Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Atrocia – a study of experimentation, risk and failure

Atrocia – a study of experimentation, risk and failure

Figure 1 - US 35 Atrocia
(c) Mystic Seaport, Rosenfeld Collection, #23767F

Where do people get their ideas? What drives the imagination? The improvements and innovations we all benefit from with new and successful ideas often represent the best of what has been ventured and risked. Our best attributes as humans, thinkers and dreamers often lead the way to progress. But, for every success there may be many failures. What did we learn from Atrocia?

Enthusiasts of the metre classes and those who have witnessed the weird and wild of the sailing world will appreciate the strangeness that was US 35 Atrocia, a 1927 International 6 metre design that bent the minds of observers of the time and challenged the aesthetics and the actual rules of our rapidly developing class.
Figure 2. C. Sherman Hoyt in the NYYC Model Room
Early in 1927 C. Sherman Hoyt and his partner, Harry Maxwell, commissioned the design and build of a new 6 metre for use in the various important races scheduled to take place on a busy Long Island Sound racing season throughout the summer. These races included the trials to defend the Seawanhaka International Challenge Cup and the Guldpokalen or Scandinavian Gold Cup.  Though the boat is attributed in Lloyd’s Register to Henry J. Gielow, Inc., the design is likely from Mr. Hoyt’s own hand. Henry J. Gielow, Inc. was a very prominent naval design firm at the time and Mr. Hoyt was a partner in the company. It is not inconceivable that while Mr. Gielow or others in the office may have contributed to the hull shape, which is relatively conventional for the time, Hoyt conceived and designed the most noteworthy element of the boat’s original design – the rig and sail plan.

In Mr. Hoyt’s own words, “We had decided to try a radical experiment where most of the sail area was in the fore triangle with only a small mainsail.”  The second iteration of the International Rule was in effect and Mr. Hoyt’s aim was to exploit 2 “loopholes” in the way sail area was measured. First, there was no maximum height imposed on the headsail at the time, which meant he could have a hoist all the way to the masthead. The second part of the measurement rule he exploited was the fact that sail area was rated at 100% of the mainsail area and 85% of the fore triangle area. Mr. Hoyt goes on to explain, “Our object was to gain a much larger sail area off the wind…” It is useful to also note that “balloon” spinnakers were not yet in use, thus a typical spinnaker of the time looked like a billowy regular jib which was flown free with no spinnaker pole. With this solution, it could easily be imagined that the huge jib, eased out on a reach or run and held down and out by the clubbed foot, would have an enormous advantage.  The mast was placed well aft and the enormous and heavy club footed jib meant “materially increasing its (the mast’s) strength and weight to take care of the absence of distribution of strain obtained from the luff of a normal mainsail.” 

The boat was built at Henry B. Nevins of City Island, New York in the first half of 1927 and completed late. She was finally launched only the day before her debut at Larchmont Race Week on July 16, 1927. Atrocia was painted orange on one side and gray on the other – Mr. Hoyt and Mr. Maxwell’s respective favorite colors. There was a lot of buzz about the radical boat and contemporary journalists in many sailing publications paid close attention to Atrocia, which was later described as “remarkable”, “peculiar”, “queer” and a “freak boat.” Her first races were not a good sign, though the conditions were challenging, to say the least. Atrocia streaked to the lead in anything resembling a fresh downwind leg, only to be repeatedly thwarted by light winds throughout the week. Her heavy and clumsy headsail was difficult to manage in light breezes and at the end of the series Harry Maxwell was disgusted with the performance of the boat. Mr. Hoyt bought out his partner’s share following this initial series, and with money now being a little tight on this experiment, he moved the heavy original mast forward to a more conventional position in the boat.
With her changed rig Atrocia did not perform well enough in the trials to defend the Seawanhaka Cup, though Mr. Hoyt was chosen to sail another boat, US 33 Clytie, against N 27 Noreg and Magnus Konow. Hoyt and Clytie lost to Konow and Noreg 3 races to 2.
For the trials to defend the Scandinavian Gold Cup, which was won the previous summer in Norway by Herman Whiton with US 29 Lanai, Hoyt and Atrocia again failed to find their groove. It did not help that the weather was terrible and Hoyt was so late towing the boat to the trials that he missed the first 2 races. Cornelius Shields won the right to defend in Hoyt’s earlier design, US 12 Lea,  against 7 other nations. Sven Salen debuted the “genoa” jib in this regatta, and was the first to fly this type of sail in North America. The series was hard fought and went out to the maximum of 7 races before Mr. Salen and S2 May Be won it all and in doing so, changed the sport of sailing and our collective concept of an efficient headsail.

