A funny, frugal and immensely talented designer

June 1, 2000

By Dodge Morgan
How many of us can reach hack into sailing memories to the year 1963? Probably not if you haven’t been sucking on free air for 50 years or more. We codgers will have our own personal snapshots of what most assuredly was the golden age of American yacht design and you whipper-snappers will have to exercise imagination to join us. To put the year into a wider context, it was the year John Kennedy was assassinated and the Philips Company of Holland invented the cassette tape.

But back to the point. That year’s edition of “Lloyd’s Register of American Yachts” listed one fiberglass-built boat for every 100 or more built of wood. Split rigs were common, schooners then ketches then yawls, which reflected the fact that brawn was still the key ingredient in reefing and sail changing. The racing rules had not yet dictated that designs all look alike.

Among the designers are names that will be forever moored in history. It was the closing chapter for many of this extraordinary band of men whose creative outpouring produced the pinnacle marine design period. Their boats stand out to this day, many still in harbors as well as in history books. Each man had his design signature, but what all shared in common was an instinct to please the eye. Let these names massage your mind: Herreshoff, Alden, Stephens, Tripp, Atkin, Crocker, Hunt, Hand, Burgess, Nielsen, Williams, Peterson.

My 1963 snapshot into this era was Murray G. Peterson. I sailed his schooner Coaster, his first in design and my first in ownership, into Jones Cove, South Bristol, Maine, where be lived. The boat and I were both just over 30 years old and Murray was just over 50. Murray and Coaster changed my life forever. The boat was to become my home for two and one-half years and 25,000 sea miles, and Murray was to become my teacher, my cheerleader and my friend. When he died so suddenly some dozen year later, the first sad thought that struck me was that my children would not have the joy of knowing this man.

He once said, “I want an able boat – I want a fast boat – but I want a boat I enjoy rowing up to.” One of the statements given to Murray’s schooners was that they are “too pretty.” I guess some felt they should more resemble the workaday coasting schooners Murray used as inspiration. Beauty and frugality and humor fit neatly together in Murray’s spirit. When mowing his lawn, he would always cut around the “good looking daisies.” A boathouse he built for his own schooner, Susan, was so tight that he had to cut the handles off the paintbrushes to do her boot-top. He once chuckled – and oh how he could chuckle – about how “some people fashion their homes like a boat and their boats like a home; the house has port and starboard lamps at the front door, oil light and ships-wheel chandeliers and marlin-spike work festooned everywhere inside while their boat is epoxy and stainless and has a television and electric can-opener.” To this he would add that “a boat and a home are physically and emotionally very different and it is that difference that makes the boat special.”

I used to think that if Murray’s Jones Cove home and office and boathouse were cut away from the rest of civilization, he would not notice until he needed a store-bought haircut. Visitors to Jones Cove, a constant supply of them, all knew they had crossed a spiritual divide. I met an amazing array of characters there myself. One was Fenwick Williams, the designer most known for his lovely catboats. Fenwick was barely over 5 feet tall and so myopic that his nose and pencil worked at the same altitude over a piece of drawing paper. Fenwick and Murray alike drew elegantly and accurately; design drawings were pure art, but every item on them was in exact mechanical proportion – even the gull in the corner.

One of Murray’s favorite Fenwick jokes was his friend’s design of a transportable, cat-rigged boat that presented a perfect rectangle when viewed from any perspective. Murray called it the “catbox.” She was as “homely as a cake of home-made soap.” Murray claimed Fenwick’s design objective was simply to satisfy the needs of a lazy boat owner because she could be entirely painted while standing in one spot. Her mast could be run through openings for her rudder and bowsprit and, when hung on sawhorses, allowed the boat to be rotated as if on a spit.

To be continued