A fortuitous meeting

Guest Perspective

By Dave Tew
For Points East

From dot-matrix numbers on a sheet of paper to this — a head-turning Sonderklasse design. Photo courtesy Dave Tew

In 1975 I was a senior in college, and trying to figure out what to do with my life. At the time, the Western Electric Corp. offered a program in which they evaluated and sponsored soon-to-be-graduating college students, and introduced them to professionals in various fields. The idea was that – introductions made – the student might intern at the professional’s company. I entered the program, and said I was interested in yacht design. Not surprisingly, the folks at Western Electric were a bit nonplussed. Boats? They were, to put it lightly, a bit outside Western Electric’s purview. No matter: I’d already made a list of New England yacht designers. Western Electric agreed to do their best.

And so it was that we found ourselves knocking on Halsey Herreshoff’s apartment door overlooking the Charles River, in Boston. When he opened the door I introduced myself, and, in a courtly and well-spoken manner, Halsey welcomed us inside. No trepidation was called for. After the Western Electric folks introduced themselves we all sat for a bit. I told Halsey about my background and budding interests, and he agreed to “take me on.” The Western Electric executives were pleased, and asked me to check back with them as the internship proceeded. I hope they still offer such assistance.

At the time, Halsey was lecturing and doing research at MIT while designing the first of Garry Hoyt’s Freedom series of yachts, the Freedom 40. He showed me the lines he’d drawn – based in part on one of his grandfather Nathanael Herreshoff’s designs – and we discussed it for longer, and in more depth, than I thought he would have time for. By the end of our conversation he suggested that we meet weekly. I, of course, was thrilled, and we set a schedule.

In subsequent months he would share what he was working on, and occasionally gave me assignments. One time he was a bit rushed as our discussion drew to a close, and, throwing on his coat, he gave me a computer printout and said “draw that.” I looked at the sheet of paper as the door closed behind him and was mystified. It was just a series of dot-matrixed numbers. No other identifying marks. It was a puzzle, but one I very much wanted to figure out.

A day or so later a childhood friend of one of my college roommates stopped by. She was on break, and was there to help my roommate out with his thesis. He introduced me and off they went to work on his paper. Later in the day, she stopped by my room to see what I was up to. I was reviewing the printout Halsey had given me. I had a set of plans taped to the wall above my desk, which she leaned over to look at. Very shortly it was clear she could read them, and had a well-considered opinion about them. Looking at those plans together, we agreed that the table of offsets in the corner resembled the set of numbers on the computer printout I was pondering. I was dumbstruck. Of course. How obvious! Halsey had given me a table of offsets. There was no indication about which numbers were sections, buttock lines, or waterlines, or whether the numbers were imperial or metric, and that’s what was stumping me. Some experimentation with different scales solved the riddle, and I was able to draw out the lovely, sleek, hull shape. Some time later Halsey showed me the half-model for the boat in Bristol, Rhode Island, a Sonderklasse design carved by his father, Algernon Sidney DeWolf Herreshoff. We discussed different rudder and keel configurations, and it subsequently became his own personal sailboat, Streaker, one of the first built by Eric Goetz. It’s a boat he still sails out of Bristol.

Decades later I told this story to Halsey and he apologized, entirely unnecessarily, for not being clearer about what the printout was. At any rate, due to those experiences with Halsey, which I treasure, and discussions with Eric Goetz, I learned that my “skill-set” lay more in boat-building than design, and I started work building straight out of college.

I also got something else: my bride. The girl who helped guess about the table of offsets has been my wife, companion and best boat-critic for 40 years.

FMI: sonderklasse-yachten.de/daraces.htm.

Dave Tew, a resident of West Boothbay Harbor, Maine, grew up boating on Fairhaven Bay, a wide spot on the Sudbury River near Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. He’s lived in Maine since the 1970s, where he and his family have sailed, chartered, taught and been fascinated by boats, boat-building and designers.