Narrasketuck sailboats were designed with the shallower waters of the...

Narrasketuck sailboats were designed with the shallower waters of the Great South Bay in mind. Credit: Narrasketuck Yacht Club / Alan Hlavenka

If you’ve spent any time on the Great South Bay, you’ve probably seen a fleet of smallish sailboats, larger than the popular one-person Sunfish, but not nearly as big as a family-sized vessel. Scooting across the bay, low to the water, with two-person crews, they generally appear to be racing and, indeed, almost always are.

“Those are Narrasketucks” says Rudy Sittler proudly, and they’ve been slicing through waves on this bay since 1935. They were designed specifically to sail on our South Shore waters; built to deal with shallow bottoms, cut through seaweed, get up on plane, and handle strong afternoon breezes. I started racing them back in 1953. Every time I see one, I still get a rush.”

Sittler, 83, from Little Neck Bay, is a longtime member of the Narrasketuck Yacht Club in Amityville, where the “Tuck,” as these quick and responsive sloops are known, was first revealed. According to Todd Brice, commodore of the Narrasketuck Class, the original blueprint was conjured up by local boatbuilder Wilbur F. Ketcham, who was commissioned by the club to design a new, affordable class of racing yacht in 1934.

The original specifications called for a boat with speed and maneuverability "while being inexpensive so more club members could afford one,” explains Brice, 43, who owns Yacht Service, Ltd, an Amityville boatyard. “They wanted a small fleet of 'one design' sailboats to compete as their own class — every vessel constructed of the same materials, measuring 20-feet, four-inches long, with a 6-foot, five-inch beam, centerboard dinghy style hull and similar sails." That would ensure race outcomes were determined by skill, the elements and luck alone — not who could afford to significantly enhance and upgrade their sailboat.

Narrasketuck Yacht Club members race their vintage sailboats in a regatta...

Narrasketuck Yacht Club members race their vintage sailboats in a regatta off the shores of Amityville. Credit: Narrasketuck Yacht Club / Alan Hlavenka

Narrasketucks were built specifically for racing, and you can bet the two-person crews that manned them were highly competitive — they still are, even though Brice says most crews these days are comprised of senior citizens.

Over the decades, only 200 of these sailboats were built, each receiving its own sequential number, and they proved exceptionally durable. Longtime club member Glenn Schmidt, 84, from Babylon has owned (and built) several Tucks--#172 was one of the first vessels built with plywood in 1967. Then came #182, which he built for himself. Then #179 which he purchased for his late wife Dianne to sail on her own. “It was cheaper than a divorce,” says Glenn wryly.

After two knee operations in recent years, Schmidt sold his #182 last summer. “Now I’m the support staff,” he chuckles. Ketcham’s own vessel, #7, Defiance, was rebuilt by Schmidt in 1996 and donated by the Ketcham estate to the Long Island Maritime Museum, where visitors can see it on display. Yet another Ketcham original, #3, continues to sail from the Narrasketuck Yacht Club, which today caters to a wide variety of sailboats.

At the height of their popularity in the early 1960s, over 50 Narrasketuck sloops might compete in local regattas, cruising at a top speed approaching ten knots (a little over 10 miles an hour). These days, the numbers are down to four or five most weekends, and maybe a dozen for championship races. Regattas are held throughout the year in association with the Great South Bay Yacht Racing Association.

“It’s been tough to get a good turnout this year,” Brice says. “It is, after all, hard to socially distance yourself on a small boat, and many competitors are of a vulnerable age.”

Still, club members and crews that have long raced these innovative sloops hope the legacy can live on.

“These are adult boats requiring technical skill to race, but we have a junior instructional sailing program and we’re willing to teach anyone who wants to learn,” says Brice.

“That’s what’s kept this sailing class alive over the decades,” adds Sittler, who still sails #194. We’d love to introduce younger people to this sport, our club and these classic boats. Every time you take one out on Great South Bay, you’re sailing a slice of Long Island’s maritime history.”


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