A catboat named Ted

Guest perspective/Phyllis Méras

Eight decades ago, catboats were familiar sailing and fishing boats in Vineyard and Cape Cod waters. They were sturdy, roomy, gaff-rigged, with a single sail and a centerboard. They were considered the ideal first or second boat for young sailors. At the Harborside Inn in Edgartown, Mass., they were popular boats for guests to rent.

But, there came a time when catboats began to be simply too sturdy to appeal to adventuresome fledgling island sailors. They preferred the Wee Scots and Vineyard Haven 15s and 18s that Erford Burt began building at his Vineyard Haven boatyard. And so the Harborside Inn catboats were put up for sale. The 15-foot Ted was among them, and sometime around 1940 my brother, John, became the proud and adventuresome owner of one of them – a Manuel Swartz-Roberts-built catboat. In those days, Manuel Swartz-Robert’s boat-building shop – not an art gallery – occupied what is, today, the Old Sculpin Gallery in Edgartown.

The shop smelled of shavings from the wooden boats being built and stored by one of the island’s master boat builders of the day. It was where, in winter, Ted was stored safely, my brother hoped, from autumn hurricanes and winter storms. But then the hurricane of 1944 struck the Vineyard, and Edgartown’s harborfront was awash. Many structures, including Manuel Swartz-Robert’s boathouse, were damaged. Boats stored there – Ted, among them– were washed cross the way to Chappaquiddick.

For weeks the following summer John and I and assorted sailing friends would bicycle each morning from Oak Bluffs, where Ted normally bobbed at anchor, to Edgartown. Then we would ferry over to Chappaquiddick to do repair work on Ted. Happily, Ted had landed somewhere near the Chappaquiddick Beach Club. She hadn’t been seriously damaged. But after that, for some years, Ted was stored winters in our garage at East Chop, where the worst that could happen was the nesting of mice up forward.

Ted was the second boat in my brother’s life. The first had been a rowboat with a single sail, named Pee Wee (my nickname, since I was five years younger). There were frightening adventures for me on Pee Wee when she went adrift across Oak Bluffs harbor with me alone in her, but, obviously, I survived.

Pee Wee was really an in-harbor boat, however. When John needed something bigger, Ted was the choice. Our Colorado-born mother loved the mountains, but feared the sea. She admired the beauty of waves, but was terrified of them. If my brother and I and a company of friends, including Jack Hathaway, now of Falmouth, set off on all-day sails to somewhere, she and Jack Hathaway’s mother would be atop the bluffs at sunset to see if we were making it safely home. The favorite destination in the World War II years was Cape Pogue at the end of Chappaquiddick, for us sailing outside Vineyard waters was forbidden.

To assure that he’d be both a good and a safe sailor, my brother had sailing lessons. I, it was assumed, would learn by osmosis – simply by being aboard Ted. It didn’t really work that way for me. Surely, it did for John, who fell in love with sailing aboard the 15-foot catboat and went on to attend the Maine Maritime Academy. At the end of World War II, as an officer in the Naval Reserve, one of his jobs was returning sailing yachts that the Navy had borrowed from East Coast yachtsmen for potential war use in the Pacific. He had a fine time sailing them back to their East Coast owners.

As for Ted, her end was not such a happy one. One fall, after John had returned to Harvard, a Yale friend (Yale must have started later than Harvard that year) asked if he could keep Ted sailing later in the fall. He was an experienced sailor and a good friend. John saw no reason why he shouldn’t. Ted was, once again, being stored winters in Edgartown.

Unfortunately, on the day chosen for the sail to Edgartown, a dry northeaster was blowing. The sailing safety rules were forgotten, and the mainsheet was cleated. A gust of wind struck the mast; it snapped and Ted turned over. For the next four hours, the two sailors on board held onto her. In the beginning, they cheerfully played the game “Ghosts” that was popular then. In the course of it, if you made a mistake, you became a quarter of a ghost, a half a ghost and – finally– a ghost. They stopped playing that game early on for Ted floated for four hours with John’s two friends clinging to her until they were within two miles of Cape Cod. (One of those friends decided then that, if he survived, he would join the ministry, and he did). Bigger boats would pass by, but missed seeing little Ted in the wave troughs. Finally, when it was almost dark, a fishing boat caught sight of them.

They got Ted’s crew on board, but couldn’t latch onto the boat. And Ted was never seen again.

Somewhere, I’m sure, Ted washed ashore – whole, or in pieces, and I hope was reconditioned and able to set sail again. Later, there was a Winabout in our lives, and she went on many Vineyard sailing adventures. In John’s life, there was a 24-foot sloop named Morning Star; in mine a 12-foot Edgartown beach boat called Bluebeard. But there was no boat so beloved as that 15-foot Manuel Swartz-Roberts-built catboat, Ted.

Martha’s Vineyard resident Phyllis Méras is an experienced travel writer, journalist and book author, and the former editor of the “Vineyard Gazette” newspaper. Over the years she’s crisscrossed the world, visiting more countries than almost anyone working today for the U.S. State Department.