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The narrative quality of yacht-building—the poetry, the lore—does not exist today. Lost is the craft of designers like William Fife III, who bestowed the ever-changing, fickle waters of the sea with modern meaning and contemporary epic…

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“Moonbeam III”

To face the elements is, to be sure, no light matter when the sea is
in its grandest mood. You must then know the sea, and know that you
know it, and not forget that it was made to be sailed over.
Joshua Slocum, Sailing Alone Around the World (1900)

To the civilized few among us for whom it is still important to reflect upon such things, the moving passage in the Odyssey where Odysseus is confronted among the shades by his companion Elpenor, who has just died, may be considered one of the most poignant scenes in all of classical literature. Odysseus asks Elpenor: “How came you in this murky gloom? Faster you come on foot than I in my black ship.” Elpenor tells Odysseus of his death and begs his lord to erect “on the shore of the foaming sea” the memorial of an unhappy man, that future times may remember him. “Do this for me and fix upon my grace the oar with which in life I rowed among my comrades.” The vision here is that of the sea of life, the immensity of the unknown: human perseverance through a vast ocean of tribulations, propelled by the awe and the dread with which Classical—or “Apollonian,” in Spengler’s formulation—man referred to the“violet-hued deep.”

The sea has been a stimulus to every imagination at all susceptible to the magic call of its waters, “ever since man overcame his primitive superstitions of the boundless main and sought to tame the ocean in venturesome ships,” The Lotus Magazine, a beautiful yesteryear sporting journal, editorialized in May 1915. There is both glamour and melancholy that surrounds all things maritime, the poetic product of warring emotional factions, between man’s desire to conquer and his staggering anxiety at depths unfathomable. The power of the sea to render men introspective inspires unparalleled richness of language. As the Oxford scholar William Chase Greene wrote in 1914: “It is only a step from simile to metaphor, from metaphor to personification; and figurative language comes early in the lives of children and of nations.” The literature of those nations, and of both their young and their adults, abounds with tales of the fountain of youth, the rivers of life; phrases such as “stemming the tide,” or the “current of thought,” or “a total wreck” are universal.

But nowhere is this linguistic genealogy more blood-rich than in sea lore—so full of divinations and prognostications—and its derivatives in sea-verse, sea-poetry and sea-dirges, ancient and modern. It is first vivid in Greek writing, in unfurled sails of iambic pentameter that set aloft the sighs and cries of the most noble type of elegy in the Hellenic tradition: the bewailing of the hero lost at sea, “the well-folded, hoary sea,” in the exquisite words of the seventh-century writer Archilochus. There is the famous “wine-dark sea”; also “the fearful hollows,” and, as Aeschylus wrote, “the myriad laughter of the ocean waves.” Men prayed for “a favorable wind, clear-eyed Athena sent,” bringing with them bowls brimming with wine, which they poured “to the gods that never die and never have been born,” while Zeus “sent forth Strife unto the swift ships of the Acheans.” Oceanus and Poseidon, brothers of Zeus who reigned without conflict between each other, each symbolized the power of the sea as “the engirdler of the earth” and as the main celestial machinery behind the fate of larger-than-life men who seek Elysium by first traversing Tartarus. It is only through immersion in such language that we can understand with what joy the Greek mercenaries of the army of Ten Thousand, when in retreat from the Persians through the Caucasus mountains and upon seeing the Euxine in the distance, cried out: “The SeaThe Sea!”

In no epoch has the sea ever been looked upon with indifference. In ancient times, the sea meant the rebirth and renewal of man, and to those traditions we owe some of our most profound mythologies: the ancient Egyptian view of water as the deified source of revivification; the pre-Socratic view of Thales that all phenomena is based on water; the Hebrew rites of purification by washing; Christian baptism—all these libations, oblations, and ablutions as testimony to the universal human belief in the pure powers of the sea, cleansing away the great human waste of social and moral deliquescence. The Phoenecians, the great sailors of Antiquity, did not care “for bow and quiver, only for masts and oars of ships,” notes The Lotus. The mother-of-pearl port cities of the East—Constantinople, Aden, Byblos, Alexandria, Tripoli—were all mythologized by famous voyages that brought back to those lands treasures of stone and soil that would become the commercial life-force of their nations. The Egyptian story of the Shipwrecked Sailor features ancient Punt (thought to be today’s Somalia) as the mystical land “of all good things.” Lothal, on the coast of the westernmost province of Gujarat in the Indian sub-continent, is considered the world’s first dockyard (3700 B.C.), whence ornate Portuguese and African vessels harnessed the rhythms of the monsoons for trade across the Arabian Sea—the very winds, both worshipped and feared, that modern scholars of India regard as the economic source-origin of the country’s historic survival.

