Pure Genius: Nathanael Herreshoff

People were fooled by the quiet architect known as Capt. Nat. He’d do anything to win.

Unpredictable. Profound. Radical. These were among the characterizations of ­captain and naval architect Nathanael Greene Herreshoff (or “Capt. Nat”) at the turn of the 20th century. Only one nickname, though, has stood the test of time for the man who brought us high-performance sailing yachts: “The Wizard of Bristol,” Rhode Island.

The descriptive comments, some of them bordering on ridicule, were directed not so much at the man as they were at his out-of-the-box boat designs. Some examples:

• Capt. Nat’s 33-foot catamaran, one of the first seen in the United States, was considered “odd” when participants saw it at a regatta in 1876. They didn’t take the architectural piece of work seriously until it embarrassed all the large racing yachts. From that point forward, cats were barred from conventional yacht races.

Nathanael Herreshoff, "The Wizard of Bristol"Courtesy Herreshoff Marine Museum

• Critics called his sailing yacht Reliance "a freak" when she showed up for the ­America's Cup in 1903. She was the largest single-masted sailboat ever, with that mast towering 20 stories high and carrying more than 16,000 square feet of cloth that weighed four tons. The sails looked cartoonishly large from a distance … as the boat dominated the Cup races so completely that the rules were tightened immediately after the event to avoid another mismatch. (The restrictions didn't stop Capt. Nat from designing hulls that, in total, defended six Cups during a 27-year stretch.)

• Capt. Nat stirred things up again when he designed Westward seven years later, in 1910. Suspiciously termed "a wonder," the 132-foot schooner left every type of vessel bobbing in her wake for three decades.

These were the more conspicuous ideas from the man who sketched out his thoughts in privacy. His visions for speed were used to create torpedo boats for the U.S. Navy, power yachts and even 8-foot tenders. Documents exist for 2,600 of his designs, and he was so far ahead of the rule books that some of those Herreshoffs are still winning races today. Many historians consider Capt. Nat the most accomplished yacht designer ever. Perhaps only one word really fits the man and his work all along: genius.

The presence of Reliance (above) at the 1903 America’s Cup created a buzz that led to rule changes, but more important was how it opened the door to forward-thinking ideas for faster boats. Some of Capt. Nat’s designs have not been topped. “A typical day in Bristol [Rhode Island] and across Narragansett Bay will find Herreshoff-designed and-built boats under sail, some more than a century old,” says John Palmieri, curator emeritus at the Herreshoff Marine Museum.Courtesy Herreshoff Marine Museum

Herreshoff is just one of five creative thinkers that Yachting profiled in its December, Spirit of Innovation, issue. You can read the other four here: