Phil Fleischman: More than just a guy with a boat to sell

Sailor of catboat in “Jaws,” singer of sea songs, designer and builder of boats and houses.

Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Last week, my editor at The Times noticed a classified ad in the paper: “Boat for sale,” it said, then went on to describe a catboat that had been used in the movie “Jaws.” She thought that maybe there was a story there, and she asked me to photograph the boat and its seller, and to hear what he had to say.

The catboat for sale

Phil Fleischman met me at the designated turn off the Upper Lamberts Cove Road, and we drove together to his former house on Lake Tashmoo, where he still keeps the catboat.

Built in a boat yard in Groton, Conn., the catboat, he told me, has had three previous owners: Universal Studios originally bought the boat new for the film “Jaws.” Stanley Leadbitter from Vineyard Haven bought it from Universal in 1977; Joe Hall bought it from Stanley in 1982. Phil purchased the boat in 1983 from Joe, and stored it at the house he and his wife had just built for themselves on Tashmoo. Recently, Phil sold the house, and now he rents in Vineyard Haven.

The catboat scene in ‘Jaws’

“My niece was in ‘Jaws,’” he said, “and I suspect that the same scene that she was in was the scene for the catboat, though I haven’t actually seen it in ‘Jaws.’ That’s the scene where the swimmers are running out of the water, afraid of the shark.

“I named the boat Mother Courage II, after the Bertolt Brecht play. In the play, [Mother Courage] followed the army around and sold them things. It’s my second catboat; the first one, Steve Ewing of Edgartown now owns.”

Phil Fleischman and boats

“I’m 84,” he continued, “and not hopping around on boats anymore, though I still own a 37-foot Downeaster motorboat that I keep at the old dock. I’ve taken it to Florida twice through the Intracoastal Waterway and up to Lake Ontario, up the Hudson River through the Erie Canal and Oswego Canal into Lake Ontario. Gannon & Benjamin will take it out of the water for me this winter.”

He went on, “I was a boatbuilder in my youth, while studying geology at Columbia in New York City. It took me 10 years to finish my own 26-foot wooden boat, since I was a student at the time. I worked from 6 am til 10 am, then did various jobs to make a living while attending night classes. I got most of my details from the boatbuilders’ bible — Howard Chapelle’s book on traditional boatbuilding. The boat was seaworthy, but without an engine after six years, so I sailed it while finishing it, and finally got it an engine. I worked in local boatyards in the Eastchester Bay area of the Bronx, next to Pelham Bay Park where I was born and grew up — I’m fourth generation from the same Bronx neighborhood; my great-grandfather had a farm there.

“After college, I entered the Marine Corps in the 1950s, and they sent me to Radio School, where I turned out first in my class. I could choose where to be stationed, and I chose a duty aboard a Navy ship in the Mediterranean. I stood guard duty for Admiral Carney when we were in Naples; I was a corporal at the time.

“I forgot to mention that I’ve had my 100-ton license with the Coast Guard for many years, having captained large sailboats on regular runs in the 1960s. I sailed a 71-foot yawl, Anitra, built in Germany in 1928, on weekly runs from Fort Lauderdale to Grand Bahama Island, crossing the rough Gulf Stream in winter. We’d leave at 9 pm and arrive in daytime, navigating with only a compass. Today we have all kinds of navigation tools — in those days, the only thing available was a compass.”

Getting to Martha’s Vineyard to sing

“After I got married, my wife convinced me to get a teaching job (she was from Germany, and teachers were highly respected). I taught shop classes and drafting, woodworking, sheet metal, and printing in a print shop to junior high students in the New York area.

“I came to the Vineyard,” he continued, “on invitation from artist and friend Dale Pelow who had just bought the Colonial Inn in Edgartown. He asked me to come up and sing in his bar. He had heard me singing sea songs on my guitar with a friend who played a concertina, when we were working in an art studio in Manhattan.

“My wife and I arrived on a 27-foot ketch. It was a terrible sail — the boat leaked. We got into Cuttyhunk in the dark with no engine; the next day we arrived in Edgartown. The inn needed a lot of work, so I pitched in, using my boat carpentry skills. I ended up repairing everything. We dragged loads of driftwood from Chappaquiddick to panel the walls of the Inn, and made tables out of hatch covers from the boards that hold up the nets on fishing boats (I collected them from the beach). My wife became the housekeeper for the 43-room Inn. They finally got the inn opened, but I never did sing in the bar.”

Actually singing on Martha’s Vineyard

“I sang here in the Community Chorus for many years before and after Peter Boak took over as director, but I had to quit since my hearing is so bad. I used to sing the bass solos in Handel’s Messiah for many years at Christmastime. I actually sang professionally for the St. James Episcopal Church in Manhattan for 11 years, then the Church of the Heavenly Rest for six years after that. I was a boy soprano, starting singing when I was 8 years old — I used to ride the hourlong subway by myself to get there from the Bronx; it was very safe in those days.

“Then I used to sing sea songs on large boats in New York City in the summer months with a group of musicians. We made a record called ‘A Treasury of Spicy Sea Songs.’”

After the Colonial Inn closed

“I continued using my house carpentry skills, and started building houses for people. I’ve designed and built my own, as well as eight houses on the Island. I never advertised and never had a truck — I simply got jobs from word of mouth. Someone who knew my work would ask me to build a house for them.”

And the travel agency

“My wife and I joined in partnership with the McConnells, who owned the Martha’s Vineyard Travel Bureau, and we took it over after they moved off-Island. My wife really ran that — we had it for 19 years. It was located where the Little House Cafe is now in Vineyard Haven. We always hired one extra person so someone could travel — it was a good system. Everybody liked working there because they could travel.”

Back to boats

“I’m now part of a group (eight or 10 people) that sails one-meter-long model boats at Owen Park on Sundays and Wednesdays. We’ve named it the Martha’s Vineyard Model Yacht Club. It’s lots of fun. Little kids are fascinated — we give them the transmitter, and they manage to sail them.”

And if the catboat doesn’t sell?

“It’s no problem. I’ll keep it and try again in the spring. I’ve had a wonderful life. I’ve been very lucky. I have no way to complain.”