Catboats started out as workboats. According to marine historian Howard I. Chapelle, beamy, single-sailed centerboarders with half-decked hulls and barn door rudders began to appear in America around 1840, when, for the first time, there was sufficient demand to make fishing from small boats profitable. Sailed mostly in Lower New York Harbor and on Cape Cod Bay, cats fished, freighted, ferried, and packeted for decades. Their simplicity, stability, and shallow draft made them versatile, and their efficiency and ease of handling made them popular.
In the 1880s and ‘90s, catboat racing flourished, especially around New York. In that Gilded Age, unlimited “sandbaggers” with sky-scraping gaffs and gangs of crew pushed the type towards its speed (and safety) limits. Throughout the years, catboats have also made fine yachts.
Built in wood by local yards, small cats suitable for daysailing and overnighting eventually became available as production boats. In more recent years, cats have enjoyed a minor renaissance. Fleets numbering in the 40s can be found at New Jersey and New England yacht clubs. The second life of the traditional cat began in 1962 when Breck Marshall built the first one in fiberglass. He went into limited production with an 18-footer called the Sanderling, after the wave-skipping shore bird. His shop was in New Hampshire. He sold a few boats, but in addition to the problems of trying to sell the sailors of that day on “plastic boats,” he encountered resistance brought on by his location.
“People couldn’t imagine,” Marshall wrote, “a boat like that being built in New Hampshire. But when I moved the company to Padanaram, Massachusetts, down to the saltwater and the natural habitat of the catboat, things picked up and we sold all the boats we could build.”
Marshall died in 1976, but shop foreman John Garfield bought the company from Marshall’s widow and kept filling orders. The 751st Sanderling was delivered at this fall’s U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Maryland. The Sanderling was the first “modern” catboat on the scene, but it has been joined over the years by a raft of reproductions, developments on traditional lines, and original designs, all built in fiberglass with aluminum spars. In addition to Marshall’s 15′ Sandpiper and the Marshall 22, the list includes the 21′ Atlantic City Cat (affording both inboard power and 6′ headroom); the popular Nowak & Williams-built, Halsey Herreshoff-designed Herreshoff America cats; One Design Marine’s Chappaquidick 25; the Wittholz-Hermann Cape Cod cat, (17-1/2′ overall); the Americat 22 (modeled after a Sweisguth design of the 1920s and built by Vintage Boat Co.), and a series of Menger cats (15, 19, and 23) from Menger Boatworks.
The most recent is the Alerion Express Cat. Garry Hoyt has always been a pioneer. In the 1970s he revived free-standing spars with his Freedom 40 and followed it with learn-to-sail boats like the Expo Solar Sailer and Escape, as well as a series of inventions that include the patented Hoyt Gun Mount and Hoyt Jib Boom.
In 1998 he designed and built the 19′ Alerion cat “to combine the proven virtues of the catboat with modern sailing performance.” From the outset, cats have been recognized for their shallow-water capabilities, sprightly acceleration, superior load-carrying and comforting stability. Hoyt’s new cat is close enough to the mold to provide all of the above. In addition, its free-standing carbon fiber spar, self-vanging boom, dagger rudder, and light displacement take advantage of developments that weren’t around in either 1840 or 1962. These features combine to make the Alerion quicker. Hoyt has sailed his creation against the best of the Sanderling racing fleets and has demonstrated a speed edge of almost a minute a mile in all but the lightest airs.
There is, however, much more than seconds per mile to set the Sanderling and Alerion apart. Simplicity is a virtue of each, but they manifest it in different ways. Where the Alerion demonstrates a speed and handling edge, the Sanderling offers space and creature comforts that aren’t found in the newer boat. Base price of the Sanderling is $22,900. The Alerion Express Cat has a base price of $25,095.
Design. The prototype for the Sanderling was an 18-footer designed by Pop Arnold in 1941. Marshall said he inherited some plans and a handful of station molds from his work with Bill Tripp at American Boatbuilding in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. But, he wrote, he had no plans of the boat that became the Sanderling. Marshall spent about three weeks modeling by eye before he built the plug for the first Sanderling. And the hull he ended up with was significantly different from the model.
