Wayne Brown - April 2010

 

The Life and Times of Ed Cutts
by
Wayne Brown

 

Excerpt from a new biography in progress: The Life and Times of Edmund Cutts - Boatbuilder, Designer and Innovator.

[Background: After selling the first boat he built on his own, Ed Cutts wanted to find work so he could “design at night without being tired from boatbuilding all day.” With a recommendation, he landed a position at Grumman making metal patterns for the Olympic class Flying Finn, to guarantee the boats would be identical in any country building them.
At his Northport, New York, home, Ed put down a cement floor and constructed a 30-by-18-foot boat shed next to his house. In January 1965, when a new customer wanted a boat built to order, he completed drawings for a 30 foot sloop, made a half hull model to lay the lines and ordered cedar and oak for planking and frames.]
Now, Edmund Cutts was machining exterior panels for the Grumman F-111 fighter. “Contoured panels were very tricky stuff,” he said. “We had Navy inspectors at Grumman and they simply wouldn’t accept anything less than perfection.”
In the evenings he had to be careful about noise in his residential neighborhood. Sometimes, Margaret, his wife, would help holding the boards. Eddie Jr. was just nine and Ronnie four, but they also did small jobs. “They all felt that they were helping and that was good,” Ed said with a warm smile. On the weekends he made more headway with help from another boatbuilder, so the hull began to take shape.
Months later at the Glen Cove Marina, Alfred Meyer, an independent boat sales agent, was speaking to a tall impressive man. This was an executive named John Case who wanted to join with friends who were sailing medium-sized sloops. When a 23-foot sloop named Cygnet caught his attention, with its mahogany cabin, ample cockpit and graceful lines, Case said, “What a beautiful little boat.”
“A friend of mine built that and he does beautiful work,” Meyer said. “It’s a very fast boat and has won a lot of races.”
“I’d be interested to know what the designer could do with a larger boat,” Case said.
Meyer phoned Ed Cutts. “Can I borrow a model of a larger sailboat to show a client of mine who liked Cygnet?” Ed brought him a half hull of the 30-foot boat he was currently building, and this led to Case driving over to Ed’s Northport home. He saw the care being put into the almost fully planked 30 footer ─ single carvel planked on the bottom and double planked above the water line. Case sat down with Ed, in his Captain’s Cabin.
Ed Cutts had created a comfortable environment for designing and drawing in the basement of his home. “It looked like the great cabin of an old sailing ship,” he said, and spoke of ship lanterns and half hulls.”
“What I want is a boat ─ 32 to 34 feet ─ that is not too difficult to handle,” Case said. He also wanted to be able to single-hand the boat, and told Ed the number of people he might want to take for a sail. “And another thing, I like double-enders.”
“Well, Mr. Case, why don’t you let me draw what I think we’re talking about ─ a masthead sloop about 33 feet overall?”
After Case told Meyer he liked Ed’s skill and enthusiasm, Meyer relayed this to Ed with more of their conversation. “I told John Case you built from models like Nat Herreshoff. I said you would certainly have your own yard some day the way you were going. But I don’t know if he’s interested in anything like that.” Meyer had some final advice. “This man is a multimillionaire. If he wants to do something, stick with him.”
Ed completed his drawing and phoned John Case, who invited him to dinner at his place on Centre Island, Oyster Bay. Case was impressed and later told writer Roger Vaughan of Nautical Quarterly: “He was at my door with a set of plans four days after I called him. Cutts said if I signed a contract he would quit Grumman and get going on my boat. So I signed.”
“I don’t know where we are going to build it,” Ed told Case. “If you’re in a hurry we might have to give it to another builder.”
Case, who had seen Ed’s careful workmanship on two boats, said, “I want you to be in on the building.”
“Right now I’m committed to completing work on the 30 footer.” He strolled around the living room to study models and photographs of the boats Case had owned up to his present 53-foot ketch, Little Revenge. He turned and said, “With all these boats of yours you could have opened your own yard.”
Case found this amusing. “Have you ever thought about having your own boat yard?”
“Of course I have. It’s been a dream to someday have my own place to build wooden boats and everything.”
“I’ve thought of it,” Case said, “but I don’t know anything about running a boat yard. And I don’t have the time or the input to run one.”
“I know how a yard should be run, but I don’t have the money to open one, John. I only work for a living.”
“Well, I have a little money,’ Case said quietly. “I can go for a small yard.”
That evening in Oyster Bay, the two launched a partnership. They discussed finding a modest-sized yard that should be near marinas and boat clubs. Ed knew most of the Long Island yards, none of which were for sale, but Case had a yard in mind where his boats had been repaired. “The owner is older,” Case said, “and might be ready to retire. I’ll contact him.”
During the winter, John Case berthed his largest yacht on the West Coast. He once lived in Washington State, where some of his yachts were built, but later on he made his home in San Bernadino. In the spring, his captain would take the current yacht down the Pacific coast, through the Panama Canal, up the Atlantic coast into Chesapeake Bay, where it went for repairs and sprucing up to a boatyard in Oxford owned by Ralph Wiley.
Case had always liked the scenic yard set among giant trees, so he made a phone call. It was a hunch, but when he discovered Wiley had built the yard 36 years before, this gave him an opening. “Ralph, have you thought about selling it?” There was a pause.
