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Old 09-05-2002
Dan Dickison Dan Dickison is offline
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Finding the Family Boat


Anyone who has experienced the purity of traveling under sail knows the joy and satisfaction that it can offer. Is that enough to get the young ones hooked?
It’s an often-heard adage that sailing gets in your blood. I’d wager that even the least devout sailors around might agree that somehow this sport eventually wins you over and gets inside of you. Some of us are born to sailing, others get shanghaied into it, and some simply stumble into the pastime in a more haphazard fashion. Whatever the means of introduction, all it usually takes is enough leisurely time on the water under sail to convince most people that messing about in sailboats is truly a worthwhile pursuit. And that’s what resides at the root of my current dilemma.

For the past several months I’ve been scheming about how best to get the Dickison nuclear family—my spouse and two young girls—into the swing of sailing. I want to share with them the joys that I know sailing can provide, and the appreciation for one’s surroundings that underlies the sport. And, OK, maybe it’s also one way I might get them to think that I’m cool because I know my way around sailboats. But the fact that I’m principally a racing sailor means that my time on the water normally takes me away from the clan, which is something I don’t need—I’ve already got a desk job that fills that role pretty well. It's a sad truth that the competitive end of the sport is a little too involved for kids ages six years and 21 months, and though I have occasionally succeeded in getting my wife to come out racing, her lack of appreciation for this kind of sailing remains intact. Maybe it has something to do with one of those occasions taking place aboard an undermanned E-Scow in 20-plus knots of breeze. She spent a lot time that day scrambling over the rail and onto the daggerboards to get the mast out of the water, but that’s another story.

So in my usual plodding fashion, I’ve finally tumbled around to the notion that what I need is the right vessel—a family boat. I’ve realized that what might get, and keep, this crowd on the water is a sound, stable craft—with a prominent coaming and a deep cockpit to corral the kids—and enough performance to satisfy my jaded racer’s sensibilities. Of course it would have to be dead simple so that we could get underway without much fuss, and it would need to be something that meets my meager budget.


Sweeping shear lines and polished brightwork make traditional craft pleasing, but not always practical, especially for a young family.
Long fond of traditional vessels—visions of sweeping bows, pleasing shear lines, and wineglass transoms come readily to mind—that seemed like an appropriate starting point for my search. But it was easy to initially dismiss such options when I determined that the vessel I wanted had to be trailerable. I'd rather avoid the monthly expense of dockage and the dreaded bottom-painting ritual that accompanies a boat kept in the water. And of course the performance issue continues to nag at me from the back of my mind. Would I really be content steering a classic but insufferably slow sailboat?

I should explain that this emphasis on strong performance goes well beyond satisfying my competitive desires. We live in a region where sweeping tides often move at speeds exceeding three knots, and getting around under sail—I eschew engines on sailboats whenever possible—is nearly impossible in such conditions if a vessel is under-canvassed or over-burdened with weight. Only a lively, maneuverable boat capable of good acceleration would fit the requirements my mind was devising.

Then, of course, there are the demands of geography to consider. Since we live in a region with an abundance of shallow waterways, having minimal draft became an important consideration. That’s about when I realized that my parameters were neatly fitting their way around a multihull of some ilk. Performance, stability, and minimal draft—what other kind of sailing vessel could deliver on those areas so readily? And a 25-plus-foot tri or cat, I reasoned, would be perfect for cruising down the coast, after, of course, the whole clan had vowed to become diehard sailors.

So I checked out the Corsair family of folding trimarans, and a few others like the Elan, and the new Reynolds 33. Almost immediately I was swayed by the latter until I realized that putting a neophyte six-year-old, much less a toddler, on a boat with that kind of acceleration would be asking for trouble. So my search came to an impasse.


Bruce Kirby's shallow-draft Norwalk Island Sharpies make efficient use of the cat rig. The boats are ideal for regions with limited water depth, but there aren't too many of them on the market.
Then I started to broaden the scope of potential candidates. Bruce Kirby, the venerable yacht designer who graced the sport with the Laser and the Sonar, among other designs, told me I ought to consider one of his Norwalk Island Sharpies. A lot of sailors probably haven’t a clue what a Sharpie looks like, but indeed these boats fit all the requirements that I’d thrown into my family-boat formula. I’d also seen a number of articles where Sharpie-like sailboats served admirably for daysailing and short-term cruising in the Florida Keys, a region where the draft limitations closely resemble those of my home waters. When I discovered that all of Kirby’s Norwalk Island Sharpies are cat-rigged, that broadened the scope of my search even further. That’s when I started looking at cat boats.

