Classic Lines and Design for the Water

Burt Van Deusen and the Pooduck skiff. Peter Boody photo

Burt Van Deusen and the Pooduck skiff. Peter Boody photo

By Peter Boody

There are few objects that have the innate power to touch peoples’ hearts and spirits on sight. One of them is a handmade wooden boat, elegantly shaped to speed through its element and varnished to a luster that brings out the grain of wood and makes it glisten like a breaking comber in mid-summer.

You could possess such a work of art in exchange for a $5 raffle ticket.

Called a Pooduck skiff, it’s a 12-foot, 10-inch boat with sassafras seats, double-epoxied plywood planking, a turquoise interior paint job and a lightweight mast made of Pacific Coast spruce. The mast is strong but hollow, much lighter than you’d guess.

Handmade by members of the East End Classic Boat Society in Amagansett, the boat has been wooing hearts at community events all summer; it can be seen next at Sag Harbor’s HarborFest the weekend of September 10-11, when chances to own it will be sold for $5 each, $20 for 5.

The jaunty skiff, complete with trailer, oars, mainsail and jib, and a new galvanized trailer, will be awarded to the raffle winner at 4:30 p.m. on December 10, 2016 at a year-end party in the Community Boat Shop of the Society, which overlooks the wide range of dunes behind the East Hampton Town Marine Museum at 301 Bluff Road in Amagansett.

The shop is the place where the magic happens. An easy, relaxed atmosphere prevails. The group’s doctors, lawyers, teachers, writers, former restaurant owner, building contractor and others — volunteers all —come and go, mostly on Saturday and Wednesday mornings, and various projects gradually evolve into works of art. The society has 160 members but, according to the Society’s president, Ray Hartjen, “Five percent are active. The rest are dreamers.”

There are a couple of boat restorations underway downstairs, where former Sag Harbor Mayor Pierce Hance, a financial analyst and vice president of the Society, sort of runs the show. Members take the finished works — such as the Molly Gann, a restored Beetle Cat — out for a sail now and then.

Showing off the skiff at the Fisherman's Fair in Springs.

Showing off the skiff at the Fisherman’s Fair in Springs.

Upstairs, Burt Van Deusen, former owner of the 1770 House in East Hampton, and an art gallery owner in Philadelphia before that, pretty much oversaw the construction of the Pooduck skiff, which he championed and managed to convince the group to make. It was completed well ahead of schedule in 2015. They’re now working on a second Sunshine tender (they’ve made one before) for next year’s raffle, which raises money to help keep the society afloat.

When you ask these guys who’s in charge of what, they smirk slightly and avert their eyes a little.

“We’re sort of looser than that,” said Mr. Van Deusen.

It seems everyone’s in charge and no one’s in charge at times — but it all works out. The proof lies in the seven other spiffy little beauties the group has built and raffled off since 2005. Their names are almost as intriguing as their lovely looks: an Atkins skiff, two Swampscott dories, a Catspaw dinghy, a Sunshine tender, a Goeller dinghy, and an East End Sharpie.

But isn’t there a quarterback for particular projects?

“No. Different people take different roles,” said Mr. Hartjen, a retired educator, lifelong sailor and former summer kid on Gardiners Bay, who has been heading to the water there since the early 1930s.

He truly was the quarterback who managed the construction of the Hartjen-Richardson Community Boat House in 2006 and 2007. It was named for him and an East Hampton estate-section family whose ancestor, George Reid Richardson, in 1909 founded the Richardson Boat Company, wooden boat builders, in upstate New York.

For years, the Richardsons helped the society close an annual budget deficit of about $10,000 or 25 percent of its annual budget, Mr. Hartjen said. The rest of the revenue has come from membership dues, donations and the annual boat raffle, which raises about $14,000.

Suffolk County provided a few of the workshop’s tools. The Town of East Hampton provides no funding, except virtually free rent and a 20-year lease, with an option to renew, on the land behind its Marine Museum.

The raffle does a lot more than help pay the bills. It exposes a wider public to the beauty and appeal of wooden boats.

“We have opened the door to all the people on the East End that come to visit us, that come and massage the boat, that now have a love, that have a new appreciation for the art of classic boat building,” said Mr. Hartjen. “It’s an appreciation that didn’t exist until we were here putting our wares out year after year. You know, people come back time and time again saying, ‘I didn’t win last year but I love that boat.’”

“Wooden boat building and wooden boats are like a romance,” said Don Schreiber, a building contractor from Sag Harbor who first studied boat building — along with aircraft construction, electrical installation and metal working — in the 1940s at a vocational school in East New York. “You have to love it.”

Time and again he has watched people come “massage the wood,” he said, and exclaim, “Oh, look at this, it’s so nice, oh wow!” whenever the Society puts its raffle boat on display and sells chances at summer fairs and events around the East End.

For all its charms, the Pooduck skiff is a simple boat. It was designed by a noted naval architect, the late Joel White, formerly of Brooklin, Maine, son of the even more famous essayist E. B. White, author of “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little.” Joel’s son Steve now runs the boatyard Joel founded in 1960. Mr. White the elder named the boat after Pooduck Road in Brooklin, which leads down to Pooduck Beach.

The handmade skiff would run you about $7,000 or $8,000 to buy, Mr. Hartjen estimated. And sometimes the society does handle the sale of a boat, whenever a raffle winner can’t use his or her winnings. There was a lady from Montauk who bought a single ticket as a courtesy. She won that year’s boat. She lived in an apartment and had no place for it. The Society helped her find a buyer.

“Some people say, ‘We’ll buy it if the winner doesn’t really want it,’” said Mr. Hartjen. “One person came to the boat shop on a Friday, won it on Saturday, and sold it on Wednesday.”

The society volunteers make the boat, the rudder and the centerboard. The sails and oars are factory-made, as is the brand-new galvanized trailer that comes with the boat.

Local suppliers often help out. Michael Marder of Marders Landscaping donated the base of an ash tree that provided the essential shape needed to make the breasthook for this year’s Sunshine tender. (A breasthook fits into the apex formed behind the bow by the boat’s railing.) The Irony on Route 114 in East Hampton agreed to make a mast gate, a piece of bronze hardware crucial to sail management, for the cost of materials. When Ray Hartjen went to pay the bill, the maker told him, “I had so much fun doing this, I’ll give it to you.”

You can see a Pooduck skiff under sail, trim and taught, skipping along the water, by searching for “Pooduck” on YouTube. It’s considered fast and easy to handle, either under sail or powered by oars.

If you miss the boat at HarborFest, you can see it at the Community Boat Shop, which is open to the public on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. New members, with or without boat building experience, are always welcome. Neophytes learn by working beside someone who knows what he’s doing. Go to the society’s website at for more information.

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