Excitement at Blithewold, Summer 1899

In August 1899 there was a flurry of excitement on Narragansett Bay, all played out in the waters off Blithewold.

The Herreshoff boat-building company in Bristol had built a yacht that they intended to sail in the America’s Cup Race, a 40-meter yacht named Columbia, designed by the brilliant Nathanael G. Herreshoff.  It had an 1189-square-meter sail area, and in an effort to build a lighter, faster, more maneuverable racing yacht, the Herreshoff designer had created a telescoping aluminum mainmast.  “She is faster than we expected,” wrote the Cup defense team.  In August they were engaged in trials on the Bay when suddenly the mainmast collapsed, sending the mainsail toppling into the water.  The enormous canvas sail was soon waterlogged and became too heavy to bring back on board.

The Captain and promoter of the yacht, Sir Oliver Iselin, considered his options and quickly identified Blithewold’s Great Lawn as the only space in the area large enough to spread the sail out to dry.  He sent a message to Bessie McKee asking for her permission to use the lawn, which she granted.  It took 80 men to haul the sail onto the land to dry, and many more later to steady it as it was taken slowly along Ferry Road back to the Herreshoff workshop.  The aluminum mast was quickly replaced with a wooden mast made of Oregon pine, and the Columbia later won the America’s Cup Race of 1899, beating its stiffest competition, Sir Thomas Lipton’s Shamrock.  Columbia was the third winning Cup defender built by the famed boat builder, Herreshoff Manufacturing Company, and a fourth would follow.