One Hundred Years of Cotuit Skiffs

This past weekend marked the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the oldest continuously operated youth yacht club in the United States: the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club. A weekend of races culminated with a parade of the fleet in order of sail numbers throughout Cotuit Bay out into Nantucket Sound and then back again. I was very happy to participate albeit in hampered circumstances.

The CMYC was founded in 1906 by a group of teenagers who wanted to race their boats around the harbor. The rules were simple — voting members had to be under the age of 25 and unmarried. Their boats were flatbottomed skiffs designed by a gentleman named Stanley Butler, an innovator who made every boat faster than its predecessor, building an inexpensive, exciting design that has never caught on anywhere other than Cotuit.

The original name of the design was Mosquito, hence the “M” in CMYC. Today the boats are simply referred to as Cotuit Skiffs.

Here’s my speech to the dinner on Saturday night. Apologies for the long post.

“Happy 100th to you all.

Here’s to our great-grandchildren celebrating this club’s bicentennial in 2106, in the same boats, in the same harbor, with the same late starts.

Before I begin I want to apologize for introducing an alien force into the skiff fleet.

I’m not talking about plywood bottoms. The WEST system. The Fiberglas skiff. Not the custom of sailing around with our shorts pulled half way down our butts . None of these things were my fault.

I want to apologize for introducing Doctor Dan to the Cotuit Skiff thirty years ago.

Kidding Dan. Just kidding. It’s perfectly normal to own four skiffs. Not it’s not. Yes it is.

When Chris Jackson asked me if I’d like to say a few words tonight I was flattered because I haven’t been a part of the fleet since the early 90s when I hung up my sailing shoes.

I thought I’d talk about the reason i wound up in a Cotuit Skiff and that is thanks to my grandfather: Henry Chatfield Churbuck.

A few of you here tonight knew Chat. He built 13 Cotuit Skiffs. I don’t think he was a skiff racer. His name isn’t engraved on any trophies. He preferred his big catboat, the Vas Ist Los, which he took Cub Scout Pack 52 out for sails on in the late 40s and 50s.

Chat passed away in 1967 from a bad heart. But I knew him a little, and have a few vivid memories of the man, of sitting in his lap and helping him drive his Buick, of watching him launch spoons into water glasses during Sunday dinner, his cat named Willy that ran away every spring to live at the Santuit herring run, his naps in a wheelbarrow parked in the shade of the grape arbor.

He was the only grandson of a great sailor, Thomas Chatfield, my great great grandfather the whaling captain, who i assumed taught him how to sail.

During the Depression Chat needed a job. So he talked his way onto a carpenter’s crew at Camp Edwards, buildings barracks for the army.

On his first day he had no idea what he was doing, and a man named Bucky Botello — who lived next door to this art center in the house at the head of the driveway asked him: “Have you ever done this before?”

Chat said he hadn’t a clue, so Bucky taught him how to frame and saved his job. That was the beginning of a life-long friendship and career working with wood.

Chat joined the Coast Guard reserve in World War II and built wooden cases for glass meteorological instruments used by the Navy. Chat built the boxes in the shop and my grandmother lined them with velvet and padding.

That work, a victory garden, and a chicken coop kept the family going through the war.

After the war Chat decided to try his hand at boat building. The skiff fleet needed some help, demand was high, the shop was set up for woodworking, so he teamed up with Deke Crosby, Joe Burlingame and started building skiffs.

The first batch was a failure. There wasn’t enough rocker in the bottoms, so he took them back and recut them.

I own two of his boats. Number 36 — the Snafu II, which my father Tony raced, sold to the Wrights and then bought back for me and my brothers and sister in 1969. Number 19, the old Hayai, owned by the Scheers, which I had rebuilt in 2000 and which I have yet to get to go fast, perhaps because i renamed it the Chugworm, after the nasty nickname bestowed on my father by one of the Sinclaires.

Tommy Burgess sails number 12. The Morrill’s own one. Peter Field’s Dolphin and on and on. Most are still sailing today, restored out of the love of their owners, whom I like to think take some special pride in sailing a Churbuck.

Only a privileged few of you, John Peck and his daughters, the Bodens, Conrad, and Dan Del Vecchio, know what it is like to sail in a skiff built by someone in your family or by your own hands.

I can’t begin to tell you the joy I felt last Sunday, drifting at the back end of the fleet in the Biggest Skiff Race Ever, with my daughter and son aboard a boat built by my grandfather.

That sort of thing is too special to take for granted, and without getting too sentimental, I think we’re in the presence of something rare in this world, a very simple but beautiful thing made out of Atlantic white cedar, oak, spruce, canvas, and bronze.

To those of you who stuck by your skiffs in the darkest days of the fleet — the late sixties and seventies — here’s to you. When a big fleet was eight boats. When Day Sailors came and went. And Lasers came and went. We stuck by our skiffs, held them together with Marine Tex and can after can of Woolsey paint.

And then a miracle happened.

I don’t know what it was. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe it was Kip Gould’s Fiberglas skiff. Maybe it was Art Paine. Or Conrad Geyser. Or modern materials like epoxy and plywood. But eight boats turned into sixty-six in the span of twenty years, guaranteeing the most beautiful thing in this village will survive at least another hundred years, rounding the same buoys, in the same harbor, starting the same races an hour late like they do today.

And then, as now, the most precious sight of all for me won’t be the size of the fleet or the trophies won, but the sight of a teenager on a Wednesday morning, giving his or her all to win a Junior Series, accomplishing something my grandfather, Henry Chatfield Churbuck said to me the day i came back from crewing with Evie Jackson in my first skiff race (where i learned several new words i can’t say tonight).

“If you can sail a Cotuit Skiff, you can sail anything!”

Have a good night.

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