Twenty-eight-year-old Nathanael Greene Herreshoff confounded the New York Yacht Club by taking line honors in their Centennial Regatta in June 1876. Larry Ellison’s plans for the 2013 San Francisco America’s Cup are equally exciting and unconventional.
Nothing new under the sun?
America's Cup fans try to come to grips with the monster AC72 catamarans with their 130-foot tall wing sails that will be racing on San Francisco Bay in summer 2013. Imagine the puzzlement of the 35 yachts entered in the New York Yacht Club’s 1876 regatta when they saw Herreshoff’s Amaryllis. Thousands of spectators came out on the excursion steamers that beautiful June day. The New Yorkers were celebrating 100 years of US independence and thinking about the third defence of the America’s Cup, to be sailed later that summer.
Few paid any attention to Herreshoff’s 24-foot long curiosity, which was described in the press as a “half-liferaft cigar boat” and a “sea monster.” Amaryllis got off to an unspectacular start in light air for the 20-mile race off Staten Island, but when the breeze freshened after almost two hours of racing, Amaryllis began to show her “wonderful speed… passing yacht after yacht as if they were anchored,” according to the New York World’s account of the race. When Amaryllis was unable to point high enough to pass a boat to windward, Herreshoff would dive off to leeward and sail right through the other boat’s dirty air. As the breeze freshened more, Amaryllis “kept jumping along” moving like a “frightened porpoise.”
When only the Susie S remained in front of her, things got more entertaining. Herreshoff powered up and flew past Susie S at about 20 knots, but then almost pitchpoled. Amaryllis stood on both bows for 30 seconds and Susie S passed her back. The crew of Susie S thought Herreshoff’s “pointé” was an intentional stunt. Amaryllis settled down and flew into the lead again, taking line honors.
Herreshoff had sent a description of Amaryllis to the race committee with his entry. It was approved. Some of the unhappy owners of the monohulls protested after the race. Amaryllis was disqualified on the grounds that she was “not a yacht” – you could not sleep on board. Herreshoff showed the tent that he rigged over the boom, which provided standing room and wonderful sleeping quarters. He explained, “To those who are truly in love with aquatic sports, the tent affords sufficient shelter, and if anyone wants a cabin, it is clear in my mind he doesn't want a catamaran.”
The NYYC consoled Herreshoff with a medal and a certificate declaring Amaryllis the world’s fastest sailing vessel. He remained bitter, noting that the club’s constitution included a clause that the purpose of the club was “to encourage naval architecture.”
No takers for his challenge
Since Amaryllis did not point as well as the monohulls, many claimed that a catamaran was no good to windward. Herreshoff understood race course geometry well and wrote that when sailing upwind he could gain a mile in an hour against any other sailing craft and offered to wager on it. He might sail further than the other boat, but Amaryllis’s speed advantage would win out.
In a letter to the editor of the New York Herald, Herreshoff wrote, “I’ll throw down the gauntlet to anything that floats, be it catamaran, yacht, or steamer!” No one took him up on the challenge. Herreshoff also had some advice for handling “the death zone” in which Oracle's AC 72 catamaran capsized last Octorber. “If, in a catamaran, you are sorely pressed by wind or wave, turn her bow to leeward. There you will find comfort and consolation, so light she is, and presents so little resistance, that the wind blows her along like a bubble floating in the air.”
The journalist for the New York World certainly understood what he saw: “It behooves the owners of the large schooners to take counsel together lest somebody should build an Amaryllis a hundred feet long and convert their crafts into useless lumber. It is a matter quite as important as keeping the America's Cup.” Not having read this 1876 report, many sailors have complained that the current event disregards tradition. Perhaps they should take comfort in Herreshoff’s enthusiasm for multihulls. And perhaps the organizers should give a bit more credit to Captain Nat for his visionary design from 1876.