July 2011

Flying All Colors

Cape Cod Life  /  July 2011 / ,

Writer: Terry Pommett / Photographer: Terry Pommett 

Nantucket’s glorious Rainbow Fleet has brightened summer skies for almost a century.

Nantucket’s Rainbow Fleet

The Rainbow Fleet lives up to its vibrant namesake while rounding the Brant Point Light. Photo by Terry Pommett

Nantucket Island, the former whaling capital of the world, possesses a unique, yet tiny, maritime symbol that characterizes its connection to the sea and history. It is the image of a colorful parade of toy like boats sailing around a perfectly scaled lighthouse. It is known as the Rainbow Fleet, immortalized on a hand-colored postcard 80 years ago.

What makes the picture so memorable are the colors of the sails. Each of the 12-foot, gaff-rigged, shallow draft Beetle Cats sports a beautiful unique color. Taken together, the group is known as the Rainbow Fleet. The tradition of their sailing bow to stern, all in a line, dates back to 1930 when August Strong, a well known playwright, screen writer, and step grandson of Robert Louis Stevenson, was thinking of ways to promote the Nantucket Yacht Club and the island as a tourist destination.

Strong enlisted the aid of H. Marshall Gardiner, a local photographer, to create a photo of the fleet rounding Brant Point Light, the country’s second oldest lighthouse. The boats’ perfectly spaced parade was no accident or lucky shot. Since there was no wind and a large reflex camera on a tripod to consider, extraordinary steps had to be taken.

Nantucket’s Rainbow Fleet

Sailboats from all over Cape Cod, like this Beetle Cat from Wareham, join the parade for the yearly tradition. Photo by Terry Pommett

The late Helen Wilson Sherman, artist, yachtswoman, and Austin Strong’s niece, recalled the experience: “He chose a dead-calm day, then aroused us sailors to haul out our sails and tie our bowlines to the sterns of fellow boats. My father towed us out into the harbor so that when we got into a good line, Marshall Gardiner could begin taking pictures from the commodore’s boat, which was run by Byron Coffin. I was the commodore of the Rainbow Fleet at that time.”
The Nantucket Rainbows were known as “Baby Rainbows” and were brought to the island by Strong to serve as safe, easy to manage boats for children. Known as the “Ducklings,” they became an immediate hit and helped establish the presence of the yacht club on the island. The vessel was designed by John Beetle, a descendant of the original whaleboat-making family of New Bedford, whose company still makes the cat boats to those same original specifications in Wareham.

The original colors of the fleet were blue, light yellow, green, tan, red, deep yellow, and old rose. The variety of colors made it easy for parents to identify which boat their child was on. As the tradition has evolved over several generations, the colors have varied wildly with boats sporting stripes, stars, clouds, and even an American flag. Local historian and National Book Award writer Nat Philbrick and his wife, Melissa, own a Rainbow with a white sail.

Nantucket’s Rainbow Fleet

Sailors are all smiles as they revel in the glory of showing off their colorful boats. Photo by Terry Pommett

The wooden Rainbow Fleet has survived for 85 years in spite of ship building’s many advances in technology, design, and materials. Their durability has much to do with family tradition, pride, and a sense of place. They are solidly built and easy to handle. By simply lifting the centerboard, the boats can be hauled up onto a beach for a picnic and then sailed around the harbor like a kid on a tricycle.

Mijke Roggeveen, granddaughter of Marshall Gardiner, recalls spending her entire life hearing her mother talk about sailing in a Rainbow. A few years ago, she finally went out and bought one. “It had a blue sail with the number six, just like my mother’s original boat. I surprised her with it,” says Roggeveen. “When she saw it, even at 80 years old, she climbed in, grabbed the tiller and sailed away, exclaiming, ‘It’s a beautiful boat.’”

The Rainbows nearly faded away in the 1970s, but were revived almost single-handedly by a local sailor, the late Alan Newhouse. Children were racing around in lighter and faster fiberglass boats and as a result, the Rainbows were being discarded and forgotten. Newhouse would go around, looking for the abandoned relics in backyards and garages. He found a number of boats that needed to have their hulls fiber-glassed to hold them together and keep them afloat. He saved at least a dozen boats and then either sold them or gave them away as long as the owners promised to race them. His efforts were successful, but now it was the adults sailing them.

Nantucket’s Rainbow Fleet

A sailboat with a striking pink sail takes center stage, while in the background sits the nation’s second oldest lighthouse. Photo by Terry Pommett

Landscape designer Lucinda Young has been sailing her Rainbow since 1983. Young was a convert to Alan Newhouse’s salvation mission. She describes how Newhouse convinced her to travel up to Hingham to check out a 20-year-old Rainbow that was for sale. “It needed a lot of work and I asked Alan what I should do. He told me to buy it or else he would. So I bought it. He helped me get it seaworthy and when I asked him how I could repay him, he said I had to race it that summer. His wife helped me skipper the boat and we actually won my first race. I was bitten. And I found that racing the little boat made me a better sailor.”

Young’s racing days are limited now since she enjoys spending her time exploring the upper harbor and quiet coves of the island. “For me, the beauty of the Rainbow is that it allows me to connect with nature and the elements. It’s very meditative.”

Due to the efforts of a number of avid Rainbow owners, the fleet still gathers on summer Saturdays for races under the aegis of the Nantucket Yacht Club. Anyone owning or sailing a Rainbow is welcome to participate. The revived grand Rainbow parade can be seen on the third Sunday of every August. It serves as a sparkling prelude to Nantucket’s classic wooden boat regatta, the Opera House Cup.

Terry Pommett is a photographer and freelance writer based on Nantucket.