November/December 2013 Issue 214: The original staysail schooner


W. Starling Burgess was an American inventive genius whose design credentials include airplanes, machine guns, the Dymaxion car (with Buckminster Fuller) and, of course, some of the great J-boat defenders including Ranger (with the young Olin Stephens).

He also designed Nina, perhaps the first staysail schooner. This celebrated boat seems to have ended her brilliant career tragically: Nina was reported missing with all hands off of New Zealand this past June. Let’s honor Nina’s accomplishments, however, by taking a closer look at her beginnings.

Burgess was the son of Edward Burgess who began his professional career as a professor of entomology at Harvard. Business reversals forced him to leave the academic life and turn his hobby of yacht designing into his business. And it was good for the world that he did. In the 43 years that he lived, Edward Burgess designed three America’s Cup defenders and 207 yachts in seven years. When his father died at age 43, young Burgess was just 12 years old.

Nina was built to win the Queen of Spain cup of 1928, a trans-Atlantic race from New York to Spain. The schooner was commissioned by Paul Hammond and built by Ruben Bigelow at Monument Beach on Cape Cod. Burgess had designed gaff-rigged fishing schooners that were known for their turn of speed, but Nina was his first effort at a radical new design: the staysail schooner rig.

During that era the gaff-rigged schooners were still dominating the ocean racing scene. Burgess tweaked the concept of a schooner by removing the gaffs, designing Nina with a staysail rig, hollow spars and relatively light weight. Nina had a small foremast and a Bermuda rig on the main; in between the two spars it flew different configurations of staysails. Nina raced across the Atlantic and won, beating the three-masted, 185-foot schooner Atlantic which held the trans-Atlantic record from New York to the Scilly Isles of 12 days. Nina was also the first American boat to win the Fastnet Race in 1928.

Nina was 70 feet LOA, 59 feet LOD, with a 14-foot 10-inch beam, drawing nine feet, seven inches, weighing 44 tons. Nina had white oak for the keel with three-quarter-inch Mexican mahogany double-planked hull and steam-bent white oak frames, with a deck of Burmese teak. She stayed a powerful competitor under the ownership of DeCoursey Fales who bought Nina in 1934, racing her for 32 years and winning the 1962 Newport to Bermuda Race as the oldest boat entered with the oldest captain.

Stephens had great affection for Nina commenting that Nina was the only boat he knew of that looked good from any angle.  

Let’s go back to a happy time in Nina’s career. Nina is racing across the Atlantic Ocean on June 25 (use 2013 Nautical Almanac). The DR is 47° 20’ N by 55° 10’ W. We’re doing a Polaris sight at sunrise. The height of eye is 10 feet. Hs is 47° 33’.

A. What is the time of nautical twilight?
B. What is the Ho?
C. What is the latitude?

A. Nautical twilight is at 6:27:40 GMT
B. Ho is 47° 29.9’
C. Latitude is 47° 28.0’ N

By Ocean Navigator