Despite having spent 10 years in coastal New England—where cat boats abound—I have next to no experience with these animals. I’ve knocked about a couple of times in a Beetle Cat, but that’s it. I knew that a cat boat would meet my draft requirements, but would one of these beamy craft live up to my performance expectations, and could I find one that might reasonably be trailered? All of those questions swirled around in my mind as I set out searching in a new direction.

It turns out that there’s quite a bit of heritage stacked up behind these unique vessels. Beetle Cats date back to 1921, and the cat rig itself—a single-sail boat with the mast stepped well forward—dates back at least five decades earlier. The cat rig was evidently a popular application on coastal workboats in New England around the beginning of the last century, and a smattering of historical records indicate that similar vessels worked the waterways as far south as the Chesapeake Bay.


Tom Wylie's popular Wyliecats like the one above take the cat boat concept to a new level of simplicity and performance. Most of these boats are currently found on the West Coast.
So, lately I’ve been investigating the possibility of trailerable cat boats. Sure, these little vessels might appear clunky, but in actuality, they turn out to be capable sailing craft, and strong testimony in favor of the cat rig isn’t hard to find. Look at the versions of this concept rendered by Freedom Yachts or the adaptations West Coast yacht designer Tom Wylie has produced in his Wyliecat 17, 30, 39, and 48. Or consider the Open Unlimited 60 Wylie designed for Bruce Schwab—Ocean Planet. The same simplicity that Schwab hopes will propel him to the front of the fleet during the upcoming Around Alone race is the primary attribute that I’m seeking in a family daysailer. It's taken some time, but lately the notion of introducing the kids to sailing by way of something that’s a little more traditional has begun to make sense. And I don’t care if the boat I eventually find wins any races other than beating the ebb tide back to the dock so that the crew won’t miss a school-night curfew.

For a lot of sailors, probably more than I know, a cat boat or a cat-rigged relative, wouldn’t be the perfect family boat—probably far from it. Perhaps they’re after something a little more versatile; something with a little more comfort and performance that would allow them to both overnight on occasion, and race under PHRF now and then. For me, I’m lucky in that I get all the racing action I need aboard friends’ boats, and I long ago cured any need for overnighting during my liveaboard phase. So a small cat boat might just be the ticket for this clan. As for those multihull longings, I’ll have to get by on mere fantasies until some other stage in life.

Cat Boat Pros and Cons

If you find yourself hunting for a good family daysailer, you might want to consider a cat boat or a cat-rigged relative. But don't just jump in. Here are a few things you'll want to know:

Upside    Sailboats don’t have to be complicated to be fun, and cat boats certainly aren’t complex. That’s nice because it can translate into dollars saved. Having only one sail to worry about repairing or replacing is a big advantage from that perspective. And having a boat where the boom rides well above the heads of those in the cockpit is another nice feature. Of course there’s a lot to like about the ample, well-protected cockpits found on most cat boats (as long as the scuppers are sufficiently sized to drain it efficiently if the need arises).

Downside    The old knock on cat boats, of course, is that they have too much weather helm, they don’t go to weather well, and the barn-door rudder acts like a brake when the boat heels. Some cat boats, like the Beetle Cat, are too heavy to perform well in light winds, and cat boats that are gaff-rigged require the coordination of two halyards (the peak and the throat). Of course there’s also the issue of flying jibes with that enormous mainsail.

Many of the above-mentioned shortcomings have been addressed by some novel designs that take the cat boat concept and remake it. Gary Hoyt's Express Cat is one (www.catboats.org/alerion.htm), and Tom Wylie's Wyliecat 17 is another (www.wyliecat.com). Both designers have altered the rigs (replacing the traditional gaff arrangement with a marconi mainsail) and the underwater appendages on their craft to promote better performance. So there's definitely hope if you fancy the cat boat concept, but want better speed and handling under sail.






Suggested Reading:

The Soul of a Cat Boat by Bruce Caldwell

Centerboards and Swing Keels by Bruce Caldwell

The Ideal Daysailer by Dan Dickison

SailNet Store Section: Cabin and Cockpit Storage