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.
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.
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.
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
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.
The Soul of a Cat Boat by Bruce Caldwell
SailNet Store Section: Cabin and Cockpit Storage
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