Marblehead: “The Greatest Town for Fishing in New England,” “Birthplace of the American Navy” and “Sailing Capital of the World”. These titles have long been used to describe a town whose connection to the sea is par to none.
As a yacht designer I don’t know if it is a coincidence that I landed in Marblehead or just shear luck. I arrived in 1986 and later established Zurn Yacht Design in 1993.
In 1684 British settlers purchased 3,700 acres from neighboring Salem for a mere 16 pounds and began building what is today one of America’s most preserved yachting communities. In the early 1600s fishing was king, and it lured many fishermen and their families from Great Britain to take in the abundance of fish off Marblehead. Close to 100 fishing vessels plied the waters of Marblehead by the 1800s. Though not as prevalent as in the past, Marblehead is still host to a prosperous commercial fishing fleet.
In 1775, Marblehead resident Col. John Glover, serving under Gen. George Washington, organized the first American Naval vessel, under the name Hannah. The Hannah and three other Marblehead vessels were captained and manned with local crewmen to take on the commanding British navy in the Revolutionary War. During the War of 1812, the USS Constitution (the oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy) with Marblehead crewman aboard, tactfully eluded the British navy by sailing the beloved ship into Marblehead Harbor. The lack of local knowledge and the evidence of cannons at Fort Sewall distracted the British from pursuing Old Ironsides any farther.
Those early years of Marblehead history were serious business. By the late 1800s, there was a different competition taking place — one that did not include fish or foe. Yachting had taken hold, and Marblehead was the place to be. Yacht clubs such as the Boston, Eastern and Corinthian were regularly hosting racing events. Regattas such as Marblehead Race Week were sailed locally, while numerous offshore events either originated or ended here. The tide had changed, and designers, builders and competitors flocked to Marblehead to be a part of its allure.
Bristol had “the Wizard” — Nathanael G. Herreshoff — but the list of successful designers who made their homes in or passed through Marblehead is astonishing. I count 12 in the 20th century alone, and I’m certain I’m missing a few. To be practicing yacht design in a town with such rich history is energizing as well as humbling. What these designers accomplished is simply unheard of by today’s comparison.
B.B. Crowninshield (1867-1948) and Starling Burgess (1878-1947) were the two leading designers from which numerous offspring have prospered. Crowninshield’s beautiful long-overhang daysailers, such as the Dark Harbor (17-1/2 feet LWL and 12-1/2 feet LWL), were prominent. He was able to use what he learned designing stable racing machines and apply it to the commercial fishing schooner trade in Gloucester, Mass., for which he was most famous.
Burgess was a jack-of-all-trades with a most interesting life. He settled in Marblehead, where, through various business partnerships, he designed and built numerous sailboats, as well as seaplanes with permission from the Wright Brothers.
Three prominent designers worked for Burgess at some point early in their careers. L. Francis Herreshoff (1890-1972, son of Nat Herreshoff) was a draftsman before embarking on his own design and writing career. From L. Francis’ table came Ticonderoga and Rozinante. His boats were beautifully balanced; not only aesthetically but also in performance. Many L. Francis designs are still sailing today. Not far from our office is the castle he purchased in 1945, next to Marblehead’s Crocker Park.
Frank Cabot Paine (1890-1952) worked for Herreshoff as well as Burgess. He later joined Burgess building airplanes. After several associations with other design firms he finally struck out on his own, receiving many commissions from affluent Eastern Yacht Club members, including the Marblehead 36. He designed the J Class Yankee, which defended the America’s Cup in 1930.
John G. Alden (1884-1962) worked for both Burgess and Crowninshield. He later went on to found Alden Design. Countless yachts were produced from the Alden design office, where the next generation of Marblehead designers were born. Carl Alberg (1900-1986) and Aage Nielson (1904-1984) both went on to successful design careers with tens of thousands of boats built over the years since.
At the same time, two other prominent designers were striking out on their own; both of whom would become common names throughout the market. Ted Hood began as a sailmaker in Marblehead and went on to establish a successful design office, rigging business and boatbuilding operation. And the legendary C. Raymond Hunt, with his diversified portfolio of motor and sailing yachts, is someone whom I am certain I would have enjoyed getting to know.
When Ted Hood’s operation left Marblehead for Rhode Island in the mid-1980’s, it was the end of an era. The yacht clubs still host world-class events, and the houses that ring the crowded harbor are as beautiful as ever. But the business of producing world-class yachts has declined to a handful of design offices, builders, service yards and a single sail loft.
Zurn Yacht Design, however, has stayed its course in Marblehead, working away on several new designs in both power and sail. Our first powerboat commission, the Shelter Island Runabout, continues to be a success, with more than 50 hulls sold. And Bob Johnstone’s MJM® line has now surpassed 150 hulls, between the 29Z®, 34Z® , 36Z® and 40Z® . Our sailboats include the stunning Bruckmann Daysailer, along with the Zurn 65 Offshore Sloop in collaboration with Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding. In addition, we have several center consoles, sport fishing boats and larger motor yachts under construction at various yards around the world.
Marblehead is a wonderful place to live and work. Come visit us and discover it’s history for yourself.