Monday, April 23, 2012

Horses for Courses: Catboats

I came across a piece of writing recently that set me off on a course for this week’s design. Or rather I came across it again—given the number of times I have looked through The Catboat Book, I can’t imagine that I could have missed it every time. I have noticed that the resonance a particular piece of writing has as much to do with the combination of life experiences you bring to it as it does with the originality, quality, and clarity of thought it brings to you. 

This particular piece was written by a man named Howard Chapelle, and I must confess it is not entirely clear to me whether it was written expressly for inclusion into this particular book, or is rather one of many pieces penned by a variety of individuals for other purposes, and assembled by John Leavens, co-secretary of The Catboat Association. At any rate, it was a particular sentence in Chapelle’s piece that caught my attention. “The one essential factor in the design of boats proven by history is that they must fit the conditions where they are used and for what they are used.” If you’ve been reading these blogs, you’ll have come across my efforts to advance that very thought and tripping over myself in the process. 

It’s the kind of axiom that should probably be drilled into all the young impressionable minds that will be responsible, at some later date, for designing all manner of things. When I came across the sentence, perhaps due to the experiences I brought to it, as opposed to notions advanced by the author, it also sounded a little like an indictment of mass-production. It made me wonder what the recreational boating industry in this country looked like when Chapelle put this particular thought to paper.

A great boat can grab you the same way a good piece of writing can. You bring all your experience on the water, in all the boats you’ve operated and all the places you’ve sailed, and compare what you see before you to what you know is right, good and beautiful. You’ll know it’s a great design when you find yourself thinking it might be just right for that particular patch of water you’ve been dreaming about. This is how boats get built. This week, right, good, and beautiful looks like this.

This is plate VII in “Lines of a Keel Cat,” from Chapelle’s book Yacht Designing and Planning. Chapelle added just a single sentence of additional description: “Plan shows tumble-home bow and short counter, orthodox sheer and ‘wine-glass’ midsection.” “Orthodox” is generally used to signify adherence to cultural norms and religious customs, but I suspect Chapelle is invoking the combination of the original Greek orthos and doxa, that is, he is referring to opinion and belief about what is right and true. Sadly, even on the water in Maine, there is nothing customary or normal about coming across such a beautiful boat.

As is my custom, I have tweaked the original design some. I don’t know whether to thank Chapelle for his inspired creation, or for lifting and reproducing a set of lines that belong to some unheralded designer. The plate is included in his book to illustrate what a proper lines plan looks like and he does not present the work as his own. There wasn’t much detail above the sheer for me to follow, but I departed from the little that was there. I will say that I consulted photos of the work of my friend and colleague, Alec Brainerd, more than once. Alec builds exquisitely beautiful versions of mostly small-ish daysailers. I know he’s happy to bring the work of any designer to life so long as that designer’s efforts will reflect well on both of them, though I think it would be fair to say he has a penchant for the dead ones…Nat Herreshoff and William Fife, in particular. Alec runs a boatbuilding business just around the corner from our own called Artisan Boatworks. When you call to commission us to bring CHESHIRE CAT into existence I’ll tell you that no one will do a better job than Rockport Marine, but if you want to shop it around, Alec and his crew would be almost as good a choice. The “almost” part is because his shop is more than a staircase away from our design office, and I’d like to watch her go together each day. If you’d like to see some photos of the work produced by Alec and his crew you can find them here:

I’ll be the first to admit that convincing one of you out there to build CHESHIRE CAT is a long shot. I’m not the historian that Chapelle was, but the full keel catboat appears to be a thing of the past so it will take someone with a certain courage of their convictions to build her. If you were to go a searching you’ll find a few disparaging comments about the performance of full keel catboats on the internet. The lack of specificity in the few that I found left me doubting the slanderers. I grew up in catboat country and have never laid eyes on a hull like this with a catboat rig. I saw one on the hard in Rockland. I couldn’t say for sure but I’ll bet it was a Sam Crocker design. And it could have been, maybe should have been cat rigged…but it wasn’t.

