by Suzanne Daub
This Sunday morning, August 20, hundreds will trek to the beach at Brant Point to watch a beautiful and joyful spectacle that has been a part of summer on Nantucket for half a century: the Rainbow Parade.
Artist G.S. Hill is usually among them. “I do a lot of on-location sketches during Opera Cup,” he explained. “The first year we were here, 1979, was the first year that I painted the Rainbow Fleet…it’s one of my favorite subjects. They’re so colorful!”
If you cannot stay on-island through Sunday to see the Rainbows or if you are arriving after the event, you can still see a colorful display of these catboats masterfully rendered on canvas in the G.S. Hill Gallery at 40 Straight Wharf.
Since the mid 1800s, the catboat has been a favorite on Nantucket for leisure sailing and for teaching children how to sail. When the Nantucket Yacht Club was founded in 1906, they organized races and encouraged members to buy boats of the same design to eliminate the need for handicapping.
In 1921, the Yacht Club commissioned a one-design fleet of 16-foot catboats for young members. According to historian Michael Harrison, “it was [Vice Com-modore] Gennett’s idea that the boats wear sails of different colors to distinguish them, and the lively effect this created immediately led to the name “Rainbow Fleet.”
“Now these big Rainbows were lovely, very graceful looking,” reminisced the late Helen Wilson Sherman in a past interview, “but there was no ‘body’ in the stem, so they were quite tippy; they heeled easily in the wind.” In 1927, smaller, lighter catboats were ordered. These Beetle Cats (designed and built by the Beetle Company in New Bedford) were easy for children to handle and very popular throughout New England.
A photograph taken by H. Marshall Gardiner in the late 1920s and released as a postcard in 1930 inspired the concept of a Rainbow Parade. The artistic piece shows ten Rainbows—green, deep yellow, red, old rose, blue, light yellow, and tan—rounding Brant Point. How were the boats so neatly lined up? The boats were actually interconnected and the photographer, along with Vice Commodore Strong, chose a day when waters were very calm.
“Rainbows of Days Past,” one of G.S Hill’s Rainbow Fleet paintings depicts this historic image—the sails are all solid colors, as they were in the 1920s, no stripes or stars as today. The rest of the collection he painted from recent experience, different perspectives and different size canvases. We love his “Rendezvous at Coatue,” a 14 x 42 oil on linen. Several of Greg’s Rainbow Fleet paintings can be viewed online at GSHill.com.
“I used to take my little boat out to take photos during the parade. This year we’ve been invited to go out on a friend’s boat for the Cup.” So, Greg, we expect some paintings from this new perspective for next season!