Saved from the scrap heap by a lover of its design, the Fatty Knees has muscled its way back onto the water
When George Dow came across the 24-foot Bristol Channel cutter, he knew it was just the boat he had been looking for. But there was a hitch: He was equally attracted to the 7-foot dinghy lashed to its cabin top — and the dinghy wasn’t for sale.
Dow, 75, had offered to buy Seraffyn of Victoria, the 24-foot Lyle Hess-designed cutter made famous by its builders and first owners, Lin and Larry Pardey, well-known among sailors for their cruising adventures and books. A real fan of the Hess cutters, Dow had been looking for a boat like Seraffyn for some time. When he went to see it in the fall of 2001 he immediately spotted the 7-foot Fatty Knees atop the boat. It was the type of dinghy the Pardeys had used aboard Seraffyn.
Dow knew Fatty Knees tenders were renowned for their rowing, towing and sailing prowess, and he wanted the one he had seen. “The owner said the dinghy didn’t come with the boat and I told him that was a deal breaker,” Dow says.
The owner relented, and the little tender has since cruised with Dow from Scituate, Mass., where he keeps Seraffyn, up to Maine and back during the summer. Dow is 6 feet tall and weighs 230 pounds, and he says he routinely carries one or two other big cruising buddies in his Fatty Knees. “Any 7-footer can be a little unstable when you get in it, but the wide beam of the Fatty Knees really helps keep things steady,” he says.
Like Seraffyn, the Fatty Knees is a Lyle Hess design. The hand-laid lapstrake-style fiberglass hull delivers strength and stiffness while remaining relatively light at 100 pounds for the 8-footer. (The dinghy also comes in a 9-foot version.) A 7-inch skeg adds directional stability, and the teak inner rail, kick-up rudder and daggerboard add a touch of beauty to this utilitarian boat. With two rowing stations, 50 square feet of sail on the 8-footer, and an offset mount to port for a 2-hp outboard, the Fatty Knees is a versatile tender.
Edey & Duff Boatbuilders in Mattapoisett, Mass., had been building Fatty Knees tenders for decades and the boats had become a New England tradition. Then came the Great Recession. It would have rocketed the venerable Fatty Knees into oblivion were it not for a confluence of events that led to a phoenix-like resurrection of the boat with the birth of a brand-new company, Fatty Knees Boat Co. LLC. It came together in the fall of 2010 through the efforts of David Foynes, a retired sales representative in Sagamore Beach, Mass.
Foynes got involved with the faltering Edey & Duff in January 2010 at the request of the wife of the late John Harding. Harding had purchased the company about nine years earlier and had been doing well, according to Foynes. The company was building and marketing Fatty Knees tenders and the Sakonnet 23 daysailer. It also was building the Herreshoff 12-1/2 and the 28-foot Stewart Knockabout on a contract basis.
In 2006, Foynes says, Edey & Duff was producing an average of 75 to 100 Fatty Knees annually. It also was building 10 to 15 Herreshoff 12-1/2s and four to eight Stewart Knockabouts. The 12-1/2 sold for $33,000, a Stewart Knockabout for $72,000 and an 8-foot Fatty Knees for about $5,500.
Roughly 80 percent of Edey & Duff’s annual gross revenue was derived from building the Herreshoff and the Stewart Knockabout, Foynes says. “When the bottom fell out [of the high-end daysailer market] in 2009, the company was stuck with all its eggs in one basket,” he says.
By September 2010, Edey & Duff hadn’t received an order for a 12-1/2 or a Stewart Knockabout for more than two years and it had only built six or seven Fatty Knees in 2010. Harding, the company owner, had died of cancer in 2009. The general manager stepped in to handle the business, but he died suddenly later that year, putting Edey & Duff back on the ropes.
Foynes was a friend of the Harding family, and Kathy Harding approached him to see whether he could salvage the business. Foynes had been a successful independent sales representative for Columbia Sportswear and other clothing companies in the sporting goods business. He knew the importance of marketing, and he loved the boats Edey & Duff had been building.
“I looked at the whole thing, realizing what Edey & Duff had done for all those years,” Foynes says. “I asked myself: How do we bring the company back again? How do we save what it had done for the past 42 years and continue to build on a tradition?”
Ultimately, Kathy Harding decided to sell the company’s assets, Foynes says, which included the molds for the Sakonnet 23 and the Fatty Knees. The company also owned the molds for the Sam Crocker-designed Stone Horse 23, but Foynes had no buyers for them. He tracked down the designer’s grandson, who runs Crocker’s Boatyard in Manchester, Mass., and gave the molds to him. “I didn’t want to see those molds destroyed and end up in a landfill somewhere,” Foynes says. “If there was a slight possibility of the boat continuing on, I wanted to see it happen.”
The Sakonnet 23 molds were sold to Marshall Marine in South Dartmouth, Mass., but there were no takers for the Fatty Knees molds. It looked as if the boats were finished. In September 2010, Edey & Duff closed. Even though he knew nothing about the boatbuilding business, Foynes decided to take on the project of bringing the Fatty Knees back to life. Kathy Harding gave him the molds, the rights to build and market Fatty Knees, and the last 8-foot tender to come out of the mold. The boat was unfinished. “I didn’t have any manufacturing facilities,” Foynes says. “I had nothing but a crazy idea in mind that I could get the Fatty Knees going again. There were a number of times I sat there wondering what I’d gotten into.”
That same month, working on faith alone, Foynes lined up Pine Grove Plastics in Freetown, Mass., to manufacture Fatty Knees hulls. He placed an order for one of each version of the tenders, then hired Hejira Woodworks in Duxbury, Mass., to finish the boats.
Hejira got started on the unfinished 8-footer Foynes received from Edey & Duff and it was completed and sold in October. Foynes received the three boats from Pine Grove in November and one of them sold shortly thereafter. He immediately ordered three more 8-footers and one 9-footer. “You can’t sell from an empty cart,” Foynes says. “One of the things that hurt Edey & Duff in the past was there was a lag time between the sale and delivery of the finished boat. I believe it’s better to have an inventory of one or two finished boats in each size so we can fill orders as they come in.”
Foynes says he gets five to eight e-mail inquiries every week from potential Fatty Knees buyers, based on the worldwide reputation of the boat, and that having inventory on hand has led to steady sales. He’s also going to boat shows to promote the boat. “It’s a great feeling when you go to a boat show and have people come up and say, ‘Gee, it’s great to see a Fatty Knees here,’ ” he says.
In 2011, Fatty Knees Boat Co. (www.fattyknees.com) sold 34 tenders, Foynes says, and he hopes to sell about 50 this year. He says the 8-foot version is the most popular. It sells for $5,700 with a sailing rig. “I think it’s always sad when you see very well-known, wonderful boats with great reputations just fade away,” Dow says. “And now the Fatty Knees is not going to fade away. I think that’s just great.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.