It doesn’t help that if you didn’t grow up sailing gaff rigged boats, and catboats in particular. With their masts way up forward, plum stems, and reputation for being just a little too lively when the breeze comes up, they likely don’t fit squarely in the middle of your version of right, good, and beautiful. But then If you’ve never sailed a catboat (okay friendship sloops have them too), you have not experienced the joy of such a comfortable and spacious cockpit. With room to stretch out, and a high coaming to serve as a backrest, all daysailers should have a cockpit like this. There’s room for a sizeable cooler in the after part of the cockpit so a full day’s provisions are easily accessed and close at hand.

There’s some truth to the idea that when the wind really comes up some catboats can be more excitement than you might want, especially with a cockpit full of grandkids under foot as you endeavor to take a reef. But it’s also true that the way a boat behaves in these conditions is the result of the combination of rig and hull form. If you close your eyes and picture a catboat, the picture that comes to mind is a very specific type of catboat, and I’d wager looks an awful lot like either this:

Or this:

depending on whether your summertime travels have taken you to Cape Cod or Long Island Sound more often. The truth is that catboats use to be coupled to all manner of hull form and some combinations worked better than others. 

Cape Cod Catboats and the Great South Bay Catboats, of the type often attributed to Gill Smith, were broad and shallow because the thin water their owners sailed in demanded that they be so. As a rule, the rigs were large because until the latter part of the summer and into the beginning of autumn the breezes were light. When a stiff September breeze builds, if you don’t take a reef when prudent (which, by the way, was a full twelve minutes before it occurred to you that maybe you ought) that cloud of canvas over the broad flat hull is going to begin to put the lie to the notion that form stability is all you need. The water is going to encounter a heeled hull form with pretty dramatically asymmetrical waterlines and a very shallow rudder of seemingly ample area that, unfortunately, really isn’t in the water any more. 

CHESHIRE CAT embodies none of these unfortunate attributes of her stout, shallow cousins. This is a slender long-keel boat with a healthy charge of lead ballast securely bolted as low as it will go. Her lines are easy and so will the motion be. The rudder area looks pretty normal because we’re going to keep it in the water, thank you very much. I don’t say the boat won’t heel and need a reef now and then, but like her shallow-drafted Crosby cousins, you won’t need to bother with it for the majority of the season. So let’s just ensure we’ve rigged a good jiffy reefing system, maybe even a bottom action Murray winch mounted right on the boom if we can find one, with a handle and a spare nearby just in case. There are whole slew of grandkids sprawled out in the cockpit remember.

And yes, you’re right,CHESHIRE CAT belongs in her Crosby cousins’ territory like a boat builder belongs in a corn field. It’ll work for a while but sooner or later you’re going to realize that it wasn’t a great idea. Horses for courses after all. So find some water that’s just a little bit deeper. Trust me, it’s awfully nice up here. And compared to the harbors and bays that belong to those Crocker and Crosby cousins, you’ll practically have the place to yourself.

-Brendan Riordan


LOA 25'6" 
LWL 22' 
Beam 8'5" 
Draft 4'2" 
Displacement 7500 lbs 
Sail Area 410SF

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At May 31, 2012 at 9:19 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

very rarely do i come across a blog that’s both informative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you’ve hit the nail on the head

Yacht Decking Installation

At May 19, 2017 at 3:24 PM , Blogger Milo Anderson said...


At March 24, 2018 at 11:03 PM , Blogger SCP said...

I think you are selling the catboat short as far as handling goes.I started sailing on a boat you might be familiar with a landing school biddleford pool alden 18, gaff rigged with a club boom up front. Since i single handed mostly i only ran with the main which was plenty for the boat. in a sudden gust you simply let go of the tiller and the boat would turn into the wind.The mast on the alden would be about a foot ahead of the coaming on your illustration. also the alden could point higher into the wind then most of the newer boats in the yard, turn in her own length and as you say was very sea kindly. when the alden was retired I went to a cat boat and the one i got has a wing keel. it does not compare to the alden she would run circles around it but it is fiberglass easy to care for, trailerable and has a hinged mast set up that can be raised by one person. That being said if you could get the cheshire to handle like the alden you would have a winner on your hands.


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