By Dick Holliday
Within several weeks of Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps on the moon in July 1969, Frank Hall Boatyard in Avondale, Rhode Island launched two prototype fiberglass Watch Hill 15s. These two 24’ 7” racing sloops, the first of a fleet of 25, were commissioned by Hubbard Phelps and Avard Fuller, Past Commodores of Watch Hill Yacht Club in nearby Westerly. Avard Fuller’s vision was to sponsor an active racing fleet to replace the aging and diminished fleet of eleven Watch Hill Herrreshoffs which had served as the mainstay of Watch Hill Yacht Club’s racing program since 1923. In the ensuing 17 years, Fuller built five additional WH-15s and purchased and held for resale an additional boat in his unrelenting effort to establish and support the fleet. In all, 25 WH-15s were built and this year, for the first time ever, it has become possible to have all 25 racing this August 17, in a special event celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the “glass fleet.”
Nathanael Greene Herreshoff and his brother John’s Herreshoff Manufacturing Company in Bristol, RI had established a reputation as the most successful yacht designer and builder in America. That reputation was built upon innovative design supported by John Herreshoff’s innovative and efficient manufacturing operations. Nathanael Herreshoff’s designs successfully defended the America’s Cup seven times from 1893 to 1920. Herreshoff sailing yachts from the 19th and early 20th centuries are treasured, restored, maintained and raced to this day.
Nearly a century ago, in 1922, eleven Watch Hill Yacht Club members determined the need for a one-design racing sloop which would be suitable for the shoal waters of Little Narragansett Bay as well as the deeper and more exposed waters of Fishers Island Sound and Block Island Sound. It should be no surprise that they approached Captain Nat Herreshoff, aka the wizard of Bristol, to design and build a Watch Hill Yacht Club fleet. Herreshoff recommended that he take the Buzzards Bay 15, which he had designed in 1899, and modernize its sail plan from the traditional gaff rig to the more popular and modern Marconi rig. The fleet of 11 wooden Watch Hill Herreshoffs was delivered in time for racing in the summer of 1923.
Two of those boats were lost in the 1938 hurricane and others had been sold out of the area by the late 1960s, leaving the club with too few boats to maintain a competitive, adult racing fleet. Being concerned for the club’s racing future, Avard Fuller organized a syndicate to take the prototype of the 1923 fleet, make a mold of the wooden hull and using the then popular fiberglass material replicate the handsome Herreshoff design. As an historical note, many years later that wooden 1923 prototype (HMC #880) was donated to the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol by the Muenchinger family and was perfectly restored by Ding Schoonmaker. The Museum has placed HMC #880 on display at Providence Airport in Warwick.
In 1969, with a revision of the new high-aspect Marconi rig, WH-15 #1 Glass Slipper and #2 Hussy quickly gained a reputation around Fishers Island Sound for their beauty and sailing ability. They could handle well in breezes up to 20 knots, and were capable of ghosting along in zephyrs which would not move competitors.
When Avard Fuller had Hussy launched in August of 1969 I was invited to be in the crew that entered her in local Fishers Island Yacht Club and Thames Yacht Club races. Two years later, I was asked by Avard to campaign her and purchased her at the end of that 1971 season. I owned her until 2006 when she was transferred to my son, Carter. In fact, she has “always” been the family boat and likely will remain so long after my days.
In the ensuing 50 years the “glass fleet” has expanded to 25 boats which have had 72 different owners. On eight occasions, one of the WH-15s has “escaped” when purchased and/or transported to other East Coast harbors from Winthrop, MA to Boca Raton, FL. One was shipped to Bermuda to sail in the beautiful Hamilton Harbor and Great Sound. All have been repatriated to local waters. It’s a tribute to the present owners that all of the 25 WH-15s including two that homeport at Fishers Island and Block Island will be in Watch Hill for this golden anniversary with plans to race in the bight between Watch Hill and Napatree points.
The WH-15 continues as the mainstay of Watch Hill Yacht Club’s racing fleet, with upwards of 70 races in the May to October season. This would not have been possible without the vision of Avard Fuller and his syndicate including Hubbard Phelps, David Pugh (who provided his wooden 1923 Herreshoff as a mold to make the fiberglass WH-15), David Winans, John Hawke, and John Hall, whose yard has finished all 25 of the WH-15s and molded all but the first three. ■
Dick Holliday learned to sail as an adult in the mid 1960s in Little Narragansett Bay and Fishers Island Sound. He’s served in many roles at Watch Hill Yacht Club, including Commodore in 1975 and ‘76. He’s an active member of the Cruising Club of America and has served as Rear Commodore of the Essex Station. In 2010, I joined the Bermuda Race Organizing Committee (BROC) and served as Participation Chairman from 2012 through 2018. He currently serve as BROC Head Ambassador, arranging for experienced mentors for first-time Newport Bermuda Race skippers. He also serves as Chairman of the Newport Bermuda Race Gulf Stream Society, which recognizes skippers and crew who have sailed five or more Newport Bermuda Races.