Herreshoff Marine Museum and Ameerica's Cup Hall of Fame
Herreshoff Marine Museum

The Curator's Log: September 2015

Curator's Log September 2015
Nathanael Greene Herreshoff and the America's Cup:

Part Sixteen- The 13th Challenge (1913- 1920)

Forming the Defender Syndicates in 1913

The three contenders to defend the Cup first meet on the 2nd of June 1914 They include the George Owens designed, Bath Iron Works built DEFIANCE; the Nat Herreshoff designed, Herreshoff built RESOLUTE; and the William Gardner designed, Lawley built VANITIE. Had we been able to confidentially interview the three syndicate managers they all would have told us the same story if they had their way, they would be racing in a Nat Herreshoff designed and Herreshoff built boat. If that was the objective of each syndicate how did things develop as they did?

The NYYC Defender Syndicate-  RESOLUTE
NYYC Secretary George Cormack (from our records) gets to Capt. Nat first (late April or early May, 1913) with his postal telegram, "Do not do anything about accepting order for Defender until you hear from me".1This puts Nat on notice to await negotiations with the NYYC Syndicate then being formed. From then on Cormack stays very close to Nat keeping him apprised of the negotiations with Lipton and the Royal Ulster YC (sometimes sending the latest terms of agreement and asking for Nat's comments), offering encouraging information about the new NYYC Syndicate and down playing Pynchon's Philadelphia Syndicate.   He knows that Nat will be a reluctant participant, "I know very well that you do not care for the work and it is quite true that many former associates will not be in the game....". 2 Save for Cormack and Chris Christensen3, all Nat's former Cup associates (E.D. Morgan, C. Oliver Iselin, Charlie Barr), with  whom he had achieved a high level of trust and mutual repect, are gone from the scene. He is uncertain of the capabilities of the new syndicate (R.W. Emmons syndicate manager, Charles Francis Adams helmsman) and whether he can work with them.

There are other concerns; for his part Nat recommends the syndicate have under one manager, two boats and crews racing in a set of controlled trials. (See Nat's letter on this to Cochran below.) This is not high on Cormack's priority list so he brushes it off, "Do not think that can be arranged". Nat also requests that no bonuses be offered HMCo workers "to hurry the work" as had been done for an early Defender, "It had the effect that they would hold off from doing a fair day's work (on)…later defenders, until a bonus was offered...labor cost (was) nearly 50% more than it should have". Cormack agrees.4

The Syndicate's #1 worry is cost. This starts a three-way conversation about cost with letters between Cormack/Syndicate and Nat, and also separately with HMCo Nat starts it off by offering the "extremes" of a 75 foot (wl) Defender.
"A yacht of this size, built of steel or composite, in our ordinary way, comparing to the 65 footers, or WESTWARD and ELENA, and complete ready for racing or cruising, excepting silver ware and linen, would cost not far from $75,000.00, and a vessel of the same size, built expressly for racing (as RELIANCE), with all weights figured down to the minimum, all important parts of the rig and gear tested, elaborate construction, using nickle steel, Tobin bronze and aluminum principally, special winches, etc., would cost nearly 50% more or $112,500.00 as an outside limit."

Nat also offers the possibility of a time and material contract with a fixed overhead charge and profit percentage added, but this is later rejected.5

In mid-September HMCo submits to the Syndicate a contract priced at $123,000. They are very upset and write Nat a sharp letter; the price exceeds both the "extremes" of his August 22nd letter and his assurances to the Syndicate made at an early September meeting when the order was placed. Nat's records note that he responded to Cormack by telephone the very next day. The contract remained at $123,000- I suspect the message made loud and clear- only JB Herreshoff signs for and commits the company.6

