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New owner continues Beetle Cat tradition

In this age of fiberglass, composites and epoxy resin, the venerable Beetle Cat continues to be built just as it was when first introduced in 1921 — plank on frame with a combination of white oak, cedar and pine, with spars made of Douglas fir.

While the small sailboat is still made with the same care and craftsmanship, the company has undergone change recently. Bill Womack, a heavy civil construction consultant, became the owner of Beetle Inc. in October 2003. He wants to reintroduce the Beetle Cat to new generations while continuing the quality boatbuilding the 12-foot gaff-rigged wooden sailboat is known for.

One of Womack’s first tasks was to relocate the company from its shed in South Dartmouth, Mass., where Beetle Cats had been built since 1960, to a larger renovated facility in nearby Wareham, Mass. Customer service and increased production are priorities, he says. In that vein, this past summer Womack began to rent Beetle Cat boats for the first time, giving potential customers a chance to test-drive the boats, which sell for $18,500 fully equipped.

The company will also expand its variety of renovation and restoration projects, including — for the first time — wooden boats that are not Beetle Cats.

While changes are under way, former owner Charlie York remains onboard as the master builder. Womack says the deal was a win-win for both men. York enjoyed building but, with his small staff, wasn’t able to effectively manage and expand the company. Womack, a Beetle Cat lover and owner, was seeking an investment and a retirement project.

“I always said I’d buy the business if Charlie were willing,” says Womack. One day, York agreed.

“I’m a boatbuilder, not a businessman,” says York.

They struck a deal within a few minutes, Womack says, but it took months for the attorneys to finalize the deal on paper. Womack says keeping York on staff is key to the company’s continued success.

“Without York, there would be no Beetle Cats,” says Womack.

York studied under Leo J. Telesmanick, the master builder of Beetle Cats for more than 50 years. Telesmanick, who died in 2001 at the age of 85, is credited with developing techniques to help build the same quality boats more efficiently. York worked with Telesmanick for five years, taking over as master builder when Telesmanick retired in 1983.

“He is Mr. Beetle Cat,” says York, who bought the business in 1993. “Leo taught me everything I know.”

John Beetle built the first Beetle Cat in 1921 for his children, designing a smaller version of the 20- to 30-foot shallow-draft catboats used to fish along Cape Cod. The New Bedford-based Beetle family business had made a name building whaleboats. With its wide beam (6 feet) and shallow draft (2 feet with centerboard down; 8 inches with the board up), the small boat proved to be stable and ideal for New England’s coastal waters and rivers. The company remained in the Beetle family until after World War II, when Concordia Yachts in South Dartmouth bought it and new owner Waldo Howland carried on the traditional building method. Production boomed in the 1950s.

“Beetle Cat was probably the only ‘production’ boat available,” says Womack. “In the ’50s these boats were all over the place. They were available and cheap.”

The Beetle Cat is relatively easy to build and the company was able to produce 30 to 40 a year. The one-design also proved to be popular with yacht clubs and youth organizations.

Sales began to slide as other small-boat options emerged, spurred by the emergence of fiberglass construction, according to Womack. Production dropped off to 20 boats a year, and then to 15.

Yet, while demand declined, Womack says the public never lost its fascination with the wooden boat, which is the oldest one-design built in the country.

“Years later guys my age are putting their grandchildren in these boats,” says Womack, who specialized in heavy civil construction at Georgia Tech and is vice president of operations for a large construction company. He is accustomed to $150 million projects, such as Boston’s infamous Big Dig. He continues to run the consulting firm specializing in heavy construction he started in 1998 out of the new Beetle Cat building. Womack says his experience in management and “making things happen,” will help the company grow.

“I know a little bit about boatbuilding. It’s been my passion,” says Womack. “But my talent is to manage, motivate and lead people.”

One thing that Womack insists will never change is that Beetle Cats will always be handcrafted from wood.

“If it’s a fiberglass catboat it’s not a Beetle Cat,” says Womack, who says he plans to aggressively protect Beetle Cat’s licensed trademark name.

The boats are still being made using the molds Telesmanick and his crew used 40 years ago.

On a recent visit to the new building, workers were putting the final touches on the renovated metal fabricating plant. While the new shed is more spacious, Womack insists on maintaining a historic look with wood floors, doors and windows. He found some items in a salvage yard and brought some of the old wooden counters from the old shed to the new building to help maintain the look and feel of a traditional woodworking shop.

Womack also hopes the new building will become somewhat of a destination for Beetle Cat lovers. Telesmanick’s boat and other memorabilia sit in a corner of the main display room. There also is a retail area for Beetle Cat memorabilia such as hats and burgees.