87 Boat Designs: A Catalog of Small Boat Plans from Mystic Seaport

By Benjamin A.G. Fuller

2002: Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc.

Reviewed by David D. Platt

In 1983, Ben Fuller and a crew from Mystic Seaport were invited to inspect and measure a collection of wooden boats sitting in a boathouse on McGee Island off Port Clyde. Of more than two dozen boats that had been stored in the boathouse for decades, the group chose four for detailed study: a Guy Gardner skiff, a Chaisson skiff, a light dory and a Swampscott dory. Drawings of these four boats are included in this book, and they suggest the lengths to which Mystic Seaport will go to create and preserve historic plans for its collection.

The McGee boats were of particular interest to me, as I had seen them a few years earlier during a visit to the island. Most of them, writes Fuller, “were brought up from the Swampscott area of Massachusetts as a fleet for a new summer home in the early 1900s.” As for his own role in the measuring and documentation, he says modestly that he “held the tape, wrote things down, and took pictures.”

At the other end of the tape in the dimly-lit boathouse were some distinguished people: John Gardner, Mystic Seaport Museum’s associate curator for small craft studies and a legend in the field, and Bill Mills, one of Gardner’s assistants. Gardner, Mills, Fuller and a half-dozen other individuals who began working at Mystic in the 1970s amassed plans for thousands of boats, many of them small vernacular designs that populated harbors everywhere in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Combined with collections from designers, builders and other sources, the plans are a major source of information on wooden boatbuilding.

87 Boat Designs, of course, represents a tiny fraction of the total at Mystic. Fuller has selected boats that, for the most part, would appeal to amateur builders today: canoes, dories and flat-bottom boats, yacht tenders, Whitehalls, pulling boats, scull floats and duck boats, small sailboats and a couple of small powerboats. All of the plans are available from Mystic Seaport, and the book includes ordering information. Some of the boats in this book, such as the McGee Island group and those in Mystic’s own collections, still exist or have been built in replica; others survive only as plans.

Mystic’s collections and books such as 87 Boat Designs continue to make an enormous contribution to our knowledge of boat design and construction, and the important role these arts have played in American history.