Bay Tripper

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A masterpiece named Souvenir

A masterpiece named Souvenir

Oxford, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, has long been a favorite Chesapeake Bay destination of mine — a historic little village on the TredAvonRiver where I usually begin and end my cruising season. It also is the home and workplace of the family-owned Cutts & Case Shipyard, a unique landmark on Town Creek and perhaps the last yard of its kind still surviving on the Bay, where prime waterfront property is valued more than a boatyard that occupies it.

I sailed there in early September to cover a locally historic event I had been anxiously looking forward to for years while following the slow-building progress of a special wooden daysailer. That celebratory launching of an engineless 24-foot sloop, dressed with pennants, marked the long-awaited nautical birth of a meticulously handcrafted vessel named Souvenir.

She is a souvenir of sorts in herself, because she probably is the last vessel to be designed and built by the namesake legend Edmund A. Cutts Sr. His first sailboat in more than a quarter-century, she emerged from a 4-acre time capsule womb where a welcoming entrance sign proclaims the yard as a place “Where Neptune’s Darlings Gather.”

It also presented a rare opportunity to look at a unique owner-builder relationship between Nick Grasberger, 42, and Cutts, 81. Generally, an owner contracting for a custom-built boat may assume he has some basic rights of ownership, such as a choice of colors and whether an engine, battery (for running lights) and even a masthead wind vane should be installed. But this wasn’t necessarily the case with a labor-intensive, Cutts-designed and built yacht like Souvenir. She had the honor of instantaneously becoming a one-of-a-kind Chesapeake Bay classic when launched with pomp and circumstance, crabcakes and champagne, at the yard’s old marine railway.

I had sailed to Oxford the day before the launch and Souvenir was on the hard next to an ancient monster crane, awaiting her first dunking. (No marine Travelift here.) My request for notification of this event was ignored, and before I knew it Souvenir was splashed and being paddled silently to the railway as I awakened in my boat at 7 a.m.

“You can only have one proper launching, not two,” explained the Cutts family later, and I immediately understood.

Maritime tradition has a strong hold on this yard because of Eddie Cutts Sr.’s history of working with notable boatbuilders and designers, such as the fabled old Nevins yard on Long Island, N.Y., and the legendary L. Francis Herreshoff. With a firm, almost fixed opinion on most things nautical, the somewhat eccentric Cutts maintains a proprietary interest in his boats and parts with them in tears, as was the case when he turned over the creation he calls “my baby” to Nick and Michele Grasberger of Lancaster, Pa., and Oxford. Eddie Jr. and Ronnie, the senior’s two sons who have lived and worked at the yard since their father purchased it in 1965, also were emotionally affected by the transition.

The Grasbergers became close to the Cutts family when they docked an open 25-foot runabout at the yard and sailed often with Ronnie in Cutts boats. (They now have a 42-foot Sabre Flybridge Cruiser at the Oxford Boat Yard and also own an Opti pram and a 22-foot Boston Whaler.) Grasberger was enamored of the beautiful Cutts sailboats and can name them all: Joie de Vivre, 29 feet, launched in 1966; Rebellion, 33 feet, 1967; Grizzly Bear, 33 feet, 1968; La Mouette, 42 feet, 1970; Spellbound, 44 feet, 1972; and Jeannie, 44 feet, 1979.

During his early stages of sailboat shopping, Grasberger favored the high-end Herreshoff Alerion 26, a 1912 Capt. Nat Herreshoff design now manufactured in fiberglass. The price was about $75,000, he recalls, which he considered a bit high for a 26-foot daysailer.

“I asked Ed what he thought of the boat, because I knew how much he respected the Herreshoffs and their designs,” says Grasberger. “He told me he already had drawings and even a name [Souvenir] for a 24-footer. He said he could build it for me at about the same price of the Alerion 26. I liked the idea of having an opportunity to watch my own boat being built, so I committed in late 2000.”

As it turned out, the final price for Souvenir was “almost $300,000,” according to Grasberger, and it took much longer to build than anticipated. “Money was never an issue with me in this project,” he says. “I would do the same thing again. I have come to love and cherish the Cutts family and their shipyard, and what it and tradition mean to them and the community.”

Souvenir could not be insured for the amount they paid, but they regard her as a masterpiece of the boatbuilder’s art. “The value of something is determined by what someone pays for it, whether it be a van Gogh painting or a Cutts-built boat,” says marine surveyor and wooden-boat expert Fred Hecklinger of Annapolis, who surveyed the boat.

The chief financial officer of Armstrong World Industries, Grasberger thought of his boat often and made notes about it on planes and in airports and hotels. “I looked forward to weekends in Oxford because I could visit her and check on the boat’s progress … or lack thereof,” he says, laughing. “By nature, I am not what you would call a patient person, but I made an exception here because we had become so emotionally involved with the Cutts family. My family will have this boat for many, many years, and it will be docked and yard-maintained here.”

