Indian Summer -August 2007

The revival of a storied sailboat

by: Joshua H. Balling

photography by: Jeffrey Allen

On Sept. 18, 2004, a nor’easter was sweeping across the Cape and Islands, but Pascal Antonietti wasn’t worried.

Coskata, his family’s classic wooden Indian, was securely tied to a 75-kilogram mooring ball in Nantucket Harbor more than heavy enough to keep the boat in place during the storm.

But what the recently-arrived-on-Nantucket Frenchman didn’t realize was that it wasn’t a 75-kilogram mooring ball at all, but a much lighter 75-pound one. The mooring dragged and the 76-year-old sailboat struck a submerged and abandoned mushroom anchor, tearing a hole in its hull.

Antonietti, his wife Eleanor and a handful of friends worked for hours to salvage the 21-foot boat, but were eventually driven back by pounding waves, driving wind and lightning strikes.

A number of them returned later that night, eventually managing to salvage the boat in total darkness.

Antonietti then spent the next two years teaching himself to repair wooden boats by reading dozens of books and talking to anyone who would listen, eventually restoring the storied Coskata to its former glory. With Antonietti at the helm, the boat won a one-design race during last year’s Nantucket Race Week.

It was not the first time the sailboat would rise from the ashes.

But perhaps this story is best told from the beginning…

Coskata was the third hull in the John Alden-designed Indian class built specifically for members of the Nantucket Yacht Club by George L. Chaisson of Swampscott in 1928. It was purchased that same year by summer resident William Pepper Constable for his son George, Eleanor Antonietti’s grandfather.

“My father was only 16 when the fleet was brought to the island by Pilly Mills’ father, who developed the class with John Alden suitable for Nantucket waters,” said Eleanor’s mother, Eleanor Weller Reade. “At that time, they didn’t have much of anything except beach boats.

The younger members of the yacht club wanted something fast.”

Legendary on the water

Constable won the first race of the Indian fleet on Nantucket and didn’t stop there. His feats in Coskata were apocryphal and legendary, including a 30-mile nighttime sail from Edgartown on the Vineyard to Nantucket. At 17, George and an even younger crew-member raced in the Edgartown Regatta. Angered that they were too young to attend the post-race parties, the two boys left for home at about 6 p.m. in the fog and pouring rain.

“It was pea soup fog. He couldn’t even see the sail,” Reade said. “He did it by feel, without tacking, in the pitch-black darkness. After a while, he figured they should be nearing Great Point, and he does tack, and they end up right at the end of the Jetties. Then they bobbed on down the harbor and headed into town.”

At this point, it’ was about 10 p.m. “Nobody knows they’re back, so they decide to go get an ice cream cone. Then they head over to a dance, and they’re standing up in the balcony, looking at the adults below, dripping ice cream on them,” Reade continued. “My grandfather, William Pepper Constable, looked up and said ‘They’re not dead.’ The Coast Guard had been out looking for them. They were presumed lost.”

For the next 61 years, Constable dominated Indian class racing on Nantucket. In his last regatta aboard an aging and tired Coskata in 1987, the 75-year-old Constable was separated from a much younger man in a fiberglass Indian by a single point after nine races.

“He had to have a sump pump on the boat that last race,” Reade said. “The centerboard was a mess. One of our friends, Prenny Claflin down at the boatyard, helped us haul her out after dark, and we smoothed it out and cleaned off the bottom, and he went out the next day and won the series.”

The Nantucket Yacht Club then established the Constable Cup – a three-day regatta held each summer – in his honor.

“I haven’t found anyone who has heard of that kind of winning spread. The same skipper, the same boat, no real restoration, winning races 59 years apart,” Reade said.

Yet it was far from luck or genetics that made Constable the consummate Indian-sailor that he was.

“My father was so competitive, he once made a model of the sand bottom of the harbor to determine what the currents were. He really worked at it,” Reade said.

“Grandpa was a consummate sailor, but he had no patience,” Eleanor Antonietti added. “We all sailed growing up. Some of his children could withstand his iron fist, and some couldn’t. My uncle Bob Constable inherited grandpa’s feel. It was baptism by fire. Grandpa was so innately gifted in sailing, sometimes you just had to sit back and listen. Occasionally he’d be calm, and those were the best times to learn.”

Rebirth

After Coskata was officially retired in the late 1990s, Reade took responsibility for the Indian, and searched up and down the East Coast for a place to have the boat restored. She finally came across the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, R.I., which accepted it as a donated boat to be restored in 1999. It was the first Indian ever worked on at IYRS, a compound of weathered brick buildings on the Thames Street waterfront surrounded by wooden boats in various stages of restoration, from derelict hulls with stove-in planking to launch-ready masterpieces, gleaming with fresh coats of varnish.