Sanderling’s entry was a major departure from the past. Catboats have always been close-winded (due primarily to the aerodynamic cleanness of a single sail) in smooth water, but because of the bluff, full bow sections necessary to buoy up their heavy wooden masts, they have earned a bad name for going slowly upwind in waves. By using a lighter (less than 70 pounds) aluminum mast, Marshall was able to make the Sanderling’s entry considerably finer. Over the years, the boat that Marshall created has performed well enough upwind in waves to confirm the wisdom of that modification.
The Pop Arnold model, Marshall said, “was not a pretty boat. She had a flat sheer with a kind of tumblehome ram bow in her. She had a square house.” Marshall corrected these deficiencies by giving the Sanderling a swept sheer, crowned cabin, tapered house, and slightly angled stem. Many modern eyes have never seen an original catboat, but, old or new, the catboat Marshall modeled is among the handsomest of the breed.
Says Garfield, “I think Marshall was influenced a lot by Bill Tripp. The waterplane of the Sanderling looks more like the underbody of a Tripp ocean racer of the time than it does the boxy traditional cats.” The Sanderling’s maximum beam of 8′ 6″ and length overall of 18′ 2″ approach the classic 1:2 proportions that distinguished the cats of old, but the waterline beam of less than 8′ makes it more modern under the water. So do the moderate deadrise (many cats are almost flat-bottomed) and tapered shape aft. It’s a marketing cliché today, but it seems to us that in the infancy of fiberglass boatbuilding Marshall combined traditional aesthetics with modern hydrodynamics. Catboats like the Nonsuch and certainly the Alerion Express Cat have continued the same theme of being old-fashioned to look at but up-to-date under the water.
Overnighting is a possibility on the Sanderling with two 6′ 6″ berths, a good amount of cubby stowage, and a built-in head.
Construction. The Pearson Triton, one of the earliest production fiberglass auxiliaries, was only four years old when Marshall built the first Sanderling in 1962. Coming from pioneering days, it was built to “more is more” scantlings. Building boats with glass and resin has come a long way since then, Located in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, Marshall Marine still sells about 20 per year.
“We introduced the chopper gun back in 1972,” Garfield said, “and as gelcoat has improved we’ve taken advantage of the changes. We use all isophthalic gelcoat and resins now. The battens inside on the overhead used to be wood. Now they’re closed-cell foam. We added a collar molding around the mast hole, but from the rail down is sacred. We build them today the way Marshall did then.”
Marshall Marine uses polyester resin and alternating plies of mat and woven roving for a total of seven in the hull and adds four more to make a total of 11 plies along the centerline and in the way of the centerboard trunk. The mast step is molded separately and taped in place, as is the trunk. The interior is rough glass textured by the final layer of roving, but the mat/gelcoat exterior shows surprisingly little print-through.
The hull/deck joint is an overlapping deck flange. Sealed with compound and bolted on 12″ centers with 3/8″ diameter stainless steel bolts (through a mahogany rubrail), it has kept deck leaks to “an absolute minimum” Garfield reports.
The owner of hull #66 (built in 1964) confirmed that “deck leaks have never been a problem. We did, however, re-bed the ports two years ago because they were weeping. The only house leaks are through the bolt hole in the handrail where we popped out a wooden bung. We also encountered rot in the aft house bulkhead due to water seeping through cracked fiberglass tape, and a centerboard leak where the glass encapsulating the pivot bolt cracked. The plywood floor of the cockpit has had to be reglassed in places where the original fiberglass sheathing wore away.”
Performance. Many modern sailors have never sailed a gaff-rigged boat. When we first sailed the Sanderling we found Hoyt’s criticism of “confusing hoops, lifts, and jacks” apropos. And certainly, if the gaff was a viable rig, why did it die? We’ve grown to see, however, that while it does take getting used to, the gaff is not entirely outmoded. The flex in it is a good thing, similar to a modern flex-tipped (or carbon fiber a la the Alerion Express Cat) mast. It bends to leeward and loosens the leech in the puffs. The gaff is also less bulky than even a modern full-length spar, and for that reason the upper part of the mainsail benefits from cleaner airflow upwind. Draft control is surprisingly precise via adjustment of the peak (the halyard that lifts the middle of the gaff as opposed to the throat, which controls the inner end). Hoisting and dousing sail are more complicated operations, but then there’s only one sail to tend. There is no boom vang and the traveler isn’t adjustable.