George M. Pynchon Defender Syndicate- DEFIANCE
From Nat's correspondence with Cochran (below) we learn that HMCo made a commitment to build for Pynchon (owner of HMCo built ISTALENA) in April 1913. In early July Pynchon lets Nat know that he has the funds and asks HMCo "keep a place open for me". Nat offers that he is not up to designing the new boats to which Pynchon responds, "I am sure you will feel differently when you get to work". But Pynchon does not have sufficient money to match the price of a RESOLUTE. In September he tries unsuccessfully to have Cochran join with him. On Nov 5th he writes a long letter to Nat asking to meet the next day at the New London train station; he has a considerable sum of money, "which will be almost sufficient …provded we get a boat complete in the neighborhood of $60,000". He continues with ideas for the boat and how it might be done. Nat is not critical or insulting in his response, just declines on the "grounds of health". 7 

Alexander Cochran's Defender- VANITIE
Now for Alexander Cochran owner of the successful Herreshoff racing schooner WESTWARD. In a July 21 1913 letter he asks Nat to design a defender. This is not the first time Cochran has approached Nat on the subject because in his reply declining the work, Nat writes, "Having had some talks and some correspondence with you relating to possible construction of yachts for defending the Am Cup I want to explain my position in this matter". Nat, age 65, goes on to expand on his difficulies, "keeping on my feet" and attending to, "the detail matter that comes up all over the shops as has been my custom …". Nat concludes by volunteering, "We appear to have several very … yacht designers in this country that are anxious to take up the work so I don't think the Am Cup is in any danger if the Lipton challenge (materializes)".8

Cochran's response on the 23rd of July makes his commitment to Herreshoff very clear, "I quite understand that you are engaged to build for some New York parties if they decide …to defend the Cup. In that case I should not care to build at all….I shall not go in any syndicate but I would enjoy doing this with you as we did WESTWARD".  The correspondence continues by wire and letter through the summer, concluding in mid September with Nat advising Cochran that a challenge has been accepted, and HMCo is "shop-full" with an order for a Cup defender by the NYYC Syndicate. Cochran, possibly influenced by Nat's reference to other American designers, portends his ultimate decision to build his own defender, "It would have been interesting to have built the defender with you, …I missed not having a boat this summer very much and I must have something next year." Nat goes on to explain,  "…also we pledged ourselves last April for another to be headed by Mr. Geo. M. Pynchon, who is with this sailing master,  about the best man to handle one."  He encourages Cochran to join Pynchon's syndicate; and pushes his desire to see two boats vie for the defense  "…Mr. P. has not his syndicate completed. It would be of the greatest advantage to have two boats- so controlled that they can try each other out to be able to get the best boat and best crew. If this second boat does not go thru, I believe we will be in great danger of losing the Cup for the reason that the British yachtsmen have been racing along with this class of vessels and are better prepared- both as to vesels and crew".9

In the next Curator's Log we will explore the Defender trials of 1914.

John Palmieri



1 George Cormack to NGH undated postal telegram. Herreshoff Marine Museum, NGH Collection Subject Folder; RESOLUTE and Her Construction 1913-14. Access to all letters in this folder courtesy of Halsey C. Herreshoff.

2 George Cormack to NGH letter 8/23/1913. RESOLUTE and Her Construction 1913-14.

3 Chis Christensen had been first mate of RELIANCE under Charlie Barr.

4 NGH to Cormack letter 8/28/1913 & Cormack's response 8/29/1913. RESOLUTE and Her Construction 1913-14. (NGH's 8/22 letter has not been found. Its content is inferred from Cormack's response.)

5 NGH to Cormack letter 8/22/1913 on HMCo stationery & Cormack's response 8/23/1913 & 9/16/1913. RESOLUTE and Her Construction 1913-14. NGH letter provided courtesy of the New York Yacht Club.

6 H. Walters, Chairman Cup Defender Syndicate letter to NGH 9/23/1913. RESOLUTE and Her Construction 1913-14.

7 George Pynchon letters to NGH, 7/2/1913, 7/7/1913, 9/22/1913, 9/25/1913, 11/5/1913 & 11/6/1913.  RESOLUTE and Her Construction 1913-14.

8 Alexander Cochran letter to NGH, 7/21/1913. Undated pencil draft of NGH response to Cochran. RESOLUTE and Her Construction 1913-14.

9 Alexander Cochran letters to NGH, 7/23 & 9/11/1913. NGH Sept. 19 pencil draft response to Cochran. RESOLUTE and Her Construction 1913-14.