John Alden: Life and Work

John Alden Naval Architect

John Gale Alden was born in Troy, New York in 1884, one of eight children, only four of whom survived.

As a child John spent much of his time boating. First, at about the age of six, in a flat bottomed rowing boat belonging to his older sister, improvising a sail from an umbrella. It was in this boat that he got his first taste for the physics of sailing, finding that he had to use the oars if the wind was against them because of the lack of centre board. Later, at about the age of ten, he formed a sailing club with other local youngsters. Fearless, some would say, reckless as a boy, he experienced all that the sea could throw at him.

As child when he wasn’t out on the water, he made model boats.  He was also a compulsive doodler and created countless sketches – prototypes of the boats which were later to make him famous.

John Alden’s Apprenticeship

When he was eighteen his father died and John made the decision to train as a naval architect. He got taken on at the design office of Edward Burgess who had designed three America’s Cup defenders. He spent much of his time wandering around boat yards looking at other sailing boats, sometimes longingly, often critically. By working overtime, he managed to raise enough money to buy his first proper yacht – a 28 ft cruising yawl.

It was in the winter of 1907 that he undertook a voyage that was to be so formative in his own concepts of yacht design. A schooner, The Fame, owned by the Eastern Fishing Company, had to be returned to Boston. Her normal crew of 23 had been decimated by an attack of smallpox, and there was no one to sail her.  Putting together a hotch-potch crew of four young men even more inexperienced than himself and one old salt, John Alden volunteered for the job.

Winter storm at seaNot the best time of year to undertake a long voyage in an unfamiliar ship with an inexperienced crew – and short-handed to boot! The weather turned nasty : freezing conditions that turned the sea spray to ice, and 60-mile an hour winds for days at a time. However, the boat and the crew were man enough for the job (just!). Crucially for John Alden, this experience of sailing a yacht short-handed in terrible conditions, formed his own view of what was essential in an ocean-going yacht.  Stability in heavy seas, and an ability to be sailed singled-handed if necessary.

The John Alden Design Company

In 1908, John Alden set up his own design company. The early  years were difficult, putting a strain on his marriage, and he and his wife separated after only three years. Continually short of money, Alden lived on the verge of poverty, doing a spot of designing here, some war-related work there until, in 1917, he produced a design for a three masted schooner. This was the turning point in his career. It didn’t turn Alden into an over-night success but it began to get him noticed – and that was the key factor.

Most of the early designs from the Alden office were drawn by John himself, but by the early 1920’s the business was doing well enough for him to employ specialist draftsmen. John would discuss the ideas with the clients and come up with the initial sketches, and pass them on to the draftsman to map out.

John Alden racing yachts

Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, John Alden designs dominated the world of ocean racing. The Malabar line, gaff-rigged schooners, were serious contenders in the major races, and in 1923, Malabar IV won all eight races in which she competed.

JohnAlden boat designOver the next thirty years or so, Alden designed some 1000 boats, of which the 744 Rena series is possibly the most admired.  The original Rena 744 was designed in 1944 for Mr Arthur Luce of Brockton, MA, USA.  To our knowledge, thirteen more sister yachts, of which Nereida is one, were built to this design.

During the 1950’s, John Alden increasingly took a back seat in the design business, although there was no diminution in his stature in the world of sailing. He was 70 when he sailed his last race but his increasing unsteadiness on his feet meant that his days of taking them helm competitively were at an end. He continued sailing one of the Sakonnet One Designs which he had designed until his death in Florida in 1962, at the age of 78.


What makes John Alden yachts so special?

Whilst John Alden made a name for himself in ocean races, his yachts are not, by modern standards ,particularly fast.  Nereida’s cruising speed is around 6.5 knots – compare that with a modern plastic off-the-peg yacht, which achieves around 8.5 knots, and she’s clearly not going to winning any races now.

But speed was not John Alden’s only concern. If we think back to his Christmas trip in The Fame, other factors were equally important. First he liked a flat ride – never one for clambering around heavily pitching decks, he aimed to create as smooth an experience as possible. His other important consideration was ease of handling. Whilst additional crew are always welcome, a boat such as Nereida can be sailed single handed – indeed she has crossed the Atlantic solo on more than one occasion.

One look at Nereida out of the water tells us immediately why she is so smooth to sail. Her lines are not only supremely elegant, but wonderfully streamlined and balanced. Below  the waterline the full clipper bow sweeps to a well rockered steel ballast keel and a sweetly balanced counter stern, so typical of Alden’s designs.John Alden baot launch

Finding Nereida was an odyssey in itself  and restoring her was not always plain sailing, involving long days down at the boat yard in the heat of the Mediterranean summer.  Sailing in her, though, and all the dust and the heat are forgotten. This boat is special. This is a boat that turns heads. When you sail in Nereida you get used to being photographed – from the shore, from ferries, from other yachts. The 744 series were perhaps Alden’s most admired  cruising yachts. Eric Hiscock, a leading yachtsman of the time said, I considered her to be one of the most beautiful yachts I had ever seen, …quite perfect in (her) sea-kindly grace and harmony

Owning Nereida is quite a responsibility, then. Learn more about how we restored this important piece of sailing history.

Video: Nereida, A Retrospective

Honey, I froze the toilet roll

John Alden, naval architect

One of the most attractive aspects of John Alden, recounted by everyone who knew him, was the way he told self-deprecating stories against himself. Famously absent-minded - he was always thinking up new boat designs, rather than concentrating on the more mundane things in life - he openly admitted on one occasion returning from a shopping trip and having  put the toilet roll in the fridge and the tomato juice in the bathroom.

Once, by his own account, he found that he was going increasingly hard of hearing. Concerned that this might have serious health implications he went to the local hospital, where he underwent treatment and was cured immediately - the doctor removing the ear plugs that he had put in during a particularly noisy session down at the boat yard.

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