A historic catboat named Edwina B. is the most recent acquisition of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust. The 22-foot wooden boat, built by Manuel Swartz Roberts in Edgartown in 1931, is possibly the last of three catboats he built still in the water.
The nearly 80-year-old boat has had a circuitous life with different names and different ports of call. She has been part of the Edgartown waterfront for at least the past 20 years. The former owners see the boat’s journey bringing her to Edgartown to stay.
The catboat was donated to the trust by Boatner and Wendy Reily of Edgartown and New Orleans.
Chris Scott, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, said this is a significant addition, knowing that there are only a few Manuel Swartz Roberts boats left. “Boatner and Wendy, have said this is like Edwina B. is coming home,” Mr. Scott said.
It’s the first boat taken on by the preservation trust, which generally focuses on historic buildings still in active use, such as Alley’s General Store, the Grange Hall and the Whaling Church. Mr. Scott compared the latest acquisition to that of the Flying Horses carousel in Oak Bluffs, the nation’s oldest working carousel; the preservation trust had no experience with such things when the carousel was acquired. But they joined with others across the nation who know a lot about them. The trust’s approach is not only to preserve pieces of history but to associate with others who know and continue using them.
Mr. Scott said the trust already has stepped forward to connect to other boaters and the Catboat Association, a national organization started on the Vineyard 49 years ago.
“This boat is built to sail and we intend to sail her,” he said.
From now on, Mr. Scott said the boat will spend summers docked at the Norton Boathouse, which is next door to Memorial Wharf, and only a few steps away from the Old Sculpin Gallery, where she was built by the original Old Sculpin, as Mr. Swartz was known.
The Edwina B. is part of a bigger puzzle coming together, Mr. Scott said. The preservation trust owns the Norton Boathouse, the town’s last captain’s boathouse, and the Osborn Building, which is the town’s oldest waterfront building; both were acquired by the trust in 2008.
To those who remember Edgartown waterfront as it was just a few decades ago, it is a living picture of the past: a catboat, next to a captain’s boathouse and chandlery and near a legendary boatbuilding shop, all preserved by the trust.
The Old Sculpin building, with stories of its own going back to the whaling era, was acquired by the trust in 2005. Today an art gallery, it is best known on the waterfront for having been the spot where Manuel Swartz Roberts built catboats. He told the Gazette in 1959 that he built 200 catboats.
The Edwina B. sails with another Manuel Swartz Roberts catboat in the harbor, Vanity, long owned by Oscar Pease, a fisherman who sailed her in Edgartown. That 1929 boat now belongs to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
There is possibly only one other Manuel Swartz Roberts catboat still on the water. Bill Mullin of West Barnstable owns it. Pleased by the gift to the trust, he told the Gazette this week that after doing extensive research, he believes there are only three Manuel Swartz Roberts catboats left: Edwina B., Vanity and his, the oldest. He renamed his catboat Old Sculpin, after the builder. It was first launched in 1912.
Mr. Scott said it is a wonderful historic gift from Mr. and Mrs. Reily, who have long been friends of the trust. Mr. Scott said Mrs. Reily, a spirited director on the board for many years, is credited as one of those who came up with the idea of the Taste of the Vineyard fundraiser, now in its 25th year.
“They have been passionate about preserving history,” Mr. Scott said. The Edwina B. has had many owners and different ports of call. George Griswold of New Orleans is Wendy Reily’s brother. The two siblings treasure memories of sailing in the boat with their parents, George Griswold and Edwina Bramhall Griswold. The trips were in or near the Gulf of Mexico. To them, Edwina B. was a piece of Vineyard sailing history in warmer climes.
Describing her parents, Mrs. Reily said: “They sailed all over Boca Grande, at a time when there weren’t a lot of sailboats there. We sailed all over. There were picnics. My father knew Manuel Swartz Roberts, knew him as a boy,” she said.
On a typed piece of paper with handwritten notes added, George Griswold, the son, has the notes left by his father of the history of the boat, from when she was built in 1931 to when his father bought her in 1968 and renamed her after his wife.
Manuel Swartz Roberts built the boat for George Carey, a summer resident of Edgartown; he named her Squab.
When he died, the boat was sold in 1934 to John Brewer, who kept her in Hingham. Three years later he sold the boat to a man named Prince Crowell of Woods Hole and she was renamed Gnome.
Mr. Crowell held the boat until it was badly damaged by the hurricane of 1954. After the hurricane she was sold to John Bruce, who rebuilt her and renamed her Sea Urchin.
In 1965, Mr. Bruce sold it to Bartlett Dunbar and the boat was kept in Annapolis, Md. A year later he sold the boat to George Frierson, who had it trucked to Pass Christian, Miss.
“My father bought her in 1968 and renamed her Edwina B.,” Mr. Griswold said.
In 1970, the Edwina B. was trucked to Boca Grande, where she stayed until 1984. George Griswold died in 1985. The boat was transported to Bay St. Louis, Miss.
Mr. Griswold recalled: “It was more fun sailing her down there. The water was warmer. We would go trolling for fish.”
As owners of the boat, Boatner and Wendy Reily gave her a lot of care. Mrs. Reily said the boat was a key member of the family and it got the love of both herself and her husband. Since the family also had a rich connection to Edgartown, the thought of returning the boat to the Vineyard grew. Mrs. Reily said the warm water of the South was hard on the boat. The boat had already sunk once and was in need of care.
She was brought back to the Vineyard in 1989 by truck. With the hull in serious need of work she was rebuilt by Alba Briggs, in the vicinity of what today is Maciel Marine. The hull is now composite wood, wood soaked in resin.
George Griswold has a fond memory of sailing the Edwina B. from Lagoon Pond in Vineyard Haven to Edgartown.
“When the boat was finished and ready to go, I remember sailing her under the bridge and having a beam reach all the way to Edgartown Light. I remember that sail. It struck me, while coming through the mouth of Edgartown harbor, this girl is coming home. It is that kind of thought that brings you to your knees,” he said.
Wendy and Boatner Reily kept the boat at a mooring near their home in Green Hollow. Through the last 20 years, the two sailed her through the harbor and they shared their love of the boat with others. She is considered one of the prettiest catboats in local waters. The Reilys hosted a number of gatherings through the years with the members of the Catboat Association.
“Wendy and Boatner have kept that boat in Bristol fashion,” Mr. Scott said, and that standard of care will continue.
Ray Ellis of Edgartown is a nationally recognized painter. He has painted many paintings of the waterfront with catboats in the foreground. “I’ve painted Edwina B. She has the lines so typical of Manuel Swartz Roberts. Boatner has cherished that boat. She belongs in a good spot,” Mr. Ellis, 89, said, adding:
“I have painted a lot of catboats, and I am not finished yet.”