An Anonymous Genius

W. Starling Burgess secrectly designed the YOD class during the weeks that he oversaw the construction of the marvelous J-Class Yacht RANGER. Then Burgess oversaw the construction of Y1 YANKEE during the spring and summer of 1937, during the weeks when he sailed in the RANGER time trials, and watched his J-Class design win the America’s Cup.

Starling_BurgessBurgess was the most successful yacht designer of the year, but he was asked to remain anonymous about his design of the YOD class. This secrecy was because the Yankee One-Design Association had held a well publicized design competition to promote their new class — meanwhile, they hired Burgess behind the scenes, to ensure they got the best boat possible.

Burgess fretted in letters about what would happen if anyone discovered his role in designing the Yankee class, while at the same time he and the YOD Association planned mightily for posterity, saving every little scrap of paper connected to the class. Right down to the telegrams Waldo Brown received from Burgess that simply read, “Call me.”

Burgess’ role wasn’t a particularily well kept secret though. A furious editorial claimed the design competition had been rigged, and somehow the guys in the New England boatyards had all heard the Yankee was a Burgess boat.

But the YOD Association denied rigging the contest, and published misleading information about the class’ origin, which led to years of speculation and controversy about the designer’s identity.


While the Boatbuilders Remembered, Sailors Forgot

By the end of the 20th Century, there were still some boat builders who remembered about Burgess and the Yankee. WoodenBoat Magazine always rightly credited Burgess. But the sailors passed along another story.  By then, the Yankees were scattered, and most of the sailors who knew about the class said, “Hershoff, Burgess, and Paine” designed it. That was the trio who judged the 1937 competition: L.F. Herreshoff, Starling Burgess, and Frank Paine.  This traditional answer made sense to sailors who saw influences of all three designers in the Yankee.

All is Made Clear

A few decades ago Burgess’ role was established when WoodenBoat editor Maynard Bray copied and assembled a collection of documents from the recesses of the archives of the Mystic Seaport Museum. Maynard and the museum graciously provided these documents for the research of a WoodenBoat Magazine article that I wrote about this class (issue 221, July/Aug 2011).  So I had the fascinating task of putting these receipts, telegrams, letters, and various kinds of memorabilia into order, and parsing a story from them. There was a surprisingly extensive collection of notes, letters and telegrams back and forth between Burgess and the various members of the YOD Association, plus the Association’s meeting minutes, and a nit pickingly complete set of invoices for the design and construction of the experimental boat Y1 YANKEE. That stack of papers tells the story of a boat design, and of friendships, and ambitions.   I would imagine that this fascinating stack of papers makes the Yankee one of the most extensively documented sailboat classes of the early 20th Century.