Archive for the ‘Yachting’ Category

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that one of the projects that slowed me down a bit in getting back to working on the Old Town was a book chapter. I was invited to contribute to a volume on interpreting maritime history being edited by Joel Stone, a Senior Curator with the Detroit Historical Society, which manages the Detroit Historical Museum and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. The book, titled Interpreting Maritime History at Museums and Historic Sites, was published in March 2017. Copies are available from the publisher. 

My chapter is titled “Curating and Exhibiting Recreational Boating.” Here’s a little extract:

If you were to ask a visitor to a maritime museum or historic ship to name important themes in North American maritime history, it is reasonable to expect that they would mention at least some of the topics that make up the chapters in this book: whaling, naval affairs, shipwrecks, commercial shipping, lighthouses and inland waterways. It is also reasonable to expect that far fewer, if any, of them would mention the fiberglass runabout on its trailer in their driveway, or the personal watercraft at their vacation house. And yet pleasure boating is and has been an activity of significant economic and social consequence, and is worthy of consideration as an important part of maritime history. But it’s only pleasure—how could it possibly be as serious a topic as the navy, or exploration, or shipping? In the words of naval architect and historian Douglas Phillips-Birt, from his book An Eye for a Yacht,

Yachting was as exclusive, as brilliant, as undemocratic as a Florentine palace. And it was creative. Some of the most original and talented minds in several countries devoted themselves to the creation of the yachting fleets—men who might have reached the top in any sphere of imaginative work. (London: Faber & Faber, 1955, pp. 13-14)

The high net worth individuals who commissioned grand yachts from designers such as the Herreshoffs, C. Raymond Hunt, Clinton Crane, Starling Burgess and Olin Stephens were no less patrons of genius than the Renaissance princes who bought out the best work in the artists they supported. Their choices, exercised free of almost all of the constraints that normally bind you and I, are therefore a truer index of desire than many more pragmatic and workaday decisions.


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I ended the last post by introducing Charles P. Kunhardt (1848? 1849? – 1889), another of the titans of late 19th century American yachting. In a short life of 40 or 41 years, he produced a tremendous body of work, and one can only wonder at what might have been accomplished had he not perished in a shipwreck long before his time. He was born only a few years before W.P. Stephens, his fellow traveller in the world of yachting and boating.

Kunhardt was the Yachting editor of Forest & Stream from 1878 to 1884. W.P. Stephens had become the journal’s Canoeing editor in 1883, and added Yachting to his portfolio after Kunhardt’s departure. I’ve thought quite a bit about an analogous early 21st century publication that I could cite to give an idea of the influence and importance of Forest & Stream to the late 19th century sporting world, but I’ve come up short. Sports Illustrated doesn’t even come close. In its densely-packed pages, set in eye-strainingly small type, this weekly journal (and its English equivalent, The Field, covered the whole of the sporting world, from the turf, to shooting sports, to canoeing, yachting and later bicyling. It was quite simply the publication of record, and it afforded Kunhardt the perfect pulpit from which to preach.

And preach he did, for he was a yachtsman and designer of decidly strong opinions, and a polemicist of fierce and deadly skill. A proponent of wholesome and seaworthy yachts, he advocated English-style cutters over the then popular wide, shallow American centerboarders. So fiercely did he argue the virtues of the cutter type that he became the unofficial leader of the whole faction, dubbed the “Cutter Cranks” by fans of other types. A number of his letters to W.P. Stephens survive in the W.P. Stephens collection in the archives of Mystic Seaport, many written in a purplish-colored pencil. Reading them, one can imagine him writing furiously, the words pouring out onto the page, as he argued a point of design doctrine or demolished a foolish opponent or poorly-designed yacht.

In addition to vast numbers of articles and editorials, Kunhardt was a prolific designer of yachts and small boats, and a draftsman of remarkable skill. Let’s take a moment of silence and admire his work on the inboard profile of the cutter yacht Yolande.

