Starling W. Burgess

"Yacht", 34th year, 1937, No. 35/1937

STARLING W. BURGESS – the ingenious builder of the America’s Cup winner

When the winner of the last race for the America’s cup in 1930, the "Enterprise", crossed the finishing line, the judge at the finish was very surprised to see the helmsman let go of the wheel and do a few somersaults on deck. It was most unusual to see that kind of outburst on the part of the owner, Mike Vanderbilt. It was only later that the truth came out. Vanderbilt had handed the wheel to Starling W. Burgess, the builder of his yacht, just before the finishing line. – It was the sixth time that this gifted eccentric had done his best to ensure that the cup stayed in America. His father, Edward Burgess, had made a name for himself as a yacht designer before him. In 1885, he had built the first boat which was designed directly for the America’s Cup race, and he did two more victorious boats thereafter. His son has inherited and further developed his father’s talents. Some people say he is crazy, others consider him to be the best yacht designer that ever lived. He did not, however, set out to be a yacht designer. Initially, he dedicated himself to solving all kinds of technical problems. His first achievement was to invent a machine gun, then he turned to designing aeroplanes, solving mathematical problems, and during one winter which he spent in London, he even wrote poetry.

In 1920 he received his first commission in connection with the America’s Cup races. He was asked to design a new rigging for the "Vanitie", and in this process he used completely new methods by applying his experience of aerodynamics from aircraft design. In 1918, he built the "Nina", an ocean-going yacht which won the race to Spain. This was a completely new type of boat with an incredibly high rigging. He thinks that a yacht with a large sail area is not only faster but also safer than an under-rigged and less manoeuvrable craft.

He received his first Vanderbilt order in 1930. The fee was to be 10,000 dollars, to rise to 20,000 dollars if, after the elimination races, the boat was considered fit to enter the Cup races, and to 40,000 dollars if it won. The unlimited means of a Vanderbilt were only up against the restrictive measurement formulas of the J-Class. At that time the stipulated length was 76ft, which did not, however, mean that the boat had to be 76ft long. This was equivalent to 18% of the square root from the sail area, multiplied by the length and divided by the cubic root from the displacement. The height of the mast was not allowed to be more than 150ft 6in and the maximum displacement was also limited. Within these limits boats could have a length of between 75 and 87ft on the waterline and displace between 106 and 160 tons. Burgess, the mathematician, first juggled with the numbers the formula gave him and then built several 5 metre models which were tested at the marine model basin facility. He went about it very systematically, and on the basis of these tests and detailed calculations which took into account the impossible wind conditions of the race course reported by the meteorological office over the past 30 years, he finally decided on a hull just under 80 feet. – As far as rigging was concerned, he also made the most complicated calculations which he then verified in the wind tunnel. One of his inventions was a special main boom in the shape of a cigar flattened at the top. His idea was to keep the mainsail slightly bulbous at the lower ropes. His brother designed the first duralumin mast for the yacht. Special below-deck winches were planned, special measuring devices for the stresses and strains on every stay and shroud, and during the construction time he lived in a shack on the wharf in order to supervise every small detail personally. The success of the "Enterprise" over "Shamrock V" rewarded the enormous work he put into design and construction. The "Enterprise" was the highlight of his career. Four years later he built the "Rainbow" which did win the cup again for America, but was not particularly successful. People claimed that the "Endeavour" was faster and failed to win only because Sopwith suffered from nerves while Vanderbilt and Sherman Hoyt put up an excellent sailing performance.

On the other hand Burgess proved his fabulous skills again in this year’s "Ranger". Less known is the fact that the rigging of both yachts has been designed this year by aviation engineers and that prior to the races the models of both America's yachts were tested against each other in the tank by Burgess. "Ranger" won in the model tests just as easily as in the races.

Vanderbilt has given the restless Burgess a supervisor in the form of Olin Stephens which has proven expedient because, even during the initial work and design of the "Ranger", Burgess turned his attention to a new problem: the construction of light alloy yachts. He is still experimenting with this idea at the yard, and believes the future belongs to the light alloy boat. He wants to produce small yachts in series by pressing them like car bodies.

Stephens belonged to the reserve crew of the "Ranger", while Sherman Hoyt took on a job as a commentator with a radio station this year. Burgess, who doesn’t accept orders from anybody, was excluded from participating in the races themselves, because Vanderbilt keeps strict discipline. Yachting circles are not quite sure, how much credit Burgess can be given for the new yacht or what contribution his colleague Stephens made. The curious mixture of a precise mathematical mind and eccentric genius, as found in Burgess, enables him calculate, within a second, the displacement of a swimming seagull or the theoretical speed of some sailing craft in a 10 mph breeze. On the other hand he is so erratic that he loses interest in a task the minute it has been solved.