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Destination – Nantucket Rainbow Fleet

The story of the Rainbow

The story of the Rainbow

The Rainbow, known everywhere but on Nantucket as a Beetle Cat, has become a well-loved island icon.

The Rainbows first were immortalized rounding Brant Point on a 1930 postcard by H. Marshall Gardiner, but now they are portrayed on all manner of commercial goods representing Nantucket: candy tins, embroidered pillows, plates, jewelry and

all types of art. The Rainbow Fleet remains active and races in the harbor every Saturday through the summer, and parades around Brant Point every year prior to the start of the Opera House Cup Regatta.

This pretty little boat with the colorful nickname has an interesting history. The Rainbow is one of a series of catboats that have been active on Nantucket since the 19th century. John Beetle of New Bedford, Mass., designed the 12-foot gaff-rigged, shallow-draft wooden Beetle Cat in 1920 as a safe, fun boat for children to sail. The Nantucket Yacht Club brought it to the island in 1926 to start a racing fleet for young children, and each boat was given a different colored sail so parents could identify where their child was. Hence, the Rainbow Fleet.

Austin Strong, commodore of the Nantucket Yacht Club in 1930, was a great promoter, and he staged the famous photograph of the Rainbow Fleet with Gardiner to promote both the club and Nantucket as a summer resort, according to a 1991 article in the Nantucket Journal by C.S. “Butsy” Lovelace. Writes Lovelace: “If you look closely, the little boats are all tied together. This is not a lucky shot. It was staged for the big reflex camera on its tripod. … I was 9 years old. You can see my little head just above the coaming of the sixth boat. That’s my brother Dick’s boat, North Star [No. 21].”

The Rainbow tradition has continued through generations. “My mother started sailing when she was about 12. I spent my whole life hearing her talk about sailing in the Rainbow, and I’ve always wanted one,” says Mijke Roggeveen, a sailor and the granddaughter of Marshall Gardiner. “Last summer I finally went and bought one with a blue sail — No. 6, just like my mother’s original boat — and surprised her with it. My 80-year-old mother said, ‘It’s a beautiful boat,’ then climbed in, grabbed the tiller and sailed away.”

The Rainbows are loved for their solidness and ease of handling. They can be taken onto the beach for a picnic or sailed around the harbor in a good breeze. “It’s a comfortable, safe boat,” says Roggeveen. “Kids need to be able to mess about in boats and learn, and now my two sons are sailing in the blue Rainbow just like their grandmother used to do.”

The Nantucket Rainbow Fleet almost died in the 1970s, when many of the boats were disintegrating in people’s garages or back yards, and children were racing faster, more exciting fiberglass boats. Local sailor Alan Newhouse, who had started sailing in a Rainbow in 1927, decided to get the fleet going again.

“I went around and found several boats in back yards, put them back together and fiberglassed the hulls to hold them together and keep afloat,” says Newhouse. “I got 12 or 15 Rainbows sailing again and sold or gave them to people if they promised to race.” Newhouse’s efforts got the Rainbow Fleet going again, and this time it was the adults instead of the children who were racing them.

There are now around 70 Rainbows on Nantucket, although not all of them are in the water. Anne and Dennis Cross were fleet captains for the Rainbow Class for several years and did much to get the sailboats out of back yards and into the water. This summer marks the 11th Annual Rainbow Parade around Brant Point on the morning of the Opera House Cup Regatta, and there likely will be hundreds of spectators cheering from the beach. Anne Cross initiated the event to get the Rainbows out on the water, distributing flyers weighted down with pebbles to all the Rainbows in the harbor and ensuring that there were plenty of sails of different colors.

Today, every Rainbow has a colored sail, but not all are solid colors. There are sails with stripes, stars, a cloud, even an American flag. While there are other Beetle Cat fleets, the Nantucket fleet is unique in that it’s the only fleet with rainbow-hue sails.

The Rainbow is still being built today to the same specs as the original — framed in oak, with cedar planking and Douglas fir spars — and can be ordered from Beetle Inc. in Wareham, Mass. Call (508) 295-8585 or visit for more information.