Herreshoff Cat Ketch 31

This handsome little cruiser sails like a dream, but owners report problems ranging from the foam-cored deck to deck hardware without backing plates.


The short-lived Cat Ketch Corporation built some unique cruising auxiliaries. They were all called Herreshoffs after their designer, Halsey Herreshoff. Built between about 1982 and 1986, they grew out of the collaboration between the companys founder, third generation boatbuilder John Newton, and Herreshoff (who likewise was the third generation in his family to enter the same profession.) Newton had been building Grand Banks trawlers in Hong Kong; Herreshoff had already designed a number of production boats. Newton had set up a Cayman Island-based corporation to build in Honduras and was looking for boats that were simple yet rewarding to sail-no winches, no headsails! He favored capabilities over amenities, simplicity over advanced technology. When it came to price he wanted to be more than competitive in the American market.

The design brief he presented to Herreshoff included:

an underbody as fast as a quarter tonner
a large, open interior
traditional lines above the water
a split sail plan to reduce sail loads
a rig that allows quick reefing to 30% of full sail area

Despite the fact that its hard to find a sailboat of any kind that ISNT faster than a 1970s vintage quarter tonner, the guidelines Newton laid down were, in large measure, met. The boats, even today, are handsome, commodious and simple to sail. A retired naval architect told us he bought a boat a year for years until he met the H-31. She is everything I ever wanted. She is IT for me. Ive found the boat of my dreams, he said.

About 100 H-31s were built, Herreshoff recalled. The company also produced an H-27, H-38 and an H-45, but the H-31 outsold them all.

We had plans for even bigger boats, said Herreshoff, but they never got built.

Originally, the boats (including almost half of the H-31s) were cold-molded of mahogany plies with wooden spars. The rest were made of fiberglass cored with Airex. (On some, the house and deck had Klegecell coring to resist heat deformation.). Almost all of the fiberglass boats had fiberglass/carbon fiber spars.

After moving from one coast of Honduras to the other and finally shipping its molds to Texas for a brief last stand with the Richard Black-designed Sparhawk 36 and an H-28, the Cat Ketch Corporation went out of business. That was about 10 years ago, and the boats are a bit hard to find. Herreshoff is the last, best link with these boats. He has, in fact, received several as donations to the Herreshoff Museum in Bristol where he refurbishes and sells them.

At first glance, the boats appear somewhat under-rigged and we feared wed find their accommodations dated and Spartan. After recently delivering an H-31 from Bristol, Rhode Island to north of Cape Cod, however, we have to admit we were wrong on both counts.

The Design
Early in the 70s, Halsey Herreshoff designed the hull for the Freedom 40, the boat that Garry Hoyt conceived and marketed, and which was largely responsible for the resurgent interest in cat ketches. There is a learning curve, even for a Herreshoff, in developing a relatively untried hull form, and comparing the Freedom 40 to the boats done for Cat Ketch is one way of tracing that progression.

Both the Freedom 40 and the H-31 have hollow bows. Characteristic of Herreshoff boats all of the way back to Captain Nat, a hollow bow lets the forefoot be fine for a sharp entry angle, while above the waterline the forebody swells abruptly to gain volume enough to dampen pitching. The flaring shape of the forequarters not only provides reserve buoyancy (which helps deal with the weight of the spar stepped well forward), it also helps control spray and makes it easier for the boat to punch through chop. And it looks great. The H-31 has more of a hollow bow than the Freedom 40.

A centerboarder, the Freedom 40 needed a high ballast/displacement ratio and generous beam for her length to give her stability. The H-31, thanks to the righting moment gained by hanging 3,350 pounds of external lead on her keel, can enjoy a slimmer sailing shape. The Freedom 40s displacement/length (D/L) ratio is an admirable 208, but the H-31 weighs in with a sprightlier 175.

Halsey Herreshoff is unclear about dates or specifics, but he confirms what printed sail plans show, that the total working sail area of his H-31 grew from an original 403 sq. ft. to a subsequent 466 sq. ft. At the same time, the displacement shrunk from 8,640 pounds to 7,560 pounds. Adding sail and reducing weight are legitimate ways to improve performance. In its original configuration (small sail plan/high displacement) the H-31s sail area/displacement ratio (SA/D) was an unremarkable 15.5, well below even the Freedom 40s 16.7. Given the changes (bigger sail plan/lighter displacement) the boats SA/D jumps to 19. It would be logical if these changes reflected the move from cold-molding to cored fiberglass construction, but both sets of figures refer to construction: fiberglass/Airex core. What is clear, however, is that there are differing generations of H-31 design and generic design information doesn’t necessarily fit them all.

