Common Sense of Yacht Design
L. Francis Herreshoff
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|This is one of the great classics of writing about
yacht design and yacht history. It was written by one of the
most influential yacht designers and yachting writers of the 20th
century. L. Francis was one of two sons of the famous
Nathaniel Herreshoff who went into yacht design themselves.
Unusually for a son of a famous father in the same field he was also
a great designer and one who neither imitated his father nor felt he
had to go out of his way to be different than his father. He
was quite capable of turning out vessels very different from his
father's style and turning right around and designing a vessel
precisely the way his father would have if that was what people
wanted. He was, if anything even more innovative than his
father, but in a slightly different direction. Whereas his
father was unbelievably good at doing careful research and
engineering and producing vessels improved far beyond those of his
contemporaries through carefully developed reasoning, L. Francis was
much more inclined to think outside the box and come up with
innovations completely without precedent. A great many of his
inventions went on to become the traditions of the rest of the
For those of us brought up in the second half the 20th century he was thought of primarily as a promoter of wonderful cruising boats of a wide variety of types, but all stressing a simple outdoor lifestyle of quiet stress free cruising. Another of his books "The Compleat Cruiser" is essentially a bible for the sailor interested in simple carefree cruising. It may come as a shock to some therefore to read in this book of many of his innovations in racing craft including multihulls, wave piercing sailing craft, rotating masts and leading edge struts, canting keels, deformable rudders fully attached and faired into their keels, longitudinally framed molded wood hulls looking like exotic aircraft, etc. While it is true that some of his vessels have had long and glorious racing careers, such as the famous "Ticonderoga" we would tend to read this book and wonder why he wasn't the most famous racing designer of all time. The answer is that he was simply too good. Virtually every one of his innovations were banned immediately as "unfair" even before the boats incorporating them had their first race! Eventually he decided that if people were going to set up a set of rules and just change them every time you proved you could do a boat to those rules faster than anyone elses that there just wasn't any point in designing racing boats any longer. From then on he concentrated on cruising boats which he could design to make their owners happy without worrying about anyone objecting.
Your reviewer has great sympathy for this as early in my career the IOR rule was introduced. Careful study of the early versions of this rule made it quite clear that this rule was going to develop slow, unseaworthy, hard to handle boats in order to get a low enough rating to win races. Like Herreshoff I realized that if I wanted to design fast seaworthy well constructed boats that people would sail and love for decades I would have to abandon designing racing craft. Since then I have told people that if they want me to design a racing boat I will be happy to design the fastest boat I can, but it will be a boat designed to ignore today's rules, which always change, in favor of a vessel which will be fast and do well under a variety of rules over many years on the basis of boat for boat speed.
In addition to fascinating looks into all phases of the design process and what makes a good boat, this book also does a great deal with describing the history of yachting. Further there is a lot of excellent information on aesthetics and construction, material on cruising, etc.
While this is not a highly technical work full of formulas it does give a good overview of the design process and the thinking of designers. Occasionally there will be sections in which our knowledge has advanced beyond what was known at Herreshoff's time and materials have advanced as well, and I did notice that his explanation of the Trapezoidal Rule, used for figuring areas and volumes is technically incorrect, although his explanation of how to use it is a good one. Unfortunately some people, not realizing that much of what we think of as traditional high quality yacht design has actually been innovations produced by he and his father have labeled him a "traditionalist". Much has been made of one off hand remark about the appearance of fiberglass laminate, which does not appear in this book or anywhere else in his own writing. However it is also known that Alan Vaites in fear and trembling admitted to Herreshoff that he was building some of his "Meadowlark" beachable cruisers in fiberglass, whereupon Herreshoff said "Good!" Following it up by commenting that most of them had been lovingly built in wood by people who then didn't want to risk scratching them up by using them as they were intended. He felt that built in fiberglass people might be less hesitant to run them up on the beach or let the tide go out around them as he had envisioned.
Similarly in the mid-twentieth century many people counted him as "anti-women". This has been repeated so many times that it is hard to dislodge. However nothing could be further from the truth. His detractors in that regard were people for whom "respecting women" meant making sure that they did not have to work outside the home, not asking them to do anything physically demanding, and protecting them against the world while encouraging them to make themselves look "pretty". These people were aghast that Herreshoff declared that women didn't need make up, looked better without it, and should get out and have some fun on the water, where they would the be the most excellent companions for men. Now we look back and if anything would think he was an early feminist. My mother was, and my wife, and my daughter are all women of whom Herreshoff would have heartily approved.
I've said a lot here, but really it is impossible to describe this fascinating book. It is unique, as its author was unique, reading it makes you feel a part of a great flow of yachting history and study. Presented as Herreshoff does it is a rich tapestry indeed and I highly recommend the book. (335 pages, profusely illustrated with drawings and photographs) (tm) $49.95