Four second-year students spent countless hours returning her to her original glory, stripping away layer upon layer of fiberglass to get to the original wood, and replanking her misshapen hull. The day of her relaunch in 2002, Coskata sailed again for the first time in 13 years.

“It was destiny,” Eleanor Antonietti said. “My mother approached IYRS on a couple of occasions, and I think it was on the second try they said yes. It was a huge commitment, and to her credit.”

Constable, sadly, was not on hand to see the rebirth of his pride and joy. He was ailing at the time of the launch, but he did get to sail in the restored Coskata before he died in early 2006.

“Grandpa took Pascal out on the second day he was ever on Nantucket,” Eleanor Antonietti said. “Nobody liked to sail with him because he was so strict. But they went out, and they didn’t come back, and they didn’t come back. We were starting to get worried. But they had the time of their lives. Pascal got off the boat, and he was just in awe. You could tell he had had an epiphany.

“My grandfather was the first sort of sailing hero he could admire in the flesh. He’d always been fascinated by sailors, transatlantic sailors, but this was one he could talk to. And the boat? There were three wrecked Indians on the beach after a nor’easter that summer, and he was fascinated. I always knew he loved wooden boats. He’d see a boat from far away, and recognize its lines. He has a built-in love. ”Reade noticed it as well.

“My father and Pascal are similar sailors. They are largely self-taught. You either learn it yourself or you don’t learn it. You do it by touch and by feel. And you have to love what you’re doing.”

Love at first sight

In fact, Antonietti was hooked on Coskata from the moment he laid eyes on her in the Maryland corncrib where Reade was storing the boat in the winter.

“It was love at first sight,” Reade said. “He took one look at the boat down in Maryland, and you could see it in his eyes. Then we came to Nantucket, and one of the first things he sees is the raked mast of the Endeavor, on the horizon, from a mile away. He started shaking with excitement. Pascal had been making a model of the Endeavor, in Paris, having never seen her, and he knew he was home.”

The Antoniettis sailed the boat throughout the summer of 2004, with Pascal fixing her up when he wasn’t working, and the family moved to the island with their two young children, Thibault and Gillian, in the fall. A third child, Lucca, was born this year.

It seemed to be the perfect fit. Pascal had always dreamed of giving up the corporate life in France – he ran a small company that manufactured ecologically-friendly chemical cleaning products – to work with boats, particularly wooden boats.

But he had a problem. He needed to support his family, and wooden-boat schools require one to three years of study away from home. An additional challenge? Once you’re finished, there are very few wooden boats left on the water today to repair and maintain.

But one place where wooden boats are still appreciated is Nantucket, and there’s no better place for classic-sailboat connoisseurs than the island at the end of August, for the annual Opera House Cup, the East Coast’s premier wooden sailboat race.

Four days after arriving on the island, Pascal started working with Nantucket Community Sailing, doing part-time carpentry and helping islander Chris Westerlund in his sailboat maintenance business. He and his family sailed Coskata in the summer, and they couldn’t have been happier.

Until Sept. 18, 2004.

Disaster strikes

“We’d been debating taking it out,” Eleanor Antonietti said. “But we thought it would be OK. What we didn’t think of at the time, after we moved the boat to my uncle’s mooring, was that is was 75 pounds, not kilos. When the big storm came, the mooring dragged, the boat came in, it got bashed, and the hull got gashed.” Six planks were stove in by a submerged, abandoned mushroom spike, and there was significant damage to the centerboard trunk and other parts of the hull. The boat sank to the bottom. Pascal, Eleanor and their friend Frank Kovac attempted to save the boat during the intensifying storm.

“We were out there – everybody was out there, and ironically, it was Thibault’s third birthday – in harrowing conditions,” Eleanor said. “We were trying to bail, not realizing how bad the holes were. When the lightning strikes came, we decided we’d had enough.”

But as the storm began to calm, Kovac and other friends including Westerlund, Chad Hudnut and Jeremy Pochman headed back out in total darkness to save the boat. They managed to wrap a sail around the submerged hull to prevent more water from filling the boat, and they were able to salvage it.

“It was just devastating when all that care was killed in one fell swoop. I’ll never forget the look on his face,” Eleanor said. “It was like he was trying to rescue his own child from drowning. It was horrifying.” Pascal remembers, “Chris Westerlund called, and he said ‘it’s just a piece of wood,’ and I wanted to kill him. But then he said ‘It’s a piece of wood that’s still floating,’ and I knew we could save the boat.”

