A New England tradition that won’t die

Posted on Written by David Shaw

37_newengland_01Fatty Knees, the versatile tender launched by Edey & Duff, is revived by a Massachusetts sales rep

It’s not often you’d turn down the chance to buy a boat you really wanted if it didn’t come with the right dinghy, but that’s what happened with George Dow. Dow, 75, had offered to buy Seraffyn of Victoria, the 24-foot Lyle Hess-designed cutter made famous by its builders and first owners, Lin and Larry Pardey, well-known among sailors for their cruising adventures and books.

A real fan of Lyle Hess Bristol Channel cutters, Dow had been looking for a boat like Seraffyn for quite a while. When he went to see it in the fall of 2001 he noticed there was a 7-foot Fatty Knees lashed to the cabin top. It was the same type of dinghy the Pardeys had used aboard Seraffyn. Dow knew Fatty Knees tenders were renowned for their rowing, towing and sailing prowess, and he wanted the one he had seen.

“The owner said the dinghy didn’t come with the boat and I told him that was a deal breaker,” Dow says.

The owner relented and, ever since, the little 7-footer has cruised with Dow from Scituate, Mass., where he keeps Seraffyn, up to Maine and back during the summer. Dow is 6 feet tall and weighs 230 pounds, and he says he routinely carries one or two other big cruising buddies in his Fatty Knees. “Any 7-footer can be a little unstable when you get in it, but the wide beam of the Fatty Knees really helps keep things steady,” Dow says.

Like Seraffyn, the Fatty Knees is a Lyle Hess design. The hand-laid lapstrake fiberglass hull delivers strength and stiffness while remaining relatively light at 100 pounds for the 8-foot model. (The dinghy also comes in a 9-foot version.) A 7-inch skeg adds directional stability, and the teak inner rail, kick-up rudder and daggerboard add a touch of beauty to this utilitarian boat. With two rowing stations, 50 square feet of sail area on the 8-footer and an offset motor mount to port for a 2-hp outboard, the Fatty Knees is a versatile tender.

37_newengland_02Edey & Duff Boatbuilders in Mattapoisett, Mass., had been building Fatty Knees tenders for decades, even after the original owners sold the company in 1987. The boats were a New England tradition. Then the Great Recession came. It would have rocketed the venerable Fatty Knees into oblivion were it not for a confluence of events that led to a phoenix-like resurrection of the boat with the advent of a brand-new company, Fatty Knees Boat Co. LLC, which came together in the fall of 2010 through the efforts of David Foynes, a retired sales representative in Sagamore Beach, Mass.

Foynes got involved with the faltering Edey & Duff in January 2010 at the request of the wife of the late John Harding. He had purchased the company about nine years earlier and had been doing well, according to Foynes. The company was building and marketing Fatty Knees tenders and the Sakonnet 23 daysailer. It was also building the Herreshoff 12-1/2 and 28-foot Stewart Knockabout on a contract basis. The builder did not own the molds or the rights to market and sell the latter two boats.

In 2006, Foynes says, Edey & Duff was building an average of 10 to 15 Hereshoff 12-1/2s, four to eight Stewart Knockabouts and 75 to 100 Fatty Knees annually. A 12-1/2 sold for $33,000, a Stewart Knockabout for $72,000 and an 8-foot Fatty Knees for about $5,500. Roughly 80 percent of Edey & Duff’s annual gross revenue was derived from building the Herreshoff and the Stewart Knockabout, Foynes says. “When the bottom fell out [of the high-end daysailer market] in 2009, the company was stuck with all its eggs in one basket,” Foynes says.

As of September 2010, Edey & Duff hadn’t received an order for a 12-1/2 or Stewart Knockabout for more than two years, and it had only built six or seven Fatty Knees in 2010. Harding, the company owner, died of cancer in 2009. The general manager stepped in to handle the business, but he died suddenly later that year, putting Edey & Duff back on the ropes.

Foynes was a friend of the Harding family, and Kathy Harding approached him to see whether he could salvage the firm. Foynes had been a successful independent sales representative for Columbia Sportswear and other clothing companies in the sporting goods business. He knew the importance of marketing and he loved the boats Edey & Duff had been building.

“I looked at the whole thing, realizing what Edey & Duff had done for all those years,” Foynes says. “I asked myself, How do we bring the company back again? How do we save what it had done for the past 42 years and continue to build on a tradition?”

Ultimately, Kathy Harding decided to sell off the company’s assets, Foynes says, which included the molds of the Sakonnet 23 and the Fatty Knees. The company also owned the molds for the Sam Crocker-designed Stone Horse 23, but Foynes had no buyers for them. He tracked down the designer’s grandson, who runs Crocker’s Boatyard in Manchester, Mass., and gave the molds to him. “I didn’t want to see those molds destroyed and end up in a landfill somewhere,” Foynes says. “If there was a slight possibility of the boat continuing on, I wanted to see it happen.”

38_newengland_03There were no takers for the Fatty Knees molds. It looked as if the boats were finished. In September 2010, Edey & Duff closed its doors. Even though he knew nothing about the boatbuilding business, Foynes decided to take on the “project of bringing the Fatty Knees back to life.” Kathy Harding gave him the molds, the rights to build and market Fatty Knees, and the last 8-foot Fatty Knees to come out of the mold. The boat was unfinished.

“I didn’t have any manufacturing facilities,” Foynes says. “I had nothing but a crazy idea in mind that I could get the Fatty Knees going again. There were a number of times I sat there wondering what I’d gotten into.”

That same month, working on faith alone, Foynes lined up Pine Grove Plastics in Freetown, Mass., to manufacture Fatty Knees hulls. The company also builds catboat hulls for Marshall Marine and Arey’s Pond Boat Yard, and Foynes says he believed Pine Grove would do well with Fatty Knees. He placed an order for one of each version of the tenders, then hired Hejira Woodworks in Duxbury, Mass., to finish the boats.

Hejira got started on the unfinished 8-footer Foynes received from Edey & Duff, and it was completed and sold in October. Foynes received the three boats from Pine Grove in November, and one of them sold shortly thereafter. He immediately ordered three more 8-footers and one 9-footer.

“You can’t sell from an empty cart,” Foynes says. “One of the things that hurt Edey & Duff in the past was there was a lag time between the sale and delivery of the finished boat. I believe it’s better to have an inventory of one or two finished boats in each size so we can fill orders as they come in.”

Foynes says he gets five to eight e-mail inquiries every week from potential Fatty Knees buyers, based on the worldwide reputation of the boats, and that having inventory on hand has led to steady sales. In addition, he’s making the rounds at boat shows to promote the boat. “It’s a great feeling when you go to a boat show and have people come up and say, ‘Gee, it’s great to see a Fatty Knees here,’ ” he says.

In 2011, Fatty Knees Boat Co. (www.fattyknees.com) sold 34 tenders, Foynes says, and he hopes to sell about 50 this year. He says the 8-foot version is the most popular. It sells for $5,700 with a sailing rig.

“I think it’s always sad when you see very well-known, wonderful boats with great reputations just fade away,” Dow says, “and now the Fatty Knees is not going to fade away. I think that’s just great.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.

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