Catboat race brings sailors back to 1957

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The 50th running of the Duck Island Gathering had old salts reminiscing about the first regatta

The 50th running of the Duck Island Gathering had old salts reminiscing about the first regatta

It’s July 1957 and a fleet of catboats surges towards an imaginary starting line off Cornfield Point, in Old Saybrook, Conn.

“One, two, three – Go!” shouts HenryTowers from the cockpit of his 20-foot, gaff-rigged cat. Grips tighten on tillers, mainsails are sheeted home. “And the winner buys the beer!” he adds.

And they’re off. Destination: Bell 8, to the west.

Little did those long-ago catboat sailors, just enjoying a friendly race for the first time, know that a half-century later, a remarkably similar group of die-hard sailors would be sailing essentially the same race, with the same kind of boat and the same blithe spirit.

This year’s 50th anniversary running of what’s come to be known as the Duck Island Gathering attracted 50 sailors for a Friday-night party and 13 entries for the Saturday racing. Hosted by the North Cove Yacht Club in Old Saybrook July 13-14, the “oldest-surviving bona fide catboat race on record” drew entries from all around New England and New York.

Towers, 86, was one of two sailors on hand from that first race. Between stories, he and Ellsworth Grant, 90, expressed their amazement that what was started so long ago has been carried on.

“It’s wonderful to see this race has come so far — and is still existing,” says Grant.

It all started with a love of catboats. There weren’t so many around in 1957, recalled Towers, and they were a little off-beat. Serious sailors raced to Bermuda on Cruising Club of America yawls and Marconi-rigged sloops. But when a local builder, Tom Marston, began turning out a wooden 20-footer, local sailors with children, like Towers, saw them as perfect little family boats. Others agreed, and a small fleet of Marston cats sprang up.

“We all knew each other and sailed together,” says Towers. “One day we thought it would be fun to have a race on Long Island Sound off Fenwick, off Ellsworth’s house. We’d go from Cornfield point out to Bell 8 and back. That’s how it all started.”

The race fleet stayed small for a number of years, but interest in catboats grew, abetted by the formation of the Catboat Association in 1962, Grant remembers. “Word got around. Someone would see another catboat on the Sound, and they’d invite them to the next race, so the fleet grew,” he says.

After racing the original course off Fenwick for six years, they began to use different ones. One year, Grant remembers, the 16-boat fleet raced west to DuckIsland, off Westbrook, Conn., where they all rafted up and spent the night. “That was a lot of fun,” he says.

In their recollections, both sailors praised the Marston catboat, too.

“Marston cats were great boats — roomy, sturdy and seaworthy,” says Towers. “They sailed well downwind, as might be expected, and were great boats for kids. The catboat made sense.”

A 20-footer cost about $5,000, and they were more than just dayboats with a cabin. Grant recalled sailing his catboat, Lady Fenwick, to the World’s Fair in New York in 1964, and staying on a mooring.

The Marston cats are gone. But today’s catboat sailors are just as enthused about their own vessels. One sailor, Jim Homet, trailered his Marshall 18 all the way down from New Hampshire. Tom Russell came over from Shelter Island, N.Y., for this year’s anniversary race.

“It’s a fun group to be with — and the race is still going strong,” he says. “Look at all the people who’ve shown up.”

Light winds were the order for the two Saturday races, but that didn’t dim the fun. For the second year Larry Ritzhaupt won the DuckIsland trophy in his Marshall 18, Jezebel. The Marshall 15, Catling, won “most rambunctious and colorful crew,” and two other boats were feted by the race committee for “playing chicken in no-wind/heavy current” conditions.

So 2007 was almost like 1957.

“The Duck Island Gathering has lasted 50 years and will last another 50 because catboats are one of the most pleasant boats to sail,” says Tim Klin, of Essex, Conn., who helmed his Menger 17 in the race. “A catboat is easy on the eyes and sweet to sail … and catboaters themselves are a gentle breed.”