Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club

Cape Cod Life  /  August 2019 / ,

Writer: Chris White

Generations Round the Mark

The Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club continues
to make waves while holding fast to tradition

Photos provided by Chris White & Abby Ford

In 1998, the Nantucket Yacht Club hosted the Cumming Cup, the triple-handed junior regatta of the Southern Massachusetts Sailing Association. The team from Cotuit—three 16-year-old girls and one 15-year-old boy—showed up ready to compete but without any paperwork; their coach was back home on the other side of the Sound, scrambling around to cover the sailing classes they normally taught, and no one had thought to bring a parent. When the race organizers tried to make sense of this apparently feral pack of children, they discovered that the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club had not yet paid its annual dues to SMSA. Given the circumstances, they felt there was no choice but to declare the team forfeit, saying something to the effect of: “Sorry, kids, but we cannot allow you to participate unless your commodore sets things straight.” 

“Wait,” said Lydia Jackson. “I am the commodore. And this is our treasurer.” At this point, Caitlin Riordan produced the club’s checkbook and asked, “How much do we owe, again?”

Flabbergasted, the well-meaning adults of Nantucket were at a loss. It’s rare enough to find a woman commodore, but one who is also only 16 years old? Unheard of. And besides—liability. Lawyers were everywhere. Riordan recalls, “No one would believe us. But then this super old dude from the Hyannis Yacht Club asked us where we were from. When we said Cotuit, he said he’d vouch for us because he knew our yacht club and ‘it sounded par for the course.’”

Whether his assessment was meant as a slight or a compliment is unclear, but the elder statesman’s advocacy clarified the situation, and the organizers relented. Caitlin Riordan would recount the full events of their adventure in an essay that she wrote for the club’s centennial celebration in 2006, but in brief summary, she says: “What was really funny was that a group of teenagers—and we were the only girls in the regatta that year, by the way—would show up with nothing, no knowledge of the Rhodes 19 we were racing in, no spinnaker skills, yet we still finished in second place. And it was totally normal to us.”

The lightweight and maneuverable Optimist Prams have provided decades of sailing acumen and summer memories to scores of local children at the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club.

After Caitlin’s account, about a dozen other club members offered up their memories and oral histories, but according to former commodore and club champion Christopher Jackson, who emceed the event, “Caitlin’s story was truly the highlight.” This is because she’s correct—her experience had been “normal” for Cotuit; adventures similar to the Cumming Cup in Nantucket abound in the lore of the CMYC, and it seems that every generation has some variation of a coming-of-age moment in which the kids realize how special this place is and has been since its founding in 1906. From showing up at formal dances in bare feet to flying a spinnaker sideways in another Cumming Cup regatta to the near-sinking of The Little Wheel committee boat at a Hyannis Regatta, this youth-run organization has defied many a stereotype of preppies and their yacht clubs. Along the way it has created a community in which, as Cotuit icon Anna Murray put it when addressing the Historical Society of Santuit and Cotuit in 1961: “We sprinkle our own salt.”   

In her speech, Murray stated that: “Six years after the twentieth century crossed the starting line on its tempestuous windward leg, the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club slid down the ways. Until some other yacht club challenges our claim, we shall blatantly boast of three unique features: 1) As no member was over twenty-one, we think we were the first junior yacht club; 2) Twelve of the original fifteen members were girls so that writers describing us can throw out that hackneyed phrase ‘founding fathers’; 3) The CMYC was more than twelve years ahead of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, for not only could the distaff side vote, it could also hold office… they elected Alice Channing commodore and Anna Woodman treasurer.” The new club owned no land or safety boats—it operated from the pier of Dr. Walter Woodman—and it began to grow rapidly. Murray wrote: “Parents of racers were admitted for the privilege of paying dues, but a motion in 1926 reads ‘that those who are lucky enough not to be married at the age of twenty-four or under are eligible voters. Those people who are married or who are twenty-five or more years old can never vote or be voted to office.’” Dues were set at 50 cents a year. To this day, youthful commodores strictly enforce the voting age restrictions, and inflation has driven annual dues up to a whopping $10 per person or $20 per family; there has never been a joining fee.

