These distinctive all-American sailboats with unstayed masts and shallow beamy, hulls were developed in the Northeast more than a century ago.
For a devout following, no other boat will do.
Chris Coose sat in the cockpit of his 18-foot wooden catboat, Victoria, admiring the Maine sunset, and laughed out loud. It was a good laugh, one that proved a point, and the sound of it echoed in the pine-studded cove.
“I’d taken a month off to cruise with my 7-year-old daughter, Ella, and we’d just come over from Monhegan Island,” recalls Coose, a 53-year-old counselor from Portland, Maine. “We’d already seen eagles, sturgeon jumping around, tidal activity, extraordinary history and landscape, great fishing — all there for me and Ella to explore.”
Now they were snugged down for the night, the catboat sitting calmly at anchor after a day’s sail. That’s when Coose broke the summer silence. He’d found himself thinking about going modern, getting rid of Victoria in exchange for a big, contemporary fiberglass cruiser with all the comforts of home. “I just had to laugh at what a crazy consideration that was,” says Coose. “When I’m at the helm of Victoria I am the luckiest guy, in the most cunning boat, on the prettiest coast in the world.”
It was a catboat moment, the kind shared by devotees of the distinctive all-American sailboats, developed in the Northeast more than a century ago.
John Conway had a catboat moment overnighting with a load of kids hungry for ghost stories aboard his 1908 Crosby 24-footer, the oil lamp glowing eerily over the Westport, Mass., marshes. Because of times like that, his catboat, Buckrammer, has woven itself into the fabric of the family, says Conway, a 54-year-old small-business CEO from Winchester, Mass.
“Our kids spent their summers on the old bucket and fell in love with old boats and the sea in the process,” says Conway. It inspired him to write a book, “Catboat Summers,” about his catboat adventures in hopes that others would follow.
It took just one sail to turn Jeff Megerdichian into a catboat fan. He had no boating background, no special interest in boats until a friend took him sailing on a 25-foot catboat 13 years ago. Now, the 58-year-old warehouse manager from New York can’t get enough of catboats. “It’s such a wonderful design, a combination of the practical and the spiritual,” he says. “It’s a boat that can have as much effect on you as you have on it.”
While Megerdichian got into catboats in his 40s, Ed Bolton, who is 77, looks back on a lifetime of catboat moments, ever since he was set in a boat as a 4-year-
old, pushed out onto Pleasant Bay at the elbow of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod, and told “learn to sail.” He and his wife, Mary, recall family outings on Meetinghouse Pond and Pleasant Bay, when their 20-footer would be full of grandchildren and picnic gear. The forgiving catboat was the perfect vessel for the youngsters, who would take turns at the wheel sitting on Granddad’s lap.
“I have a spot in my heart for catboats,” Bolton says.
Chester Arthur was president when Herbert Crosby and a few others started building catboats back in the 1880s. And while its contemporaries — the cow horn, the Quoddy boat, the Noank sloop — have disappeared, the catboat lives on.
In fact, the catboat is going stronger than ever. The Catboat Association (www.catboats.org) boasts more than 1,500 members, with branches in Europe and South America, according to president and catboat owner Bob Luckraft. Catboat builders report an increasing interest in small cats, less than 20 feet, as well as larger cruising cats up to 28 feet. Using both wood and fiberglass, these builders are scattered about New England and its environs in small shops, much as they always have been.
What is it about the catboat that draws this devoted following? The answer may lie in its working-class beginnings, which go back some 150 years, possibly as far back as the Colonial era, says author John M. Leavens in “The Catboat Book.” Its distinctive features were and still are a single, stubby, unstayed mast — stepped well forward — a long boom, and a shallow, beamy hull (2-to-1 length to beam ratio) that invariably carried a centerboard and a seemingly oversized “barn door” rudder.
Twentieth-century designer Fenwick Williams summed up the original concept: “The ample beam made the use of stone ballast feasible … the high bow provided good support for the unstayed mast … the barn door rudder provided adequate strength … high coamings served to keep water out of the large open cockpit … side decks provided a handy ledge on which to set a lobster trap.” Even the catboat’s signature oval ports were purely practical. Less wood was cut across the grain for a given amount of light, according to Williams.
In each region where they were built, the boats were slightly different, suited to the local waters they worked. As ubiquitous as they were in the early days, the catboat largely was ignored by serious yachtsmen. Then, as commercial fishing fleets moved to power after World War II, the design seemed ready to fade from the scene.
In a way, however, the catboat saved itself from extinction. In the 1950s and
’60s a small, tradition-minded segment of the boating community discovered
that the very qualities that had made the catboat a successful working vessel — simplicity, capacity, shallow draft, stability — made it a versatile recreational boat, too. In the late ’50s, the Essex (Conn.) YachtClub organized an annual catboat race on Long Island Sound, which in turn spawned the Catboat Association in 1961. A decade later, there were catboat races in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York, too, as other groups devoted to the catboat sprang up. When fiberglass came around, the catboat’s simple lines made
it easy to convert to the new technology.
Today, past and present meet in the small shops that build catboats. Jeff Marshall builds the line of fiberglass Marshall catboats in South Dartmouth, Mass., that his grandfather Breck pioneered in the 1960s. William Womack builds the Beetle Cat, perhaps the oldest unchanged one-design in the country, in Wareham, Mass., using the same patterns his predecessors did 80 years ago. And Bill Menger has been building high-end custom catboats in Amityville on New York’s Long Island for a quarter-century.
Catboats aren’t about to take over recreational boating. As one builder put it: “I know I’m not going to get rich building a dozen boats a year, but I love building catboats.”