The Chinese, it is said, do not like to have running water near their dwellings because it runs away with their luck, while the rivers of Russia are thought to have been persons. Prester John wrote to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Palaeologus in the thirteenth century that at the foot of Mount Olympus was a spring that is “scarcely three days’ journey from Paradise,” and throughout the Middle Ages it was thought that one who bathed in the Euphrates in the springtime “would be immune from disease the remainder of the year.” The medieval doges of Venice were betrothed to the sea, while the ancient Gauls, Swiss and Germans considered lakes sacred. In Icelandic mythology, seals are regarded as descendants of the Pharaohs who perished in the Red Sea, while for Brits and Celts, personification of the sea was equally as intense—indeed, there is probably no characteristic that marks out “the true-born Briton” more distinctively than his inherent love of the sea, and all that is associated with it, and the Celts regarded the sea as a dark, mysterious power, but also as effective as a protection against their enemies. Their Norsemen forebears saw the sea as “the path to glory,” beyond which were “strange lands of boundless wealth.” The late Irish scholar, St. John Whitty, writing in 1914 on Celtic mythology and the sea, points out: “The love of the sea runs strongly in Hebridean blood and frequently becomes a passion. ‘O, for one glimpse of the Western Sea’ is the constant cry of the islander whom Fate has placed in the heart of the mainland with the unfeeling mountains around him.”

Then, too, there has been the belief in the existence of a terrestrial paradise situated somewhere in the ocean towards the setting sun, a kind of vision prevalent in ancient times. Classic authors have written of it under the names of Atlantis, Insulae Fortunatae, and other names. In the mytho-romantic literature of Portugal there is the illusive island of the Seven Cities; in Italy the enchanted island of the Fata Morgana; in Brittany, of the submerged land of Ys. The disappearing Land of Avalon figures much in the literature of the Welsh and early Britons while the Land of the Lyoness is embodied in Cornish literary lore as an ideal state which afterwards disappeared beneath the sea. This kind of myth-making power of the sea has, for all of human history, exerted on the ambitions of men no less than the force of Tristan’s delirium (himself a sailor) and it brings to mind G.K. Chesterton’s poem about the great gales of Ireland: “The sea that rose in the rocks at night/rose to his forehead like wine.”

In times of peace or war; in times of prosperity or depression; in the time it takes for “History” to travel within mere decades from the fall of Constantinople to the rise of Columbus and his new world, for men “there will always be a summons to the sea which cannot be resisted,” writes The Lotus. It summoned the Egyptians to sail to mystical Punt to retrieve incense and gold. It compelled the Phoenecians across the Bay of Biscay to the tin mines of Cornwall. It summoned Vikings to pillage the Baltic shores and reign as pirates. For millennia men have sought the means “to overcome its terrors and to tame its fury; in spite of the fact that these men have never succeeded in getting the upper hand the call of the sea will ever be obeyed.” And once the sea has you in her grip; “when once you have consented to her cry and got the salt into your veins,” you become “as much the slave of the sea as any Roman underling that pulled at the oar of an ancient galley.” The sea has called, you hoist sail and set off. As one line of nineteenth-century sea-verse put it: The whole world’s life is a chant to the sea-tide’s chorus.

 Uffa Fox, the great boat builder, racer, writer, Commander of the British Empire, friend of royalty and full-time water rat of the Solent, summed up this human foreboding and fascination for the sea in his 1961 memoir, According to Uffa: “But you must at all times remember that the power of the sea is greater than anything else on this earth and that although many fleets have sailed over it, not one has conquered or harnessed it, and no one ever will. Remember, too, like fire, the sea is a good friend but a bad master; so you must never, never allow yourself to get into the position where the sea takes control.” Truer words were never spoken—and this from someone who preferred sailing across the English Channel in small, open boats in summer gales with only celestial navigation as his guide, and whose answer to sailing through wall-thick fog was “a jolly good bell.” But that was Uffa Fox, who, like his earlier, Yankee counterpart, Joshua Slocum, loved nothing more than to charge ahead “in a brisk nor’wester,” as life can only be lived that way, fearing the infinities of neither space nor time, and feeling the grandest sense of being human, of being a man, when most overwhelmed by the elements.