This is beautiful drafting work, executed on glazed linen sheets with a ruling pen that had to be charged anew with ink for each line that was drawn. Work like this represents hundreds of hours of patient effort, with the whole project hanging in the balance, always on the verge of being spoilt by a single blot. There is life in this drawing, and it’s not hard at all to picture oneself snug below or preparing a hot drink in the galley, located in the 19th century fashion up in the eyes of the boat and not aft at the foot of the companionway. Yolande‘s deck plan is just as nicely delineated.

Note how fastidiously the shadowing under the deck furniture is drawn, and the care taken to show the button tufting in the settee cushions, and the harlequin pattern of the linoleum on the sole of the saloon. These drawings, and much much more of Kunhardt’s impeccable drafting and pungent prose, can be enjoyed in his book Small Yachts: Their Design and Construction Exemplified by the Ruling Types of Modern Practice.

If your pocketbook will stand it, find and buy an original copy of this remarkable book, and leave it open on the reading stand in your library to a different yacht each week. You may want to consider a loan, though, as such quality doesn’t come cheap. In 1997, a first edition sold for more than $1000 at auction in the UK. If that’s a little too rich for your blood, by all means enjoy WoodenBoat magazine’s edited and abridged paperback edition from 1985. In either case, reading Kunhardt is a bracing way to immerse yourself in the fascinating world of late 19th century yachting and pick up some of the flavor of the times.

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If W.P. Stephens had written only Canoe and Boat Building: A Manual for Amateurs, his place in boating history would be secure. He clinched his nomination for the all-time boating hall of fame, however, with Traditions and Memories of American Yachting.

Traditions and Memories

1981 edition by International Marine Publishing Company is on the right; the 1989 edition by WoodenBoat magazine is on the left.

The book began as a series of 83 articles that Stephens wrote for Motor Boating magazine between 1939 and 1946. Appropriately for a project of such biblical proportions, the first article was titled “The Genesis of American Yachting.” In a characteristically self-deprecating preface, he wrote

In offering this book to my fellow yachtsmen I feel that a few words of explanation or excuse are necessary: first, for the absence of formal style which is usually found in the recording of serious history; and secondly, for the lack of chronological order. . .The method of narration which suggested itself as the most fitting is that pursued by yachtsmen about the fire in winter and afloat or on the club porch in the season–reminiscent, discursive, argumentative, often wandering from the immediate subject.

We all have reason to be thankful that Stephens went about writing these articles in his own style, for the manner in which they are presented is thoroughly charming, and the side tracks and digressions, which are, after all, the way that history proceeds, are nothing that cannot be surmounted by the use of the very complete index.

The articles were collected and published in a book several times, with the most complete collection brought out in 1981 by International Marine Publishing Company. In 1989, WoodenBoat magazine performed a great service to yachting and boating history by bringing out a new and comprehensive edition on the 50th anniversary of Stephens’ death. All of the previous collections had been printed exactly as they originally appeared in the magazine. For the new edition, WoodenBoat re-set the articles in new type and devoted considerable effort to sourcing originals of the illustrations used in the articles, and added some 40 new images.

And what is in this wonderful book? Just about anything you could want to know about North American yachting and boating, from the sport’s beginnings in the middle of the 19th century, through the epic era of the America‘s Cup, to the great sloop vs. cutter and keel vs. centerboard debates to sandbaggers, catboats and of course, sailing canoes and canoe yawls.

The book is profusely illustrated with lines plans, sail plans, general arrangement drawings, photographs, engravings and paintings. As you page through the many drawings, you will from time to time see one of exceptional quality, such as this arrangement plan of the cutter Yolande.

Close examination of the finest examples of draughting in the book will often reveal the initials “C.P.K.” somewhere on the right-hand side of the drawing. Those stand for Charles P. Kunhardt. And who was he? Well, that’s another book. Until then. . .

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