While Cape Cod has become renowned for playwrights and painters, another kind of the region’s legacy of art lingers on moorings and hauled up on sandy beaches across the Cape. The art of boatbuilding has always been an important aspect of life on the waters of the Cape, from the early Life-Saving Service Surfboats, to pirate ships, and of course pleasure-craft like small sailboats. Originally the small sailboats with their flat bottoms were likely used by fishermen to reach sandbars and collect shellfish. Many suspect that races took place between fishermen!
Those frequenting the harbors and waterfronts around Cotuit are sure to spot the big triangles of sail atop the small wooden hulls of the Cotuit Skiffs cutting gracefully through the water. The first of the 14-foot boats were built in 1903 when Dr. Walter Woodman commissioned Stanley Butler to build three boats, then called Mosquitos. The doctor’s children and their friends had a wonderful time racing the boats around the harbor, and in the following years more boats were commissioned and built.
The boats are one-design, though variations have come as more builders began to construct Cotuit Skiffs. Other builders included Butler, Reuben, Bigelow & Co, Chester A Crosby & Co, Henry C. Churbuck, Fred Boden, and Peck’s Boats. The boats were mostly constructed with local woods, oak and white atlantic cedar. The long 17-foot boom extends out beyond the transom of the 14-foot hull of the boats, and the gaff rigging makes jibeing a challenge for the inexperienced sailor.
In the summer of 1906 a group of young sailing enthusiasts, all under 21 and a majority of whom were women, formed the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club. Setting it apart from other yacht clubs, the Mosquito Yacht Club has always been led by and populated by young people. In the early years participants had to be under 24 and unmarried! The founding of the club launched a century of racing and independent Cotuit kids enjoying time on the water. By 1935 it was estimated that the fleet of Cotuit Skiffs numbered 47. While there was a lull during the Second World War, a 2017 Sailing World article by Christopher White reports that 66 boats float on in the fleet.
The club was run by young people without help for 44 years until a Parent’s Association joined to provide funds for a rescue power boat. Up until that point the rescue crew for capsized boats had been made up of oystermen who happened to be out on the bay! While the boat’s centerboard adds some stability, Larry Odence dedicates his book, Mosquito Boats: The First Hundred Years of the Cotuit Skiff, “To all those who have tried and tipped. If you haven’t tipped, you have not sailed a Cotuit Skiff.”
While the parent’s association assisted, the club held onto the spirit of independence in which it was founded. An anecdote from the late 1990’s in which a group of young sailors showed up unaccompanied for a race in Nantucket, complete with their own checkbook to pay their entry fee and dues epitomizes the self-sufficiency the club has always embodied.
The Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club continues its tradition of fostering independence, a love of being on the water, and proficiency in sailing with their range of sailing classes. Kids as young as 8 begin learning to sail in Optimist Pram boats, honing their skills over the years to eventually end up racing 420’s or perhaps a Cotuit skiff in a regatta near or far. Enjoy watching the boats, filled with legacy, artistic flair, and also kids having a great time, sail past from Loop Beach or from the waters around Sampson’s Island.