The The Co­tuit Swarm


Sailing World - - Starting Line - By Christo­pher White

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.

Con­rad Geyser, sail­ing No. 96, is the man whom lo­cals turn to for re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing or build­ing Co­tuit Skiffs. Sam Mon­a­han (left), 15, is one of the fleet’s ben­e­fi­cia­ries. PHOTO : P E T E R M C G OWA N

Jay Jack­son, helm­ing Co­tuit Skiff No. 90, is a mae­stro of the gaff-rigged dinghy, and a 12time win­ner of the an­nual Club Cham­pi­onship. PHOTO : P E T E R M C G OWA N

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