Categorized | Arts

A Boat for Boys in the Bay

Posted on 23 June 2011

By Annette Hinkle

You could say Pat Mundus is inspired by the sea. A retired merchant marine, lover of old wooden boats and avid sailor, after selling their home on Northwest Creek in East Hampton, she and her husband Earl Voorhees left the East End and took 10 years to sail the world before coming ashore again — this time in Greenport where they now live.

“Basically I’m a South Forker, whose gone around the world to come back to the North Fork and back to Shelter Island.”

And it’s on Shelter Island that Mundus has taken on a new role — that of executive director for the Shelter Island Historical Society. She finds it’s a job that suits her nature.

“I’m not a Shelter Islander, but I’m curious about history and have a romantic brain – I like to know about a lot of things,” explains Mundus.

One of the things Mundus wanted to know about when she started making regular trips across the island were the boats moored at the Shelter Island Yacht Club.

“Every day I’d drive home and go straight past the fleet where the moorings are for the 12½s,” notes Mundus. “I wondered why there was such a big fleet of these in Shelter Island?”

It was that curiosity which led Mundus to curate a new exhibit opening this weekend at the historical society. The “Historic H Class Exhibit” is a tribute to the sailing vessel — known as a 12½-footer — which was designed by brothers Nathanael G. and John B. Herreshoff and first built in their Bristol, R.I. boat shop in 1914.

“The exhibit goes through the whole evolution over 97 years,” she says. “From the original 12½-footers to the modern Doughdish – a fiberglass version.”

“It’s a quintessential American design by two brothers who had a brilliant engineering prowess,” explains Mundus. “John was blind from the time he was 14, but he was a genius and developed an inward ability to do math and calculations. His business acumen combined with Nathanael’s design expertise — he was an MIT grad — meant a brilliant design team.”

The Herreshoffs went into partnership in 1878 and soon gained a reputation for building steam yachts and vessels for government contracts.

“They were at the leading edge of technology,” explains Mundus. “They designed torpedo boats and Nat designed the first American copyrighted catamaran.”

As the company grew the Herreshoffs also got into big sailing yachts – the most competitive and largest in the world — including all the America’s Cup racing boats for 35 years. Though at the time, the brothers may have been building the most advanced watercraft in the world, the 12½-footer was special to them.

“Nat viewed the 12½ as a modern architect talks of the perfect chair,” explains Mundus. “He was doing the most complicated marine engineering feats of the day and he designed this Buzzard Bays Boys Boat as a design challenge.”

And that’s exactly what the 12½-footers were originally used for — boys in the bay. Sold for $420 in 1914, they were affordable and good sailing vessels for youths just learning the ropes. But for Mundus, they are sheer perfection.

“A thing of beauty lasts forever,” she says. “It was such a beautiful and handy boat it’s stayed popular for 97 years. They were designed when boat builders were going from one at a time specimen hand-built boats to mass produced boats. The Herreshoffs pioneered it, which is why they were so cheap.”

“It’s a full keel boat with a lot of ballast, so it’s stiff, stable and reliable,” Mundus explains. “It won’t capsize. This is a great boat for kids and families. It’s safe and handsome. It has a hollow bow that is a bit concave and casts the wave away from the boat making for a smooth ride.”

The Herreshoffs built 20 boats in 1914, the first year of production, and while they were mostly used in Buzzard’s Bay off Cape Cod, fleets of them could soon be found from Maine to eastern Long Island.

The Herreshoff factory went out of business in 1943, having built 360 12½-footers. Other boat builders took over production and built 85 more after W.W.II. but in 1950, production of the line stopped altogether.

By the 1970s there was great demand for the boats — especially at yacht clubs that already had fleets of them — but the owners of the Herreshoff’s design weren’t making them. So out of frustration, in 1972 Bill Harding of Harding Sails in Marion, Mass. measured original 12½-footers, built his own molds and, with Peter Edey of Edey and Duff, began producing fiberglass versions of the boat called Doughdishes. With Harding’s retirement, the mantle has now been passed to Stephen Ballentine and his daughter, Amy Ballentine Stevens of Ballentine’s Boat Shop in Cataumet, Mass. who continue to build the boat (and are sponsors of the historical society exhibit).

“Shelter Island has 61 in their racing fleet —the largest fleet of H class boats in the country,” says Mundus. “There is a 1914 boat on the island and they go all the way to brand new Doughdishes.”

With such a strong connection to New England boat building traditions, Mundus’ original question remains. How, exactly, did so many 12½-footers end up on Shelter Island?

It turns out that John Herreshoff himself was a member of the Shelter Island Yacht Club for 13 years. Mundus also notes that sailing conditions in Buzzard’s Bay are similar to those around Shelter Island, which likely contributed to the boat’s popularity. She explains that the first 12½-footer on the island was actually a Doughdish — and arrived in 1974 when Sam Hird, a Shelter Island resident and experienced sailor, bought one and sailed it over from Old Lyme, Conn.

“A couple of other people said this is really cool,” say Mundus. “Andrew Fiske [late owner of Sylvester Manor] bought another so they could race against one another. He went out and found his original 12½-footer that he sailed as a kid.”

Fiske’s 1914 Herreshoff, Little Kittie, is now stored in a barn on Shelter Island, and though she’s no longer sailing, the excitement generated from those first two 12½-footers fueled a passion that continues to this day on the island.

“Andrew and Sam racing against each other stirred interest in this fleet, then another guy bought one, then another,” she adds. “By 1980 there were a dozen sailing, and it continued to grow every year.”

The centerpiece of the historical society’s exhibit is not a vintage Herreshoff, but Hawkeye, a new wooden 12½-footer owned by Chris and Sarah Mulligan of Shelter Island. In 2002, the Mulligans moved to England with their five children where Chris attended a boat building school in Lyme Regis where 12 students worked on six projects that year.

“This is the project Chris and his partner choose,” explains Mundus. “They built the boat there and in 2004, they wrangled her out of the boat shop down these seaside roads and shipped her back to Shelter Island.”

“It has 140 square feet of sail,” adds Mundus, looking up at that boat’s mast which fits perfectly in the lofted section of the historical society’s barn.

Two original Herreshoffs will be on view at the show as well – Kestrel, a Fisher’s Island 31 and Dolphin, a Newport 29 designed in 1914. The exhibit will be rounded out by photographs, original art, line drawings, models, boat building memorabilia and large text panels that offer details about the Herreshoffs and place their boat in the context of American engineering in the period in which they worked. There will also be tributes to local boat builders as well.

And Mundus notes that Halsey Herreshoff, grandson of Nat Herreshoff, will be at the reception so guests can hear the history of the 12½-footer “Straight from the Herreshoff’s mouth.”

The opening and cocktail reception is Saturday, June 25 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Havens Barn, 16 South Ferry Road, Shelter Island. Admission is $35 at the door. The exhibit runs through July 16 and on Friday, July 1 at 7 p.m., the documentary film “Of Boats and Brothers: the Boat Building Herreshoffs” will be screened with the film’s director Tom Garber speaking afterwards. For more information on the show, call 749-0025.

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