boat to its limits, Burman says. “They want to race the boat and they want to go fast, but we do ask people to be respectful. If you can do it without trashing it…she’s a raceboat and that’s what she was built to do.”
Synthetic rigging has replaced wire in most applications and the sails are built using all the latest design suites, but the mainsail’s leather and bronze gaff saddle is still lubricated with good old-fashioned lanolin oil—which is good for the spar as well as the scalp.
The mainsail’s boom and gaff, which are hoisted 50 feet up the mainmast, creates the equivalent of a modern-day square-top, and secured on deck are Spartan’s jackyard topsail spars, which Burman says requires an orchestrated effort to get aloft. Once hoisted, it’s preferable to kept them there jackyard can capture the wind above the mainsail gaff itself, especially when racing in lighter conditions
“We do have a refined sail chart,” Burman says. “Mainsail only would be 18-knots plus, and in anything less than that we start thinking about the racecourse, possibly hoisting the jackyard.” There are five control lines to set this critical sail Burman explains: the halyard, the tack, the leader line that’s fed through a bronze ferrule at the top of the spar and then the two sheets associated with the club spar—an outer sheet and an inner sheet. “There’s a fair bit of unison that happens and a coordination of all five of them that takes a bit of practice,” he says. “If we’re going jackyard, it’s a decision for the day.”
From there, the team has at their disposal an assortment of headsails and spinnakers to work with, all in the quest for power, balance and heel angle. “It’s such a main-dominant powered boat,” Burman says, “so the main is being played constantly.” With such a short “J” measurement, and with having an inner and outer forestay, he adds, “everything gets paired up really close so all your leech profiles kind of land on top of each other.”
When the mainsail gets eased, therefore, the foresails must as well, which makes trimming on Spartan far more dynamic than one may think.
“It’s a lot of communication and developing a team that’s consistent,” Burman says. “A lot of the crew has been sailing for eight to nine years, and that’s huge. You can pull on the tiller as hard as you want, but until you ease the main, the boat is not turning at all. That being said, on powered up reaches we’ve had two people on the tiller, but generally we try to set it up so it’s balanced and we don’t put on the brakes.”
In other words, even after nearly a century of sailing, with Spartan it’s still about letting the ol’ girl run as fast as she can—a run certainly worthy of a celebration.
*Since its founding, the Herreshoff Marine Museum waterfront campus has grown dramatically, starting in 1971 when it had no home but instead consisted of a small fleet of Herreshoff boats, a literal “floating museum.” Today, the museum includes a number of original company buildings, the Herreshoff family homestead, and a modern exhibition building, the Isaac B. Merriman, Jr. Hall of Boats. Named for one of the museum’s earliest benefactors, this exhibit space displays more than 60 Herreshoff boats, steam engines, and an array of artifacts. The Nathanael G. Herreshoff Model Room & Workshop exhibit is a re-creation of Captain Nat’s own model room and workshop, and contains more than 500 original design models, tools and documents. Over the past five years, the museum has delivered STEM-focused experiential education programs to thousands of Rhode Island students. The museum is now partnering with the National Sailing Hall of Fame on an America’s Cup Hall of Fame exhibit at its new Sailing Museum in Newport, RI.