We had an 18' Herreshoff "America" catboat for 16 years before moving up to a 35' sloop. It was gaff-rigged, displaced 2500#, had an 8'+ beam and drew 1'10" with the centerboard up. The cockpit was huge--about as big as on our 35" sloop. The cuddy cabin could accommodate a couple for a weekend but it was really like camping out in a pup tent.
The sailing characteristics are generally misunderstood by the casual observer. They are very good off the wind and are better at beating than most folks think, but a well-designed sloop should do better to weather. They are very stable due to form stability, which is provided by the relatively wide beam (compared to length on deck). They typically suffer from a lot of weather helm (due in large part to a single sail) and have a big "barn door" rudder to deal with that.
The weather helm is a useful safety feature, however. If you get caught with a gust, rather than heel over and broach, you are more likely to head up--whether you wanted to or not!
With all the power in one sail, you want to reef when you first think about it. Should you get caught overpowered, you can drop the gaff--called "scandalizing"--and dramatically reduce effective sail area while moving the sail force closer to the center line. I've been caught in 30 kts without a reef and can testify that an 18' catboat can readily handle it in protected water. The design evolved to serve fishermen, after all, and they needed to be able to deal with a perverse turn of weather--often without auxiliary power.
The large cockpit is a definite liability if you get pooped, so the catboat is not considered appropriate for blue water. That said, we routinely sailed her along the New England coast between Shelter Island and Block Island, but didn't challenge the weather. The 50 mile round trip to Block Island was a once or twice yearly event for us.
It has been said that it is easy to sail a catboat, but takes some experience to sail her well. What this means is that beginners usually pick up catboat sailing very quickly, but will have to gain some experience to race the catboat competitively. BTW, the Catboat Association sanctions races in the Northeast every year. Their website (The Catboat Association, Inc.
) also lists catboats for sale, if you are interested.
You may be surprised by how much a used catboat goes for, but the upside is that they hold their value much better than "ordinary" sailboats. In other words, you will likely recovery a high percentage of your "investment" when you go to sell.
As we get older, we keep looking back wistfully at the catboat and may eventually downsize to one.