Herreshoff Nellie: An Historic Restoration

Herreshoff Nellie sailingIn 1903 the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co was busy fettling its usual run of highly notable and successful yachts and ships, but alongside such important vessels as Reliance: to defend the America’s Cup that year against Shamrock III and the 120ft racing schooner Ingomar, the company also produced two lowly little gaff rigged racer/cruisers for influential clients. Based on the design of Azor from the previous year, these two craft; one, Trivia, for ‘Mike’ Vanderbilt and the other, Nellie, for fellow railroad magnate, Morton Freeman Plant, were far from the biggest, by no means the most noteworthy and definitely not the fastest boats produced by that eminent builder even that year. But at 46ft overall and comfortably fitted out in the distinctive Herreshoff style, they proved to be of a size and type that has ensured their continued upkeep, and today they are highly prized.

Whereas pure racing boats may fall out of favour once their performance is surpassed – Reliance was scrapped within ten years of successfully defended the cup – and larger craft can prove unsupportable through austere times, small, attractive yachts such as Nellie have a broad and enduringly practical appeal that often enhances their ability to survive. Today Trivia is held at the Herreshoff Marine Museum at Bristol, RI, while Nellie, after serving out virtually an entire century (all but 1906 to 08) in Narragansett Bay, completed a keel-up restoration in 2010.

The First Owner

morton freeman plant
Morton Freeman Plant

At the time Morton Freeman Plant ordered Nellie from the highly regarded Herreshoff yard, he himself was busily setting about putting the fortune he had inherited from his father the previous year to use. Morton had worked since the age of 16 in the family railroad and steamship businesses that had thrived through the expansion of the United States. But it seems it was the demise of his paternal influence that was the signal for the 51-year-old Morton to make free with his cash. He was moving among established wealthy families such as the Forbes and the Vanderbilts and he saw every reason to avail himself of the trappings of the rich and famous.

Apart from the yachts he had built – Ingomar was also in-build at Herreshoff’s during Nellie‘s construction – in 1903 Plant was having erected for himself and his wife Nellie an extravagant mansion on 5th Avenue, New York, that today has become the headquarters of the Cartier fashion business. Though he was well known for his enjoyment and patronage of sports such as yachting, shooting, baseball and golf, there was a philanthropic side to Plant that perhaps set him apart from the typical playboy of the time and he used much of his fortune to assist needy causes.

Knowing well the benefits of good infrastructure and a solid personal education, Plant regularly financed important public projects such as the building of roads, churches, hotels and hospitals, particularly in the sea port of New London, Connecticut. He was also known for selecting bright but underprivileged children to be sent to good schools and he became one of the founders of the Connecticut College for Women. All of which proved to be gifts of an enduring nature.


1903 Herreshoff Nellie

Though he sold Nellie after just 18 months, he had much successful use from his other yachts: the 1903 Herreshoff-built steel schooner – Herreshoff’s first – Ingomar entered 22 races in one season achieving 19 prizes, while his schooner, Elena, from 1910, notably beat Westward in 1911 when she was known as the fastest schooner in the world. As well as all this activity, in 1910, Plant and a group of friends found time to undertake a circumnavigation in Iolande, a description of which is provided in the book, Cruise of the Iolande.

The Restoration

After a century of service in the Rhode Island area, it could come as no surprise that by 2003, despite her impeccable build credentials, Nellie was in need of a rebuild. At this time she was in the ownership of the Independence Seaport Museum of Philadelphia who drew up a multi-phase plan, tasking DN Hylan of Brooklyn, Maine with the responsibility for carrying out the work.

The project progressed in a somewhat stop-start fashion until 2008. By this stage the hull had been stripped, with all original material catalogued and stored for future use. A full assessment of the work required had been drawn up and some of the rebuild had commenced with all wood floors and frames being renewed, but at this stage the Seaport Museum sold the boat, passing on ownership to two new parties, Jeff Boal and Fernando Alva.

