Peering out the doorway of the Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway all coated in sawdust, the Old Sculpin catboat waits for the day its centerboard can again cut through Island waters, and the sandy shoals become its playground once more.
This sturdy vessel, sporting a wide hull and comfortable cabin, has been in the care and ownership of several different seafarers for over a century, and many unforgettable memories have been made. But perhaps the most interesting historical elements have to do with the creation of this beautiful boat. With its sloping siding and elegant features, Old Sculpin was made by a true master of the craft of boatbuilding — Manuel Swartz Roberts.
You might not know him by name, but you’ll recognize his strange sobriquet, Old Sculpin, as the namesake of the quaint harborside art gallery in Edgartown. According to June Schoppe, artist member of the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association (MVAA) and chair of the events committee, Roberts was born in 1881 and lived on his family’s farm in Katama. He was supposed to be in charge of looking after the livestock that grazed in the fields, since his father was in a wheelchair.
Oftentimes, while Roberts watched over the cattle, he would be drawn to the sound of sawing and hammering, and come upon an active construction site. It was during these idle wanderings that Roberts grew a penchant for building. He would offer his services at different houses without even asking for compensation — he loved to create. Eventually, he turned from housebuilding to the adjacent craft of boatbuilding, and never turned back. “I think that deep down in his heart, he was always a boatbuilder from Day 1,” Schoppe said.
A rustic loft owned by Dr. Daniel Fisher was for sale down by the Edgartown marina. It had served all sorts of purposes before being acquired by Roberts as his home and workshop. It was a sail loft, a grain factory, a chandlery, and beginning in 1905, a boatbuilding shop owned by Roberts. At the tender age of 26, Roberts’ carpentry skills lent perfectly to boatbuilding, and the boilers and steam heaters used to bend and shape timbers kept him warm during the harsh and windy winters on the water. It was a preferable situation, compared with stapling shingles atop a roof.
In 1912, after Roberts used his construction skills to tack on an additional loft tower so his family could live with him in the shop, Old Sculpin had its maiden voyage. As Roberts’ boatbuilding career unfolded, a variable smorgasbord of craftspeople and creatives would happen upon his shop.
He was everything from an advice giver on everyday affairs and a professional technician for any kind of repair tips for boats or buildings, to a philosopher and marriage counselor. Schoppe called him a “one-stop shop.”
“He would always leave the door open, and folks would just wander in. He was that very affable guy, and everyone was always welcome,” Schoppe said. “People would come in and take up a spot, brush some sawdust off a table, move some planks, and sit there while Manuel was doing his work.” A lot of the time, the shop guests were artists — painters, drawers, sculptors. This group of artists (at that point unknown) would spend time in his shop painting him while he fastened, hammered, and bent. Some of these paintings exist today at the Old Sculpin Gallery.
In 1954, after a long career in boatbuilding, Roberts sold the building expressly to the art group, as they needed space for a gallery. Upon acquiring the deed, the group formed the MVAA, and the Old Sculpin Gallery found its lifelong home.
To celebrate Roberts’ life and his work, the MVAA held a catboat parade in Edgartown Harbor and a catboat exhibit at the gallery in 1979, featuring themed artwork, oral history, rusty tools from Roberts’ shop, and many other historical artifacts. Last year was the first reboot of this catboat event, where catboats from the Cape, Long Island, and of course, Martha’s Vineyard participated in a parade around the harbor.
Now, Schoppe said, the MVAA is making the event an annual thing, and this year’s event will be just as grand and historically significant as the first one, in 1979. There are thought to be only six catboats built by Roberts left intact, although he built more than 200 catboats throughout his long career. Many of them will participate in the parade this year. The weeklong catboat celebration will take place from July 16 to 22, with a special exhibit available at the Old Sculpin Gallery in Edgartown.
For Schoppe, things made by hand have always fascinated and excited her, especially when they exemplify the absolute epitome of quality and craftsmanship in that particular discipline. “It’s something straight from your heart and soul, and you can tell just by looking at Old Sculpin that it came from the depth of Manuel’s inner being,” Schoppe said. Just to know that the boat is in the capable hands of Ross Gannon and Nat Benjamin at their boatyard, she added, and that it will be sailing for years to come, brings her endless joy and excitement.
The fact that Gannon and Benjamin are restoring the boat based on its original design specs also impresses Schoppe from a technical perspective. “The sweeping curves of her bow, her balance and heft in the water and her generous sail perched on her gaff rig are as unchanged as when Manuel first put pencil to paper, scribing her magnificent lines from all angles,” she said. “We, all the artists, the catboat owners, and Manuel, share a common artistry in our respective roles. One hundred, twenty-two years after Manuel built his first boat, that commonality binds us together, and will continue to unify us as we celebrate Old Sculpin: the boatbuilder, the boat herself, and the artists who keep her afloat for another generation.”
Benjamin spoke to The Times in his shop as the hazy afternoon light cut through the plastic sheeting that encompassed the workspace. He spoke of past owners of Old Sculpin like Alan and Patricia Symonds (good friends of the veteran boatbuilder). The boat was called Winsome Wiggy under the Symonds’ ownership, but it sailed just the same as when it was first built.
“We worked on Winsome Wiggy 40 years ago when we first started the boatyard,” Benjamin said. “It was in pieces over in Providence, and was brought over here on a sailing barge by our friend Rick Brown. It went right in this shop here, and was one of our first big projects.”
Benjamin connected with the current owner of Old Sculpin, Tim Sheehan, at the weeklong catboat event last year, and the two spoke about doing some work on it. “And now it’s here, and there has already been a lot of work done,” Benjamin said.
According to Benjamin, catboats are unique to coastal Massachusetts and Long Island. With their shoal draft and their sturdiness, they could traverse the bays and sounds where the water was most shallow. They were perfect for inshore fishing, but as the Cape and Islands became the hot destination for seasonal tourism, the catboat sailors would stop fishing in the summer and use them for hosting picnics and cocktail parties.
“They’ve got one big cockpit, one big sail, and one person can sail around easily with a group of guests,” Benjamin said. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum also owns a Roberts catboat, called Vanity. Other catboats were built by Erford Burt, who served as Roberts’ assistant and apprentice for many years. Benjamin and his crew started working on Old Sculpin in the fall, slowly picking away at sanding, replacing timbers, repainting, and making the boat shipshape for Sheehan and his family. “It’s a full winter’s work for a couple of people, that’s for sure. It’s a very thorough restoration,” Benjamin said. “We have done other projects where it was even more complete, and the only things we were able to save were the lead keel and a couple of doorknobs. But with Old Sculpin, we are saving a lot more.”
The transom and the stem are both in good shape after Benjamin and his boat builders put them in 40 years ago, along with the centerboard and several other parts, but the hull is getting almost a total rebuild.
For Benjamin, having a boat he worked on 40 years ago back in the shop is a fun and illuminating experience. “We get to look at the work we did and say, ‘Jeez, look what we did there. Maybe we should do it differently this time,’” he said. “You are always learning stuff, and it’s nice to see a piece of history like this come back after over a century of being well-cared-for. It’ll go on to sail for another century with any kind of reasonable care.”
Catboats built by Roberts and others will take part in the catboat parade on July 16, immediately followed by the Manuel Swartz Roberts Cup Race. Gannon & Benjamin will be hosting a talk at their boatyard on July 19, from 6 to 7:30 pm, where they will discuss some of the work they did on the boat. Catboat owners can contact Kurt Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org to register for the event by July 1. For information about the event and exhibit, contact June Schoppe at email@example.com.