The Star Talks To: Steve Corkery

Pat Mundus | January 15, 1998

Possessed By Boats

Steve Corkery's office at the Coecles Harbor Marina and Boatyard on Shelter Island suggests an all-consuming interest in boats.

Down East lobster boats, '50s ocean racers, beautifully poised wooden daysailers, and sturdy offshore cruising boats are among the images over his desk. Every imaginable book on yachting history or design seems to be on his shelves.

Sixty-three and brimming with enthusiasm, Mr. Corkery can articulate the subtlety of a certain sheer line or the grace of a bow with gentle passion. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of yacht design, a keen eye for form, and an uncompromising sense of history.

Portrait Photo: Morgan McGivern

Tearful Skipper

In short, he is possessed by boats. Having sailed internationally on the finest yachts, including 12-meter boats, Mr. Corkery has developed high standards.

"The first real boat of my own was a Lightning, number 31," he said. Laughing, he went on to recount a story that undoubtedly shaped his view of racing.

"I can remember the crew I had then. They were in their 20s. This one race, to them, it didn't seem like a lot of breeze, but I did not want to go out - I was only 11. To me it seemed like a gale! Well, we got out to the starting line and I started crying. They browbeat me so badly we started. By the weather mark we were in there, second or third, and finally we finished quite well! It was unbelievable."

At 11 he was a good skipper, even in tears.

When Mr. Corkery was 15 his father bought him a boat built in 1915 called Galena, which Starling Burgess, the America's Cup designer, had also bought for his son.

Little Fox

"I named her Fox," Mr. Corkery recalled. "She was only 18 feet on deck but God she had a six-foot bowsprit! She was a little British cutter. A triple-head rig club topsail, the whole nine yards. It took over an hour to get everything set but, boy, when you got it all up there! In a breeze wasn't she something!"

At the age of 18, Mr. Corkery had the opportunity to sail to England, even though he hadn't yet graduated from high school. "In fact, I graduated from high school while halfway across the Atlantic," he said.

"When I was in England I met Capt. John Illingworth. He was a naval officer and architect. He'd started the Junior Offshore Group, some guys sailing on midget ocean racers."

In England

"I met a lot of these people and sailed on those boats. They were funny small boats painted purple with red sails and the most outlandish stuff you've ever seen - not like America at all! They had such an approach to life, I suppose because of the war."

Mr. Corkery returned home to become a draftsman for the yacht designers Sparkman and Stephens, where he remained for three years. Once home, along with some kindred spirits he founded the Midget Ocean Racing Club.

Then, during the 1956 American Yacht Club Cruise, Mr. Corkery made a pivotal connection. He met Bill Tripp aboard his first successful design, Katingo. Mr. Tripp asked him to sign on, and Mr. Corkery sailed aboard Katingo that whole season.

"We raced the hell out of her and didn't lose," Mr. Corkery said. In the fall Katingo's owner, John Vatis, asked him to become a ship broker at TriContinental Shipping Company. Only 22, Mr. Corkery hardly even knew what the job was.

"In October I traded in my boatyard jeans and khakis for a Brooks Brothers three-piece suit," he said. "Of course my father, who was in the garment business, loved this. So then he and I could have lunch together in our suits."

There were many offshore sailors in the shipping business and Mr. Corkery sailed with the likes of former Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, George Coumantaros, who owns the Boomerang series of boats, and Jacob Isbrandtsen, a shipping giant.

Transatlantic Race

Asked about the rigors of offshore racing, Mr. Corkery said, "I've been in a couple of hard Bermuda Races. The one in '60 was on Windrose (ex-Actea), owned by Jacob Isbrandtsen."

"We sailed to Bermuda and then to Sweden in the Transatlantic. We lost a headstay. We were very lucky to keep the mast in the boat and I think we did pretty well at the time. It was very rough going. In fact, there were boats that lost guys overboard."

As they continued on with the Transatlantic, he said, "after 3,500 miles, the first three boats were only two and a half hours apart. It was a fabulous race - as good as it gets."

Mr. Corkery has had some famous mentors. Aside from his first teacher, Cornelias Shields Sr., he named Sven Joffs as the best pro he'd ever sailed with.