Nellie‘s rebuilt saloon

Confronted with a part-built project, the new owners decided that in order to progress the project in a way that would both bring it to a satisfactory conclusion and allow them to enjoy the process, a complete rethink was required. As the owners put it: “Our plan, similar to that developed under the Seaport’s ownership, called for restoring her in stages with the first stage being the completion of the deck and cockpit. Then, pending the availability of long leaf yellow pine, we could begin to re-plank her below the waterline.

Critical at this point was a decision we had to make regarding the size, shape and configuration of her cockpit and deckhouse. After reviewing the drawings for both Nellie and Azor from the MIT Hart Nautical Collection and all the available photos from the Rosenfeld Collection, we determined that Nellie‘s sister ship Azor had a more interesting and unique cockpit. It featured a rounded aft section and stand-up-proud rounded coaming great for Sunday fun.

The cockpit borrows from sister ship Azor

We kept referring back to this great photo in making our choice as to whether or not to stray from Nellie’s original classic Herreshoff slotted cockpit with ogee coaming configuration. We loved the look of the rounded cockpit, and those who have sailed with us know that we enjoy the social hour, so the choice was made to adopt Azor’s cockpit for Nellie. As we would learn throughout the restoration process, making a choice in one area leads to a cascading set of ramifications in other areas, and restoring a boat is really a matter of inches, not feet. So in short order we discovered that to build Azor’s rounded cockpit meant that we had to build her house as well a foot wider than on Nellie or Trivia.

In the end we reasoned that we could bridge the authenticity gap because we would be borrowing from a direct family member rather than from a distant cousin. We built Nellie’s house and cockpit directly from Herreshoff’s Azor drawings.”


Coachroof and decklights are all in mahogany

Other changes that were made around this time were that the boat was moved to the workshop of Bob Egar and Terry Whiting in South Berwick, Maine, where other hand-selected craftsmen could be employed on the project as needed, and, in order to have the necessary control as well as having clear advice readily on-hand, a project manager, in the shape of Wayne George, was also employed.

Advice would be a key component of this later part of the rebuild, as in the owners’ words, “We are not professional boat builders, nor are we financially independent; with the world teetering on financial chaos, one could say that we were not in a position at the time to have taken on a project of this magnitude.” But they kept going, bringing on board skilled workmen and knowledgeable authorities on the Herreshoff legacy such as maritime historian, Maynard Bray and naval architect, Dieter Empacher.

From this point on, the complicated project proceeded to a more rapid conclusion, utilising the skills and knowledge of all these parties and more besides. Some items of design were restored from Nellie‘s original parts, others were drawn from other similar craft, such as the NY50 and the Buzzards Bay 30, or her sister ships, until she finally touched the water again, in October 2009.

Nellie Today

Sailing in Marblehead

What has been produced is a pristine, top-quality restoration of a vintage yacht. In design terms, she is not as she was when built: she now has a modicum of sympathetically placed modern adornments, such as engine and navigation electronics, as well as her amended layout, but all modifications have successfully maintained the aged Herreshoff ‘feel’. As her owners explain, “This was a curatorial accurate restoration. All the materials (with only minor modifications) we maintained to the original Herreshoff traditions and designs. We spent a great deal of time making sure that this was done as accurately as possible.” What is certain is that a beautiful and desirable historic yacht has been given a second lease of life and will now bring great joy to another string of owners for perhaps another 100 years.


Details and craftsmanship are impeccable

The Current Owners

Jeff Boal and Fernando Alva have been fast friends since they met over a croquet mallet and bottles of red wine. They have been champions aboard Jeff’s former Concordia Yawl, Feather. Prior to owning Feather Jeff built Honeydew, a Haven 12½. Jeff is the President of PlowShare Group a social issue marketing firm based in Stamford, Connecticut. He is a member of Stamford Yacht Club. Fernando is Chief Operating Officer of the Connecticut division of T Edward Wines of New York, NY and is a member of the New York Yacht Club.

To have a walk around the newly restored Nellie, follow this link.

Nellie is for sale.

Sandeman Yacht Company

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