It brings to mind a verse from a popular sailing “shanty” or song:

“All that beauty

Born of manly life and bitter duty”

Today, the sea as master and mistress finds its fullest expression in a modern American-Anglo sensibility reminiscent of Slocum and Fox, a tradition born with the inauguration of the America’s Cup and surviving grandly, despite the artless commercialization of that event in the past two decades or so. The authentic East Coast culture of sail is perhaps best expressed in an essay-memoir by George Caspar Homans, a nephew of Charles Francis Adams—Bostonian, Secretary of the Navy, and descendant of famous name—entitled Sailing with Uncle Charlie, delivered at the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1964. It is a rhapsodic account of a sailor’s sailor; of the good bones of earnest sea craft; of an East Coast aristocrat with great presence and complete selflessness, and of the penchant for self-reflection that comes with boundless skies, epic horizons and light, galloping breezes skimming the brain. “For fifty years,” Homans writes, “he was acknowledged to be the ablest helmsman in Massachusetts Bay and, if the ablest there, the ablest on the East Coast—though Long Island Sound may have had its reservations—and if the ablest on the East Coast, then also in the world.”

… And, one might add, if the East Coast maritime-town or marine-scene, then the very center of the world—and if that center, then the full meaning of human existence: Marblehead, Oyster Bay, Rockport, Bar Harbor, Pride’s Crossing, Nahant, Hobe Sound, Annapolis, Jekyll Island, Greenport, Gardiner’s Bay, Shelter Island, Newport, Narraganset, Nantucket, Vineyard Haven… a Winslow Homer world where faces are cut deep by sun and wind, summer afternoons are devoted to “breezing up” and the curious language of sail enters every day conversation: “Not long after we cleared the land the offshore westerly would die. Then we slatted gently over the smooth sea, waiting for the standard southeaster to make.” These hubs of sail culture have always bred exemplary men who tend to be somehow related—at least in spirit—to the snug harbor of Boston’s Brahmin class, offering up to the world every now and then an Adams or a Richard Henry Dana (of Two Years Before the Mast fame), though far too infrequently.

Our East Coast sailor does not necessarily care for the elegancies of yachting; sailing is always about a working ship and others can go for beautiful, thank you. Joshua Slocum set out in 1895 at the age of fifty-one from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, to sail a 46,000-mile global circumnavigation in a thirty-four-foot boat complete with a broken alarm clock, an uninvited pet rat, tacks to lay on deck as his only safety precaution against “natives” attempting to board the boat at night, and, lastly, a good dose of chilly-blooded Yankee understatement that borders on the absurd when the good captain describes his near-death experiences with tidal waves, goon pirates, doldrums, loneliness, gear failure, fog, gales, fatigue, close-call collisions and harrowing winds, crediting all survival thereof not to himself, but to is trusty vessel, the Spray. Such frugal temperaments aside, however, it is the Anglo-American tradition that made the most grandiose, most romantic, contribution to the human expression of the love of the sea; a climax of taste and ingenuity that, millennia ago, began with primitive man watching the effect of a leaf thrust into a piece of bark borne by a stream powered by wind, and resulted, in the late nineteenth through early twentieth centuries, in fine sailing yachts so beautiful and breathtaking as to be considered works of art. These designs created a new language of sea verse whose metaphors are to be found in the glow of mahogany, teak, and brass, when amber light passes slowly abeam, and all nature seems to smile on craft named after mysterious women, Sirens, goddesses—named as such, that is, at a time when we still worshipped in that way.

*****

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William Fife III

Irving Babbitt once wrote that philosophers like Descartes and Spinoza objected to imagination because it was an obstacle to truth, which could only be obtained through abstract reasoning. But the turn of the (last) century era that ushered in the most beautiful designs in the history of sail could not have happened had the abstractions of scientific discovery not first taken flight with the ideals of high art, once the new tradition of “yachting” set off on its course to hold the world in thrall. Like the chariot of Parmenides that must travel through Myth to obtain Reason, the evolution of sluggish, heavy commercial boating into the graceful speed demons of fore-and-aft finesse came about when demand for gorgeous lines astride advanced engineering defined the times—a Renaissance, if you will, retrofitted to the Industrial Revolution. G.L. Watson, William Fife III, Edward Burgess, W. Starling Burgess, Nathaniel Herreshoff, John Alden, Charles Nicolson and Olin Stephens… these great sail design legends flourished between 1890 and (about) 1960 with craft such as Gossoon, Clara, Enterprise, Ranger, Morning Cloud II, Columbia, Shamrock I, Shamrock III, Reliance, Endeavour, Altair, Moonbeam, Mariquita, Dorade, among hundreds of others. Each of these sail yachts introduced some unique engineering concept (or several of them); each was majestic and simply lovely to behold.

