FRANCIS SWEISGUTH

1882-1970

DESIGNER AND DEVELOPER OF THE STAR

During the winter of 1910-1911 twenty-two Stars were under construction at the boatworks of Isaac E. Smith, located in Port Washington, New York and another 11 Stars, known at the time as “Nahant Bugs”, were being built by Richard T. Green & Co. of Chelsea, Massachusetts. These 33 boats were the first Stars to be built. Now, more than 90 years and 8,000 Stars later, Star boats continue to be built.

Here we will look at the man who not only drew the plans for the original Stars, but also supervised the two changes in the rig and sail plan, first in the early 1920’s when the rig was changed from the gaff rig to the short Marconi, and then at the end of the decade when the rig was changed from the short Marconi rig to the modern rig the Star still uses today. Few of us realize how much the Star Class is indebted to Francis Sweisguth.

FRANCIS SWEISGUTH

Much has been written about the origins of the Star boat and the Star Class, for example in the past anniversary Star Class Logs (1922, 1931, 1941, 1951, etc.) and Starlights (January, 1986). For a detailed history which covers all of this material see C. Stanley Ogilvy’s book, “History of the Star Class”, available from the Central Office. Here we will focus in on the important role of Francis Sweisguth, the draftsman in William Gardner’s Naval Architect office who drew up the plans of the Star boat.

In about 1906 George A. Corry, the ring-leader of a small group of yachtsmen from the New York City area, asked William Gardner to design a small, inexpensive chine-built arc-bottomed sail boat with a keel. George Corry was a friend of William Gardner, and it was natural for Corry to contact him to design the boat. The first fruit of Gardner's effort for Corry's group was a boat known as the Bug. The Bug was drafted by Curtis D. Mabry of Gardner's office and made its appearance on Long Island Sound in 1907. The boat is reported to have been 17’ long with a keel weighing 150 lbs.

After four years of racing the Bugs in the waters about New York City the owners of the Bugs decided that the boats were too small, too wet and much too uncomfortable. A committee was appointed, consisting of George Corry, A. B. Fry, Thornton Smith and William Newman, to take this matter up with William Gardner. That was done in the early fall of 1910. This time it was Francis Sweisguth who was Gardner's draftsman who drew up the plans for the boat.

It is interesting to note that apparently by the time the boat was ready to be built it still did not have a name. In fact when copies of the plans for this new boat were sold to the Nahant Dory Club in Massachusetts for construction of a class boat for that club the name of the resulting boat was the Nahant Bug. Despite this name, these Nahant boats for some unexplained reason had red Stars on their sails. In any case, in the beginning George Corry wanted to name the new Long Island Sound class the Big Bug. Fortunately for the Star Class, Stuyvesant Wainwright of the American Yacht Club suggested the name Star as being more appropriate for the new Long Island Sound class.

During the winter of 1910-1911 twenty-two Star boats were built by Ike Smith of Port Washington for the Long Island Sound group. It is interesting to learn from the 1922 Star Class Log, the first Log put out by the Star Class Yacht Racing Association which had just been formed that same year, that Francis Sweisguth was one of the original owners of the Star Class yachts built by Smith. According to the Log, Mr. Sweisguth owned Star # 6 from 1911 to 1915.

The Star, as originally drawn up by Mr. Sweisguth, was a gaff rigged boat with a long boom, very typical for racing boats of the day. The luff of the mainsail was 24”11” as opposed to 30’6” now used on the modern rig and the foot of the mainsail was 18’4” as opposed to 14’7”. As the Star Class continued to grow and develop during the late 1910’s and early 1920’s it became clear that the rig should be modernized. The first step was to change to rig from a gaff rig to a Marconi rig. This changeover occurred gradually during the early 1920’s. The same mainsail could be used on either rig.

The 1922 Log shows the Star sail plan with both the gaff rig and the Marconi rig. The caption to the plan states that the same sail can be used on both rigs. It is interesting to note that the number on the mainsail of the boat in the sail plan is # 6. While this is just a conjecture, it seems most probable that Mr. Sweisguth was responsible for drawing this sail plan.

Sail Plan from the 1922 Log

During the 1920’s high aspect ratio Marconi rigs became more common on racing sailboats. Already by this time several Star skippers were also involved in racing bigger boats, including the America’s Cup boats, so most assuredly developments in the aerodynamics of yacht sails were well known to the members of the Star Class. As a further push in the direction of adopting a more modern high aspect ratio rig for the Star there was pressure from Europe which indicated that the Class would be better accepted in Europe if it had a modern rig.