Mr Hoyt’s words on the Atrocia experiment shows some wistfulness; “I am convinced that our theory was correct, but this was before the days of loose-footed jibs and overlapping jibs, to be learned from Sven Salen and his May-be that fall.”

S2 May Be at the 1927 Scandinavian Gold Cup
So, what was learned from the Atrocia experiment? It could be argued that several issues prevented Atrocia from succeeding. The boat was delivered late, keeping her owners from trialing and getting used to her idiosyncrasies prior to racing. The mast was very heavy, and and even when moved forward would have had a bad effect on the balance of the boat and shape of the sails. The over-engineering of the spar would have meant higher weight aloft than other boats, which would work against her righting moment and cost efficiency in a class with very tight tolerances. The concept of a slot was not fully understood at the time and Atrocia's original clubfooted jib was very difficult in unusually light early season conditions, then after her rig was changed, she was late due to heavy weather for the  Seawanhaka Cup trials, missing the first 2 races and never getting up to speed. Would changes to any of this have mattered had Atrocia faced Noreg in the Seawanhaka Cup, or squared off with the other boats and S2 May Be in the Gold Cup? Doubtful. In the end, Atrocia’s radical rig can only be called ill-conceived and the otherwise lovely hull a victim of too little preparation and more than her share of bad luck.  

At the end of the season the maximum sail height rule was changed to be 9.75 meters and made retroactive. Mr Hoyt sold Atrocia almost immediately and built US 40 Saleema for the 1928 season and found some success in Europe. Atrocia received a small coachroof and bounced around Long Island Sound through a series of owners until the mid-60’s. She changed names a few times – Christie, Caroline, Bob-em, Mistress and then eventually made it to Puget Sound, near Seattle. While preparing her topsides for fresh paint in the early 70’s, owner Stewart Biehl found the original orange and gray paint. Mr. Biehl entered Atrocia in the 1973 ISMA World Cup in Seattle where he placed 18th of 20 at the inaugural version of this bi-annual event. 

C. Sherman Hoyt (1878 – 1961) was arguably the most famous yachting figure in the world in the first half of the 20th century. He sailed in and won many offshore races, sailed in nearly every America’s Cup involving the enormous J-class yachts, and was influential in yachting circles on Long Island Sound and beyond. Mr. Hoyt was a noted raconteur. He traveled the world and made acquaintance with various Presidents, Kings and Princes, Sir Thomas Lipton, the Dowager Empress of China, and Adolph Hitler among many, many significant and not so significant people. He was involved from the very beginnings of the 6 metre class in the USA and designed 5 sixes; US 12 Lea, US 24 Paumonok, US 35 Atrocia, US 40 Saleema, and US 52 Aprodite.

Atrocia recently surfaced in Big Fork, Montana and her current steward, Phil Coe, intends to start a full restoration in fall 2013. He’s considering whether he should make provisions to experiment with the original, radical rig.

Atrocia’s particulars:

LOA: 34’ 10” (10.617m)
LWL: 22’ 6” (6.858m)
Beam: 6’ 7” (2.0066m)
Draft: 5’ 1” (1.55m)
Sail area: 475 sq ft (44.129m2)


Sherman Hoyt’s Memoirs - Sherman Hoyt, author
Yachting Magazine – October 1927, November 1927
The Rudder – August 1927, November 1927
The New York Times
Lloyd’s Register of American Yachts
The Rosenfeld Collection – Mystic Seaport


  1. I've been looking and looking for a link to this vessel. I had forgotten her name. I was aware that she did not perform so well in her racing attempts, and this has been pointed out to me on several occasions when I have been promoting my aft-mast twin headsail rig.

    I was pleased to read this account of of attempts to make a good showing, and particularly to hear it was not just the aerodynamics of the situation as I have been informed by many naysayers.

    I sure would like to see her sailing with more modern sails and mast.

  2. Just posted a link to your blog on this rather lengthy discussion on aft-mast rigs

    oops how does one post a link in these replies. I think it could led you and others to some very interesting discussions of aft-mast rigs??