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Flying All Colors

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.

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