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With the Wind In Her Sails

Nellie returns to her home waters in Stamford, newly restored and looking as good as new.

Photograph © Mystic Seaport, Rosenfeld Collection, Mystic, Connecticut ~ www.rosenfeldcollection.org

A hundred years ago, a lovely gaff-rigged cutter named Nellie spread her sails in western Long Island Sound. After an absence of more than   thirty years, this classic yacht designed by the legendary Nathanael Greene Herreshoff has returned to Stamford to ply these waters once more. This is thanks to a pair of classic boat enthusiasts, Jeff Boal and Fernando Alva, who had undertaken the extraordinarily ambitious job of restoring this grand old lady to her former pristine beauty.

Built for Morton F. Plant, heir to his father’s railroad fortune, Nellie was one of a trio of yachts of the same design built by the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. between 1902 and 1903. The first was Trivia, commissioned by Harold Vanderbilt, and the other was Azor, built for J. Malcolm Forbes of Boston and Naushon Island (as distinct from today’s Malcolm Forbes of magazine fame). Trivia was lost in the 1938 hurricane, but Azor is in the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol, Rhode Island. In a biography of his father, L. Francis Herreshoff  wrote of the trilogy, “... these three were among the nicest all-around sailboats of their size ever built.” Last year Halsey Herreshoff, director of the Herreshoff Museum, featured Azor in a presentation of significant yachts designed by his grandfather.



The long-keeled cutters, which Nathanael called racer-cruisers, have thirty-five-foot waterlines and measure sixty feet overall, including thirteen-foot bowsprits. They were unique in an era marked by giant sail and steam yachts and America’s Cup defenders as tall as twenty-story buildings. Accommodations below were graced with beautiful cabinetry but would have been considered fairly sparse in their day for cruising — spacious enough for a professional crew but hardly adequate for millionaire yachtsmen and their guests to spend the night. They were essentially glorified day sailers for owners who could afford more luxurious yachts for extended cruising. In fact, Morton Plant owned two others: the 127-foot steel schooner Ingomar and the 131-foot steam yacht Parthenia. He probably felt more at home on his larger vessels, because he sold Nellie after only eighteen months. He also may have been too busy with building Florida’s Bellaire Country Club and furnishing his New York town house, now the Cartier Building. On the other hand, Mike Vanderbilt kept Trivia for thirty-six years.

The new owner renamed her Ishkoodah, and while Nellie was given different names by different owners, she was best known as Butterfly, her name when Stuyvesant Wainwright and his son, Louden, owned her from 1920 to 1935. She was a fast boat, and the Wainwrights raced her with great success, winning the Around Long Island Race among many others. Her next owner, Theodore Sitterly, did himself and future owners a favor by adding power. (Can you imagine sailing a boat of this size in and out of Stamford Harbor under sail alone?)

Among the many past owners, the one who deserves the greatest credit for contributing to Nellie’s survival is Tom Rickenback. In 1959 Nellie suffered serious damage in a yard fire. The insurance company considered her a total loss and wrote a check for $4,000 to Rickenback. Then Rickenback had second thoughts and decided he wanted to restore her rather than see her hauled off for salvage. The insurance company, recognizing the historic significance of the boat, agreed to overlook company rules and returned Nellie to him. He subsequently spent $15,000, a tidy sum back then, on restoring the damage. Fortunately, her cabinetry in the main salon escaped serious harm.

Rickenback sailed her out of Stamford for the next twenty years, but the burden of maintaining Nellie may have proved too much, for in 1981 she was laid up at Yacht Haven, where she remained until 2001. Storage of a wooden boat on land for this length of time normally leads to serious disintegration. Fortunately, she was stored in the water, which preserved her planking and saved her hull from the strains imposed by land storage.

Finally, Nellie was donated to Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum and was shipped to Maine for restoration, where a substantial amount of work was done replacing structural members. The story might have ended there, but instead, a major scandal enveloped the Independence Seaport Museum when its superintendent was indicted and convicted on multiple counts of embezzlement, including pocketing money on the sale of boats and nautical artifacts donated to the museum. It appeared that Nellie was to be instrumental in his latest embezzlement, and the museum, wanting to wash its hands of the whole affair, stopped work on her and looked for someone take her over. Enter Jeff Boal and Fernando Alva.

Still, completing the replication of the original Herreshoff construction in every detail was a monumental undertaking. Both Boal, a member of Stamford Yacht Club, and Alva, who belongs to the New York Yacht Club,  are experienced sailors, but neither will admit to being a professional boatbuilder. Nor were they blessed with deep pockets. But what they did have was enormous enthusiasm and total commitment. And they did two things that they say made it possible to accomplish an authentic restoration in record time and on budget.

After an intensive search, they found an experienced wooden boat specialist to oversee the operation. Wayne George has a degree in engineering and an addiction to wooden boats. He is also a Herreshoff devotee, even naming his first son Nathaniel Greene George. He was able to oversee and expedite the whole process. And they decided to outsource nearly everything. Restoration requires a wide variety of skills, some quite rare today. They were able to find craftsmen who knew Herreshoff’s  particular construction techniques and locate manufactures that could replicate original fittings and brass works. Another challenge was to find a source of longleaf yellow pine, considered the best of all woods for boatbuilding because of its stability and high strength to weight ratio. Its popularity has made it a precious commodity.

On October 18, less than three years after Boal and Alva began her final restoration, a small band of patrons, workers and friends witnessed the launching of Nellie at York Harbor, Maine, as bagpipes played on a day that featured a cold and wet nor’easter. Not least of those present were Boal’s and Alva’s patient and supportive wives, who have shared in their husbands’ enthusiasm for the project. In April Nellie completed her last leg, sailing from Boston to Stamford, where she can again feel right at home and where she will delight the eye of all who behold her on the Sound in a fresh breeze under full sail.

Comprising nearly one million photographs, the Rosenfeld Collection at Mystic Seaport is the largest single collection of maritime photography in the world, and includes images of steam yachts, powerboat races, leisure activities and every America’s Cup from 1885 to 1992. These can be viewed online at rosenfeldcollection.org, where decorative prints, posters, note cards and books can also be purchased.

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