Cotuit Skiffs

Cotuit Skiffs, formerly known as Cotuit Mosquitos, are 14-foot gaff-rigged "one-design" sailboats that have been sailed on the waters of Cotuit Bay for last 90 years, making them one of the oldest continuously sailed fleets of one-design racing boats in the world.

They were designed by Stanley Butler after the turn of the 19th century and were modeled after the flat bottomed skiffs used in the oyster and commercial clam trade. Those boats were built with hard chines and low gunwales to provide a stable platform from which to clam from.

Cotuit Skiffs are rigged liked classic Cape Cod catboats -- that is they carry only a gaff-rigged mainsail, no jib, and their masts are stepped in the very bow of the boat. They carry a considerable amount of sail and are considered an extremely challenging boat to sail, especially in a brisk breeze. They are fitted with a centerboard and are generally raced by one or two people, with three carried only in high winds. The huge mainsail and its boom overhang the hull's transom by four feet. Once capsized, a Skiff must be towed ashore and bailed, making good seamanship an imperative for survival.

 

Butler was a designer, not a builder, so his early prototypes tended to deviate from boat to boat as he sought out an ever faster design. Butler experimented with hull shapes, rudders, steel centerboards, and different configurations. In the 1920s a group of Cotuit racers became tired of the differences within the fleet, and they commissioned a naval architect, J. Murray Watts, to take the lines from a boat considered to represent the ideal, and hence began the first true steps towards standardization.

Several builders have built Cotuit Skiffs over the years from the Watts plans. Each deviated from those plans in subtle, sometime obvious ways. The most prolific builders were Reuben Bigelow in Monument Beach, Falmouth; Leonard Peck of Cotuit; the Crosby yard in Osterville; my grandfather, Henry Churbuck; Victor Boden, and more recently, with a revival of interest which has led to a renaissance in the fleet, Conrad Geyser, Art Paine, Ned Crosby, and a Fiberglas version commissioned by the Association of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club under the organization of Christopher "Kip" Gould. That version made its debut in the 1980s and about a dozen have been built.

Henry Chatfield Churbuck

The fleet was largely rebuilt in the 1980s and 1990s as owners dragged old, rotting boats from barns and garages and either restored them themselves or hired a boat builder to do the work. Conrad Geyser builds new skiffs to order in his Cotuit shop, and Art Paine of Maine also builds to order. There are probably over 30 boats launched every summer, and racing fleets are generally in the teens and twenties (compared to 10 or less in the 1970s), with more racers for the local yacht club's picnic races such as the Popponesset Race and the Labor Day Series. A club championship is raced every August.

Debate continues over what constitutes a "true" Cotuit Skiff, but few sights are more colorful than a full fleet of more than two dozen 14' gaff-rigged Skiffs running before the wind through Cotuit Bay on a sunny summer afternoon during one of the yacht club's races. Moves towards standardization have included the adoption of a single sailmaker, and the formation of a specification committee which weighs the boats to determine any weight handicaps.

The Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club, or CMYC, is the oldest junior yacht club in the United States, formed in the 1900s by voting members under the age of 25. The only other requirement for voting eligibility is a member must be unmarried. An association formed by parents, provides the CMYC with committee boats, safety equipment, and an instructional program which teaches sailing in Optimist Prams, Lasers, and 420s.

My family is proud to own two of my grandfather's boats, built in the boatshop attached to my home in Cotuit. They are #36, the Snafu II, and #19, the Chugworm (formerly the Hayai).  My grandfather built about eight skiffs following World War II and most, if not all, are still sailing. He grew up in Cotuit and was the grandson of Thomas Chatfield, a whaling captain who also lived in Cotuit and sailed out of Nantucket. My grandfather built a shop, which is still in good shape and has most of the patterns and templates he cut. A plan of the hull's scantlings is painted on the floor.

My brother Henry has won the CMYC Club Championships once, I have won it twice; but the undisputed leader is Lincoln Jackson, followed by his cousin Jay.

The Cotuit Skiff and the CMYC, was, and still is the hub of summer life in Cotuit. Many old summer families have handed down their boats from generation to generation like heirlooms, and in the past decade most of those treasures have been restored to their former glory. One of the most social traditions in the village are the hurricane haulings of the Skiffs and their storage in the Ropes Field at the top of the hill above the yacht club's home at Ropes Beach.

Hurricanes took their toll on the fleet in the thirties, forties and fifties before weather forecasting was very advanced. Many skiffs were smashed into the tree line by the storms, hence the 40-year old tradition of hauling all boats to the Ropes Field.

For additional information of Cotuit Skiffs, the Cotuit Skiff Class Association has published a detailed set of specifications available here as a PDF file. Plans are on file at the Cotuit Library and copies can be made.

The CMYC's trophies are also on display at the yacht club thanks to the efforts of Larry Odence. Larry is at work on a fleet history which is eagerly awaited.

Lincoln Jackson has built a website devoted to all things related to Cotuit Skiffs, at Cotuitskiff.org