The Rainbow Fleet in Nantucket
October 12, 2022

Nantucket Bay and the surrounding islands are home to some of the most beautiful boats on earth. From the classic schooners, tugboats, and fishing vessels to the private yachts, Nantucket is a sailor’s dream come true.

An adorable fleet of rainbow-inspired boats will fascinate you watching them sailing on the harbor! And while you’ve probably seen pictures of these majestic boats before, seeing them up close and personal is an entirely different experience.

What is the Rainbow Fleet in Nantucket?

The Rainbow Fleet in Nantucket is a fleet of boats painted rainbow colors. It is located at Brant Point on Nantucket’s cobblestone waterfront.

Watching the boats sailing is one of the most iconic things to experience on the island. The fleet has been featured in worldwide publications, including The Los Angeles Times, The London Times, The New York Post, and The New York Times. It’s also a popular subject on Instagram, with thousands of posts.

Rainbow Fleet’s Origin

In the past, boating for pleasure was well established as a marker of the summer scene in Nantucket. This eventually led to the establishment of the Yacht Club in 1906. With the formation of the club came organized races, where members could put their knockabouts, catboats, and other recreation crafts against each other.

Different boats have different performance capabilities and characteristics, calling for a handicapping system in specific races to make the competition fairer. Boats of similar designs and rigs were only set to compete against each other.

To do away with the necessity of handicapping, the Nantucket Yacht Club held races and urged members to purchase same-design boats. In 1910, the club ordered 13-foot catboats for competition. (These catboats have long been popular in Nantucket for recreational sailing and teaching youngsters how to sail).

Then in 1921, according to Historian Michael Harrison, the Yacht Club ordered a fleet of 16-foot catboats. This purchase happened under the leadership of Vice Commodore Clarence Gennett and Commodore Henry Lang. Gennett suggested the vessels should have different colors for easy identification. This deep impression quickly led to the term “Rainbow Fleet.”

In an interview, the late Helen Wilson Sherman said that the Rainbows Fleets looked terrific and elegant. However, The 16-foot catboats experienced control and maintenance issues while going against the wind. As a result, lighter, smaller catboats were built in 1927.

A company in New Bedford called The Beetle built these Beetle Cats. Children could easily ride them and they were particularly loved throughout New England.

According to Harrison’s article, the new “Little Rainbows” constituted a class of their own and were sailed by kids. Another racing journal from July 1927 says that the Little Rainbow Fleet proved superb, and everybody was proud and delighted.

Master Cutler won the first race. Miss Gennett and her brother fought valiantly but came second, while Miss Helen Wilson took third place. The Rear Commodore struck a shoal and didn’t reach the finish line.

The idea for a Rainbow Parade was sparked by a photo captured by H. Marshall Gardiner in the tardily 1920s and published as a poster in 1930. But how were the boats arranged so logically? The photographer and Vice Commodore Strong picked a day on which the waters were exceptionally calm, and the vessels were uniformly docked.

Color photography had not yet developed when Marshall Gardiner shot his photo, which was in black and white. The late Helen Wilson Sherman dyed the sails into perfect rainbow colors even though she wasn’t sure of the exact colors. Ten rainbows in the artwork are shown around Brant Point in the colors tan, green, light yellow, deep yellow, blue, old rose, and red.

Did You Know that the Rainbow Fleet Almost Went Extinct?

The Parade was not officially recognized as competition inside the Opera House Cup until Alan Newhouse, NCS’s founder, arrived on the scene.

In the 1970s, the Nantucket Rainbow Fleet was on the verge of disappearance. Almost all boats had disintegrated in people’s sheds and backyards. The kids were now riding slower, less thrilling fiberglass boats.

Alan Newhouse, a community sailor who first rode in a Rainbow in 1927, wanted to restart the fleet. So, he drove around to backyards, located many boats, reassembled them, and fiberglassed the bodies to hold them together and afloat.

He resurrected 15 Rainbows and leased or sold them to anyone who pledged to race them. Newhouse’s endeavors revived the Rainbow Fleet, and for the first time, grown-ups also began running the vessels.

Allan Newhouse devised inventive ways to find Parade participants a few weeks before each year’s event. He conveyed messages about the event by inscribing each Rainbow he saw in the harbor. He also put together zip lock bags with stones for weight and notations to tell the time and date of the Rainbow Fleet Parade. The messages in ziplock bags are still thrown into boats to date.

Different generations frequently sail on these boats during the Rainbow Parade, from young children to grandparents.

The boats have been passed down to many generations. Among the first families to own the vessels were the:

  • Manville
  • Heckers
  • Churches
  • Sawyers
  • Lovelaces
  • Bollings
  • Connells
  • Pagons

Currently, there are roughly 70 Rainbows, albeit not all of these are in the ocean. The Rainbows have become a hallmark of the New England island community. They attract many people to Brant Point, Nantucket, annually to view their colorful races from the beach.

You can let your children play on the boats and learn since the vessels are safe and comfortable. One of the children’s favorites is the blue Rainbow.

Where to Eat Near the Rainbow Fleet

Numerous people flock to Brant Point to observe and take pictures of the Rainbow Parade, thanks to its enormous popularity.

If you plan to travel here, ensure you arrive at 8:50 am or earlier. The Wooden Boats begin to pass Brant Point from 9 am until around 9.40 am. The Rainbow Parade commences at around 10 am. Parking is scarce, so park somewhere in town and travel by bicycle or hail a taxi.

You can also catch a dessert or picnic breakfast at Easy Street Cantina or go to The Corner Table for some coffee. They both open by 8 am.

Final Thoughts: A Boat with All the Feels!

The Rainbow Fleet Boat Tours are a fantastic way to experience Nantucket. You’ll see the island from the water and enjoy some of the best views. You can board any time and cruise as long as you’d like.

Furthermore, you can watch the Rainbow Fleet – the boats compete in the bay every Saturday throughout the summer.

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