history of the american catboat


The great era of american catboats

From the middle of the 19th century until the beginning of the 20th century catboats were among the most important vessels used for transportation along the New England coast. The typical areas to find catboats at the time were the Narraganset Bay at Rhode Island, the Cape Cod area with the islands Marthas vineyard and Nantucket, Barnegat Bay and Chesapeake Bay. The boats had been used by fishermen to fish on cod, swordfish, lobster or clam. And in this pre-automotive era these boats had also been used for all kind of transportation of goods of any kind, when there were no roads and the few ones existing were in very poor condition. Occasionally they had also been used as pleasure boats and for racing purposes. This was a quite similar situation at the same time in the european Netherlands with its numerous inshore waterways and bays but it were the flat bottom boats namely the tjotters, boeiers, grundels and the like which ensured the supply of all kind of goods to the people living in the countryside.

The catboats had been built over several decades at small workshops from skilled boat builders, which often didn´t have a drawing but only a small wodden half model. 

The decline
With the upcoming of engine drives for boats and vessels the need of sailboats steadily began to decline. And in the racing scene went the development further towards larger sail areas. These boats with large sail areas were increasingly difficult to handle. Finally more and more accidents and capsizes occured. During this period of time the reputation of the seaworthiness of catboats had suffered a lot and the number of catboats went further down. With the beginning of world war 1 and not long after that the great depression began, the use of catboats went almost down to zero.

The second catboat era
It was only long after world war 2, after the economical recovery when society once again began to rediscover leisure activities. At the same time when the development of fiber reinforced plastics made good progress, it was Breck Marshall who built in 1962 the first catboat out of glass fibre reinforced polyester. The successful finishing of the boat with this new material was the beginning of a development towards a real boom in catboats. From 1962 until the 1980s more catboats had been built than ever before. Further manufacturers were following, these types became well known:

Sanderling designed and built by Breck Marshall

Mystic 20
designed and built by Peter Legnos,

Herreshoff America, designed and built by Halsey Herreshoff, of which at least 150 had been built, 

Atlantic City Cat 21´and 24´
by Marc-O Custom Boats, New Jersey,

Hermann Cat 17´, a Charles Wittholz design built by Ted Hermann , New York

Menger Cat 17´and 19´
designed and built by Bill Menger ,

Molly Cat, built by Fernandes Boatworks, California and suited to the deep water region of San Francisco Bay.  


And with the success of the GRP boats also the enthusiasm for well built wooden versions started to rise resulting in increasing demands also for wooden boats.

Catboats and Cat-rigged yachts today


The catboat scene in north America is still alive today, boat races and meetings are being organized through the various catboat associations. And the long life span of GRP built boats results in frequent changes of the structure of builders and designers. Boats are still being built to old plans as well from professional boat builders as from do-it-yourself builders. 


From professional boatbuilders catboats and cat-rigged yachts are being offered by the following companies from USA and Canada:


  • Alerion Yachts built from 1998- 2010 the
    Alerion Express Cat 19´ designed by Gary Hoyt. This unusual rig shows a deck mounted boom and a mast made from carbon fibre.

  • Beetle, Inc. , named by the designer John Beetle, offers since 1921 the year of its origin the popular
    Beetle Cat* in wood. Since 1921 about 4000 of this type had been and a somewhat larger version with a length of 14´named "Beetle 14".

    * Beetle Cat is registered trade mark of Fa. Beetle, Inc., USA

  • Cape Cod Shipbuilding Co. Wareham, Massachussetts, USA; had been building the
    Charles Wittholz designed  17´Cape Cod Cat . On the website of Cape Cod Shipbuilders it is being listed under "retired designs".

  • Com-Pac Yachts / Hutchins Co. Inc, Clearwater, Florida, USA  produces a series of trailerable catboats from  14´, 17´ and  20´named Picnic Cat, Sun-Cat and Horizon-Cat. The design of the Horizon Cat is a further development of a Herreshoff design and offers a foldable rudder a slight keel. Of the Sun-Cat some can be found in Europe.

  • Howard Boats, Barnstable, Massachusetts,USA; manufactures a replique of the original Beetle Cat in GRP and is named as Barnstable Cat 12´4  and also the somewhat bigger Fisher Cat with a length of 14´.

  • Mahone Bay Boatworks; Canada; manufactures the Redden 14´catboat in wood.

  • Marshall Marine is building since 1962 the Breck Marshall designed catboats. Unchanged remains the Sanderling 18´, this famous first ever built GRP catboat had caused the beginning of the new catboat era. In the meantime it became a classic type by its own. Besides the Sanderling a smaller type the 15´Sandpiper and a bigger type, the Marshall 22´ are being manufactured.

  • Thompson Boat works (Menger), the former Menger Catboats Inc., based in Babylon, New York built between  1976 and 2004 classic catboats in GRP. The name Menger Cat became very popular and it had been built in four different sizes 15´,17´,19´and 23´. The former manager of Menger, Jerry Thompson took over the moulds and manufactures two of the types until today the 15´and the 19´and offers them under his own name as Thompson Cat .

Cat-rigged yachts


the principle of the simple to handle cat-rig had been transferred on to yacht building by several yacht builders. The rig had been modernized by eliminating the gaff and the traditional boom and instead using now a so called wishbone boom. By doing so the demands of the yacht sailors for closer angles to the wind had been matched. This principle, although reasonably successful in North America had never been adapted by European yacht builders. 

  • Freedom Yachts built between 1976-1985 cat-rigged yachts in the range from 20-45´length with wishbone rig. But other than the cat-rig there were no further similarities between Freedom Yachts and classic catboats. Theses yachts had been popular especially in North America, and a few had been sold also throughout Europe. The yachts had been designed by Gary Hoyt and Gary Mull. The company Freedom Yachts had been taken over in 1985 by Tillotson-Pearson and production had been ceased completely in 1991. 

  • Hinterhoeller Yachts- Nonsuch, had manufactured a range of cat rigged yachts. Between 1978- 1995 some 950 yachts had been built ranging from
    22 -36´. Designer Mark Ellis designed keel yacht and he managed at least, to keep and incorporate some of the design elements of the classic catboats, like the plump stem, the beam and the typical cabin design. The production today is being done by  
    > Wiggers Custom Yachts; Kanada

Nonsuch series from 22 - 36 ft., plump stem, a typical cabin design with coaming are reminescents to the classic catboat designs

  • Tanton Yachts, Newport, Rhode Island, USA; designs and builds large keel yachts with cat-rig on custom demand.

  • Wylie Cat Yachts, Canyon, Californien, USA; builds boats and keel yachts with cat rigs ranging from 17´-66´