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Looking Back at The Rainbow Fleet

by Mary Miles

Most everyone has seen the famous H. Marshall Gardiner photograph of the little boats in the Rainbow Fleet rounding Brant Point. But not too many people know the story—indeed, all the stories—connected with this fascinating small flotilla. To find out more, we talked with several people, among them Helen Wilson Sherman, who as a young girl was among the original members of the famed fleet. It was her uncle, Austin Strong, who started the whole thing in about 1926 or 1927.

The Rainbow Fleet

The Rainbow Fleet by H. Marshall Gardiner

“Oh, those were wonderful little boats,” she said with a smile. “I think their design was inspired by the big Marshall and Crosby catboats, which were beautiful.” Her uncle, a major figure on the island and Commodore of the Nantucket Yacht Club, knew these big cats—there was a large fleet of them. One was owned by Nantucketer Lila MacKnight, and Strong particularly liked it because of its bright green sail. “Now these big Rainbows were lovely, very graceful looking,” said Helen, “but there was no ‘body’ in the stem, so they were quite tippy; they heeled easily in the wind. And Uncle was especially interested in providing sailing instruction for young people— but it had to be in small, safe boats.”

Austin Strong decided to buy a Beetlecat, the smaller version of the big Cats, because it seemed to have the safety features he was looking for, and he liked the way it handled. This first one was called the Alofa, and he presented it to his wife. “Then Uncle bought another, the Kittiwake, for our family, and later my father bought the Emerald. Before long Uncle had convinced enough parents to buy the little boats so that he could start a class,” Helen recalled. “Who was in it? Let’s see—there was Alan Newhouse, and the Ball girls, Katherine and Ginny, and Carol Lindsay and Dewitt Smith, Hugh Dunn, Charlie Reed, Mugs Mitchell, Pauline Smith, and Dick Lovelace had a Rainbow too. And several more—oh yes, Deborah Butler—I taught her to sail, and was her skipper. Once we were towed to Edgartown for a race and we won—she got the glad and I got nothing!” Lots of laughter at this point.

What made these boats—12 feet long with a 6-foot beam and a wooden centerboard—so distinctive was not only the way they handled but also their colored sails. “The first sails,” said Helen, “were plan white and hand-dyed, so the colors weren’t very bright and they tended to fade. Finally, they got Ratsey sails, which were woven with colored thread. These never faced, and stayed vivid; they made quite a picture.” She laughed again: “Those little wooden Rainbows looked just like walnut shells in the water! They handled pretty well—you had to work hard to tip them over.


“I was about 14 when we started racing,” she said. “The fleet grew and grew, till there were about forty. The first race I ever sailed was in the Kittiwake. I didn’t know what on earth I was doing, so I just followed along with all the others…and I got a third! That was a yellow flag—blue was first,
red second, and they were triangular flags with a white star. Uncle eventually hired Bill Swan of the Larchmont Yacht Club to come and teach us racing. And I won lots of blue flags in the next few years!”

Was she there when the famous Gardiner photo was taken? “Oh yes,”    she answered, “Uncle decided there had to be a picture of the little fleet, so they tied us all together bow to stern and a Yacht Club launch towed us out around Brant Point. The water was dead calm, and we must have looked pretty funny as we moved around the Point, all hitched in a bunch. I was Commodore then, and was in the first boat.”

Another participant in that photo, Erna Blair, recalls being along on that famous occasion crewing for her friend Muggins (Margaret) Mitchell. “It was 1930,” she said, “even though the picture says 1920—I’d have been only 4 years old then!” Erna says that no one had counted on the ferry coming
around the Point just as the tiny boats had been set up for the picture. “The lines holding us all together were sort of short so Mr. Gardiner could get all the Rainbows in the picture,” she said, “and all of a sudden here came the ferry, and we began to clunk together like mad, and you could hear everyone yelling, ‘My boat! My boat!’ It was pretty funny.” She added, still laughing, that she and Muggins were in the third boat, “the one with the red sail in the picture.”

Uncle Austin was very safety-conscious, said Helen Sherman—everyone had to know how to swim, and had to carry a life preserver and a paddle on board. At some point Strong invented a Seamanship contest for the Rainbows, and, according to Helen, “Pauline and I had become very adept at sailing. We’d even take a tennis ball and try to hit each other’s sails, and that meant a lot of skillful maneuvering and dodging.” In the contest, the Rainbow racers were judged according to the neatness with which they furled the sails, how well they “put the boat to bed,” and how skillfully they came up to the mooring. Another test, called the “eggshell landing,” was to see if you could land so exactly that you wouldn’t have crushed an egg between boat and wharf. In the zigzag course among moored Yacht Club boats, Helen says she and Pauline emerged as winners. “That was our moment of glory.” One special memory of her Uncle’s teaching skills, Helen said, was when he taught her how to sail up-harbor toward Pocomo Head or Wauwinet, and come down close in to the shore with the centerboard up.    “The tide, of course, was very swift, and it was very tricky to do this and not run aground, but it was lots of fun,” she said.


Ultimately there were so many of the little Rainbows racing that an age limit of 17 was set for that class. The next higher group, formed in 1928, was called the Indians—these boats were Toppentots. Alan Newhouse, another original member of the first Rainbow Fleet, said these had Marconi rigs
rather then being gaff-rigged, as were the Rainbows. When he was told that Helen Sherman had remembered that in the late ’20s the Rainbows cost about $250, including the sail, he laughed and said that today they are probably thirty times that, with the sail itself costing around $800. He ought to know, because he’s still sailing Rainbows—in fact, he’s stimulated a renewed interest in them, and today there is quite a little fleet in Nantucket Harbor again, with eight or ten of them racing regularly. (Incidentally, there’s a little tiny fleet at the Toy Boat, on Straight Wharf, where a miniature
hand-carved Rainbows made by Nantucket artists await the imaginations of youngsters.)

“I came to Nantucket from Houston as a kid in 1927, for the summers,”    Newhouse said, “and now we’re here year-round. It’s a good place to be!”    Learning to sail the Rainbows was valuable, he commented, and lots of fun. And it wasn’t as easy at it looked, either. “While they won’t sink, those little Cats will capsize,” he said; “they tend to go up into the wind, keeping your sail full—in those days I remember two of us would grab the tiller and pull like mad” to keep the boat in control and move along smartly. He has two Rainbows now, the Tejas (“Texas”) and the Sinbad. Are there any of the original ones left? Oh yes, he said, after explaining that these were laminated in fiberglas because, after all, they are over 50 years old. The Beetlecats are still being made, however, and while move of the Nantucket Rainbow-ing is done by adults, wouldn’t it be a great idea to train kids in them again? And wouldn’t it be another great idea if they let an old kid like yours truly into the class?

Anyhow, that’s a bit of the story of the Rainbow fleet—the original one. If you have any recollections to add about those good old days, please let us know. There are probably at least four or five more good Nantucket stories here, and we’d like to share them.

These island memories were brought to us by the late Mary Miles, a prolific and skilled writer who loved Nantucket.

Articles by Date from 2012