Applying The Cunningham

When most Westporters read that Briggs Cunningham III — a great-grandson of Edward T. Bedford, the founder of the Westport YMCA — pledged $250,000 to support the new facility at Camp Mahackeno, they may have thought “that’s a lot of money.”

Or “Briggs Cunningham III — what a WASPy name.”

Neil Brickley –a good friend of mine who learned to sail off Burying Hill Beach, within sight of the old Bedford estate (now Green’s Farms Academy) — thought, “I wonder if that’s the same Briggs Cunningham who invented ‘the Cunningham.'” (If you’re not a boater — and I’m not — then you don’t know that a Cunningham is “a common device on sailboats that adjusts sail tension.”)

“Cunningham downhaul” (Photo/Wikipedia)

“Applying the Cunningham” is apparently a favorite sailing technique. Though it sounds like something right out of the Kama Sutra, via The Onion.

Neil is right. The inventor — Briggs Cunningham II — has quite an entry in Wikipedia. He was, that impeccable source says, “an American entrepreneur and sportsman, who raced automobiles and yachts.

“He skippered the victorious yacht Columbia in the 1958 America’s Cup race, and invented the eponymous device, the Cunningham, to increase the speed of racing sailboats.”

He learned to sail at 6. He began racing at 17, out of Pequot Yacht Club. Briggs II left Yale to marry Lucy Bedford — daughter of Standard Oil heir F.T. (Fred) Bedford. Not a bad career move.

In addition to sailboat racing, II competed in the 24-hour auto race at Le Mans. In 1951 he designed and built the Cunningham C-4R, a race car with “a sleek, hand-hammered aluminum body and Chrysler’s newly introduced V-8 engine, (which) has been called America’s first sports car.”

Briggs Cunningham II, on the cover of Time.

On April 26, 1954 Briggs II was on the cover of Time magazine, with 3 of his Cunningham racing cars. (“The H-Bomb In Color” rated only a ribbon at the top.)

So I’m guessing the $250,000 his son — Briggs III — just pledged to the Y isn’t going to break the bank. (Briggs III’s sister, Lucie McKinney, pledged $500,000. But she’s got more skin in the game. She’s a Westporter — III lives in Kentucky — and 2 of her 5 children are Y board members.)

The Cunningham-Bedford Y connection is indeed strong. In 1944 the Y was offered 30 acres of land off Sunny Lane, near their newly established camp. Fred Bedford (Briggs II’s father-in-law, and III’s grandfather) said the Bedford Trust Fund would pay half of the cost — provided the Westport community matched it.

The total amount:  $10,000.

In 1945 the Y moved onto the new land, which they called Bedford Camp. The next year — at Fred’s request — it was changed to Mahackeno. The name honored Mahackemo, the chief of the Norwalke Indians, who in the early 1600s used the property as a summer home lodge.

Which is all you need to know today about Mahackeno, the Bedford family, Briggs Cunninghams II and III, and how generations of boaters have changed the shape of their sails.

Camp Mahackeno, shortly after the name was changed from Bedford Camp.

9 responses to “Applying The Cunningham

  1. Kitty Graves

    Dan, a little correction: The Bedford estate was on Frost Point, East of Burying Hill Beach. It was torn down in the ’60s. Greens Farms Academy was the R T Vanderbilt house.

  2. Thanks, Dan — fascinating! There is perhaps something else to know today about Camp Mahackeno: The Family Y is holding its annual Open House this afternoon from 12 to 2 pm. For prospective camper families and others not familiar with Mahackeno, it’s a great time to tour the facility and meet our summer day camp staff. To get there, turn off Route 33 at the Red Barn and head down Sunny Lane, or I should say “Allen Raymond Lane”……

  3. Maggie Feczko

    Thanks for the history lesson, Dan, with Kitty’s help. I love the connections. When I used to sail a million years ago, the Cunningham was a term I heard but had no idea of its origin. Wikipedia is great!

  4. Fred Cantor

    Another fascinating piece of Westport history. Also, I wonder how many people from Westport were ever featured on the cover of Time.

  5. Yes, indeed, when I learned to sail many years ago I learned how to use the Cunningham downhaul. We were told it was named for Briggs Cunningham who invented it. But I didn’t realize the connection to the the Westport Y until now. I will appreciate it all the more when I swim my laps in the sparkling new pool at the new Y. (Needless to say, I can’t wait.)

  6. “Though it sounds like something right out of the Kama Sutra, via The Onion.” – You’re a great writer and I wish I could write something that funny