Still, for those interested in new catboats there’s nothing to beat today’s offerings and the small-shop atmosphere they come from, says Tony Davis of Arey’s Pond Boat Works in South Orleans, Mass. “It makes for a far more intimate experience than you’d get in a showroom,” says Davis, who is 46. “Each boat is a little different, and here you all get to sit down and talk as the boat takes shape.”
Davis has been building catboats at Arey’s Pond on Cape Cod, the heart of “catboat country,” for 15 years, in both wood and fiberglass. He builds 10 to 12 boats a year, a 14-foot open version and a 16-footer with a small cuddy cabin. His customers span the Eastern Seaboard.
“They’re a mix of people,” he says. “Some are new to sailing, and the catboat is a good, safe boat in which to introduce people to [the sport]. The 14-footer is especially popular for that. Others are very experienced, some of whom have owned big boats and are now downsizing. But they want something of quality and comfort that still looks good to them.”
For those who like a classic look, the catboat is hard to beat — the gaff rig, oval ports, bronze fittings, mast hoops. “With their lines, the placement of the mast, the long boom, they don’t look like a modern boat,” Davis says. “People like the traditional.”
And tradition counts for Marshall, too. His fiberglass catboats retain the lines of Breck Marshall’s boats, and he uses the same basic reinforced foam core and fiberglass construction method his grandfather pioneered in 1962. “A lot of people were put off by the fiberglass catboat back then,” Marshall says. “But in order to survive, the design had to evolve.”
Marshall’s 22-foot Sanderling is popular as a daysailer and weekender, and the 18-foot Sandpiper is a favorite among catboat racers. Customers vary, from people who like the catboat look and character, to families with young kids looking for a roomy, stable boat. “People do all kinds of things with our boats,” says Marshall. “They race, they harbor-hop, they go out for day sails, and even cruise on them.”
He says one 70-year-old Sanderling owner makes an annual six-week voyage from southern New England to Florida. “I think catboat owners are a little different,” says Marshall, who is 41. “A guy like that is content to go slower and enjoy the ride at any easy pace.”
Jerry Thompson, general manager of Menger Boat Works, sees a developing interest in the bigger catboats capable of extended cruising. In fact, the builder currently has three 23-foot cruising cats under construction in Amityville. They’re designed with a couple in mind, with V-berth, galley and standup enclosed head. Cruising comforts include hot pressurized water, a shower and a 21-hp diesel inboard for auxiliary propulsion.
“We’ve built five 23-footers in just the last year, when one a year had been the norm,” says Thompson. “For us, anyway, the bigger boats are in.”
Menger, who builds about a dozen boats a year, started with a 17-footer
in the mid-1980s and added a 15- and a 19-footer. The boats are custom,
and there’s plenty of teak … and tradition, says Thompson.
Based on the catboats used for clamming and oystering in Long Island’s shallow bays, Menger catboats have a narrower shape than the Cape Cod boats, which stick more stringently to the 2-to-1 length-to-beam ratio. “We have a somewhat more slender hull, but we still have that wide catboat beam and big cockpit,” says Thompson. “You can have six people on board the 19 for cocktails, and the 23 makes a roomy, comfortable boat for two people to cruise on.”
The 28-footer Womack is building in his Massachusetts shop is perhaps the ultimate expression of the big catboat. The designer, C.C. Hanley, was known for his racing catboats, and the owner plans to actively campaign this one. The interior will have a V-berth, galley, enclosed head, and a host of cruising and liveaboard amenities. “It’s a one-of-a-kind,” says Womack. “In fact, as far as we know, this particular design has never been built before.”
Still, Womack’s primary mission is to carry forth the banner of the legendary Beetle Cat, a catboat icon that’s been in wood-only production for three generations. Cape Cod builder John Beetle designed and built the first of the
12-foot gaff-riggers for his children in 1921. Over the years, its reputation as a junior sailing boat and family daysailer has spread beyond its home waters. “It became a boat for all ages,” says Womack. “The kids could learn in it, Grandpa and Grandma could go sailing, anybody could have fun in a Beetle Cat.”
The boat is built the same way it always has been, and Womack’s three-person shop has six going at once. Is he surprised at the Beetle Cat’s continued popularity? Not at all. “It’s just a successful design,” he says. “It’s fun to sail, and there’s a pleasing line to it, with the character of a traditional sailboat in the brightwork, the mast hoops, the cockpit coaming. The warmth of this boat surrounds you when you’re in it.”
Catboat owners know the feeling.
“Victoria seems to strike people’s affection like a box of kittens,” says Coose of his Hong Kong-built Cheoy Lee catboat. “Mine, too.”
For Coose, it’s going to be a lifelong relationship. He’ll keep right on cruising, hauling his lobster traps and fly-fishing, and passing along to his children what he calls the rewards found afloat in New England waters.
“It’s going to be me and Victoria until I take the dirt nap,” he says.
Conway is holding on to his catboat, too. “We thought of selling her during a dark time but could not bring ourselves to do it,” he says.
So why do people talk about catboats as if they were family pets? Why do some write books about them? Why has the catboat survived from the days of the whale oil lamp, the naphtha engine, the horse-and-buggy?
“Catboats are unpretentious boats that transport people from the world of Internets to the land of pine-tarred fish nets,” says Conway. “Catboats force you to slow down and smell the dunes roses. And their distinctive look has a huggable quality akin to that of puppies and children. It would be a more boring planet without them.”
Other stories in this package:
Part II: The men who made the catboat
Part III: Catboats captured in words
Part IV: Catboat builders