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Jul 24, 2019 10:51 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

SS 96 Fiji: A Historic Boat With A Storied Past

Harold “Ace” Connett rigging a brand new SS 96 Fiji at what appears to be Westhampton Yacht Squadron circa 1934. He was killed in action during the Battle of the Philippine Sea on June 20, 1944, just four days before his 23rd birthday.
Jul 24, 2019 1:51 PM

If there’s one thing that stands out the most about the antique, wooden, gaff rigged SS sailboats, it’s the history behind each and every one of them.Of the 150 or so SS boats ever built, 82 of them were made by Benjamin Hallock in Nickerson’s Boat Yard in Center Moriches, from 1908 until he died in 1932, according to local SS sailor Robert Dudley. Hallock’s assistant, Oliver W. Howell, continued building them—32 of them to be exact—up until 1941. The small, one-design vessels were originally crafted to teach children how to sail. Measuring 16 feet long and having the rare ability to sail in only 12 inches of water, the SS was tailor-made for South Shore sailing.

Early in the 20th century, many yacht clubs along the South Shore—including, but not limited to, Shinnecock Yacht Club in Quogue, Westhampton Yacht Squadron in Remsenburg and Quantuck Yacht Club on Quiogue, the latter of which is no longer in existence—had their own fleets of SS boats, which would compete against each other in various races.

One of those boats, SS 96, also known as “Fiji,” has a long, unique and storied history of its own.

First 20 Years

Purchased in 1934 by Harold Connett Sr. for his son Harold Jr., Fiji was thought to have been built five to 10 years prior. Harold Jr. was the first of the Connett children to learn how to sail in the boat at Shinnecock Yacht Club, and it was passed down to each child in the family. In 1946, after Harold Jr. was killed in action in World War II during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, just three days prior to his 23rd birthday, Louise and Harold Connett commissioned the Connett Bowl in memory of Harold Jr. The race is still actively sailed to this day.

Hartley Connett Sr., who was the youngest of the Connett brothers and is now 85, fondly remembers the boat.

“[Harold] was the first brother. He got his use of it before he was called into the war [in] 1942,” he explained. “Then it was passed to my next brother Hugh. He took the boat until he was called into the Navy in 1944. My brother Abby had it from 1944 to 1949. I took it over and sailed it until 1955.

“It was a life for us,” Mr. Connett continued. “I had a sister [Theo] who didn’t have much use for the boat, but for the rest of us, it all became our one thing to do. It was the topic of discussion at the table, even for my mother and father. Who was going to win the race?”

But in the mid 1950s, after all the Connett boys had their run with 96 and started to grow up, marry and have children of their own, Harold Connett Sr. decided to sell the boat, and for the next 60-plus years, Fiji spent its time outside of the Connett family.

The Lost Years

For a good portion of the 63 years that the Connetts were without the boat, family members knew it still existed, having known some of the local families who had it in their possession. At one point though, SS boats were slowly becoming much rarer. Many had been around for half a century, and without regular maintenance many of them fell to disrepair.

At some point in its history, one of the unknown owners of the boat had the sense to fiberglass the hull, something not every owner did. Doing that kept many of the boats from sinking and elongated their years on the water, including Fiji.

“That was a huge decision that somebody made, and they did a good job of it,” Albert “Abby” Connett, a past commodore of Shinnecock Yacht Club, said. “If they don’t do that—and we don’t know who it is, we haven’t figured it out yet—if that doesn’t get done we’re not here because that boat just wouldn’t have lasted. That’s an important milestone in the boat’s history.”

At the turn of the millennium, the SS had a bit of a resurrection, and at the 100th anniversary of the class, celebrated at Westhampton Yacht Squadron in July 2008, Abby Connett found Fiji, which was owned at the time by Roger Holzmacher of Babylon.

“I introduced myself, told him who I was, told him the story of the boat, that it was our family boat and I was glad to see it,” Abby said. “I told him if you’re ever interested in passing the boat on, let me know because we would have some interest. He said he would, and I maintained a relationship with him.”

In 2016, Ian Connett, 31 at the time and Abby’s young cousin, was finding interest in the SS Class, lured in by its storied history. Thanks to the SS Class Association, the Connetts were able to contact Mr. Holzmacher and asked him if he’d be willing to part with SS 96. Mr. Holzmacher told the Connetts that he had sailed the boat right up until 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit. The boat suffered some damage in the storm and had been sitting dormant since that time.

Mr. Holzmacher told the Connetts they could come and get their boat.

A Job Fit For One Family

Due to the combination of going through a superstorm and then lying unused for the next couple of years, Fiji, needless to say, was in desperate need of some work.