Those developments were focused on making craft light and sleek: swift creatures of cutthroat aerodynamics that would not compromise on material, high-grade woods, or attention to flourishes of architectural detail. Light weight of scantling (the dimensions of the framing of a boat to which the planks or plates are attached to make the hull) and light rigging were carried to an extreme never before attempted. J.P. Morgan and C. Oliver Inselin, both of the New York Yacht Club, had commissioned from Captain Herreshoff, “the” America’s Cup designer, a vessel with a bronze bottom, the first to ever use such a bottom for plating (this added to the smoothness, even if it did add to the expense), while sails of the highest grade of cotton, considerably decreasing the weight, became the new standard. The engineering brilliance of these design-architects cannot be underestimated: Herreshoff, for example, who attained a then-unheard-of twenty-eight knots in his creations of 1890, also manufactured his own boilers, steam engines and propellers. Starling Burgess, when not revolutionizing hull design or experimentally foregoing ballasts altogether, produced one of the first airplanes to fly across the Atlantic.

Enter the America’s Cup. Other millionaire-sports have always gathered their crowds and stirred emotions, but historically they produced no sentimental symbol equal to that competition with which, in the words of the sports historian Caspar Whitney in 1914, “there is no trophy in all of the world of sport to compare in point of age or distinction.” The result of a surprise win of a mighty little schooner from New York named America at the Queen’s Cup in Cowes, England, in 1851, the first attempt to challenge the Cup in 1870 (by an Englishman) was considered so newsworthy that the attention given to the event was unheard of in sport up until that point. There was a big fleet of excursion steamers, loaded to the guards with sightseers, on hand to follow the yachts over the course. The exchanges were closed for the day, Wall Street was deserted, and all this took place before the time that the Cup acquired the prestige that it grew to have after the First World War. Then there was the great popularity of the challenger Sir Thomas Lipton of tea fame, quite possibly the “world’s greatest loser” who attempted to capture the Cup some five times over a thirty-year period. “The genial Irish baronet” as he was known, was so admired for his persistence that many Americans simply wanted him to win, even at the expense of having to lower the colors to a foreign flag.

Every defender of the America’s Cup from Vigilant in 1893 to Resolute in 1920 was designed by Herreshoff and built by the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company. Known as “the Wizard of Bristol,” Herreshoff dominated yacht design for nearly three-fourths of a century. An innovator, not a traditionalist, he designed the Cup defenders Vigilant (1893), Defender (1895), Columbia (1899 and 1901); Reliance (1903) and Resolute (1920). He had trained as an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, later designed steam engines, and then left to become a partner of his blind brother John, the founder of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company, which, in the 1880s and 1890s produced steam launches and the first torpedo boats. He designed a sailing yacht, Clara, whose performance was so remarkable that Commodore Morgan (of the New York Yacht Club) asked him to design two similar boats for him. Morgan was so pleased with Pelican and Gannet, as they were called, that he asked Herreshoff to design a large yacht for him to the rules of the new racing class. The result was Glorianna (1891), a work that set the direction for the design of racing yachts for many years to come, and an absolutely poetic piece of craft.

But foremost among these designers was the Scotsman Fife, whom Olin Stephens—probably the last of the legendary designers and who died in 2008—called the greatest of them all. The late Eric Tabarly, once France’s top sailor, was devoted to Fife boats, symbolically losing his life falling overboard the 100-year old Fife-desgined Pen Duick while crossing the Irish Sea. “If a boat can be called a work of art then surely the designs of William Fife III (1857-1944), qualify him as a grand master,” swooned the British magazine Classic Boat in a June 2008 issue devoted to that master. “Heart-stoppingly elegant to look at (from any angle); as exciting as any piece of installation art when you are aboard racing and feeling the deck zithering with the hum of her motion; undeniably precious in terms of rarity and value…these are the Ming vases of naval architecture.” There is an otherworldly quality to Fife’s vessels that breathes soul into the science; an immeasurable sense of proportion; his eye in a line, “the awesome cut of a mainsail leech extending over a perfectly-proportioned counter” and balanced with the greatest refinements of auxiliary cruising ever achieved. Alistair Houston, who organizes the Fife regattas that take place on the Clyde, in Ayrshire, every few years, maintains that Fife was most concerned about “the visual aspect and proportions of his boats,” as quoted in Classic Boat. He continued: “From the way [Fife] drew a sheerline, to something like Altair’s counter, or even the way his deck houses slope; the cleanliness of the lines, are still about pure beauty, and it is impossible to improve upon it; you just look and think ‘that’s perfect.’” The impact of Fife’s structural advances on the design industry was profound and it has been said that, more than any other yacht designer, he was most able “to keep one foot in the past while placing another firmly in the future.” His creations were most often the fastest and most modern of his day: Shamrock III, Ierne... His Mikado of 1904, for example, was thought to be the most advanced day-cutter of its time, but also the most spellbinding in looks. As historians of Fife’s works have noted, when the Scotsman’s 5-Rater (the rating here referring to the “handicap” assigned to a racing boat based on its dimensions) came out in 1905 with its canoe body, steel fin keel, and lead bulb it was, obviously, well before the world had ever heard of “lift” and “hydrofoil,” and as design it is considered the progenitor of such modern-day structural technology. Fife’s output (600 known vessels) was unsurpassed by any individual designer and the quality of build ensured that at least a third of those have survived to this day.