Over the next year and a half, the Antoniettis tried to figure out a way to get the boat professionally restored, but there was simply no affordable way to do it.

Resurrection

So Pascal took it upon himself to do the job. He pored through books and trade magazines, and sought the advice of experts from boat-builders to cabinet-makers and carpenters. He visited IYRS for consultation, but he still didn’t really know where to start. So perhaps it was serendipitous that Coskata’s third lease on life began with a chance encounter at the 2005 Opera House Cup awards party.

“Eric Nordby came up, and I’d seen him a couple times around Nantucket. He said he heard I was looking to restore the boat, and he could give me all the tools I needed. That was beginning. I was not accustomed to people just offering help. He loved wood boats like me, and he loves working on wood boats, and I thought, ‘Wow, cool’,” Antonietti said.

Armed now with the knowledge and the tools, he just needed a place to do the work. He found it in the form of the Alan Newhouse Nantucket Community Sailing Boathouse, and from January to mid-March 2006, he worked tirelessly seven days a week to restore the boat.

He was aided in the restoration by numerous people, including cabinet-maker Doug Pinney, who owns two historic wooden boats; Nordby, a private chef, carpenter and caretaker, who loaned not just his tools but also his woodworking skills; Jay Picotte, the IYRS administrator who consulted on the project and had been involved in its first restoration as a student at the school; Howe Constable, a nephew of George Constable, who grew up sailing with his uncle, and made a film documenting the restoration.

“All these guys surprised me by the enthusiasm they had for wooden boats. They came by every day,” Antonietti said.

“The cool thing for me about this whole story is, Pascal made so many great friends because of this boat,” Eleanor said. “Eric Nordby lent a helping hand, Chris Westerlund helped build the steambox that helps shape and bend the planks. I would go out after work and picking up the kids, and see how happy they were. Pascal couldn’t wait to wake up in the morning, and he didn’t want to come home at night. He’d be sitting there with books open and measuring instruments all around him. He’d be so excited. He’d come home and say, ‘it worked,’ with this huge smile on his face.

“He’d been making model boats all his life, but this was something bigger, something ‘real’.”

“Pretty cool,” was Pascal’s modest, European response. But the grin on his face gave away his true pride in the project.

Coskata returned to the water last August, and won a race during Nantucket Race Week.

“Pascal had this tremendous expression on his face winning that race,” Eleanor said. “It was the pinnacle of what this boat means, and has meant, to cross the finish line first in front of everybody.”

Island treasures

More than a dozen boats make up the current Indian fleet on Nantucket. Coskata and Phil Smith’s beautifully-restored Quaise – all boats in the class have to carry names related to the island’s Native American heritage – are the only two surviving from the original fleet. The others are all fiberglass replicas built in the 1980s and 1990s.

And the fleet continues to grow.

“I think there was a lull when there weren’t too many Indians out there sailing,” Eleanor Antonietti said. “Most of the wooden boats were falling apart. It was pretty much down to David Poor, Vladi Kagan, my grandfather and Alan Newhouse.”

It was Newhouse who was responsible for resurrecting today’s Indian fleet. A few years ago, the man who had built all the original fiberglass boats was living in Florida, and Newhouse – a consummate Indian sailor in his own right – paid to have the mold shipped up to Hyannis. One has already been built, and every year, it seems like there is another boat.

“There are not a lot of communities that have boats specifically manufactured for their conditions. It’s built for all the sandbars. It’s not a comfortable boat, but if you love sailing, it’s a great boat. We’re the only uncomfortable boat out there on the harbor, which just proves how hard-core it is,” Reade said. And the Constables are hard-core Indian sailors.

“My mother’s been racing all her life. She still works the foredeck for her brother Jim in the races,” said Eleanor Antonietti. “I sail with my uncle Bob. Uncle George sails with Lucinda Ballard. This summer, I will sail with Pascal, who also sails with the Community Sailing guys. He’s completely infected.” But Coskata isn’t just a racing boat.

“We used that boat for everything in my family. We had picnics on Coskata and we still do. My grandfather would have 12 people on that boat,” Eleanor Antonietti said.

And even when they do race, it’s not all about the competition – at least not for everyone. The fleet holds weekly races every Saturday throughout the summer and participates in a three-day one-design series during Race Week in August.

“Everybody’s out there to have a good time. The Indian fleet, it’s very much a family. That’s something I really enjoy about sailing. It’s not just the physical aspect, but the social aspect as well,” Eleanor Antonietti said.

Joshua Balling is an associate editor of Nantucket Today and the managing editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.






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