French & Webb: Bella Luna
A modern, sweet-sailing update of Alerion III
How many millions of people have sauntered past Alerion III, Nathanael Greene Herreshoff’s sea-foam-colored sloop on display in a shed at Mystic Seaport? If nothing else that exhibit proves that an exquisite shape in a luscious color raises yacht design to the level of sculptural art. One patron, many years ago, was so impressed by that particular boat that he read everything he could find about the so-called Wizard of Bristol and his large, handy daysailer. Early photos show the designer lounging comfortably in the cockpit wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat. Our Seaport patron bought just such a hat and stowed it away for safekeeping. Meanwhile, he dreamed about wearing it some day while knocking about in his own spinoff of Alerion III.
Although Alerion III was a personal favorite, Herreshoff considered the design shy of perfect. So much so that he drafted another version—slightly larger and beamier, still a centerboarder, but with a deeper keel. Over the years since, many other designers and boatbuilders have taken a crack at tweaking the lines of both Alerion III and Sadie, as the second Herreshoff variant was called.
When the man with the straw hat was ready to make his boating dream a reality, he approached French & Webb to build the latest, and ideally best, of these improved designs. Having had an exquisite large ketch built by the Belfast, Maine-based boatbuilders, he trusted them to attempt “improvements” including a few based on his own suggestions. Naval architect Chuck Paine was enlisted mostly to insure perfection in terms of weights, balances, and engineering. His biggest contribution to the design was replacing the keel-centerboard with a deep fixed keel. Full disclosure: Chuck is my identical twin.
Some people think that I am biased in favor of my twin’s designs, but I call them as I see them. In the case of this boat, I don’t want to over-credit his input, because a majority of the changes were contributions from the owner or the builders. But I’ve sailed this boat, and, truthfully, I’ve never seen a better boat this size.
Herreshoff didn’t get it perfect back in 1912 with Alerion III, or even with his own upgrade, Sadie, several years later. Of course some of that is because he did not have the benefit of recent technological innovations, such as the cold-molding of wood, or carbon fiber’s light weight and great strength. Also, although electrical auxiliary power was experiencing an early heyday when Captain Nat was young, it has only lately been optimized for this size boat. Today Bella Luna, as she’s called, is strong, and light, and can glide silently back to her mooring under electric power while the sails are being furled, something not possible in Herreshoff’s day.
The Maine coastline is resplendent with fast, pretty day-sailing sloops ranging from a bit too small to way too large. Bella Luna occupies, and in my opinion, reigns supreme over the middle of that fleet.
Displ. 6,476 lbs.
Sail area 365 sq. ft.
French & Webb
Contributing Author Art Paine is a boat designer, fine artist, freelance writer, aesthete, and photographer who lives in Bernard, Maine. Chuck Paine is his brother.