Sunday 12 July 2009

More on Cat Boats

I mentioned Tom Armstrong’s post about cat boats a couple of weeks ago, and than as if by coincidence Wooden Boat Magazine dropped through the door with a fantastic picture of a Gil Smith designed catboat - Madigan on the cover, so here goes more on cat boats.

What I like about Catboats, apart from their distinctive looks, is the variety in the type, which all stem from the same basic parameters of a single sail, shallow draft and wide beam. I guess the most famous cat boat type is the American Beetle Cat, (and there are other similar, small cat boats around 12 feet in length), which to my mind make a perfect type of dinghy for pottering around coastal rivers and sheltered coves. On a practical level there’s one sail, no rigging, simply drop the mast in, hoist the sail and go.

Beyond this practicality, on the aesthetic level they just look so nice, especially with the New England tradition of having multi coloured sails.

In the US, there is still a strong following of these boats through the Catboat Association. I’m not sure how well one of these broad beamed cats would cope with the steep Solent wind-over-tide chop that we experience locally and sadly all too often. The other criticism is that some smaller catboats are sailed sitting on the bottom boards, great for keeping the weight low, but very uncomfortable after a while.

The American east coast is also home to cruising cat boats, complete with cosy cabin accommodation. These range in size typically from 16 to 20 feet going as large as 33 feet see Silent Maid.

Although cabin boats they retain the single large gaff sail, set well forward in the bows, wide beam (getting on for half the length), centreboard and the characteristic “barn door” rudder and are well suited for the sheltered and shallow waters of the American east coat.

Howard Chappell the naval architect and historian records details of a sandbagger Catboat in his book “Small Sailing Craft”. The Sandbagger was a racing derivative cat boat, evolved from the fishing boats. As summer racing grew in popularity, faster and more extreme versions were developed in the search for speed. Actually sloop rigged, these boats had the mast stepped further back than on the cat rig with a jib set on a bowsprit and very often a jib boom.

A few years ago Ipswich based Spirit Yachts, built a modern interpretation of a sandbagger – “Fatso the Blagger” using modern construction techniques including strip planking and carbon fibre.

These distinctive craft seem to me to be quintessential American classics.. I think a 22’ cabin boat would make a great weekend cruiser, but I would love to tear around the course racing with the Old Gaffers in a sandbagger!!


  1. does anyone have some dimensions or plans for the sandbaggers rig, sails. attempt to research correct rig for a 23' sandbagger hull , without spars, or any photos of it in hayday. maybe with some of 19-25' the plans may scale up pro-rata, but so far been without joy locating actual plans. reach me at despatches 'at' gmail 'dot' com. thanks

  2. The first Sandbaggers were in and around NYC. They were used for Oysterfishing and the faster the oysters could be brought to the dock the better the payoff. NYC was the Oyster Capital of the world before the days of industrialization. They made the rigs so big, and so fast, that they had to lay bags of sand for ballast - the sandbags had to be moved depending on the tack. After a short while they (both businessmen on land, and the fishermen themselves) started betting on the 'races' to dock. Then it was only a matter of time until yacht racing took off in earnest on Long Island Sound.

    The Cat boats in the photo called "rainbow fleet' were actually tied together. Milli Gardener Smith was the daughter of the photographer of that famous shot. She was a little girl when he took that picture at Brant Point lighthouse on Nantucket Island. The kids they got to go out and sail that day were all miserable. It was hot, and there was barely a breath of wind. So Milli's dad had the great idea to tie all the boats together and pull them behind one of the fishing boats. They went round a few times and he took many shots to get just the right one. But if you look closely you can see both the lines hooking the boats together and the wake of the motor boat pulling them.

    - so there's my helpful bit for today.


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