The The Cotuit Swarm
HAVING RACED CONTINUALLY FOR MORE THAN 100 YEARS, THESE HOMEGROWN SKIFFS LAY CLAIM TO BEING ONE OF THE OLDEST ONE-DESIGN CLASSES IN EXISTENCE.
saying around Cotuit, Massachusetts, is that if you can sail a Cotuit Skiff, you can sail anything. The sentiment might be hyperbolic, but there’s truth in it, an opinion echoed on the water and in the boat barns of this sleepy Cape Cod village. Many visiting racers, seasoned in collegiate and Olympic-class sailboats, have tried on the tiller of a skiff, but few have fared well on Cotuit’s racecourses. Meanwhile, numerous skiff racers have achieved success in other sailboats, some even to return as national champions.
To the untrained eye, the fleet of Cotuit Skiffs might resemble a flotilla of Beetle Cats, but this 14- foot wooden one- design has a number of elements that make it challenging to sail. The boom is 17 feet long, extending nearly a yard beyond the transom to accommodate the massive foot of its oversize sail. Its gaff complicates sailing downwind, as an unexpected jibe can cause the boom to violently fly up toward the mast and wrap the sail around the upper spar, resulting most certainly in a capsize or worse. The Cotuit Skiff lacks the stability of a small keelboat such as a Herreshoff 12.5. Instead, it has a centerboard, which drops through a flat bottom defined by hard chines. One sails the skiff without the aid of hiking straps or tiller extensions. In strong winds, skiff racers steer with their feet in order to hike out.
Inspired by the challenges of this classic boat, author and class historian Larry Odence dedicated his 2009 book,
to “all those who have tried and tipped. If you haven’t tipped, you have not sailed a Cotuit Skiff.”
Taking the helm of one of these boats is taking a trip back in time, back to the class’s conception at the turn of the 20th century. According to Paul Noonan, an elder statesman of Cotuit, who passed away in 2015, the skiff — or the Mosquito, as it was first named — evolved from work boats that fishermen sailed to local sandbars and barrier islands to gather shellfish. Flat bottoms allowed the boats to be beached and were also advantageous for balancing bushels of oysters and quahogs. Once a fisherman had finished tonging for his prey with large, scissor-shaped tongs, he would simply raise sail, push off and run home before the prevailing southwest breeze. In Mosquito Boats, Odence speculates that the men likely raced against each other en route to fishing grounds. Odence also notes the first regatta on Cape Cod occurred in Cotuit Port on August 22, 1877.
When Dr. Walter Woodman commissioned Stanley Butler to build three boats in 1903, the Cotuit Skiff was born, and it remains the onedesign craft on these same waters today. The racing work boats inspired Woodman and Butler, and throughout the summers of 1904 and 1905, Woodman’s children and their friends raced the new boats. Enthusiasm for the fleet grew to the point where, in 1906, a group of youngsters established the Cotuit Mosquito YC. No study of the Cotuit Skiff can be complete without an understanding of this distinctive organization, one that has never had a clubhouse yet has never missed a summer of racing.
As Anna M. Murray, one of Woodman’s granddaughters, would write in her speech to the Historical Society of Santuit and Cotuit on July 14, 1961, the CMYC can “blatantly boast of three unique features.” Of the club’s founding 15 members, none was over the age of 21, a dozen were girls, and the first commodore and treasurer were both girls. Murray stated: “Parents of racers were admitted for the privilege of paying dues, but a motion in 1926 reads that ‘those who are lucky enough not to be married at the age of twenty-four or under are eligible voters. Those people who are married or who are twenty-five or more years old can never vote or be voted to office.’”
Dues were 50 cents a year, but Murray wrote, “when the treasury sometimes amounted to over $20, the dues dropped to a quarter.” To this day, youthful commodores enforce voting age
Mosquito Boats: The First Hundred Years of the Cotuit Skiff
restrictions; inflation has driven dues to $10 per person, and there has never been a joining fee.
That young sailors have always guided CMYC has also shaped the way sailors race Cotuit Skiffs. Rather than setting simple triangles or windward-leeward courses, early race committees created more-imaginative and idiosyncratic races that are now traditions. One such race sails south, into Popponessett Bay, while the Dead Neck race circumnavigates the Audubon sanctuary of Dead Neck and Sampson’s Island. Both races, along with one around Osterville’s Grand Island, conclude with picnics.
The winners of the various racing series — including the 16-and-under Junior Series and the 21-and-under Senior Series — receive invitations to the Club Championship, held the weekend before Labor Day. This round-robin event puts sailors and their skiffs to test, as every skipper must race in each of the boats.
Though the Cotuit Skiff is a one- design, many different builders have constructed them. Some racing skiffs are 80 years old, while the fleet’s most recent addition sailed its maiden voyage in 2016. Leila, the only remaining active Stanley Butler boat, is 92. Sailors grow familiar with the nuances of their own boats; the measure of a true master skiff racer is the Club Championship, and no one has proved his salt more emphatically than Lincoln Jackson, who in 2017 triumphed for the 17th time, putting another year’s distance between himself and Cotuit’s next-winningest skipper, Jay Jackson, who has won the award 12 times. Jay is Lincoln’s older cousin.
Lincoln’s success arises in large part from his relationship with his skiff, Alecto II, which
his father helped build in 1956. In keeping with Cotuit’s junior racing tradition, Lincoln first won the Club Championship at age 16.
“When I took over the reins of working on Alecto II as a teenager, it was under my father’s tutelage,” he says. As a kid, Lincoln also worked on other skiffs to earn money, experience that prepared him to undertake major rehabilitation to Alecto II, along with building her new spars. “Being one with my skiff has become a welcome yearly ritual,” he says. “I most enjoy laying down that perfect coat of varnish.”
Another Cotuit Skiff racer who embodies the class’s spirit is Allison Jackson, who in 2015 became the first woman to win the Club Championship in 80 years — since Anna Murray’s victory in 1935. Allison is Jay’s oldest daughter, and her win made their family the only one to have crowned three generations of champions.
“When I was growing up, we all participated,” she says. “Our family rule was that if you went down for a race, you had to crew if anyone asked. We have high hopes for the next generation too, as they are starting in the instructional program now.”
Aside from the club’s particular traditions and intergenerational involvement on the racecourse, a key contributor to the recent success of the Cotuit Skiff fleet has been the work of contemporary builders such as Art Paine, Ned Crosby and Conrad Geyser. Since 1985, Geyser has built 18 new boats, and he has completed nine rebuilds. “You have to hand it to the owners for keeping their family boats alive,” says Geyser. “Rebuilds typically end up being competitive but not as good a bet as new ones.”
While some earlier builders interpreted class plans in ways that produced straighter bottoms, Geyser saw the opportunity to provide more rocker, which has generally translated to better- than- average speed on the racecourse, all while remaining within specifications. However, Geyser says, “epoxy construction and encapsulation is really the most significant change. Now the wooden boat requires almost as little maintenance as a fiberglass one.”
Since Woodman commissioned the first Mosquitos, a succession of builders has produced more than 180 boats. Many skiffs met destruction in hurricanes or from rot and disuse, but more than 66 of them managed to float long enough to cross the starting line for the “biggest skiff race ever,” held during the Mosquito’s centennial celebration of 2006. With young racers continuing to challenge adults in annual contests as varied as the Moonlight Race, the Pirate Game, the Exchange Race and the Club Championship, and with technological advances in wooden-boat building, the beginning of the 21st century has been a robust era for the Cotuit Skiff, one that its sailors and craftsmen hope will continue for at least another 111 years.