Herreshoff’s elegant design captures the spirit of Watch Hill

Herreshoff’s elegant design captures the spirit of Watch Hill


Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of stories about local craft that are in a different class than the average boat. The series will continue on Mondays through the summer.

WESTERLY — “It all happened over a glass of scotch,” is how John Hall of Frank Hall Boat Yard in Avondale remembers it.

Though it may sound like the opening line of an R-rated bedtime story, Hall’s recollection has more to do with boats than booze and one sailboat in particular: the Watch Hill 15.

The year was 1966 (or so) and Hall was enjoying a tumbler or two of the inspirational highland beverage with the past Watch Hill Yacht Club Commodore, Avard Fuller.

It was then that they hit upon the idea of reviving one of the classic racing sloop designs from the hallowed drafting-board of Nathanael G. Herreshoff of Bristol.

Herreshoff’s original 15-footer plans date to 1898, and were based on yachts he designed for racing in Buzzards Bay, which in turn descended from what were known as Newport 15s. The major difference between the Watch Hill 15 and its Bay State cousins is the way the sails are rigged.

The Buzzards Bay is gaff-rigged, with trapezoidal sails, while the Watch Hill incarnation is Marconi rigged, with classic, triangular sails. (The latter rigging takes its name from its resemblance to the telegraph-ship masts designed by the Italian electrical engineer, Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio.) The sleek and sweetly responsive vessels are a little over 24 feet in length, with a beam of 6 feet 9 inches and a draft of 2 feet 3 inches with her retractable centerboard (a sort of temporary keel) up, and 5 feet with it down. The 15 in the vessel’s name refers to its waterline length.

“At the time these boats were built, they were measured on the waterline,” said Hall. The greater the waterline length, the faster the boat, he said. Another advantage is her considerable sail area: 330 square feet of canvas that bellies beautifully in the winds skimming across the waters of Block Island and Fishers Island sounds.

In 1922, Herreshoff delivered a fleet of 11 Watch Hill 15s to the Watch Hill Yacht Club. Of the 11, only seven were left when Hall decided to begin making a fiberglass version, using a mold crafted from the contours of the first wooden Watch Hill 15, Josephine, a vessel now on display in the arrivals hall of T.F. Green Airport in Warwick.

“So it’s kind of interesting, the first boat of two classes, the wooden class, and the fiberglass class, came from the same mold,” said Hall, now the exclusive manufacturer and dealer of Watch Hill 15s.

Today, only four of the wooden originals remain in sailing condition in Watch Hill, still competing in races on Saturdays and Wednesday evenings throughout the summer. Worry is among those surviving vessels, restored from the hull up in 2006. As with many such projects — old wooden boats especially — the more you scrape, the deeper you reach into your pockets.

“It started out with just fixing the decking, and that led to the ribs, that led to the planks, and all of a sudden in February I saw the entire boat lying there in pieces,” recalled Worry’s owner, Kent Brittan of Watch Hill, who bought the vessel in 2000.

Designed purposely to sail the waters of Little Narragansett Bay and Fishers Island Sound, Worry has, appropriately enough, spent most of her life moored in Watch Hill. Her original owner was yacht club member M.N. Bucknenas, who purchased her for $1,533 and christened her Skanendova. (If that sticker price brings tears to the most hard-bitten mariner’s eyes, haul out more hankies: the contract price for the first Herreshoff 15s was $666.66.)

Worry’s bulky folder of restoration receipts suggests Brittan spent considerably more on her, and it shows. Her beige decking is painted canvas stretched over cedar; her cockpit coaming (a kind of shield to keep out water spray) is of honey-colored mahogany; her seemingly endless boom rests upon an elegantly functional A-frame support, and her sturdy bronze hardware is from “Herreshoff special patterns” as the original spec sheet described them. Yet as lovely as she is to look at, she sails even more beautifully, says Brittan.

“I like to invite the fiberglass Watch Hill 15 owners out for a ride, and they love it, because she is much smoother in the water than the fiberglass versions,” said Brittan.

Even nicer, he adds, is to sail a Watch Hill 15 on one of those Wednesday race nights.

“It’s just absolutely beautiful, you know, ‘red sails in the sunset.’” Brittan smiles. “The sun is setting, the wind is typically down, and it’s just so quiet.”

Few words could describe summer in Watch Hill any better.

Next week: A sardine boat with style.

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