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From Cats to Cruisers

Crosby Yacht Yard

The Crosby family’s legacy of boat building in Osterville

Photography courtesy of the Osterville Historical Museum

If the catboat were an actual cat, one would think she’d be an indoor variety—sure of her surroundings, comfortable, given to sunbathing and leisure—and she’d be round, ample, a far cry from a svelte Siamese. One of the design principles of these boats is that their beam, or middle part, is proportioned at half the distance of their overall length. That’s a big ball of fur. Yet, the boat was built to stand up to the stiff southwest breezes of Nantucket Sound, and its name derives from its agility, not its shape. Back in 1850, when the very first catboat appeared on a racecourse in Osterville’s North Bay, a boat yard worker exclaimed that the stout, 22-foot boat “comes about quick as a cat.” This moment would not only lead to the naming of a new sailboat classification, it would also serve as the birth of an icon of the Cape and Islands, and it would accelerate the elevation of one local boat building family to international renown and acclaim.

The Crosby family has been building and maintaining boats in Osterville since 1744, when Jesse Crosby, at age 11, started working as a carpenter’s apprentice for his uncle, Jesse Lewis Crosby. Their work included boat building, but it was Jesse’s sons who opened and operated the family’s first boat yards in Osterville, where Daniel Crosby’s shop would build over 75 boats. Andrew Crosby, a grandson, planned the first catboat; though he died before its construction, his vision would carry from beyond his grave.

As Captain Herbert F. “H.F.” Crosby related in the July 1928 issue of Motor Boating magazine, Andrew had been on a voyage when he first spotted a boat with a centerboard, a rectangular piece of wood that swings down into the water on a pivot at the center of a boat. Sailors lower the centerboard in deeper water to help the boat sail straight and displace weight from the full sails; in the bays of Osterville, one can raise the board and skim above sandbars without running aground. H.F. recalled, “Grandfather [Andrew] died when my father, Horace, was thirteen, an’ when uncle Worthington was sixteen. Within a few months the two boys decided to build a boat. … Naturally she had to be shoal draft, and they thought they’d try to build one of those centerboards they’d heard their father speak about. But they didn’t know how to go at it.” The boys consulted their mother, Tirzah, for advice, but the answer would come from their deceased father’s spirit. H.F. stated, “She didn’t say a thing at first, but just looked and looked at her little sewing stand. When the stand began to rock and to shake she said, ‘Yes, boys, a centerboard would be all right.’ Every time those boys were in a difficulty with that first boat, they’d go to their mother an’ she’d consult that little stand of hers. If the stand rocked it meant, ‘Yes, go ahead,’ an’ if the stand didn’t move it meant ‘No, you’re on the wrong track.’ They believed that their father was directin’ them through their mother. They believed it, an’ she believed it, an’ I believe it.” Another version of the story holds that Tirzah invited a spiritual medium to conduct a seance in their home, but regardless of details, in the family’s history there is no doubt that Andrew’s spirit guided his sons as they crafted their revolutionary new boat.

While the Crosbys built many of the early catboats for utilitarian purposes such as fishing and clamming, the industrial revolution led to the establishment of summer communities that centered around leisure activities. Yacht clubs formed, and members raced their sailboats. Around the turn of the century, partially inspired by the success of boat builder Nathaniel Herreshoff’s move to standardize some of his boats into “one-design” classes, members of the Wianno Yacht Club approached Horace Manley Crosby, younger brother of H.F., about creating a fleet of racing sloops. Sailboat racing had been growing in popularity but also in complexity, as race committees concocted handicap systems to score contests between vastly different boats in a fair manner. A one-design, in which each boat conforms to strict, identical specifications, would simplify scoring and lead to more uniform competition. In theory, one-design racing ensures that the most skillful sailors will most consistently win, a merit-based concept that probably aligned philosophically with many of the nation’s preeminent capitalists who had adopted Osterville as their summer home. To fulfill this rising demand, H. Manley Crosby launched the first fleet of Wianno Seniors, 14 sleek racing sloops, each 25 feet in length with a centerboard that lowers down through a shallow keel. He surely had no way of knowing that his design would outstrip even the catboat as a classic sailing vessel, one that four years ago would celebrate its 100th anniversary.

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