Abby and Ian spoke to local boat restorers, such as Jim Sanders and Bob Hadden.

“They took a look at it and were kind to say we’ll give you some advice, but in the back of their mind they had to be thinking, no way are these guys going to be able to do this,” Abby said.

Ian figured he would take a shot with Beecher Halsey III of Westhampton, who was one of the last people to build an original SS boat.

“I went to his shop, told him what our project was, showed him some pictures and he was nice enough to provide us with the original SS design plans and wished us good luck,” Ian recalled.

So, the Connetts got back their dear old family boat but were left with a conundrum: Do they attempt to do the work themselves? Continue to find someone willing to take the job? Or just pass on the entire project?

After all the work to find the boat and bring it back home, they weren’t going to pass up the chance of restoring it, so they opted to see if they could repair the boat themselves. After pulling the deck off and a few of the ribs, which took a good amount of time for them to do already, Hartley, Abby’s uncle, Ian’s grandfather, now in his 80s, said, “Boys, I love your enthusiasm, but I’d like to see this thing restored in my lifetime.”

After some additional careful thought, the Connetts figured they would go down to Hampton Shipyards in East Quogue and ask one of the oldest shipbuilding families in the area, the Scopinichs, for their help. Fred Scopinich Jr. and his son, also known as Fred, are second and third generation boat builders. Fred Scopinich Sr. retired from shipbuilding in Freeport and moved his family to East Quogue in 1956, where they’ve owned and operated Hampton Shipyards since.

The Scopinichs are more known for their work with fiberglass boats, but Fred Scopinich Jr., 92, is no stranger to the all-wood SS boats. He, along with his son, have restored more than 30 SS boats, and while they could tell from the look of things that it was going to be a big job, they were happy to take the Connetts’ task on.

“We looked at it and laughed and said, it’s a good one,” the younger Fred Scopinich said.

“I grew up in wood boats. I’m 92 years old. My first 30 years in the business were on wood boats, so I enjoy it,” the elder Fred Scopinich added.

The job took about four months, from this past winter to the spring, with most of the boat being replaced. Only few pieces of the original boat remain, including its hull, thanks again to the fiberglass that was put in, the tiller, which is thought to be original, and the lettering, which was taken and saved by Harold Connett Sr. before he sold the boat. Everything else was rebuilt by the Scopinichs, who followed the original schematics of Benjamin Hallock to a T—since the boat is one design, the original plans from 1908, which are still around, have to be followed, as to not give one sailor an edge over the others.

“The fiberglass hull, it kept things together. Otherwise it would have flattened out,” the younger Fred Scopinich explained. “All the ribs and frames, every one of them is brand new. All the deck frames are brand new. Everything was traced from original patterns because those boats are one-design boats and they all have to be exactly the same, and that’s important.

“It’s restored to better than brand new with modern materials, glues, fasteners,” he added. “Back then they banged them together with iron nails, and iron and saltwater doesn’t work too good.”

The Connetts, needless to say, were ecstatic with the job. Abby and Ian returned Fiji to the waters this summer and compete in local SS Class races together.

“He did a perfectly beautiful job,” Hartley Sr. said of the elder Fred Scopinich.

“He’s an incredible figure,” Ian said. “He’s in his 90s, still goes to his shop every day, so for me, a lot of the joy was just coming to the shop in the middle of the winter, chit-chatting with him and his son, learning about this lost art of, not just sailing, but boat building, the craftsmanship and the work ethic that goes into building this wooden sailboat.”

“Probably the best thing that ever happened to us was knowing Fred Scopinich and his son Freddy,” Abby said. “They took the project on and did their typical really great job.”

The Connetts’ Message

While the Connetts certainly enjoyed sharing their family’s history and story, their main mission was to celebrate the SS Class, something that has been dear to their family now for generations, to laud what has seemingly become a lost art of boat building, inspire the next generation to continue the tradition and to share the history of one of the oldest boats known in the region.

“The class has made a comeback. Suddenly, what’s old is new again,” Ian said. “There is a renewed interest in the SS Class. I think it may have something to do with the history of it, but there’s something about this boat. A small group of people kept these boats intact, painted them when they needed to be painted, put fiberglass in the hull when they needed to be fiberglassed. There are other Fijis out there in backyards, boatyards, collecting rainwater. If anyone is interested in sailing with us, or any of these clubs, contact the SS Class Association, reach out to us. We’d love to direct people in the right direction so others can partake in the wonderful restoration of these boats, and ultimately the enjoyment of actually sailing them.”

For those interested in the SS Class, go to ssclassassociation.org for more information.

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