November / December 2023
The Survival of CIRRUS
On a hot August day in 1930, the 11th (and reportedly finest) of an eventual 14 Fishers Island 31 sloops rolled out of the side doorway of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company (HMCo.) in Bristol, Rhode Island. A photographer captured the moment, and the resulting image hangs on the front wall of the museum that now occupies that building. Christened KELPIE at the time, the 44' boat had an elegant sheerline and echoed the previous HMCo. yachts that inspired her design: the Newport 29, and the legendary 26' ALERION. The black-and-white photo can only hint at a particularly distinctive feature—the deep red topsides that have adorned her from the very beginning. The invoice presented with the boat listed her price at $16,000.
Amidst the deepening Great Depression, she was sold, and then offered up again a year later. In winter 1935, a young man from Concord, Massachusetts, named Alan Bemis found her shrouded under wraps in a boatyard at City Island, New York. Alan wrote a check that day, and the boat was his for $6,000. When he took delivery and the cover finally came off, he was stunned to be greeted by the flash of red. He had assumed her hull was painted white. “I can fix that,” he remembered thinking at the time.
Alan changed her name to CIRRUS, for the wispy ice clouds that draw the eye to the stratosphere and always portend a change in the weather. He brought his new boat to Brooklin, Maine, and the cruising paradise of Penobscot Bay. For more than 80 years, CIRRUS stood station as the unofficial jewel in the celebrated crown of classic wooden yachts in the town’s Center Harbor—nearly 50 of those years in Alan’s careful stewardship. Over time, Alan grew accustomed to her signature topsides. Though the exact hue might vary slightly from spring to spring, “CIRRUS Red” she would remain.
Through the decades, she served as inspiration to the boatbuilder and designer Joel White, yachting historian Maynard Bray, and a host of other like-minded craftsmen and sailors in Brooklin—the tiny Maine town known only slightly ironically as the “Boat Building Capitol of the World.” In Wood, Water & Light, a 1988 book on which he collaborated with photographer Benjamin Mendlowitz, Joel wrote of CIRRUS: “Once seen, she is not soon forgotten. There is nothing quite like her. Design, materials and craftmanship of the order put into CIRRUS are simply not available today.” Her beauty, grace, and power seemed to be joined forever to that magical place.
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