Photo by Micki Clay
Boat-building is a kind of magic. From various pieces of wood, you can create a vessel capable of transporting you around the creek or across an ocean. But as modern materials and technologies have inched out the old ways, wooden boats have become museum exhibits, quaint reminders the past. At least, that’s the trend—just don’t tell it to the Cocktail Class racers.
Before you confuse boats and bourbon, we’re talking about hand-built eight-foot plywood skimmers. It is true that cocktail in this case refers to that evening hour in 2007 when three Virginia families, drinks in hand, decided they wanted to build and race small wooden outboard-powered boats. Their new class was based on Charles MacGregor’s 1939 runabout design called a Skua, reminiscent of the small-town cottage racers of the 1950’s and 60’s. In less than a year, four boats were completed, and the first-ever Cocktail Class Founder’s Cup was under way. Fast forward ten years, and these diminutive racers are now built and raced in 33 states and seven countries.
Cocktail Class racers are powered by a six- or eight-horsepower outboard engine, depending on the weight and class, and are piloted from a kneeling position in the cockpit. They are light and maneuverable, reaching speeds up to 28 mph, and, as a spectator at the recent Urbanna Cup, I can tell you that they are fun to watch. The boat names are almost as entertaining, with competitors often sticking to a cocktail theme, like Pink Lady, Blue Hawaiian, and Dram.
One thing that is immediately evident at any Cocktail Class event is just how family-oriented the sport is. Husbands and wives, fathers and daughters and brothers are suiting up with helmets and PFD’s before every race, like Sara and Art Gompf of Stevenson, Maryland, sharing the same boat to compete in different categories.
“We used to play horse polo,” Sara explains, but as her father grew older, they needed to find another sport to share. “Now we do this together.Everyone at the races is just so friendly, so nice.”
Dave Cantera, looking on as his twelve-year-old son Frank readies his boat for the first race, agrees. “This has been a great family affair.”
As for Frank, his plan for the day is simple—“Win…and have fun,” he says with a grin.
This eager young competitor is an example of what may be the greatest achievement of Cocktail Class racing—drawing teens and pre-teens to the art of boat-building. It’s every kid’s dream to drive a car or something long before their sixteenth birthday. On the water, Cocktail Class racing makes that dream come true. Competition is open to anyone age twelve and older. All you need is a boat. Whether from a set of plans or from a kit, the stitch-and-glue Skua is economical and easy to build, making it a perfect family project. In some cases, adults aren’t even required. Frank built his boat from a kit just over two years ago, starting at age nine, with the help of brother Benji, then thirteen, and sister Annaliese, eleven.
“My Dad helped out a little in the beginning, just getting us set up,” Benji says. “But the rest of it, the three of us built by ourselves.”
Cantara admits that they have a bit of an edge. Wooden boats are in their blood—the family bought and restored the 1936 buy boat, Muriel Eileen, and the children’s earliest memories involve time spent playing on her deck. In addition, The Cocktail Class runabout was not the Cantera kids’ first attempt at boat-building. That started back when Benji was nine when he and his father decided to build a skiff.
“I wanted it to be father and son project, but I didn’t want a father and son outcome,” Dave says. He turned to friend John Swain of Chestertown, the renowned boat-builder of Sultana. “Having John Swain help you with your boat is like having Bill Gates help you with your computer.”
“It was a pretty cool experience,” Benji says. “My Dad is really patient, and Mr. Swain has been a ship builder his whole life, so he could teach me the tricks to make the right cuts and get the right measurements.”
After the skiff, Leapin’ Lena, was completed, Annaliese enlisted John Swain’s help to build her own skiff, River Doll, which she finished in six months. Both teens credit those projects for giving them the skills to easily tackle the Cocktail Class racer.
“This was a kit from Chesapeake Light Craft, which was a lot different from the skiff,” Benji says, pointing out the racer was a much easier project. “Everything was precut, and there were no fasteners.”
Frank christened his boat Ball Breaker and began racing this year. His dad even outfitted the Muriel Eileen with a custom hoist to haul and launch Ball Breaker so that the family could cruise to races from their home port on the Sassafras River. Meanwhile, after finishing work on his brother’s Cocktail Class racer, Benji decided he wanted a racer of his own.
“I was running around the creek in Frank’s boat, and I thought, wouldn’t it be really cool if we had two?”
This time Benji built the boat by himself. He completed and launched his racer, Iceman, in early July of 2017. At the same time, Annaliese ordered her own kit, which she started in late summer. She is excited about the prospect of three Canteras on the water.
“Then we can all three race and practice against each other,” she says enthusiastically.
In this artificial digital age, I couldn’t help but wonder how the teens’ friends view their interest in boat-building. Both Benji and Annaliese admit they often get “a weird reaction”, but in the end, Benji says, “a lot of kids think it’s really cool.”
A few months after the Urbanna Cup, my husband and I took a overnight cruise back to Urbanna Creek. On our way to dinner, we saw a young boy zooming back and forth in a Cocktail Class runabout while his friend ran up and down the dock, cheering wildly. They told us another friend built the boat and let them borrow it, and now they really, really wanted to build one of their own. Their enthusiasm reminded me of something Dave Cantera said:
“There is nothing more fun than motors and boats, and especially wooden boats.”
Except, perhaps, building one.