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A man of few words, but many talents

Co-founder of Massachusetts boatbuilder Edey & Duff was always tinkering to improve

Co-founder of Massachusetts boatbuilder Edey & Duff was always tinkering to improve

Peter Duff had his whole family aboard their 33-foot leeboard sharpie, Black Gauntlet, sailing across Buzzards Bay, Mass., to the wedding of the man who made their sails when, his son recalls, a stranger in another pretty, wooden boat came alongside. In the following waterborne conversation that day in 1968 between Duff, educated in nuclear physics, and Mait Edey, a jazz piano player, were planted the seeds that would transform both men into boatbuilders and would blossom into a company using cutting-edge materials to build boats of time-honored designs.

Duff, cofounder of Edey & Duff, builder of the iconic Stone Horse and Dovekie designs, among others, died Aug. 30 after decades of struggling with Parkinson’s disease. He is remembered as a “starter,” a tinkerer, curious, taciturn, inventive, intense and “an exquisite sailor.”

Even after he left the company in the mid-1980s, more than a decade after his disease had been diagnosed, Duff continued not only cruising on his own Dovekie but, with his wife, Maggie, organizing trips in far-flung locations — from the Great Lakes to Florida — for other owners of the trailerable Dovekie.

“He would announce: ‘Maggie and I are going sailing,’ ” recalls Sandra Lommen, who sailed a Dovekie with her husband, Leo Smith. “You never knew who was going to show up. He had these interesting places he had found on the charts.

“He had the unique value of liking to sail to private places, not going to marinas,” Smith adds. “Really out of the way, pristine anchorages was his specialty.”

Duff, born in 1936 and raised in Concord, Mass, was the son of a pharmaceutical salesman, according to his son, Ian Duff. The family had a house on Cape Cod, where “my father taught himself to sail with a flatiron skiff.” He attended Case Western Reserve and transferred to TuftsUniversity, where he earned a degree in nuclear physics in 1958.

Working in a series of industrial jobs, Duff always had a boat project under construction, his son says. By 1958, Duff was working for the Edson Company and the family was building a new home in Mattapoisett, near New Bedford on Buzzards Bay.

“My mom and dad designed it after a boat barn they found in Barnstable,” Ian Duff says.

“It was actually us swinging the hammer and cutting the boards.”

The family spent most summer weekends cruising on the Bay in Black Gauntlet, a Phil Bolger-designed boat Duff had finished from a bare hull and deck. It was on one of those sails, ghosting in to the wedding, that Duff met Edey, sailing his Stone Horse built in 1938.

Edey recalls that their conversation on the water included their mutual lament about the nature of the new, fiberglass production boats, which neither man respected. A booming economy had drawn the masses into sailing, and fiberglass made it affordable and available, Edey says. The new boats, sold as racer-cruisers, were built to racing rules that “dictated a boat which was very poor for cruising and hard to sail. Tiny mainsails, big foretriangles. You couldn’t sail a boat singlehanded into a harbor and pick up a mooring.”

In subsequent conversations over a few weeks, Duff and Edey agreed that a boatbuilder could make money building fiberglass boats like the Stone Horse. Within six months, they had decided to become those boatbuilders.

“I think all the lofting was done in the living room floor of the house we were building,” recalls Ian Duff. “The company was formed the end of 1968 and started building the plug for the mold for [the Stone Horse] shortly after that, in the spring of the year.”

“The thing that first got my attention is that . . . the Stone Horse was kind of against the grain as a boat back in those days,” says David Devignon, who has worked at the company since 1970. Duff “was interested in doing Airex-cored boats, which hadn’t been done. That caught my attention. He was a bit of a maverick, I guess you could say.”

Edey says Duff had been chafing at his work in industry and wanted to pursue his own path.

“He found something appealing about quitting his job and starting his own business,” Edey remembers. “He had admitted that much about himself. He wanted to be his own boss and do something creative. It would have something to do with boats, but it would not be boatbuilding. A man would have to be crazy to get into boatbuilding these days, he thought. He was explicit on that point” before the company was formed, Edey says.

Taking first the Sam Crocker-designed Stone Horse and then the Bolger-designed Dovekie, Duff found ways to improve the designs.

Devignon, who calls Dovekie Duff’s “crowning touch,” notes he “was able to totally design hardware to do things that no one else in the industry was making.” Working with a welder of stainless steel, he created leeboard hardware, brackets to carry the spars when the boat was being trailered, kick-up rudder hardware. “It just goes on and on and on,” Devignon says. “Dovkie was quite a radical boat.”

At the same time, Duff’s illness was progressing, making it more difficult for him to be involved in the actual building of boats.

“He moved further and further away from getting his hands dirty and further in the direction of chasing improvements on the boat he was building, chasing new boats,” says his son. “The shift of his focus was away from the actual building and more onto the engineering and using the boats and building a community of like-minded people.”

One of those people, Sandra Lommen, says that when Duff said something to his followers, “it was useful to hear. He wasn’t a chatty man. It was nuggets of insight into interesting occasions. Some times, he didn’t even use words. Some times when we would go sailing with him, he would just drop an anchor and jump overboard. It was obvious it was time to go swimming.”

Another Dovekie owner who sailed with the Duffs several times, Nick “Moby Nick” Scheuer, tells of a time when he decided to scull his boat during a cruise.

“Peter, standing on the pier . . . suddenly shouted over, ‘Moby! Not like this! (emulating at arms length a sculling stroke with the palm of his hand vertical) Like THIS!’ (with the palm of his hand now turned flat at the midpoint of his arm swing) I would later learn that it is called the ‘falling leaf stroke’.

“I changed my technique immediately. Voila! There was no more churning water. No more thrashing noise, And [my boat] moved forward with more authority,” recalls Scheuer. “All this in just six words.”