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Afloat column: Sailing from the past into the future

When I hear the words “yacht syndicate” it brings to mind a group of ultra-wealthy swells sitting in a yacht club smoking cigars. For example, Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1903 formed a syndicate to build the 201-foot America’s Cup defender Reliance. She had a crew of 70.

I was quickly disabused of this notion when Ken Judge, a member of the Eel Town Marching and Chowder Syndicate, and therefore, one of the owners of the yacht Palmetto, reached into her cabin to show me the group’s “bank.”

Out came a plastic container with a few hundred dollars, a bunch of receipts,  and wood screws, plus some small boat bits.

Palmetto is owned by Andy Reeve, Ken Judge, Sue Hawthorne, BJ Ianfolla, Keith Clark, and Louise O’Regan Clark. They are more than owners. They are keepers of nautical history because two yachting legends brought Palmetto to life in 1954. The innovative and industrious L. Francis Herreshoff of Bristol, R.I. drew her lines. She is design No 53, i.e., a Stuart Knockabout. Her builder was Norman Hodgson of East Boothbay, Maine. The company is still in operation and is the oldest working shipyard in America, turning out cutting-edge race boats and yacht tenders.

Palmetto’s construction was fairly standard for the time. Mahogany planked on white oak frames fastened with bronze screws. The keel is also white oak as are the floor timbers, sternpost and stem. Mahogany was also used for the cutty sides and cockpit. The spars are Sitka spruce. She is 28’ overall and at the waterline 22’ 10” with a beam of 6’ 11” and a draft of 4.’ With these dimensions, Palmetto appears as graceful as a swan. The large open cockpit is self-draining. She is sloop-rigged and currently has heavy-duty Dacron sails.

Over the years, and before this Shelter Island syndicate bought her in 2008, like all wooden boats, she had repairs and upgrades. Fortunately, that continues since all the owners are skilled boat keepers. As Keith put it, “We all own multiple boats. We’re boat fools.”

Palmetto under sail. (Courtesy photo)

The upkeep, according to Ken, “Is pretty much evenly divided. We all work over the winter to varnish, paint and repair.” This winter, needing to do a more extensive maintenance then usual, they persuaded Shelter Island Boat Works founder Rod Anderson to do the unimaginable and clear out space in his shed.

When Palmetto was launched a few weeks ago, she was in excellent condition; her topsides gleamed and the spars sparkled.

Her use is mostly day sailing and an occasional regatta. As she is moored in Congdon Creek and has no engine, it is, according to Ken, “hard to get her to Greenport for the Wednesday night races.” Of course, having no engine makes every aspect of her navigation that much more challenging, but no one in the syndicate would have it otherwise.

According to Andy, “She really likes 12 to 15 knots of breeze. Anything more requires a reef and anything less makes her a bit slow.”

Yet, there is more. The Eel Town consortium are also keepers of a paper trail of nautical history. They’re in possession of correspondence deserving of its own archival home. I was privileged to review the letters from L. Francis himself to the prospective owner. There are also letters from Norman Hodgson to the same.

Written using a manual typewriter, L. Francis even discussed the merits of an installed toilet vs. a wooden cedar bucket, ultimately coming down in favor of the bucket. However, if the owner insisted, he had a “used toilet” around and that would save $45 vs. a new one.

Hodgson stated that the boat could be built for $5,000 on a cost-plus basis — he believed this method of payment, “Minimizes friction if there are requested changes or desired extras.” In Hodgson’s list of estimated material costs, he actually states an oak rudder would cost $3 and the seats, cockpit and cabin another $22.40. If you ever want to understand inflation, come and view this estimate.

As for the future, Palmetto is in secure hands. The syndicate has no plans other than to enjoy maintaining her and keeping her afloat.

Shelter Island is fortunate to have such skilled keepers of nautical history. If you see a beautiful sloop with white topsides and varnished spars sailing along with the name Palmetto on the transom, take a moment to appreciate her past and present.