NYYC Model Collection The Early Years

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By Peter J. Sweetser, chair of the Model Committee

The collection of the New York Yacht Club totals 1,230 models of which 147 are full-hull, rigged models, and the balance are half-models. Our earliest model dates from 1819, a builder's half-model of Hornet, which was originally a Maryland oyster sloop rebuilt in 1846 as a Hell's Gate Pilot Boat with a schooner rig.

She was rebuilt a third time by George Steers and raced for several years by a NYYC member Thomas Ferris. Our earliest full-rigged model is of Mohawk, built in 1875 for then Vice Commodore W. T. Garner, who met a tragic end when a sudden squall struck the yacht as she was preparing to get under way, knocking her over and causing furniture below to pin Mrs. Garner against a bulkhead. Mrs. Garner, Commodore Garner and three crew drowned.

As our first Heritage Weekend focused on the Club's early years, from 1844 to approximately 1870, the models I will address will be half-models since we did not have any full-rigged models in the collection during that period. Half-models are generally placed into two categories: "builder's" models and "presentation" models.

For approximately a century in the United States, beginning in the early 1790s, half-models were the means by which marine architects demonstrated their designs to builders. The half-model would be carved either from a block of wood or from a rough form made up of layers (lifts) of wood glued or pegged together. The shipwrights would take the scale dimensions off the model and loft the full-sized vessel. By the end of the 19th century designers and builders utilized drawings (plans), but models continued to be made, often by the shipwrights, as an exhibit for the yacht's owner.

The collection of the NYYC came about as a result of the effort by early members who were searching for an alternative to the comparison of Customs House tonnage as a means of handicapping yachts for time trials and racing. The Club required members to submit a half-model of their yacht to the Handicapping Committee, and these models were kept by the Club and displayed on the walls of the clubhouses. Today those models and others added to the collection over the years have as many stories to tell as they have designs to demonstrate.

There are, for example, half-models of the original Club squadron. Gimcrack, designed by George Steers for the first Commodore, John Cox Stevens, is shown to be full-bodied with short overhangs, fore and aft. She was very typical of the design of yachts built in the mid-19th century, often described as looking like a "Cod's head and Mackerel tail." While not a fast boat, Gimcrack did have what was certainly the first fin keel, a four-foot deep steel plate running 10 feet along her bottom.

One of the more interesting models is Onkahye designed in 1840 by Robert L. Stephens, brother of John Cox Stevens. The three Stevens brothers then owned a fast sailer that was a shoal-draft pilot-boat design named Wave. Robert built a full-rigged, scale sailing model of Wave and also one of a new design he had in mind.

He sailed the models against one another, carefully noting the differences in performance. The result was Onkahye, which is an Indian name meaning "dancing feather." Note her deep forefoot, slightly rockered keel and her perpendicular ends. Her greatest beam was aft of the center and see how her top sides dramatically flared outward above the waterline. She was fast and stiff.

Robert L. Stevens was also responsible for designing a yacht for his brother, John Cox, called Maria. Originally built in 1845, she had the lines of the North River (later the Hudson River) sloops. Long and beamy, with a shoal draft and a large centerboard, she was a good sailer. Never satisfied with his designs, in 1850 he rebuilt her with a hollow bow and lengthened her. The This new design may have made her the first "racing machine."

Her large (seven ton) centerboard didn't pivot in the conventional way but was lowered on chains by a hoisting gear that dropped the aft end more rapidly than the forward end. Her mast was hollow – bored out of a tree trunk – as was her boom, although it was made of staves held together with hoops like a barrel. She had large portions of her lead ballast placed outside the hull in layers on top of the garboard strake and her lower planking. She also had a second centerboard – a small one in the aft deadwood – to help her steering off the wind. All very sophisticated design features for a mid-19th century yacht.

As you study the early models of yachts such as Gimcrack, Cygnet, Una, Julia and others on our walls, you are in fact observing the progression of designs of George Steers. He was to the beginning of the first century of our Club's yachting history what Olin Stephens was to the beginning of the second. Steers was born in 1820, the son of an English shipwright and worked for his older brother James who was also a shipwright. Before he was 20 he had designed several small boats and a 44-foot boat called William G. Hagstaff that he changed from a catboat, to a sloop, to a schooner.

The William G. Hagstaff was such a good sailer that she attracted the attention of the Stevens brothers. He was 24 when he designed Gimcrack, and while it was not a particularly fast boat, he gained their confidence with his pilot-boat designs, resulting in their decision to choose him to design a yacht to race in England in 1851, which was called America. While Maria was a fast boat in the enclosed waters of New York, and in fact Maria beat America in an early challenge sailed in New York harbor, she wasn't thought to be suitable for the transatlantic passage and for racing in the Solent. As it turned out, they clearly made the right choice.

copyright NYYCThere are also three yachts that sailed the first transatlantic race in 1866: Fleetwing, Vesta and Henrietta. The race was organized by James Gordon Bennett Jr. with the competitors (the Osgood brothers, Pierre Lorillard and James Gordon Bennett Jr.) pledging a total of $90,000 to the winner. To put that purse into perspective, as John Rousmaniere reports in his recent history of the NYYC, in those days for $40,000 one could build and equip a 100-foot racing schooner. This was the beginning of the era of the big boats in the Club's fleet. The Club also has fullrigged models of these yachts in a case in the Ward Room at 44th Street, and there is a wonderful painting of the three vessels over the fireplace in the Model Room.

Consider a model of Sadie, a centerboard schooner designed and built by J. B. Herreshoff, the oldest brother of Nathanael G. Herreshoff. We believe she is the first design by the Herreshoffs to win a NYYC race.

Finally, there is the story behind the model that isn't ... that is to say, a model that is no longer in the collection. Wanderer, a schooner built in 1857, and owned by NYYC member William C. Corrie, was removed from the fleet in February 1859 by an act of the NYYC Trustees, and its owner expelled from the Club for "being engaged in a traffic repugnant to humanity and to the moral sense of the members of this association" – transportation of slaves.
Peter J. Sweetser is chair of the Model Committee. The article is from the speech he delivered at the first Heritage Weekend at Harbour Court in October 2012.