The privilege of owning a Herreshoff classic

By Ben Emory
For Points East

The author was dumbfounded when he first laid eyes on Perch, after buying her sight-unseen in 2014. She was pure perfection. Photo by Benjamin Mendlowitz

In August of 2014, just as dark fell, the Fish-class sloop Perch, on her trailer, was dropped off at Brooklin Boat Yard on Maine’s Eggemoggin Reach. I’d purchased the Nathanael Herreshoff-designed boat sight-unseen, based on a YachtWorld.com ad and photos sent by Tyler Fields of Ballantine Boat Shop in Massachusetts. Built in 1925, she had been restored in 2005 by MP&G of Mystic, Conn., a shop as good as it gets for Herreshoff restorations. She also reportedly had had excellent maintenance for the following nine years. Still, I was dumbfounded when I first laid eyes on her just after sun-up the morning after her arrival. She was perfect – absolutely pristine, with gleaming paint and unmarred varnish. I was bowled over by what was now mine.

The Fish class is Herreshoff’s enlarged version of his famous 12½. Three and half feet longer on the waterline, almost twice as heavy, and with a rig that’s relatively larger for the size of the boat, the Fish is faster, steadier, drier and more powerful.

The first Fish boats were built by the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company of Bristol, R.I., in 1916 for racing at Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club on Long Island Sound’s Oyster Bay. A later group was built in 1925 for the Warwick Country Club in Rhode Island. Although she lacks her builder’s plate showing her hull number, Perch is almost certainly one of the latter fleet. She sports the lovely visual accent of the Herreshoff molded sheer strake (topmost plank), a feature the earlier Fish boats lacked. She also has a Marconi rig like the 1925 boats, although some of the earlier Fish boats were converted to Marconi from the original gaff.

I grew up hearing about a Fish boat my father had owned, but sold, the year after I was born. He often talked about how much he regretted selling her and all the fun he, my mother, and family and friends had had in her. “Best boat I ever owned,” he said. His judgment was seconded by L. Francis Herreshoff, Nathanael’s son, himself another famous American yacht designer. For some years I’d had in the back of my mind the possibility of trying to own one someday. Then I saw the online ad.

Less than two days after her arrival the boatyard launched Perch into Brooklin’s Center Harbor, having painted the bottom and stepped the mast. This thrilled not only me and my wife Dianna, but our five visiting small grandsons. Soon we had East Boothbay sailmaker Nat Wilson’s outstanding, traditionally made sails on the spars, the soft polyester sailcloth a light cream color reminiscent of the cotton sails Fish boats originally used.

Sailing Perch on the Eggemoggin Reach and Jericho Bay was delightful. For a heavy, full-keel boat of her size she is fast. The tiller has the gentle tug of slight weather helm, the pull of the tiller increasing with building wind strength. Usually alone in a boat intended to race with the weight of a three-man crew, I found the boat slightly tender, but a single reef stiffens the boat markedly and reduces weather helm back to that pleasurable gentle tug. I’ve heard others complain of Fish boats having too much weather helm. Perch’s mainsail was cut quite flat and that might explain the weather helm I experienced on the boat, which anecdotally seemed less than that of her sister ships.

Perch’s exceptional aesthetics provided never-ending pleasure, whether aboard or admiring her from a distance. Her beauty attracted the attention of offcenterharbor.com’s videographer Steve Stone and still-photographer Benjamin Mendlowitz. Benjamin’s annual Calendar of Wooden Boats is always a masterpiece. For the 2016 calendar cover he chose, reportedly from among 3,000, a photo of Dianna sailing Perch at sunset on the Eggemoggin Reach. Offcenterharbor.com’s five-minute video “A Three-Generation Dreamboat – The Herreshoff Fish Class Sloop Perch” is spectacular and, as the website’s 250th video, was widely promoted. All this attention added to the fun of having Perch in our harbor.

There were two downsides to owning this masterpiece. To keep Perch in as perfect condition as when she arrived, I left her maintenance to the highly skilled wooden-boat professionals at Brooklin Boat Yard. She was not our only boat, and while the boatyard’s bills were reasonable for the quality of work done, they obviously added to the annual cash drain of my sailing passion.

The second downside – and others might feel very differently – is that the boat is TOO pristine for my family’s style of sailing on the Maine coast. I didn’t take her on family picnics, for I didn’t want sandy feet returning from an island beach stepping on the flawless varnish of Perch’s seats. I didn’t sail her to our float to pick up family or friends, for I didn’t want to risk too fast a landing and possibly scuffing the immaculate white topsides.

Several years ago I had an interesting conversation on the Brooklin Boat Yard float with one of the yard’s most senior personnel. He agreed that the expected standard for wooden-boat maintenance has arguably become too high. Nowadays, wooden boats are expected to be perfect. The financial cost of maintaining perfection limits who can afford a classic. That’s far different from when I was young. Some wooden boats were perfect, but many others were just OK. Yet the latter still gave their owners no end of pleasure, even if leaks, rot and failed gear created the occasional misadventure.

After exactly four years of fun with Perch I made a sudden decision one evening to offer her for sale. A night’s sleep did not change my mind, and by 7:30 a.m. I had an email off to people who might know prospective buyers. Literally within 15 minutes the phone rang. Tyler Fields of Ballantine Boat Shop, who had brokered my purchase, was on the phone. He was confident he had a buyer and asked if I would hold the boat through the weekend. Tyler was on his way to Brooklin the very next day for the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta. Could he take a look at Perch? He came straight to my house, and I rowed him out to the boat. He looked around and pulled out his cell phone. I overheard him say that the boat was in even better condition than when she had left Ballantine’s four years earlier. He finished the call and made an offer slightly higher than what I had paid. Sold! The buyer was a Herreshoff enthusiast in Massachusetts, who already owned one of the Herreshoff Buzzards Bay 25s. The smaller, more manageable size of the Fish class appealed to him. By the following week Perch was on her trailer enroute to Marion. Owning one of Nathanael Herreshoff’s extraordinary Fish-class sloops was a marvelous adventure from its beginning to the happy, although sudden, end. It also was a treasured privilege.

Ben Emory of Bar Harbor and Brooklin, Maine, has decades of experience afloat. When not on the water, he has been deeply engaged in land conservation, professionally and as a volunteer. His book “Sailor for the Wild: On Maine, Conservation and Boats” was published by Seapoint Books in 2018 (see pg. 98).

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