Our choices in life sometimes lead to surprising and not insignificant consequences. For Mark Gabrielson, the decision to enroll as a graduate student in Harvard University’s extension school following his retirement from a successful career in business has led not only to rewarding exploration of history as an academic discipline, but to the publication of his first book, Deer Isle’s Undefeated America’s Cup Crews. Although he hadn’t intended to write a book when he enrolled as a student, Gabrielson’s life-long love of sailing, his 25 years as a summer resident on Deer Isle and subsequent fascination with the lore of the Deer Isle Boys, as well as learning “how to be a historian,” all came together propitiously as catalysts in writing the book.
In a recent interview, Gabrielson said that various conversations with Deer Isle residents, including Bill Whitman and Bill Haviland also figured in his decision to write about the role of the Deer Isle crews in both the 1895 and 1899 America’s Cup races, crews that were of singular significance in America’s Cup history. According to Gabrielson, neither before nor since those races “has one town provided the entire American muster for the America’s Cup.” Writing about the extant America’s Cup literature in his introduction, he notes that it is the “larger-than-life people“ who have [until now] populated the various histories of the America’s Cup. “What is missing are the stories of the crews.”
In telling their story, Gabrielson explored many historical records, including official documents, letters, sworn affidavits, as well as photographs and illustrations made available to him by the Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society, the New York Yacht Club, Mystic Seaport, Searsport Marine Museum and the Herreshoff Marine Museum. Much material is featured in the book including copies of old letters and numerous photographs. Gabrielson also credits a group of Deer Isle-Stonington High School students, and the CREST program in which they participated, for the contribution they made to the historical record. Linking genealogical studies to the Deer Isle America’s Cup crews, the students added their own research to the larger story of the America’s Cup, he said.
That the New York Yacht Club’s emissaries in the 1895 America’s Cup race came to Deer Isle seeking their crew was no surprise. Gabrielson writes that Deer Isle was “a place where the sailing culture was deep, the crewmen all knew and respected each other and the work ethic was strong.” He goes on to quote a magazine article of the time assessing Deer Isle sailors in this way: “[Deer Isle] has raised a stock of men such as heroes are made of when opportunity offers.”
In describing the crew recruitment process, Gabrielson notes that of about 300 men, 35 were finally selected. Criteria for employment included “pluck, agility, presence of mind, and sobriety.” The latter, Gabrielson notes, was “paramount.” No strangers to recruitment by yachtsmen, Deer Isle sailors had been routinely sought out as summer yacht-hands, renowned for their skill as sailors long before the America’s Cup races. “It was a form of migratory labor,” writes Gabrielson of this seasonal employment. When the New Yorkers arrived in Deer Isle, they met and interviewed potential crew at the Ark, known today as the Pilgrim’s Inn. Among the crew recruited were “Coo” Eaton, the youngest member at age 20, and “Harsee” Davis, the oldest of the men at age 50. Captain Fred Weed, a highly regarded seaman, also joined the crew. He was said to have begun his sailing career at age 8, and was certified, according to Gabrielson’s research, to “take any kind of vessel to any place in the world,” testament to his remarkable seafaring ability.
Aboard Defender in the 1895 America’s Cup, and aboard Columbia in 1899, besides the crew, was Hope Goddard Iselin, Rhode Island heiress and wife of Oliver Iselin, one of the race’s organizers. Gabrielson notes that Hope was “the first woman to sail aboard a competitor during races.” Her role, however, was not simply that of idle observer, but of timekeeper and photographer. Her skill in photography is clearly revealed by the prodigious number of photographs she took, many of which, according to Gabrielson, “captured for the first time the crew at work.”
In addition to describing the crew and others involved in both the 1895 and 1899 races, Gabrielson also describes Defender’s groundbreaking construction details, which involved the use of newly available metals, as well as some of the problems the boat encountered in pre-race trials. It is the controversy that occurred, however, which resulted in official hearings and remains to this day one of the most fascinating chapters in America’s Cup history. The controversy, referred to as the “fiasco of 1895” by Gabrielson, centered on objections registered by Lord Dunraven, owner of the British vessel Valkyrie III. Not only did he lodge complaints about spectator vessel interference, but he also complained that illegal ballast had been added to Defender, thereby giving the boat an added advantage. While testimonies taken from the crew during the hearings that followed seemed to disprove Dunraven’s charges, Valkyrie’s owner never retracted his assertions. Subsequently, Defender’s win was upheld, while Dunraven’s reputation as a yachtsman was destroyed. Not until an interview conducted with crew member Ed Wood, late in his life, did details come to light which suggest that other maneuvers, such as not pumping the bilge, might have occurred. Gabrielson commented, “we will never know” the whole story, but said he believes that “Hank Haff [skipper of Defender] chose not to pump the bilge.”
One of the frustrations Gabrielson experienced in researching both the 1895 and 1899 America’s Cup races, he said, is the dearth of first-hand information left by the crew members. “The sailors themselves left very little [information] behind,” Gabrielson said, adding that such a gap suggests that the crew likely viewed the America’s Cup experience as a job, rather than the historically noteworthy event we believe it was today. “They took it in stride,” he observed.
Obviously enamored with his subject, Gabrielson said he is already looking ahead to writing not only one more book, but perhaps a series. Having deliberately decided not to write a biographical account of some of those involved in the America’s Cup in this first book, he said, he believes now that he’d like to write a biography of Hope Goddard Iselin, finding her a worthy and fascinating subject. And in what may be a more ambitious project, he’s also thinking of writing a history of “the great oceanic navigators,” those 10 or 12 whose voyages “profoundly changed cultures.” In the meantime, he will finish work for his master’s degree, with graduation in 2014, fulfill speaking engagements still on his calendar, and continue to explore maritime history, a subject with which he is clearly far from finished.