Editor’s note: This is the fourth 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.
STONINGTON — “That’s a Herreshoff,” some will say, whenever David Thomas of Pawcatuck sails into port aboard Red Wing. On the other hand, there are those who remark, with eyebrows cocked, “That’s a Herreshoff?”
Among even the most well-heeled and worldly yachtsmen, the name Herreshoff practically inspires genuflection, synonymous as it is with the sleek and sexy hulls of the many undefeated America’s Cup defenders produced around the turn of the last century in the Bristol, R.I., boatyard of naval architect Nathaniel Greene Herreshoff I. But Herreshoff’s son, the late Lewis Francis Herreshoff — a designer of not only racing yachts, but of canoes, kayaks and other small vessels — had something different in mind when he drew up plans for the Meadow Lark of which Red Wing is one: family time.
“She’s a cruising boat, designed to get parents and their kids out on the water to enjoy sailing. She was also designed to be built economically,” said Thomas, emphasizing another concept not often associated with Herreshoffs, let alone sailing in general.
With these stipulations on his checklist, L. Francis, as he was known, conceived a simple, roomy, shoal draft ketch. Its forward mast is slightly taller than its mizzen (the rear mast), and its low-slung keel is capable of sluicing through shoal waters as shallow as 2 to 3 feet.
He named his design after the meadowlark, a delicate creature that skims lightly across the still surfaces of marsh waters, though his craft is certainly capable of handling much higher seas.
“We’ve taken her out to the Vineyard and sailed her around the Elizabeth Islands and Cutty Hunk,” said Thomas, who added that Red Wing’s original owner, who launched her in 1970, sailed her as far as the Bahamas. Red Wing’s sturdy, 37-foot fiberglass hull, driven by her twin, gaff-rigged (trapezoidal) sails and jib, is capable of cruising at speeds of 5 to 7 knots. Other features of her design that are somewhat unusual (though by no means unique), are her leeboards.
Reminiscent of the delicate wings of her marsh-dwelling namesake, leeboards hang about midway on either side of Red Wing’s hull. Whereas many sailboats rely on one of two basic strategies for stability — deep, triangular fixed keels, or retractable, dorsal-fin shaped centerboards, dropped from within the boat’s hull as needed — leeboards are a third option, offering something of the best of both worlds. A nautical legacy of medieval Chinese junks, lead-weighted leeboards provide sturdy stability, yet can also be raised and lowered, depending upon which side is to leeward, or downwind.
Thomas said, “It makes it a little more complicated if you are short-tacking,” quickly switching the leeward side back and forth when heading directly into the wind. On such occasions he usually leaves both leeboards down.
When cruising on a long tack, he typically drops only one leeboard. The trade-off, for Thomas, is the ability, as L. Francis intended, to get in and out of shallow waters with ease, without having to worry about running aground, or clogging a centerboard housing with sand and other debris that often cause the device to stick — usually when you need it most.
Another of Red Wing’s flexible features are her masts, which hinge, like pivoting flagpoles, in what are called tabernacles and can be dropped for scooting under bridges.
Below deck, many of the Meadow Lark brand’s unique features reflect L. Francis’ credo, spelled out in her original brochure, that “enjoyment of a sail boat will be attained, not in proportion to money spent, but to a formula like: Enjoyment = Performance + Beauty/Complication.”
Her simple, roomy cabin, features five bunks — just enough for Thomas’s predominantly teen-aged brood, and all the subsequent mayhem they conjure — and sufficient headroom “to put on a pair of pants,” which is all one needs, said Thomas.
Other telltale cost-cutting details are the portholes designed by L. Francis, which are made of Plexiglas, as opposed to much more expensive glass and brass hardware.
The removable round-edged, rectangular panes are secured by “lollipops,” knob-topped dowels, though they are “not the kind you eat!” Thomas’ 5½-year-old daughter, Lindy, clarifies.
Red Wing, which he bought in 2005, is Thomas’ third Meadow Lark, though far from the only kind of boat he’s ever sailed
“She’s not as fast or as responsive or as lively as other boats my family has owned,” says Thomas, who practically grew up at the Mystic Seaport where his father, Barry Thomas, was a boat builder.
“But for a family of seven, she’s just a great way to get everyone out on the water and have a good time.” And that, after all, was what L. Francis had in mind.
Next week: a boat designed specifically for Little Narragansett Bay.