The boat has a long waterline (28′) and gains additional sailing length from a rudder that protrudes nearly a foot aft of the transom. More critical to her sailing performance, however, is her clean underbody sculpted from sectional shapes that afford the maximum in displacement for the minimum in wetted surface. While Halsey didnt begin with a half-model whittled and fondled into shape the way that Captain Nat used to, he might as well have. It doesn’t have to take three generations to come up with lines as fair and balanced as the H-31s, but its hard to imagine her simplicity and rightness popping into being overnight.

If there were no draft limitation I would have wanted a deeper fin, the designer said, but by giving her a draft of just 4 feet and by offering lift/drag characteristics that are optimal in the under 7-knot speed range, the long fin that Herreshoff chose makes good sense.

Herreshoff said, The skeg is there primarily to improve tracking, and she sails well, tracking straighter and pointing better than Id dared to hope.

The Rig
The cat ketch is an ancient and honorable rig. Captain Cook saw canoes and proas rigged with two sails, clawlike in shape. The garvies of Barnegat Bay typically had twin sprit sails fore and aft. The majority of New Haven sharpies from as early as the 1830s were cat ketches. The rig tended to keep cost, complexity and the center of effort low, and that made it a natural for small working boats. But the problems with cat ketches, like those with catboats and cat yawls, tend to get bigger as the boats get bigger. Supporting a mast in the bows is hard to do; unstayed spars are thus almost a necessity. For a long time, no one could build a spar big enough, light enough and tough enough to do the job in a larger boat.

Nathaniel Herreshoff was the first designer known to have rigged yachts (as opposed to workboats) as cat ketches. Starling Burgess experimented early in the 20th century with unstayed rigs and Fritz Fenger, a Cornell-educated designer-yachtsman, is credited with pioneering the modern wishbone rig. According to British design guru Uffa Fox, Captain Nat was using something similar very much earlier. His 25-foot Pelican, which in 1890 Nathaniel Herreshoff called the most scientific sailboat Ive yet designed, was a cat yawl.

When Garry Hoyt was seeking freedom from winches and headsails, Halsey Herreshoff remembers, Id been working some with combining different sections of aluminum tubing into free-standing spars, but a single mast big enough for a 40-footer was worrisome. Then my father (Sidney DeWolf Herreshoff) reminded me of the cat ketches our family had already designed, and we went in that direction.

That direction proved productive. The Freedom 40 surprised a lot of people at Antigua Week and made converts in impressive numbers. Dr. Jerome Milgrams Cascade, a 37′ 6″ racer with a cat ketch rig on stayed spars, came within a whisker of winning the Southern Ocean Racing Conference. From being rarities at the beginning of the 70s, cat ketches became, by late in the decade, something of a fad. Freedom evolved new models, Nonsuch was born, and designers like Walter Scott, Yves-Marie Tanton, Eric Sponberg and Chuck Paine all offered cat ketch designs.

The keys that unlocked that development were engineering and manufacturing advances that made free-standing spars workable, and the refinement and application of the wishbone boom. Newtons Cat Ketch Corp. originally laid up laminated wooden spars that were light and durable. When it took to building fiberglass skins over a wooden mandrel and then sheathing the glass with carbon fiber, the spars were a bit heavier but much stiffer, Herreshoff said.

Most boats used the standard double wishbone boom, but I prefer the half-bone shape for simplicity and looks, he added.

In addition to removing the danger from a head-height solid boom, wishbones and half-bones remove the need for vangs, control twist (thus increasing sail efficiency), make major changes in sail shape easy and reduce mast loading.

Built as long as 18 years ago by a now-defunct company, an H-31 should be suspected of having problems. A survey is always a good idea. With an H-31 its an especially good idea.

When we discussed these boats with well-known author and surveyor Alan Vaitses, he declined to recommend any of the cold-molded boats because the fiberglass that covers the hull to just above the waterline was not mechanically fastened to the wood. On the other hand, the (admittedly small) sample of wooden boat owners that we surveyed said no problem in terms of checking, leaks or delamination.

Herreshoff added, The wooden boats were lighter but less durable, especially in terms of abrasion and impact resistance, he told us. The fiberglass-Airex boats are somewhat stronger but theyre a bit heavier.

The owner of a near-original 1982 wood boat said, I had to reglue the spars when the wood glue that they used originally gave up after 13 years, but otherwise my cold-molded hull and deck have held up well. I like the warmth of an all-wood interior very much.

The fiberglass boats were built with a laminate schedule that came from my experience building production boats, Herreshoff said, describing it as graduated thicknesses getting progressively thinner from the bottom up with a thin layer of mat between roving and cloth.

