Sunday, January 6, 2013

Bill McCutcheon

One of the ironies of the International 14 class in the 1970's and early 19870's was that, for one of the premier performance classes, beautiful varnished cold-molded hulls were still winning the major championships (by that time cored fiberglass had taken over the podiums in classes like the 505 and Flying Dutchman). These wooden 14's were all produced by a quiet craftsman, Bill McCutcheon, from the Isle of Wight in England who singlehandedly churned out dozens of race-winning 14's from the boards of Shelly, Souter, Kirby, Bullock, Rouse; all exquisitely molded from 3 layers of mahogany veneer, with gunwhales of contrasting wood, all pieces carefully hand shaped.

Before Christmas, I received this sad news from good friend Len Parker who was born and raised on the Isle of Wight (now lives in Florida):

From Jamie McCutcheon - "My father William (Bill) McCutcheon passed away peacefully aged 79 on the 11th November 2012 after battling cancer. He was a UK boat builder on the Isle of Wight and introduced the Cherub class dinghy to the UK building and racing the first UK Cherub in 1956. He built many many wooden dinghies Cherubs, International 14's and Moths being the mainstay both for the UK and overseas for over 20 years. He was a quiet man but so proud that a few of his boats he built are still around and being raced in the different classic class's today. "

Len has a good friend, Ray, a boat builder who still lives on the Isle of Wight and has these reminisces of Bil:

"I spoke with Ray about Bill McCutcheon earlier today. No photo's of Bill or his workshop. In fact until we gave him a few photo's of Moth's he'd built , he didn't have any pictures of any of his boat builds. He couldn't stop smiling when he got those photo's and he was thrilled to know that some of his boats are still being sailed.
"Ray remembers going to see Bill when he (Ray) was a young teenager and contemplating what to career to follow when he left school. He asked Bill if he could be his apprentice, but Bill told him that he was too busy to have an apprentice and didn't have the time to teach someone. Ray kept popping back to buy Moth building materials from Bill, who let him have them at a good price, but Bill still wouldn't take on an apprentice. Bill was renowned for gettin , and storing, the very best timber and ply etc from around the world for his boats. He'd often work well into the night in his workshop , with Tilley lamps lit. He always took the time to help Ray out with materials etc.
"Ray mentioned that as well as the I-14s , Cherubs and Shelley Moth's , Bill also built many other models of Moths for private clients, some of whom were top Moth sailers, others were rich wannabe's who had to have the latest go-fast model! Ray said Bill built a couple of Aussie scows, I think for Charlie Reeve(s) or "The Major".  Bill raced Cherubs himself. Not sure if he met his wife Jenny through sailing, but she did sail dinghies ... National 12's I think. Ray actually worked for the same company as Jenny, Westridge Construction for several years, she 'kept the books'.
"Moth's that were exported to the USA were often stacked on top of the local 'milk float' to get across the expensive Solent, as Bill had done a deal with his local milkie to help keep costs down.
"Bill told us that he did a lot of work for Uffa Fox on various boats , but he didn't care for him at all ... partly because he was a snob and partly because he never paid his bills!
"Amongst other boats, Bill also built the worlds first prototype RIBs for Avon, and in the very early days of the Weekender ? Laser, Bill was approached by Bruce Kirby to manufacture them for the UK, but Bill had to decline the offer mainly because he preferred wood over fibreglass, but also because he was so busy at the time. He laughed when he told us this, adding he'd probably have made more money if he had said yes !
 "In summary Ray said that he was a bloody nice bloke , and that his craftsmanship was second to none .... he still wished he'd been his apprentice though."

Tom Price, local Chesapeake Bay 14'er, who was one of the top dogs in Annapolis for many years in his McCutcheon built Souter-Casson design, Windrustler (this was an ex-Jeremy Pudney boat; Jeremy had a new McCutcheon 14 built every year, each one using the name Wind as a precursor) had these recollections of Bill and Bill's 14's:

"I remember when he surprised us all by stopping by SSA on his visit to the USA. A humble, quiet seeming boatbuilder, he was like a God to me and he was probably confused and amused by the enthusiasm and rather awed questions he was met with!  I had become quite intimate with the construction details through all the work I had done on Windrustler and had a million questions about how he built the boats. He was patient but I think bothered by all the fuss and politely declined all invitations to stay, dine and be worshipped.
"I had always intended, when in the UK, to stop by Wooten Bridge on the Isle of Wight and see his Shop but never did. I do still have that oval plastic McCutcheon tag, removed from Windrustler during a varnishing and weight reduction frenzy.
"This summer, Doug Loup and I sailed a McCutcheon built Kirby IV in the NSHOF Wooden boat race in Annapolis.(See this post for more details.) It looked and more importantly, functioned perfectly after 20 years in Doug's garage and more than 40 years of the intense loading imposed by prying down those beautiful "kitchen Knife" shroud levers! A beautiful thing with flawless timber joints, still sound and tight. Bill McCutcheon built these Fourteens without gap filling Epoxy and instead, used an adhesive that relied primarily on perfect fits between parts.

 "I have never felt so bad in a boat as, when sailing Windrustler, I stomped my foot in frustration of the "unfairness" of fluky light air,  and busted open the joint between the keelson and cold molded hull skin, letting in the cold Severn far faster than the bailers could suck it out in the calm conditions. The shame of failing Bill's flawless craftsmanship taught me more about maintaining my cool no matter what frustrations beset me, than any other of my frequent calamities in those early days of Fourteen sailing.

 "I think this applies to Bill and that whole disappearing generation of Craftsmen. We will never see their likes again."

And from Bruce Kirby;

"I never met the man, but as you know, he built many of my IVs and Vs  and what beautiful boats they were. My go-between was always Pudders (ed note: Jeremy Pudney).  I was in Cowes for several days  in 2001 and did not realize Bill might have been there.  Damn shame.  It's amazing how the building of dinghies has changed in the past 50 years. To think that something as boring as fiberglass in its many forms could take over from the beauty of a fine cold molded and varnished vessel. I should talk, as I designed the first fiberglass 14 with my Mk. 1, but then with the II, III, IV and V went to Souter and Bill for those who wanted beauty with their racing."