Clubs And More Clubs

Asked which clubs he had belonged to, he had to draw up a list. "I still belong to Off Soundings and the Storm Trysail Club," he began.

The Trysail Club, of which Mr. Corkery has been a member for over 40 years, is one of the premier clubs, and its members must have sea time in severe storm conditions to qualify.

"I've belonged to the Larchmont Yacht Club, Stage Harbor Yacht Club, Shelter Island Yacht Club, and the Orient Yacht Club," he continued. "We founded the Midget Ocean Racing Club, I was past commodore of Greenport's Chinese Yacht Club, and I'm a former president of the Eastern Long Island Yachting Association."

Super Twelves

Continuing his teenage association with high- echelon sailors, Mr. Corkery started sailing 12-meter boats in 1959.

"I sailed again with Arthur Knapp on Weatherly for the 1959 season. In '60 I was sailing in Europe, but then in '61 I sailed with Bus Mosbacher on Easterner for a year. I trimmed spinnaker mostly. I sailed on Columbia in 1962. So I sailed on three of the really super 12s, the wooden boats, even though I was not on Weatherly when she won."

Sailing hard and working hard took its toll, though. In 1969 Mr. Corkery and his wife, Maureen, decided to do something else. "You know, work all day and play all night and work all the next day. It was getting crazy," he explained. "It was a wild existence - and I wouldn't have missed an hour of it - but it was going to kill me."

Headed East

They purchased a little Italian-built Laurent Giles boat. "We bought her, moved aboard, and in May left New York. What a hell of a boat! She had everything. Gosh, she even had Waterford crystal. We stopped in Dering Harbor and, well, that was it! Maureen went to work for The Suffolk Times and I went to work for W.J. Mills," the Greenport sailmaker.

Mr. Corkery and his wife have been married 33 years and claim ownership to nearly as many boats.

They eventually settled on Shelter Island and Mr. Corkery went to work at Coecles Harbor Marina and Boatyard as yard manager in 1983. Searching for a way to keep his interests there, he began using the extensive connections from his yachting and ship brokering background to bring high-end yachts, many of them pedigree wooden boats, into the yard.

Prides And Joys

Mr. Corkery has been personally responsible for bringing together some of the finest wooden yachts on the East Coast. There are two yachts (one of them over 70 years old) designed by the 'Wizard of Bristol', Nathanael G. Herreshoff.

There are four impeccably maintained yachts designed by the highly regarded L. Francis Herreshoff, son of N.G. and often called the father of American cruising boats. There are a 1915 William Hand motor launch, the incredible Henry Scheel yacht Patrician, and the 60-foot R.O. Davis motorsailer Burma, among many others.

There are two yachts designed by the famous Danish designer K. Aage Nielsen. In fact, Mr. Corkery has done all the research for an Aage Nielsen book co-authored by Maynard Bray of Wooden Boat Magazine.

Wooden Charges

Quiet Tune is another original museum-quality L. Francis Herreshoff yacht at the yard. When she was donated to Mystic Seaport Museum, spokesmen said they were going to put her in a barn. Because wooden boats need to remain in the water to maintain their integrity, Mr. Corkery was alarmed.

He immediately returned to Shelter Island and immersed himself in networking, ultimately raising enough funds to maintain her in-water. Because of this effort, Mystic assigned Mr. Corkery as her keeper.

Well aware of the relationships among pedigree yachts at the boatyard, Mr. Corkery uses their links as a way to bring other yachts in. For their part, the boats have been instrumental in keeping wooden boat skills alive on the East End: The yard employs 32 craftsmen.

Only One

In Mr. Corkery's view, boats have owners, owners don't have boats. "I do think, and it doesn't embarrass me, that on some occasions I've told the owners that the boat really is more important than the owner."

"The person who owns a boat at the moment has an obligation, because he's just the keeper. And he has to keep that boat for someone else because the boat, more than likely, if it's maintained properly, will be around after the owner's gone."

"If he doesn't want to do that, he ought to do something else or get rid of the boat or pick out another sport or something. I'm very serious about that. There's only one original."