Marilee is one of just four remaining ‘Fighting Forties’. The 1926 Nat Herreshoff design has just undergone an incredible restoration. Alison Langley reports
When the New York Yacht Club commissioned the new NY40 one-design class in 1916 Nathanael Herreshoff’s objective was to design a competitive racer that was seaworthy enough for ocean racing, yet also provided elegant accommodation for coastal cruising.
The rules required that owners helm the yacht – except when the boat was on a run or a reach. Professional crew was limited to four, with an additional two allowed when racing. The rest of the crew would be ‘Corinthian’ sailors.
The design initially came under criticism for its wide beam and high freeboard – a major shift from Herreshoff’s earlier class racers. It was given the moniker ‘the flying saucer’, but it wasn’t long before the boat’s performance was proven and the flying saucers soon became known as the ‘Fighting Forties’.
The 12 original NY40s only saw two racing seasons before World War I put a halt to sailing. Competition resumed in 1920. In 1926, two new NY40s were launched: Marilee (hull 955) for Edward I Cudahy, and her sistership, Rugosa II (hull 983). The two boats were identical in their lines, but Marilee featured a newly designed coach house, accommodation plan, and a larger cockpit.
The NY40s were known to race hard in their heyday, producing some infamous battles. The boats were also renowned for their hearty seaworthiness, and despite their vast sail areas were famously rarely reefed. Just four NY40s survive and race today: the well-known Rowdy, Chinook, Rugosa, and Marilee.
Although the war had ended, the United States had not fully recovered economically in the ’20s. The trend was for smaller boats and by 1927 most of the NY40 fleet had been sold, continuing to cruise and race only periodically.
In 1933, Marilee was given an engine, and was one of several Forties who traded her gaff and massive sail areas for a more manageable Marconi rig.
She received her first major refit some six decades later, in preparation for the 2001 America’s Cup Jubilee Regatta at Cowes. Seventy-five years after the last true season of NY40 class racing, Marilee and Rugosa tied for first overall at the regatta. Marilee went on to race with success on the Med classic circuit.
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A bottom-up restoration for Marilee wasn’t on the radar in 2014. Then just some aesthetic improvements, racing enhancements, and ‘light structural’ projects were on the docket.
French & Webb was chosen to undertake the work, while Kurt Hasselbalch, curator of the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Hart Nautical Collections, which houses Herreshoff’s original plans and drawings, was to prove a valuable member of the restoration team.
In early winter 2014 they began with a 3D scan of the existing hull. This, combined with a CAD drawing created from the original Herreshoff plans, enabled the team to accurately examine Marilee’s current shape and compare it with the design from 1926. They discovered that the deck line and sheer were grossly misshapen – by over four inches – from years of unsupported rigging loads.
That first winter a portion of the keel was replaced, along with the horn timber, and approximately 80 per cent of the floor frames. Bronze plates were incorporated for added strength and resilience in the floor frame connections and the mast base itself. Additionally, two of the hull frames were cut to double thickness for exponentially more hull stiffness.
Around half the planking was replaced, both single and double planks, using custom- designed fasteners. The wheel was replaced with a tiller and an accompanying rudder, all built according to original Herreshoff plans. Lastly, the engine was moved from far aft, where it was unsupported, to the centre of the boat – better for racing and also for the structure of the boat.
After being rapidly relaunched for a summer of racing in 2014, the following autumn Marilee entered her second phase of restoration, and there was quite a bit more to do. The yard had to completely rip the boat apart, breaking it all the way back down to just framing and planking.
When the chainplates were removed, it was found that the boltholes were oblong, and that the sheer plank had lifted vertically from the strain on planks below. To avoid any similar problems in the future, and strengthen the mast-step foundation, the chainplates were attached to a large bronze load plate that would be fastened to the hull framing. A team of metalsmiths custom-fabricated all the hardware, in place, to ensure a perfect fit.
The high-stress area of the running backstay terminals were treated the same way, but in practice this was much more complex, because it meant hand-rolling a load plate to fit a curved area of the hull. Additionally a bronze knee was welded to the framework. The largest loads are now distributed along this custom-fabricated bronze framework.
When Marilee was originally launched, her coach house and larger cockpit gave her a distinctive silhouette. But by 2015 Marilee’s deck furniture had grown tired, heavy and Victorian in style. It was not up to the usual Herreshoff standard.
Todd French and team planned to return Marilee to her original proportions on deck. The coach houses, skylight, hatches, coamings, and cockpit were all rebuilt to correct scale and accuracy, while restoring them to clean, utilitarian, fine shapes.