This question coming out of the blue must have surprised Wiley, for he had carried this idea in the back of his mind for over 20 years. He had often told his family, “When I get to be 65 years old I’m going to sell the yard and do things like cruising.”
Chuck Wiley remembered when his father became 65. “There wasn’t enough given business to sell the yard at what it was worth. And now he was 72 years old. I had a sail loft in Annapolis and wasn’t in a position to take over the yard.”
Ralph Wiley knew this was a golden opportunity and that Case could probably afford to buy it. “I’m getting on in years and will probably have to think about selling it. I might sell it for the right price.”
“How much would you want?” Wiley gave him a price. Case, never known to argue about money according to Eddie Cutts, Jr., accepted the figure. “I’d like to think it over for a week or so.” Encouraged by this, Case phoned Ed and told him about the yard. “This older guy is going to sell his boat yard soon. Go down and take a look at it,” he said and gave the location on Maryland’s Eastern shore.
“I don’t want to go down to Maryland, and look at the mud flats,” Ed said. “I like Long Island Sound and I hope to continue working here.”
“There’re no mud flats,” Case said. “Have you ever been down to the Chesapeake?” Ed admitted he hadn’t. “Well, you’re pretty opinionated, aren’t you?”
Ed tried a persuasive tack. “Traditionally, the finest work is done in New England. A location in the South might not attract customers from New England and New York.”
“Eddie, it’s beautiful down there,” Case said. “I think you ought to go there and look at it. And take Maggie with you.”
Oxford turned out to be a small historic town with tree-lined streets and blocks of white Victorian, Federal and colonial period houses, many with southern columns. This was a town where everything seemed to move at a more sedate pace. At the end of the road sat the old Robert Morris Inn, renovated from the 1610 original. Beyond the small ferry in its dock were racing sailboats and a few work boats in the distance, with foreground trees creating a framed time-jump from when Oxford was once Maryland’s second largest port.
From Tilghman Street, they turned into Wiley’s Boatyard, where Ed determined the yard, facing southeast on Towne Creek, was well protected from the weather.
“Before I was all the way into the road I was in love with the place,” Ed said. “It was just what a yard should be in my imagination.” They parked near a faded red shed with open sides where men were working. They both saw the charming old house on the left, with a nearby small cottage, and also what turned out to be the “house boat” near the water. All around the large lot were tall shade trees ─ ash, elm, locust, and pine.
Ralph Wiley came out and showed them around the two sheds, with machinery, tracked railway, derrick and an active 12-man yard crew. Then he led them to the beautiful old house with ivy vines where he lived, with his office in a weathered addition.
The rustic old house, Byeberry, was listed in the town records of 1695. As the town’s oldest building, it originally stood a quarter of a mile away on Morris Street, until Wiley, tired of living on a houseboat for two years, bought it for $250 in 1930.
Wiley found a contractor who said he could move it, but foreseeing problems and after checking that the contractor had insurance, he left town on moving day. The men removed a shed from the back to get it down the narrow road lined with Victorian houses, but the house, pulled on rolling logs, did damage buildings and lamp posts. Wiley wrote in his autobiography that the contractor soon discovered there was brick and stone under the wood exterior, making the move almost Herculean (Preacher’s Son by Ralph Wiley)
“It’s a post and ballast stone construction,” Ed Cutts said in later years, “with oyster shell mortar covered in wood.” He thought ship’s carpenters had built it earlier than the first written record dated 1695.
After returning to Northport, Ed told John Case he loved the yard and also Oxford, which was a boating community. Case said he would negotiate with Wiley.
Over the phone with Case, Wiley sounded dejected at giving up the yard and his good customers of 36 years. Seeing that he was having second thoughts, Case suggested that Wiley could be available to consult and also work on designs for his own customers. Both men agreed, and the yard changed hands.
As they prepared to move south, Ed Cutts had to tell his boss at Grumman. “I realize this move is a big challenge,” he said, “and there’s a chance it might not work out. If that happens I would be coming back to ask for my job again.” They agreed to this.
Ed and Maggie Cutts sold their Northport home and, after the mortgage payment, had $15,000 to apply to the new yard. They loaded everything, including two motorcycles and tools, into a truck that Ed and his father drove. Maggie followed with the three children, while a boat hauler transported the 30-foot hull.
Ed and Vernon Cutts were feeling somber when they arrived in Oxford. “We were complete strangers,” Ed said, “and we knew no one, so we felt low.” They drove into the boatyard and parked. A man with red hair appeared, called to some men to begin unloading and introduced himself at Plink Lascombe. Ed soon developed a good relationship with Plink, his yard supervisor.
As they began moving into the oldest house in Oxford, a well-dressed man came up to Ed and asked, “Are you the new guy?” Ed admitted he was. “Well I just came down to welcome you and to wish you luck.” This thoughtful neighbor was a local businessman named Barkley Trippe.
Ed began to feel better right away. “I never forgot that,” he said in his late 70s. “I have always felt a friendliness toward ‘Barky’ who was special.”