While Cotuit sailors have competed at high levels for schools like Tabor Academy, Fordham University, and UC Berkeley, racing in Cotuit centers around its beloved 14-foot wooden boat, the Cotuit Skiff. The Skiff—or the Mosquito, as it was first named—evolved from work boats that shell fishermen would sail to local sandbars. They also very likely raced to the fishing grounds, speculates Larry Odence, club historian and author of the 2009 book, “Mosquito Boats: The First Hundred Years of the Cotuit Skiff.” Odence states that “there was a variety of catboats that sailed these waters before the turn of the twentieth century… and it is well documented that the first regatta on Cape Cod occurred in Cotuit Port on August 22, 1877.” 

When Dr. Woodman commissioned Stanley Butler to build three identical Mosquito boats in 1903, the Cotuit Skiff, as the “one-design” craft that continues today, was born. Throughout the summers of 1904 and 1905, Woodman’s children and their friends raced the new boats, and it was the doctor who encouraged the young sailors to organize; thus the first 15 members established the club in 1906. Despite standardized plans, a number of builders—including Butler, Reuben Bigelow & Co., Chester A. Crosby & Co., Henry C. Churbuck, Fred Boden, and Leonard Peck of Peck’s Boats—crafted their own versions of this “one-design” boat, so there has always been disparity in speed amongst the members of the fleet. Nonetheless, enthusiasm for racing the Cotuit Skiff increased, and Odence states that “based on a roster from 1934 or 1935, there were 47 Skiffs in Cotuit.” The number of racers ebbed during WWII, but the 1950s saw a boom in both the construction of new boats and in racers, often 30 or more. 

In 1950 the voting members requested that the adults form a “Parents’ Association” (ACMYC) that could help provide safety boats and cover other major expenses, but the young people made sure that this association would in no way infringe upon the decision-making and running of the club. Although numbers fluctuated over the years, the organization and purpose of the yacht club remained true to its roots. This would all change, however, in 1959 when the Chesney family arrived in Cotuit from Florida—with two children sailing 8’ bathtub-sized boats off of Loop Beach.

Christopher Jackson recalls the spectacle. “I was 7 years old,” he says, “and the Chesneys were eager to show off their little boats—we learned they were Optimist Prams designed by Clark Mills of Clearwater. They let all of the older kids take turns sailing them, and soon the Cotuit sailing brain trust decided these would be excellent boats in which to teach children to sail.” The excitement over the Pram coincided with a move inside the harbor in 1960, when Harriet Ropes Cabot offered the CMYC use of her beach and dock, down near Hooper’s Landing. This presented the opportunity for both a more protected mooring field for the Skiffs and a beginning for the Pram Program, a sailing school that offered a way to train sailors who were still too young to handle the larger boats on their own. It also presented a business opportunity. Jackson says: “My father, Gardner Jackson, his brother Geoff, Gerry Henderson, Larry Odence, and Leonard Peck were active socially, with some drinking involved. This led to some dreaming and scheming, and overnight, they established a corporation called Optimist Prams of New England.” Over the next few years, the company would produce plywood Optimist Prams from Mills’ original plans and convinced yacht clubs all over the Cape to purchase fleets. In this way, the forebearer of the ubiquitous “Opti” that nearly every sailing program now uses was introduced to the yacht clubs of Southern Massachusetts. 

The modern CMYC would make its founders proud. Today, as it was in the 1950s, Cotuit racers often jostle with over 30 boats at the starting line. The Pram Program has expanded to include Laser sailing, 420 racing, and a Skiff Workshop introduces small children to the traditional boats. 

Commodore Abigail Ford, who recently turned 18, is in her third summer of teaching sailing; and served as the CMYC treasurer for the past two years. In her new role as commodore, “I am most excited to be a liaison among all of the club members,” Ford says. “There is something so special about racing with kids 10 years younger than me, as well as those who are 60 years my senior.” Her feeling seems universal; from the youngest “prammers” to the most senior elders, when she says, “Each summer, I fall in love with the composition of the club all over again.”

Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.