HISTORY OF GILBERT MONROE SMITH
When Smith began his boatbuilding career in 1876 he built inexpensive, shoal-draft boats for the oyster and clam tongers of Great South and Shinnecock Bays on Long Island. He placed the masts in his boats extremely far forward, and tucked the rudder under the counter, rather than hanging it off the stern. Also, unlike other catboats, the beam on Smith’s boats was narrow, less than half the length. The curved topside planks were thicker aft and carved to shape and the upper two strakes were longleaf yellow pine. The lowest point of the sheer was well aft so the waterman could haul aboard his heavy harvest handy to the tiller.
Shellfish don’t improve in the hot sun, and Smith’s were the fastest boats available to get a catch to the dock quickly. His boatshop had almost no competition and he worked 12-hour days to satisfy the demand.
About the time the Long Island Railroad reached the Hamptons, the local littleneck and oyster harvest declined, and rusticators arrived. Prosperous gentry from New York City built summer homes and took up the “Corinthian” sailing craze. Smith’s customer base went from working class to racers.
He produced around 400 boats between 1876 to 1939, never using power tools; his wife Mariam sewed all the sails on a foot-pedal-operated sewing machine. His sailboats were ever-faster, often beating contemporary Nathanael Herreshoff’s designs. Smith’s boats also were uniquely beautiful. A Gilbert Smith racing catboat was a sight to see, if you could catch up with her.
Several builders over the years have produced replicas of original Smith catboats, including Mystic Seaport and a few builders near Shelter Island. One was built on the south coast of England, another in Finland, and at least one in Maine, by Lance Lee and his apprentices in Rockport.
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