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Gil Smith, Maker Of Sleek Sailboats

Article written by Bill Blyer for 

















Photo of the Elijah Saxton and Gil Smith boatyard located on the west bank of the Patchogue River. 


Anyone who wanted to sail faster than everyone else on Great South Bay in the late 1800s or early 1900s gravitated to Gil Smith.

The Patchogue boat builder turned out about 400 sailboats - Smith never kept track - renowned for their beauty, speed and handling.

Gilbert Smith was born in 1843 in Manorville. As a boy, he carved sailboat models but never had any training in boat design. He sailed as a crewman on schooners to Spain and Cuba, as well as on ships supplying the Union Army during the Civil War.

Later he worked as a bayman, duck hunter and hunting guide, fashioning his own decoys and gunning boats. He moved his family in 1876 from Hampton Bays to Patchogue and worked in local boatyards. In his spare time, he began building small catboats for baymen and eventually operated his own boatyard on the Patchogue River.

His business swelled when the Long Island Rail Road began bringing summer tourists in the 1870s. Sailing became a major pastime with races on Saturdays, and word got around that Smith's boats were unbeatable. In 1906, he was hired by a syndicate looking for a boat to sail against a German team for the President Taft Cup. Smith's boat won the cup.

Smith usually worked with only one or two employees and his wife, who sewed sails on the only machine in the shop. Smith built everything except the rigging and hardware with hand tools. His yachts were renowned for their graceful lines; their long, overhanging sterns and flat bottoms moved through the water with little disturbance. The boats had small keels and large centerboards to provide good sailing in deep channels, but also allowed the boat to traverse the shallows of the bay. They also carried a lot of sail.

Smith continued building boats until he suffered a stroke at age 93. He died in 1940 when he was 97. Smith's son, Asa, continued the business for another 10 years until his death.

Samples of Smith's 60 years of work are preserved at the Long Island Maritime Museum in West Sayville, the East Hampton Historical Society and the Bellport Historical Society.

Copyright © 2007, Newsday, Inc.

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