Yard buildings and the maritime museum at C&C are always open, and one does not need an appointment, escort or waiver from an insurance company to wander freely about the place. It has always been so.

“When we arrived in town late in the evening, I would have a Scotch at home to wind down and would bicycle to the yard,” he recalls. “I loved those night visits and will miss them dearly, even though they created some frustration for me during those six years.”

Certain things were not done during those years without Eddie Sr.’s approval. Complications and delays set in with personal problems, such as the fatal illness of Maggie, his wife of many years, and the amputation of Cutts’ left leg below the knee and the fitting of a prosthesis.

“I wanted a larger cockpit because we have five children and a yellow Lab, Quincy, but this was rejected immediately by Cutts,” says Grasberger. “He said the boat is a daysailer meant for two persons, and the cockpit was suitable for the purpose for which it was designed. In that regard, the boat seemed to be more important than family members, and permission to sail with a big dog in tow was out of the question.”

The owner also thought about a small propulsion system, perhaps battery-powered, mainly for getting in and out of the slip. That, too, was rejected. Cutts said a battery would add unnecessary weight, even if running lights were installed. “You can haul a lantern to the top of the mast for a night light,” he suggested.

The head arrangement was a bit of a mystery to Grasberger. “I asked boatbuilder Dennis Risher about a little platform he was building, tucked out of the way on the port side behind a bulkhead and in a compartment between the main saloon and anchor/sail locker.”

Grasberger was shown a varnished cedar bucket that would be secured there. “I thought it was some kind of joke at first,” he says. “Michele and I laughed about it and still have not figured out how the boat’s and our own plumbing systems will be compatible.”

A reverse twist came about when, much to Grasberger’s surprise, Cutts suggested aluminum spars painted to look like wood, because they were cheaper and would require far less maintenance than a varnished mast and boom. “In that case, I won the argument,” says the patient owner. “I insisted on varnished Sitka spruce, and Ronnie custom-made the hollow spars for me.”

But he lost again when it came to color selection. “I wanted the topsides painted Navy blue, and Cutts was aghast at going against tradition,” he says. “It appeared I could have any colors I wanted, as long as the topsides were semigloss white, the bottom was red, and the deck a pale, dusty, flattened-out sky blue color created by Cutts — a special mix that covers the decks of most of his vessels.”

Personally, I would be a nervous wreck bringing the engineless, seamless hull of Souvenir into a dock without a rubrail, but the gold-painted, indented cove stripe was a must, and forget about lifelines.

Grasberger had a genoa made to replace the club-footed jib for light-air conditions, and may go against the Cutts rule of not installing a masthead windvane on its boats. A personalized Cutts touch is a polished brass plaque at the foot of the mast that identifies the varnished cabin sole as made from a stand of white oaks said to have been planted by George Washington in 1782.

Eddie Jr. provided a list of the wood used in Souvenir: Douglas fir for the stem, keel, deadwood, horntimber, chines, minor floor timbers, lower fashion piece and rudder; cedar for the double planking and upper fashion piece; varnished mahogany cabin sides and teak for the coamings and cockpit floor boards.

The hull is tied together with Kevlar cord in a process called the “Cutts Patented Method,” which eliminates fastening metals (except for hardware and keel bolts) in the composite, epoxy-glued hull structure. According to C&C literature, this method “involves the internal circular winding of extraordinarily strong, non-biodegradable Kevlar cords that produce an electrically inert structure with the internal room of fiberglass hulls. The elimination of heavy, bulky ribs produces seamless, electrolysis-free vessels meant to last a hundred years and more. Such a yacht costs no more than a quality plastic boat but provides important advantages besides longevity, like higher ballast ratios in sail or better power-to-weight numbers in powerboats, with no blistering or osmotic pH migration. No more delamination failure or gelcoat removal.”

When it came time for Michele Grasberger to crack a bottle of champagne on the stem, Cutts insisted on rigging a protective angle iron cushioned with a towel at the point of impact, which was indicated by an arrow pointing to the impact spot. The final product is an elegant, round-sterned vessel by a master designer, boatbuilder and inventor that turns heads whenever she sails about the Tred Avon and Choptank rivers.

Souvenir came down the ways and departed on her first sail with Cutts Sr. at the tiller and Dennis Risher, Nick and Michele aboard. Unfortunately, there was no wind. Ronnie, following in a chase boat filled with spectators, eventually had to take the daysailer under tow.

Final stats are as follows: Length is 23 feet, 10 inches with a beam of 7 feet, 6 inches. She draws 3 feet and weighs 2,900 pounds with a spade rudder and a modified fin keel with 1,850 pounds lead ballast in a bulb.

At home after the launch, Eddie Cutts Sr., sat in his cluttered kitchen, pulled out his half-model of Souvenir and boasted that he took the lines from this model using a slide rule but no computer, which he does not like or understand. Asked if he was going to give the half-model to the Grasbergers, he appeared startled at the suggestion.

“Certainly not,” he said. “It will hang on my living room wall with my other half-models.”

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.