100-year-old design still a winner

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A Cape Cod boater launches a catboat built and sailed the old-fashioned way

A Cape Cod boater launches a catboat built and sailed the old-fashioned way

Skeptics gathered around the big catboat as it took shape in the shop at Beetle Inc. in Wareham, Mass. A boat like this hasn’t been built in 80 years: a 28-foot catboat — with a tiller? Hadn’t the designer heard about weather helm? How is one person going to handle that 900-square-foot mainsail? Oh, and have fun reefing. No engine? Plum crazy.

Tim Fallon, an acknowledged “catboat guy” with Cape Cod roots, listened. And he hoped the boat he was having built to the design of C.C. Hanley, famous a century ago, would answer the critics. “It was all a big experiment since there was no boat like it to go by,” says the 31-year-old from Newtown, Mass. “I knew what it would look like, but I had no idea how it would sail, no idea what it would really be like below. I was a little worried.”

He needn’t have been. The first time he sheeted home that big sail on the newly launched boat this summer, Fallon understood why Hanley is an icon among catboat designers. His late 19th- and early 20th-century career coincided with the catboat’s Golden Age, and Hanley’s were the biggest, fastest of them all. Now, in 2006, they still impressed.

Fallon’s Kathleen sailed easy and sailed fast on her Buzzards Bay home waters. “She pointed right up to windward, and I said ‘Wow.’ I couldn’t believe how fast we were going,” says Fallon. “We had a 10-knot breeze, and with all that canvas she was screaming right along.”

Shop owner Bill Womack was aboard. He confesses now that he was among those doubters, but no more. “We should have known better,” the 62-year-old says. “She goes like a racehorse at the Kentucky Derby. She’s so powerful and well-balanced that you have to sail on her to understand. The skepticism has turned into appreciation. Hanley is one of the best who ever lived.”

Fallon’s catboat is in the water because he’s got them in his blood. He grew up spending summers in “catboat country,” Cape Cod, sailing Beetle Cats and a Marshall 18, among other local boats. So when he started to think about a liveaboard boat of his own a few years ago, he found himself researching catboats.

“I started reading, and I realized how much the catboat was a part of the Cape,” says Fallon. “I loved the look of all the Hanley boats, and I read everything about how they were well-balanced and fast. I found myself looking for a Hanley boat.”

He came across one in the library. “I’d heard about a 28-foot Hanley design drawn with a tiller, and the size seemed to fit my plan,” Fallon says. “I went to the Peabody Essex [Museum] library in Salem [Mass.] and dug through its collection of old Rudder magazines. There she was, in a 1917 edition.”

Hanley’s lines are catboat simple; a sharp, plumb bow and an easy, almost languishing sheer that lays down over a pleasingly rounded, low profile hull. The massive hourglass stern with its barn door rudder accents the 28-footer’s 12-foot, 4-inch beam. The 40-foot mast is topped by the peak of the gaff rig, and that is surmounted only by his ensign. The 910-square-foot sail (with four sets of reef points) is raised and lowered on hoops.

A wide, cambered, curving cabin top encloses the cruising interior. With the centerboard trunk in the middle of the saloon, all of the port side is devoted to a large bunk, incorporating the trunk. The companionway, offset to starboard, leads directly to a passageway past the bunk/trunk to the forepeak. The small galley includes a stove and refrigerator, and there’s a portable head beneath the companionway steps. “Headroom is 5 feet, and that’s something you have to accept,” says Fallon. “But it’s really not cramped when you’re seated.”

The deck layout consists of cockpit cleats for the main sheet and the throat and peak halyards. The lines are led to the cockpit, which is ringed by the traditional high coaming extending from the cabin sides.

The work started in spring 2004. Bill Sauerbrey, who headed the building project, used traditional wood construction methods, aided by a few modern glues and adhesives. “A big theme was to honor history,” says Fallon. “Instead of trying to make up new ways to do this wooden stuff, we wanted to go back and understand how it was done back then. By following the old methods, I truly believe the boat will last longer.”

Womack calls it a “hundred-year” boat. “It’s built like a piece of fine furniture,” he says. For example, each rib is steam-bent, then mortised into the keel. The transom is put together in a similar way. “Back then, they built working boats that had to last for years and years, and this boat will, too,” says Womack. “We are all thrilled to death that we had the opportunity to build it.”

Fallon says the cost — around “five figures, a lot less than a waterfront house” — was well worth it for several reasons. The big catboats are becoming an endangered species around Cape Cod waters, and Kathleen definitely keeps the flame alive. But she’s also proved to be a handsome and wholesome boat.

“It’s practically a 100-year-old design, and it works so well,” he says. “I look forward to my kids, my grandkids and their kids sailing this boat.”

Visit www.beetlecat.com or call (508) 295-8585 for more on Womack’s shop and Beetle Inc.