I regularly cruise to Oxford, Md., on the middle Eastern Shore
— not primarily to eat, drink and make merry, but to poke around a remarkable time capsule of an old, traditional boatyard.
I first visited the Cutts & Case Shipyard and encountered owner and nautical legend Edmund A. Cutts Sr. in the early 1970s, and I’ve been welcomed back many times since — sometimes with a bronze fitting in hand that needs help. But returning this spring will be quite different because Cutts, eminent designer and boatbuilder, died at his historic home, “Byeberry,” in November at the age of 82. He was a living monument to yachting history in America that took him back to the old H.B. Nevins yard on City Island, N.Y.
A devoted student and admirer of the traditional Herreshoff-mastered ways of building wooden boats, Ed Cutts was a personal friend of the great L. Francis Herreshoff. They shared talents and eccentricities, among which was collecting vintage motorcycles, an interest Cutts passed on to sons Eddie Jr. and Ronnie, who have inherited a debt-free family business and pledge to continue their hands-on ways of operating the yard.
At the oyster shell-paved entrance to the unfenced yard, a hand-painted sign welcomes visitors to a hallowed place “where Neptune’s darlings gather” and display their varnished masts. The main work shed, with a tin roof and pot-bellied stove, is never locked and any work being done is time well spent to watch and learn. There is also an old marine railway powered by a Civil War-era winch, a 1920s crawler crane on tractor treads, and a modern head and shower — a fairly recent (2001) improvement to accommodate cruisers.
The highly opinionated Cutts took all aspects of yachting, boatbuilding and maintenance personally and boasted without compromise that his vessels were simply, without exaggeration, the best when built by his patented “Cutts Method of Kevlar Cording.” This process, he claimed, “makes traditional methods outdated and cold molding excessively expensive and structurally incorrect.” It remained a mystery to him why all boats built of wood did not use his method.
I last visited in July, when we had one of our regular chats in his home, which he claimed to be the oldest (circa 1694) in Oxford — itself a historic village dating back to the late 17th century and one of only two ports of entry for British trade in Colonial times. Cutts held court in a stuffed chair that had given way to his specific form. He sat thinking deep, innovative thoughts about a lot of things in a dark but cozy kitchen corner surrounded by yachting books, paperwork and his Bible.
There was no questioning of his beliefs and opinions, religious or otherwise. His designing methods were by pencil sketches and a carved half-model as guide. As the yard was preparing to launch his last and final boat, I foolishly suggested that it would be a nice touch to turn over the model to the owner on splash day. Cutts was aghast at the idea and said, “Now why would I want to do that?”
In many repeat visits to this charming haven of wooden yachts with a natural landscape enhanced by nautical tidbits scattered hither and yon, I came across some tender touches — anchor and propeller gardens, for one. When a boat owner (or perhaps a boat) died, an appropriate prop or anchor would be planted and left behind in memory.
Cutts was fond of few wooden vessels other than his own. However, he took a serious liking to a famous workboat used for 50 years by Morris and Stanley Rosenfeld, father-and-son yachting photographers of New York who recorded more than a million images of famous yachts from the cockpit of their 34-foot chase boat, Foto. The boat was designed and built in 1929 with a proviso that spray must be kept to a minimum for close shooting.
The Rosenfelds sold Foto in 1977 and when Cutts found the decrepit vessel it was ready for the chainsaw and burn pile. “Those men were marvelous photographers, but they cared not a whit for boat maintenance,” he said. Cutts bought the historic boat for $1 and completely restored it to where it rests in idle glory as the centerpiece exhibit in the Cutts & Case Museum.
Cutts was buried in Oxford’s historic cemetery next to his wife, Marguerite (Maggie), who died in 2005. After military honors and taps for the Navy veteran, three reverberating shots boomed out over the water from an ancient Lyle cannon fired at the boatyard — visible just across Town Creek — after which, there was a fine reception at the village’s Latitude 38 Restaurant.
The great man was born Jan. 1, 1927, in New York City. At the age of 16 he enrolled in an apprentice program at Brooklyn Navy Yard, enlisted in the Navy at 18, and served in the Pacific theater during World War II. After the war he managed a printing business but soon returned to boatyard work, his first love. At the famous Nevins yard, more or less the successor to the legendary Herreshoff yard, he worked with Nils Halvorsen as a loftsman. He was also a writer for Rudder magazine in the early 1960s.
In 1965, he and partner John M. Case formed Cutts & Case and bought the old Ralph Houghton Wiley yard in Oxford, which had been in business there on Town Creek (“Crockett’s Cove”) since the early 1920s. He went on to build some 80 vessels, some of which still call the yard home and are yard-maintained. The largest hull, at 75 feet, has remained a shell for many years.
A bit of an inventive genius, Cutts also held patents in fluid moving systems, external combustion engines, sail handling equipment and, of course, the unique Cutts method of hull construction.
A longtime member of the New York Yacht Club and the Classic Yacht Club of America, he is survived by his two sons, both of Oxford; daughter Linda C. Featherman of Clarksville Md.; and five grandchildren.
This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue.