Tucked amid stately yachts and towering cruisers anchored in Dering Harbor, is a wooden 12.5-foot dinghy named Little Kittie discreetly rocking back and forth. Unremarkable at first glance, this boat, which is now fully operational, was built in 1914 and has been restored by the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm in celebration of the craft’s centennial year.
Todd and David Williamson, grandsons of Andrew and Alice Fiske, donated the boat to Sylvester Manor this spring. Islander Jim Pugh, along with farm apprentice and recreational sailor Jocelyn Craig, have refitted the boat for the summer season.
After spending 10 years in storage at the Manor, Little Kittie’s wooden hull was in danger of cracking. “All sorts of bad things can happen when a boat is out of the water for that long,” said founder and special projects adviser of the Educational Farm Bennett Konesni, who also was involved in the restoration.
The Herreshoff Manufacturing Company in Bristol, Rhode Island built Little Kittie in 1914. Brothers John and Nathaniel Herreshoff formed a partnership in 1878, selling steamboats to the growing American Navy. While creating these technological masterpieces, the brothers also spent time developing recreational ships, including a 12.5-foot dinghy that became a staple of local regattas. The Herreshoff’s sold the boat known today as Little Kittie to W.O. Taylor, the publisher of The Boston Globe, on November 14, 1914. According to the Herreshoff Registry, it was just the third “H12” ever sold.
According to the Herreshoff Museum in Bristol praises the H12 boat, noting, “This design has long since established itself as one of the foremost examples of yachting genius, for no other type of boat has acquired a more enduring popularity. The mere fact that no significant modification has been made in the design testifies to its perfection.”
The boat features main and jib sails and employs a traditional gaff rig, which allows the sail to catch 25 percent more wind than a common Bermuda rig.
Augustus Fiske bought the boat, at the time named Peggy, in 1936. His children sailed for the Cataumet and later Buzzard’s Yacht Clubs while summering in Cape Cod. Augustus’ youngest child, Leila Ostby, sailed Little Kittie (renamed in honor of Leila’s older sister) as a youth. “Every Saturday, we would race across Buzzard’s Bay to Beverly Yacht Club in Marion,” Ms. Ostby recalled. “That boat won many, many races in her day.”
Sailors praised H12 boats for their safety and simplicity. Each boat has a 735 pound lead keel, which serves the role of a centerboard to steady the boat during rough weather. “Capsizing this boat is incredibly difficult,” Ms. Ostby said.
Yacht clubs throughout Massachusetts saw H12 boats as the optimal vessel for instructing young sailors: the boat’s official name was “The Buzzard’s Bay Boy’s Boat.”
The Herreshoff Company went out of business in 1943, having produced just 360 H12 wooden boats. As the H-Class boats were nearing extinction, a Massachusetts shipbuilder used measurements from Nathaniel’s boat to craft an identical vessel made of fiberglass, known today as Doughdish boats.
Little Kittie came to Shelter Island in 1974 at the bequest of Andrew Fiske, the eldest child of Augustus.
When his friend bought a new Doughdish, Fiske was reminded of the boat he sailed as a youth. He had Little Kittie shipped to Sylvester Manor so he could race against other Doughdish owners at the Shelter Island Yacht Club. The boat has remained on the Island ever since, with the exception of a trip to Maine for refitting in 2004.
Jocelyn Craig, a native of New Hartford, Connecticut, arrived on Shelter Island in April and was immediately captivated by the antique boat resting in Sylvester Manor’s barn, where it had been berthed since its refurbishing a decade ago. Ms. Craig, a sailor since her childhood, pushed the Educational Farm to return the boat to its mooring Dering Harbor.
Jim Pugh took charge of the newest restorations this spring. His engineering company, Team McPugh, outfitted the boat with a solar-powered bilge pump, a new boom crutch and new blocks. It also provided a jib sheet cleat custom-made to Little Kittie’s unique size.
With the boat in pristine condition, the Educational Farm has entered Little Kittie into the H12 Race Series. “She distinguished herself by beating much newer boats,” Mr. Pugh said.
After 100 years, Little Kittie’s name, home, and owner have changed numerous times, but at least one characteristic remains constant: In the words of Ms. Ostby, “She’s a winner.”