Additional design elements, such as the 90-year-old antique glass layered under safety glass, brought character back to the coachhouse. Marilee’s signature pugilist ‘Fighting Forties’ racing logo was etched in the glass mirror.
Marilee’s owner had the bold vision to create an interior that reflected the yacht’s century-long provenance while creating an open space below. Having seen hundreds of classic yachts around the world, he realised that many interiors were dominated by darkness in all things from varnish to seat cushions. These ‘cigar room’ interiors often simply don’t translate in a modern era, where people value a more relaxed style of comfort.
It became clear from comparing plans that ever since the inception of the class, the interior space has been personal to each owner. In fact, Herreshoff designed many different layouts to accommodate the widely varied preferences of each NY40 owner. With this in mind, Marilee’s restoration team set out to create a fresh, innovative space.
The team worked with Paul Waring of Stephens Waring Yacht Design, to create a traditional and properly constructed interior with an updated layout for modern day use. They chose to emphasise one of Herreshoff’s guiding principles: of uncluttered sightlines.
Panelled bulkheads, seating areas, and functional areas were crafted out of cypress, as specified in Herreshoff’s NY40 plans. To create the desired patina, materials were sought that were authentic to Marilee’s original design. So old growth cypress logs that were sunken for 150 years in a North Carolina riverbed were resurrected and sawn for her interior bulkheads.
The team used distressing techniques and custom finishes that were available at the time of her original build, to create a sense of depth and age to the newly made panels.
Metalwork of bronze and copper was forged, cast, and fabricated with metallurgy techniques used over a century ago in Bristol on the USA’s eastern seaboard, integrating structural and aesthetic elements.
With the help of interior designer Angela Thompson, antique linens, leathers, wood and pewter accents brought additional texture and warmth to the space. An American flag, used for the privacy café curtain, is an authentic 45-star flag. Leather drawer handles and locker pulls were sewn by hand, using old weaving techniques.
A modern addition came in the form of hidden LED lights, which were installed to highlight the design details and emphasise the interior sight line. The updated lights also extend the usefulness of the cabins and saloon well beyond sundown.
Ultimately, the owner felt strongly that stepping into a classic yacht’s interior should be comforting, like wearing a well-loved T-shirt or pair of jeans.
Marconi and gaff rigs
When looking through all of the original drawings at MIT’s Hart Nautical Collections, Kurt Hasselbalch discovered more #955 plans for Marilee than he had previously known existed.
In particular, he uncovered a drawing of a Marconi rig, originally designed for Marilee’s 1933 refit. To find a Herreshoff-penned design of a modern rig was an incredible discovery.
It was decided that it would be possible to sail Marilee with two different rigs. Armed with the original Herreshoff drawings, the team set out to design a Bermudan rig that would be as fast and competitive as her current setup, maybe even faster. It also gives the owner options, with a larger sail inventory and the advantages of flexible race ratings.
A unique custom fabrication was designed to support the loads at the bow that were expected with a Bermudan rig. Blindly notched into the underside of her bowsprit is a split bronze tang, ready to accept the new headstay and tack fitting.
This tang is directly attached to a giant bronze framework that was carved into the stemhead, with multiple bolts connecting the deck structure to this new stem fitting. In less than an hour, the bowsprit can be removed and the rigging adjusted to accept the headstay loads of a Bermudan rig.
At the transom, a similarly hidden provision was installed to accept a fixed backstay attachment. The new mast was also designed to plug directly into the existing chainplate locations. The mast step and partners were elongated with specific moulds designed to fit either gaff or Marconi mast.
The construction proved to be a challenge, explains Todd French of French & Webb: “Because of the fore and aft forces on this type of rig, the 84ft [Marconi] mast had a more elliptical section. Taller and lighter than the gaff round mast, she was supported by double sets of spreaders.”
Internal halyards were used, and all mast wall penetrations were reinforced with Epoxy G-10 Tube. A square boom section accommodates a loose-footed mainsail.
“Marilee’s mast, hollow in section, was constructed of eight staves – three pieces on the front, three on the back, and two expanded side pieces provide a stiffer fore and aft section shape,” explains French. “Skilfully sculpted, these hollow spars appear like one piece of evenly toned wood where even the glue joints look like a grain line.”
Year launched: 1926
LOA: 18.0m (59ft)
LWL: 12.2m (40ft)
Beam: 4.4m (14ft 6in)
Draught: 2.5m (8ft 2in)
Rig: Gaff sloop, second Marconi rig
Sail Area: 195m2 (2,100ft2)