The Story of the Buzzard Bay 25s, Mystic
Photos and profile by Caryn B. Davis
Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, with deepest respect referred to as “Capt Nat,” was one of the greatest naval architects that ever lived. His involvement in boat building and design between 1860 and 1938 revolutionized the industry of yacht design and construction, and his sailing yachts dominated the yacht racing world. His 2,000 plus designs include everything from five winning America’s Cup yachts, to the first torpedo boats for the U.S. Navy, to several one-design classes for various yacht clubs. His vessels are still revered today for their speed, elegance, craftsmanship, and construction, and are cherished by their owners who go to great lengths to acquire, maintain, and restore them.
In 1913 Nathaniel Herreshoff received a letter from H. Nelson Emmons, the race committee chairman for the Beverly Yacht Club in Marion, Massachusetts. Several members wanted to commission “Capt Nat” to design “a special class capable of racing and for pleasure sailing.” Specifications for the new vessels were suggested but rebuked by Nathaniel, who could not imagine anyone wanting a boat of the proposed design for racing on Buzzards Bay. It included long overhangs, narrow beam, and deep draft, making for a very wet and miserable ride when used on the choppy waters of Buzzard’s Bay.
Instead, Capt Nat highlighted the advantages of his favorite, personal daysailer, ALERION III that he sailed while wintering in Bermuda. The sailing conditions around the island were comparable to those in Buzzard’s Bay, so a design similar to ALERION III would prove satisfactory.
On March 28, 1914, members of the yacht club met with Capt Nat at the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company (HMCo) in Bristol, Rhode Island and contracted four gaff rigged sloops (MINK, VITESSA, BAGATELLE, WHITE CAP), with a fifth boat (TARANTULA) being built to spec four months later. The Buzzards Bay 25s, as they became known, were launched in June of that year and enjoyed seven racing seasons. Fast forward 101 years later – miraculously, all of the boats, with the exception of TARANTULA whose whereabouts are unknown, are still present; one in a museum and three still competing on the water.
The boats changed hands several times. WHITE CAP, renamed ARIA, was donated to the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol in 1992 by Nancy d’Estang and Paul Bates, wooden boat aficionados from Noank. Bates had sailed and maintained the boat for 22 years beforehand.
“She was a joy to sail. She was relatively over canvassed for her size, so she always responded well in a light breeze and in a quick, strong breeze. She had a high hollow bow which would throw the waves away and keep her going in a strong breeze, when a lot of other boats would turn into submarines,” recalls Bates.
Capt Nat’s grandson, Halsey Herreshoff, a naval architect in his own right, a sailor, and the former president of the Herreshoff Marine Museum, had once told Bates if he ever decided to part with ARIA, he would like to have her at the museum. When ARIA reached the point of needing major structural rebuilding, Bates called Halsey.
“I said he could have the boat but not until he had her looking like the day she came out of the shop in 1914. Too often even with the best of intentions, the most serious restorer will tend to put a little of their own inclination into the boat. I thought if people were going to know exactly how it was done in 1914, you had to put one of them away with as much original material as possible,” says Bates.
Halsey contracted MP&G Wooden Boat Building & Yacht Restoration in Mystic to do the job. MP&G had worked on many Herreshoff vessels and performed the restoration work on VITESSA and BAGATELLE. ARIA was restored to museum quality and is now an archival research piece.
When pursuing a project with MP&G, principal Andy Giblin stated the following simple philosophy:
“We stick to the original construction design except when changes are clearly in order. We are dedicated students of the boat building techniques of the great builders like Herreshoff and Henry B. Nevins, who built many of the boats we restore. These boats have lasted remarkably well; and when restoring them, we go to great pains to duplicate the many successful techniques used in their construction. We often devote considerable effort to research a boat’s history. However, we also recognize the more innovative techniques of the great yacht builders were experimental and untested when many of the boats were built. We now have the benefit of almost 100 years of in-service destructive testing on the types of boats we work on. If a technique worked, we follow it closely; if it didn’t, we don’t hesitate to change it. Our changes usually involve other traditional methods, rather than radical modern technology.”
It was this way of thinking that attracted the attention of MINK’s current owner who purchased the boat at his wife’s insistence in 2013 from Giblin.
The owner hails from an avocation of classic cars and vintage car racing. With the cars he has collected, his aspiration has always been to return them to the condition they were in when new.
“When you pursue that goal you quickly find out the way cars were made “back in the day” is far different than what you see on the concours field today. The perfect paint and brilliant chrome of your favorite Ferrari today, when new in 1960, had paint runs, poor fabrication, thin dullish chrome and chances are, needed a lot of constant mechanical attention for regular use. It didn’t matter much then because a 100 mile drive was something special. Trips were short. Roads were twisty, and exceeding the speed limit was not considered a dangerous offense. In short there is a romantic purity to it all that I wanted to capture in MINK when she sailed again. As it turned out, we all got far more than we bargained for,” he says.
When the owner purchased MINK it was agreed the restoration would follow the same methodology he had taken with his antique automobiles. The idea was on MINK’s launch day, the experience of sailing her would be exactly as it was 100 years ago when she was launched.
As with his vintage cars, the decision was made to retain as much of the original boat as possible. MP&G meticulously disassembled MINK one piece at a time, inspecting every part as they went along, rebuilding or replacing what wasn’t genuine to 1914 and keeping what was. In this careful execution, they were able to learn exactly how the boat was put together back in the day, mistakes and all.
Bryan Burdick was charged with locating all the hardware for MINK. A few items were original to MINK, some were found on eBay, some in local shops and from friends, and what he couldn’t find was manufactured. He also spent hours researching Herreshoff designs at the Hart Nautical Collections in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Herreshoff Museum, and Mystic Seaport.
“There is silence in some of the drawings and contradictions. The experience and expertise of the HMC craftsmen coupled with their understanding of Capt Nat’s expectations ensured the minutia of detail wasn’t required. Unfortunately, 100 years later it can be challenging to determine what was intended. So where there was missing information, we built matrices from other HMC designs of similar yachts of that era so we could work with the owner and say, “we don’t know what this feature was, but other racing boats of the same size and period were doing this” says Burdick.
“Bryan painstakingly researched every aspect of MINK from her race history to every deviation we found from the drawings, to the rediscovery of the center board pawl used on these boats. This effort, coupled with Andy and his partner, Ed McClave’s knowledge of these boats, meant we were able to learn even more of how they could be conceived, designed, and manufactured in such a short time. I like to think the restoration of MINK has helped better inform those that care about all things Herreshoff to what manufacturing at the HMCo was like in its heyday. None of us expected that when we started out to restore MINK,” adds the owner.
Last August, the owner sailed Mink for the very first time at the Herreshoff Classic Yacht Regatta in Bristol, a reunion where the four original Buzzard Bay 25s were present to celebrate their 100th anniversary.
“We knew she looked good and hoped for the best. Because MINK had been restored to exactly how she had been built originally, we didn’t add any of the reinforcements that are typically added to HMCo boats to make them stronger and to last longer; so we really did not know what to expect,” says the owner. “The weather and wind were perfect, and MINK performed just as Capt Nat had intended. Andy was surprised, Bryan was delighted, and I…well, I still think about it…it was one of the top ten days in my life. We finished the regatta in second place and learned all over again why Capt Nat is also called the Wizard of Bristol. For me, outside of my work and family, MINK has been one of the most worthwhile things I have been involved in. I love the boat of course, but I also love what I think Capt Nat and the company stood for: discipline, creativity, integrity, and the striving for excellence at a fair profit.”
Special thanks to Bryan Burdick for his help with this article. For more information log onto http://mpgboats.com.