None of the owners surveyed reported any hull blisters. Bulkheads are foam-fiberglass composites and in the living areas are sheathed with wood veneers. They are robust and are tabbed securely to the hull.

Several owners reported that the Airex core was not replaced with solid glass where through-hull fittings were installed. That should not have happened said Herreshoff. On the boats that have been donated to the Herreshoff Museum, he has borne the expense of pulling through-hulls and replacing the core with solid epoxy through which the fittings were re-installed.

The bolts attaching the skeg to the hull were in tough shape, one owner reported. I replaced them (there were only three) with nine new ones. Rebedded and refastened, the new skeg has been fine.

The rudder assembly, Herreshoff said, consists of an overly strong rudderstock and two hefty gudgeons as well as a bottom attachment between the skeg and rudder. In addition to affording excellent steering leverage and easy visual inspection, the outboard rudder is fitted with teak steps that make it a boarding ladder, a suggestion put forward by L. Francis Herreshoff in his book, The Compleat Cruiser.

The aluminum strips on top of the keel floors were badly pitted where the stainless steel keel bolts came through them, said a Florida owner. And the stanchions have no backing plates. They need either suitable plates to add strength and diminish loosening through use.

There are no mechanical fasteners apparent at the hull/deck joint. Deck and hull are both cored right to the edge. They are chemically bonded and then the corner is glassed, inside and out. The taping is done well-no evident seams, bubbles, or roughness. No owner surveyed reported deck leaks or crazing at the joint. Access to the joint is virtually complete fore and aft by removing the upper strake of the cabin ceiling. It is standard building practice to replace coring with solid glass where hull and deck come together. Reliance on chemical bonding alone has only recently been countenanced by standard-setters like the American Bureau of Shipping. The fact that there are no shroud loads to lift the deck in a boat with unstayed masts may go a long way toward explaining the problem-free history of the H-31 and other boats that Cat Ketch built this way.

The standard layout for the H-31 emphasizes open space with the head and galley aft and a saloon/forecabin area extending forward. A second layout where the head comes between the forecabin and the saloon is better-suited to two-couple cruising. From fiddles and trim to moldings and furniture, wood is a strong point of the Cat Ketches. The availability and affordability of wood and wood workers was one of Newtons prime reasons for building in Honduras. Many owners opted for custom interiors in oak, Caribbean pine or mahogany, but even the standard teak is done with lightness, restraint and care.

On the negative side, the standard galley is cramped by the companionway ladder.

We almost didnt buy the boat for that reason, said an owner who has cruised his H-31 for seven seasons, but we did and weve redone the galley completely to suit us. We took out the oven, installed refrigeration, and use a one-burner Sea Swing as our primary cooker.

My boat came with a bulkhead table suitable for use only in a calm anchorage or at the dock; its lightly built, unstable, and it has no fiddles. We replaced it, said a New England sailor.

Headroom is 6′ 2″ at best, but there are two big hanging lockers, an abundance of drawer space and eight opening ports. The chart table arrangement is creaky but adequate.

The Cat Ketch Corp. eventually installed Yanmar diesels in its boats, but many of the earlier Herreshoffs have Nanni diesels. They are reported satisfactory in terms of performance and dependability, but it seems very hard to get parts for them.

Performance under sail is where the H-31 shines. During our test sail, short-tacking up a crowded channel was ridiculously easy. The boat takes perhaps a boat length to gain steerage way in moderate air, but beyond that theres no limit to how often you can tack. And, after the fifth, tenth and twentieth tack youll feel as fresh as you did after the first. Sail to anchor in a crowded anchorage? We dropped the main, weathervaned under mizzen, lowered the anchor at our leisure, then backed down to set it by holding the sail to weather.

I keep my boat on a canal near St. Petersburg, one owner bragged. Its a fifteen-minute run under power for everyone else to get to the Gulf. I sail in and out from my dock all the time.

Handling heavy air is via a reefing progression that runs mizzen, main & mizzen; douse mizzen; double-reef main. Not only are the reefs simple to put in, but the center of effort changes very little through the whole process, according to Herreshoff.

The H-31 moves very cleanly, accelerates surprisingly fast, and has a powerful motion in waves. In winds that ranged from 0 to 15 knots, and on just about every point of sail, we found her not just lively and responsive, but fast.

Good looks, easy sailing, open accommodation, thoughtful touches, elegant simplicity, generally superior woodwork and fast passages are the plusses we found in the H-31. The combination makes her a good value, especially at a price under $30,000. But with a belly-up builder and a host of questions surrounding her construction, however, she could come with a nasty surprise or two.

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at darrellnicholson.com.