Breck Marshall: Working Catboat
by Sharon Brown
Records aside, Breck Marshall can be enjoyed from both the cockpit and the shore as she maneuvers the channel from the Route 1 bascule bridge to the upper reaches of the basin, south of I95. Museum visitors may watch from the green as she runs upriver before a summer southerly breeze, her bow pushing a significant wave, and wait to watch her skipper thread the needle between the dock and a dolphin. Or they may follow the projecting peak of her 392 square foot sail silently passing shark like behind the buildings and watch her come into the clear at the beach as she rounds up into the wind and comes to a stop at The Boathouse dock. Under sail she is a magnificent sight, a natural outcome of design following function which is aesthetically attractive to neophytes and respected by veteran catboat affecionados and sailors, alike.
Each trip on board Breck Marshall is a unique adventure. Passengers share conversation in her roomy cockpit while the skipper narrates, pointing out interesting aspects of the beautiful shoreline, including the traditional vessels, their different rigs, and the exhibit buildings, answering questions about the boat while keeping his or her attention focused on the traffic, the wind, and myriad other variables that make the job so challenging. From a quiet vantage point almost under her jib boom, you can watch the demonstration squad overhead furling sails on the whaling bark, Charles W. Morgan, or race alongside a fully rigged whaleboat.The skipper's braced feet or bulging forearms belie the weather helm. The ride is quiet and smooth and punctuated by the sound of the water rushing past her topsides, the bow wake, the thump of the mainsheet block at the end of the traveller as the sheet pulls taut, or the creek of the mast in the step and against the wedges. Shore sounds are accentuated: tourists hailing from the bridge in downtown Mystic, or the nineteenth century sounds of horse drawn carriages, the blacksmith's hammer at the anvil, and the shipwright's caulking mallet against the iron. It is a very special half hour which some treat themselves to time and again.
Catboat Association members may find this old hat, but to many people, especially children, the trip on Breck Marshall is their first adventure under sail, and they board with timid expectations, hoping that the heel will be negligible and not believing that the boom will clear seated heads until the first tack. To them, a jibe is an exciting event, even under light airs. Passengers leaving the boat eagerly share their experiences with the those waiting for the next trip, and often pose with the boat and skipper for souvenir photographs.
Unless informed, they may not know that she carries the nameBreck Marshall in tribute to racing skipper and catboat manufacturer, Breck Marshall, who got his start in boatbuilding at the Beetle Boat Co. of New Bedford in 1956 (Lawrence, J. 1965National Fisherman April:28) and they may also be unaware of her construction details.
Breck Marshall is a reproduction of a Cape Cod catboat used for inshore fishing of all types. Built in 1986-87 in the Museum's Boat Shop by Barry Thomas, Clark Poston and Bret Laurent, with assistance from volunteers, Chet Rice and Ed Ostiguy, she was the focal point of a documentation program to study the construction techniques used by the Crosby's of Osterville, Massachusetts at the turn of the century. The results of the project were written up by boatbuilder Barry Thomas, in Building the Crosby Catboat, published in 1989 by Mystic Seaport.
With generous support of the Catboat Association, and the first hand knowledge of Horace Manley 'Bunk' Crosby, Jr. to draw on, Barry was able to document and follow the traditional construction methods employed by the Crosby Yard. Built entirely of white oak and cypress, save for the yellow pine clamp and spruce cockpit floor posts, unique aspects of the construction process included the half-dovetail fit of the 1-3/4 inch square white oak frames into the keel,the articulated "timber mold" used for taking the shape of the frames from the ribbands on mold, and the dubbing of the frames rather than backing out the 7/8 inch thick planks. There were surprisingly few molds in her setup. In addition to being the largest boat built in the shop, the exhibit was one of the most interesting and exciting for staff and visitors. Few people who watched her take shape over the months will forget the size of her backbone, rolling the hull, i.e., "turning the hull down", or the aroma of the Crosby beeswax rosin putty which wafted through the shop from a cast iron skillet. She filled the shop and the beauty of her shape which evolved from molds and ribbands to timbers and plank was arresting.
Mystic Seaport's Boathouse on Lighthouse Point is open weekends in the Spring and Fall and seven days a week in the summer. It was the brainchild of John Gardner who believed that the only way to preserve small craft is to use them. In 8 seasons of operation almost 61,000 people have enjoyed traditional small craft at The Boathouse. In addition to sailing aboard Breck Marshall, visitors may cruise the river in the classic Herreshoff launch,Resolute, built in 1917, or, if they have the skills, opt to take the helm of a small sailboat or the oars of a pulling boat in one of the rental fleet from the museum's collection.
Perhaps they will pause a moment and just stand reflecting onBreck Marshall in acknowledgment of the maritime heritage she represents, and the passion of caring people who brought her to life, a tribute to those who designed, built, sailed and fished this traditional small craft type.
(Published in The Catboat Association Bulletin, No. 111, Fall 1996)