Mosquito Boats: A History of the Cotuit Skiff

Mosquito Boats: The First Hundred Years of the Cotuit Skiff

The Association
of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club held a dinner dance recently at the Cotuit Son’s of Italy hall to raise some funds, eat some spaghetti, and conduct a launch party of sorts for a 15-year project, a massive piece of research and writing that spans over a century of one of the oldest American one-design racing boats.

Larry Odence is a stalwart sailor of Cotuit Skiffs — he was a contemporary of my late father — first learning to sail the boats as a summer kid in the 1930s aboard his first skiff, the Watersprite. Today he is still out on the waters of Cotuit Bay, racing his beloved Swamp Fox with his grandchildren. His masterpiece is finally in print and was worth the wait.

Fifteen years ago, when the Skiff fleet was beginning its massive revival, Larry began to research the history of the design by taking an unusual and very intimate approach. He focused on each individual boat, rather than their sailors or builders, creating in effect a detailed genealogy around each and every Mosquito. The task was massive – records were loosely kept, stored in a drawer at the Cotuit Library – memories faded, some builders kept no records (I know, Larry was tireless is asking me if my grandfather, Henry Chatfield Churbuck had kept any records of his short-lived Skiff building activities in the late 1940s) and some owners had hazy memories of who owned what, and what sail numbers went with which hull.

Larry’s efforts have been published and given to the ACMYC as a fund raising tool. But what comes through after a thorough reading is this is a remarkable history on three or four levels.

First, the Odence book is the history of an eccentric, uniquely American boat design that was derived from a simple inshore working boat and adapted to local waters by a very innovative and enigmatic designer, Stanley Butler. Butler refused to standardize, he was an inventor and an innovator, so no two of his boats were alike and his customers – the first summer people in Cotuit – began to get unhappy with the unfair differences between one boat to the next.  The concept of one-design sailing is founded on standards — to remove the advantage of technology and to make the competition about the sailor, not the boat or the sail. Children would come home, doubtlessly unhappy that their boat was slower than their friend’s, and before long the history moves from one of experimentation to standardization, a pattern that would repeat itself over the decades, time and time again. Debate over standards persist to this day.

The Mosquitos were handmade boats, built from oak and white Atlantic cedar, canvas and iron nails. Little 14-foot hulls with impossibly big sails, designed for rounding short courses inside the lake-like harbor of Cotuit Bay. Hurricanes took their toll, as did sloppy maintenance, corroding fasteners, and waves of popularity and decline caused by wars, economies, and other distractions. I majored in American maritime history in college and have read a lot of histories, especially indigenous boat design such as Howard Chappelle and others. Larry’s work is the equal of those academic works and in many regards, superior to them because of the intense amount of detective work he did in gathering profiles of more than 150 boats and the personalities behind every one of them.

Second, the book traces the history of a community formed around a yacht club that for years owned no property, had no clubhouse, and was run by young people with little help from their parents. Not until 1960 was a parent’s association formed to pay for motorboats and sailing lessons – before that it was a club of unmarried juniors under the age of 25 who tolerated older sailors on their own terms. By emphasizing the ownership of each boat, the book brings forth a very interesting story of families than came and went through the town – from townies who have been here forever to vacationers who arrived for a month or two never to return.

Third, this is a history of a village and the entire phenomenon of New England summer resorts. Cotuit was one of the first summer destinations for wealthy Bostonians – the names of the first residents are a roll of Brahmin pedigrees: Lowells, Ropes, Cabot, Coolidge – and the Skiff played an important role as the only recreation in a village with no beach club, country club, golf course, or other typical summer diversion. The Mosquito was it and remains the icon of the village.

Mystic Seaport, the preeminent American maritime museum in Mystic, Connecticut, awarded the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club its William Avery Baker award for its efforts in preserving the Cotuit Skiff over more than a century. The president of the Seaport, Steven White, came to Cotuit to give the award to CMYC Commodore, Michael Dannhauser.

Update: This is a sample of what each boat’s entry looks like:

Click on the picture for a link to the original full-sized scan.

I’m not sure how or if the Odence book will be sold outside of the club. The price is $100. If interested please leave a comment and I’ll find out how to fulfill an order.

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