Mariquita

“Mariquita”

Mariquita was another beautiful classic yacht from Fife. Launched in 1911, the thirty-eight meter (124.6 ft.) sailing yacht was designed and built for the industrialist Arthur Stothert. As part of the nineteen meter (62.3 ft.) “Big Class” racing that re-emerged in 1911, this gaff-rigged cutter (a configuration in which the sail is four-cornered and all sails are set along the keel, rather than perpendicular to it) is said to have inspired the magnificent “J Class” yachts that came after her. Meanwhile, the thirty meter (98.4 ft) Fife gaff cutter Moonbeam epitomized classic yachts at their finest. Launched in 1903, Moonbeam still stuns on the classic yacht regatta circuit despite being more than a hundred years old; is constructed in wood with an oak hull and superstructure, while the interior is mahogany. Fife’s glorious Tuiga of 1909, built, as nearly all his vessels were, at the family shipyard in Fairlie, on the Clyde estuary, was commissioned by the Duke of Medinaceli, a relation to the King of Spain. Classic Boat, in their June 2013 issue, crowned Tuiga as the all-time classic yacht of yachts. “The 15-m gaff cutter,” wrote editor Dan Houston, “exudes a grace under sail that can take your breath away and her lines in harbour perform some kind of massage to the eyes; her lofty rig is all about the transference of power into speed; her deck furniture and the simplicity of fittings there—no winches—speak of the seamanship of a bygone era.” He continues: “In fact it’s the very simplicity of her look that draws you in. It seems to have a narrative quality as you stare and begin to work out how it would be to sail such a boat.”

That narrative quality—the poetry, the lore—does not exist today; “plastic yachting” as Houston rightly calls it, has taken over. Of course, the boundlessness of the sea still produces awe, humility, reverence—religion, as it is—and there are master boatbuilders still around today: Maine, in fact, has almost a cult culture of these talents. But the scale, the attention, the celebratory grandeur, the living soul of a William Fife aesthetic, are not there. Even the copies, the restorations, haven’t quite restored the historic appreciation these animate sculptures are owed. In philosophy, the “Ship of Theseus,” also known as “Theseus’s Paradox,” raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object, as asked by Plutarch in his Life of Theseus. One could not say that a fully-restored Fife can quite claim that authenticity—the old salt, the old scent, is much needed and much too gone.

Nor do we even find the tradition of female names for boats anymore, a practice Fife so honored—Ayshire Lass, Solway Maid, Latifa, Kentra, Saskia, Viola… Corporate names abound, and at the national yacht clubs only a small percentage of registered names evoke the great She that any true mix of beauty and danger must honor. Meanwhile, the clemency of Athena, the call of the Siren, the wind-whisper of the laughing Nereid are drowned out in the modern age of mass-produced and ugly artefact. “Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow,” said famously another Greek. It took 2000 years to perfect sail design up through the great age of yachting, and it was the loveliness of Fife’s craft, and the craft of his excellent contemporaries, that bestowed those ever-changing, fickle waters with modern meaning and contemporary epic. In this sense, it is man himself who has won over Nature, in a reversal of the ultimate gift of life: that of human ingenuity and crafted beauty as the source of rebirth and renewal—not only of man’s spirit, but of the very soul of the sea itself.

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1 reply to this post
  1. What a marvelous, elegant reflection!

    I was reminded of a line that appeared in an essay composed in a festschrift (Saints, Sovereigns and Scholars: Studies in Honor of Frederick D. Wilhelmsen) that referred to the act of philosophizing as sailing forth on the unfathomed depth and breadth of the sea of being, knowing, doing and making.

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