In the April, 1929, issue of Starlights, in an article entitled “Modernizing Star Rig under consideration”, there is the following comment: “Though the idea of adopting a more modern rig for the Star Class is not a new one, Larry Bainbridge, D.S., is responsible for placing it before the I.E.C. in such a convincing light that it has been unanimously voted to give the project wide publicity and then place it before the next annual meeting at New Orleans… Our present rig with it's long boom is out of date, it does not appeal to the new man who is coming into the game and it will not retain the interest of the keen skipper who may be driven out of the Star Class and into classes that offer the modern improvements in sail design….”

The Starlights of November, 1929, continued the story in the article “Modern Rig Adopted for 1930”: “A modern rig was adopted at the annual meeting in New Orleans by a vote of 434 to 66, to become effective March 1st, 1930…. The rig recommended by the Bainbridge Committee, which gives a boom to the transom and about the same sail area as the present rig, was adopted in principle and referred back to a Technical Committee, to be appointed by the President for any necessary refinements. This Technical Committee consists of Prescott Wilson, head of Geo. Burrows, Inc., sailmakers, Ernest Ratsey, of Ratsey & Lapthorn, Inc., sailmakers, and Francis Sweisguth, who drew the original plans and was formerly with Wm. Gardner.”

Ernest Ratsey’s Joy with the experimental rig in 1929

Obviously, although now almost 20 years later, Mr. Sweisguth still had more than a passing interest in the Star boat and the Star Class, and it is interesting to see that the Class included him on the Technical Committee when the decision to go to the tall Marconi was made. In as much as no direct evidence has been found one can only speculate how much Mr. Sweisguth had to do with the development of the tall rig, and in particular the rigs experimented with on Ernest and Colin Ratsey boats Irex (#24) and Joy (#361), and on Prescott Wilson's boat. Even after the modern rig was adopted by the Star Class in 1930 Mr. Sweisguth continued to be listed in the Logs as the head of the Technical Advisory Committee until 1933.

It should be noted that at about this time Mr. Sweisguth was a partner in the naval architect firm of Ford, Payne and Sweisguth based in New York City. Mr. Sweisguth continued to design small class boats at least into the 1930’s. The 18’ Interlake, designed in 1932 for Sandusky Bay, Ohio, is an example of one of his later works.

In 1961, as the part of the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Star boat, Mr. Sweisguth was made an honorary Life Member of the Star Class. C. Stanley Ogilvy, Star Class editor and historian at the time, visited Mr. Sweisguth in his Larchmont home, in part to get Mr. Sweisguth’s version of the history of the Star Class. Part of this interview was reported in Starlights of May, 1961. Then, in August, 1970, Starlights carried the obituary of Francis Sweisguth which read in part as follows:

Francis Sweisguth, who drew the original lines of the Star in 1911 in the office of William Gardner, died recently at his home in Larchmont, N.Y. at the age of 87. Mr. Sweisguth was the last of the “charter owners”, who sailed one of the first boats in 1911. In a very real sense he was the designer of the Star hull. The smaller Bug had been designed in the same office. Mr. Sweisguth said, in an interview a few years ago, “The Bug lines were not drawn by me. When Billy Gardner asked me to do the Star, I started from scratch, without looking at the Bug lines. If the two boats looked alike, it was because the lines of all chine-built boats with an arc bottom are similar.”

Further search through the Star Class archives at Mystic Seaport Museum may reveal more about Mr. Sweisguth’s involvement with the development of the Star boat. However, if the above information is accurate, then Mr. Sweisguth not only designed the Star, but was the technical advisor for the Star Class during time the two rig changes took place. During these 20 years the Star boat went from having a gaff rig to the short Marconi and finally to the rig we still use today, and Mr. Sweisguth was at hand for each of these phases of development.

When Mr. Sweisguth died in 1970 the Star Class was in the middle of a technological revolution. Fiberglass boats had just become approved and aluminum spars were being discussed by the Technical Committee. Throughout the next 30 years innovation and refinement have been the guiding principles of the Star Class. One has to wonder what would Mr. Sweisguth make of his boat today, now 90 years young?

 

George A. Corry

1863-1943

Father of the Star Class

Class President, 1922-1925

Class Commodore, 1926-1943

William Gardner

1859-1934

Naval Architect and employer of Francis Sweisguth