Notable New Titles

Vencedor: The Story of a Great Yacht and an
Unsung Herreshoff Hero in the Golden Age of Yachting
By Charles Axel Poekel, Jr.

This book could well be summarized as a tale of international yacht racing in the 19th century from the perspective of Rodney Dangerfield, in which accolades, fortune, and fame were elusive and there was to be no respect. 

Vencedor – “winner” in Spanish – was an extraordinary yacht drawn and built by a little-known Danish-American yacht designer named Thorvald Julius Schougaard Poekel, who spent nine years as a draftsman for Nathaniel G. Herreshoff, rising to chief draftsman and signing his name to some of the most celebrated of Herreshoff’s largest racing yachts. Skilled though he was, he lacked Herreshoff’s cutthroat acumen and world-class ego. At the height of his career, Poekel moved to Racine, Wis., set up shop at the Racine Boat Manufacturing Company, and began designing and building some of the world’s most impressive designs. Yet he never got the attention that might have otherwise been his due had he stayed on the East Coast and shamelessly sought attention. It was not his way.

Instead, we have Vencedor, an impressive 65-foot mahogany yacht that challenged the Royal Canadian Yacht Club to a race on the Great Lakes. The Canadians, for their part, had been recently trounced in the America’s Cup; and the Great Lakes, while “international” in reality, were regarded as a Nowheresville on the burgeoning racing yacht scene in England and the United States. The ostensible climax of the book is an international yacht race on Lake Michigan which turns out to be a painfully slow August drifter that bored the spectators. It resulted in a contested win by the Canadians that, in the end, no one really cared about. Poekel, meanwhile, gained a small measure of attention, only to be abused by his former boss as a “mere draftsman,” and, not fighting back, he saw his legacy fade. As the author writes, “All 300 of [Herreshoff’s] employees were there to burnish his genius, and they weren’t his equals or his brothers.” Poekel simply could not (or would not) emerge from Herreshoff’s shadow.

Nonetheless, the larger point of the book is to provide context and bring recognition to an accomplished yacht designer who, while as skilled a designer as the world has ever seen, did not stand a chance to gain the sort of glory that only a Herreshoff-sized ego could cultivate. Poekel drew beautiful and fast yachts and designed and manufactured state-of-the art steam engines at RBMCO without much fanfare. He did his work, and it spoke for itself. Now, some 125 years later, this charming tribute is his due. 

– Twain Braden

Categories: Notable New Titles