Approaching The Big House, Wing’s Neck, 2014. Photo taken from Swan Song, en route to the Buzzards Yacht Club for the 2014 H Class Championship 

Recently, during a big rainstorm, I curled up on our little porch, nestled on the old wicker couch, complete with a blanket and the requisite cat, and settled in for a blustery afternoon re-read of George Howe Colt’s The Big  House.  I had read it several years ago when it first came out, had loved every page of it, and it had lain (enticingly) on the shelf in the den of our summer house ever since.

The Blue Willow

The Blue Willow

At times, Colt’s account of the Big House reminded me of growing up in my grandmother’s summer house – maybe especially the hours spent in her kitchen, with its ancient woodburning stove, and the cabinets stocked full of blue willow china – but also the little traditions of opening the house for the season – winding the cuckoo clock, stocking the pantry, and the immediate satisfaction of throwing open all the windows to get the smell of the ocean flowing through the musty, “closed-up-since-last-summer” house. When we were  finally all together again under its roof, it felt to me as though the house could connect the past and the present, a silent watcher and guardian of precious memories.  It provided us with the space and the time for new traditions to be made, too; there were shooting stars and far-off thunderstorms to see from the roof-top perch, puzzles to be completed at the rickety card table on the porch, books to be read in any number of comfy chairs, pieces of sea glass to be gathered from the beach, pictures to be painted, lighthouse blinks to be counted at night from the little berth in the cupola, rose hip jelly and quahog chowder to be made, indoor forts when the weather was too rainy for being outside – all shared, happily, between generations, the products of their concerted efforts becoming part of the ever burgeoning memory-fabric of the house.

Perhaps by now, you’re wondering what all this has to do with sailing? We’ll fast-forward, then, from summers spent at my grandmother’s house, to many long years later, when my own family bought a summer house on Buzzard’s Bay. As you might imagine, one of the first things we did was to buy a sailboat – a Herreshoff Twelve, no less. And although we already owned the boat when I had first read Colt’s book, I hadn’t been as actively sailing her as I do now, so the bits written about this beloved boat were doubly beautiful to me as I re-read his account of the boat and its history at Wing’s Neck. I sail and race my Herreshoff Twelve now quite a lot, and teach other people to sail on her, so she’s very much a part of my life.  Just as at Buzzards Yacht Club on Wing’s Neck (Big House territory), these boats are sailed and raced religiously at our home port in Marion, and in fact, they have a lovely and long tradition on Buzzard’s Bay, most notably at Wing’s Neck, Quissett, Marion, and Naushon. Colt writes about learning to sail on a Herreshoff Twelve at summer camp, and recounts the experience as “a privilege that in retrospect seems as extraordinary – and risky – as a child taking violin lessons on a Stradavarius.”  Well said, I say!  The Twelve (as they are lovingly called) is a perfect little yacht, so perfect, in fact, that there has been no change in Nathanael Herreshoff’s design in more than 100 years. She is, quite simply, the envy of all who see her on the water.

Colt also writes about what it’s like racing the Twelves, and, especially after this year’s very blowy Championship, (hosted by our own Beverly Yacht Club in Marion) I can attest to what an incredibly accurate picture he paints of what it’s like to sail her in the classic Buzzards Bay breeze. Our Championship was raced this year in 20+ knots of wind, and 5-foot swells – challenging conditions, indeed, for a 16-foot boat. It takes a certain nerve to sail her well, getting knocked about in a good blow, especially on a run when that larger-than-life mainsail threatens a flying gybe.

A Twelve maneuvering a wave trough - 2015 Championship (Photo by Hew Russell)

A Twelve maneuvering a wave trough – 2015 Championship (Photo by Hew Russell)

But, take heart — for the Twelve is not just any boat! In the commemorative book celebrating Beverly Yacht Club’s 125th anniversary, Club Historian James R Frasier was quoted as having written this in the 1965 yearbook: “The most popular of all the classes ever raced at Beverly, of course, was the Herreshoff 12 footer, which appeared on the scene in 1915 thanks to Mr. Chandler Hovey, seventy-five of which carried racing numbers in 1937. This boat needs no description to club members in 1965. It held the Club together in the dark period from 1942 to 1946, and has affected the whole character and habits of Beverly racing beyond any other factor.” And in The Big House, Colt  includes this quote from another Beverly Yacht Club yearbook: “Here was a surprisingly fast little boat, quite able to take anything short of a hurricane that Buzzards Bay had to offer.”  And, to illustrate, he shares this memory: “The bay could get rough in a big southwest wind – sailors called it the Buzzards Bay Chop, and spoke of it with affection, as if it were a memorable cut of meat – but races were held in anything short of a hurricane. (I remember watching from the Big House one afternoon during a near-gale as a neighbor’s Twelve was towed into the harbor, its three-inch-thick mast snapped to a jagged stub.)”

One of our fleet's broken masts.

Swan Song’s broken mast, July, 2014

And lest you think Colt was exaggerating, just last summer in the Beverly races, two of our fleet were dismasted in heavy winds and generous swells. In one case, the windward shroud had let go, and in the other, the mast snapped forward under the force of a large mainsail, on a run in heavy winds and big waves. Having been aboard one of those dismasted boats, I can tell you that for such a dramatic event, it’s surprisingly gentle the way the sails, supported by the wind, float the mast down much more slowly than one would imagine. It’s the clean-up on the rough water that is the real challenge, gathering and organizing the shrouds and forestay, and all the halyards, and unlacing the sails amid roaring winds and endless waves.

Judith, happily hogging Tiger Tale's tiller!

The newest fan of the Herreshoff Twelve – Judith sailing Tiger Tale on a perfect summer day.

Recently, I had a Laser-sailing friend come to sail on Tiger Tale with me, and I will admit to being a little worried that she would find the 5-knot “hull speed” of a Twelve a little less exciting than sailing on a planing Laser. But how could I doubt for a second the allure of a Herreshoff Twelve? I’m happy to report that my friend was smitten by the boat’s beauty and history, promptly fell completely in love with her, and hogged the tiller the whole afternoon.

Who wouldn’t?

Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

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