The standard mainsheet trims from the end of the boom. This clears the cockpit for passengers. One owner said, “We bought a mainsheet cam cleat to mount by the after end of the centerboard trunk but we’ve never gotten around to it. It’s just simpler to wrap the sheet on the horn cleat aft.”
Sanderling’s big sail is good for ghosting. It has a relatively slippery shape and has the ability to reduce wetted surface a lot by heeling a little. “I’m amazed,” said one owner, “at how well she glides in breezes too light to see on the water. She may look clunky and complicated but she’s a joy to sail.”
Said another sailor, “we’ve made six- and eight-hour passages in her and averaged better than 5 knots under sail. For an 18-footer she can cover the ground. We’ve been pleased at how she took rough weather (25 knots under single reef), too.”
More than 200 Sanderlings are raced in one-design fleets said Garfield. “That’s one of the reasons that the boats haven’t changed much.”
Alerion Express Cat
Design. Garry Hoyt is best-known for promotion and innovation in the area of free-standing rigs and sail handling systems. Currently he heads Newport R & D. With builder TPI, he has evolved the Alerion line of traditionally styled/performance-oriented cruising boats. The first of the line is the Nathaniel G. Herreshoff icon “Alerion,” redesigned by Carl Schumacher to produce the Alerion Express 28. While styled to resemble that classic, the 28 has less wetted surface, modern foils, lighter displacement, and simplified sail systems. As the ad copy proclaims, she’s a “classic beauty that will blow by most everything in the harbor.” The same formula of blending time-honored looks with up-to-the-instant performance has yielded the daysailer/overnighter Alerion Express 20 and the Alerion Express 38 cruising yawl. Always interested in ways to make sailing easier, it seems only natural that Hoyt next turned his attention to the catboat.
A Sunfish world champion and veteran campaigner in Finns and Lasers, Hoyt is well-acquainted with single-sail boats. A designer who has long focused on simplifying sailing, he has come up with a multitude of innovations geared to streamlining handling and boosting performance. Most noticeable of those on the Alerion Express Cat is the patented Hoyt Free Standing Self Vanging Boom. It’s the same idea as the Jib Boom used on other Alerion headsails and is similar in concept to Dave Bierig’s Camberspar‰ used to tension the vestigial jibs seen on Freedom sloops. On a catboat, it permits a loose-footed mainsail.
The Alerion’s sleeved mainsail rolls around a free-standing mast on “special Harken bearings.” A green “go” line and a red “stop” line for shortening sail further simplify the system. Thirty seconds of pulling on control lines and it’s deployed. Friction in the system is minimal. The Jib Boom is the least-traditional element in the Alerion’s looks, but it facilitates precise and variable shape control as well as roller furling ease of sail deployment.
The most-radical of Hoyt’s innovations is the rudder. Starting with the planform of the traditional shallow draft, low-aspect ratio “barn door,” Hoyt cut the rudder away below the waterline. The forward third of the rudder is a high-aspect ratio, foil-shaped pivoting blade. When drawn up it fills the cutout and the rudder looks and works like a barn door. When deployed it gives deep draft control and high-lift efficiency. The configuration also helps address the legendary weather helm that has always been the catboat’s Achilles Heel. “Tiller load,” said Hoyt, “is the real culprit. Reduce tiller load and you attack that problem.” During our test sail off Newport, Rhode Island, he demonstrated traditional weather helm on a beam reach in 10 knots of air with the blade up, and, in the same conditions, virtually no tug on the tiller with the blade down. Combining a conventional kick-up rudder with the barn door seems to work very well.
Less successful, we felt, is the effect this combination of modern elements has on the “timeless” catboat aesthetic. Carbon fiber spar and self-vanging boom catapult the boat out of the familiar into the futuristic. Sheer, hull proportions, and management of freeboard are aesthetic building blocks that we feel are somewhat jumbled with the Alerion. Though Hoyt’s design and the Sanderling undoubtedly come from the same cat family, the new boat is not the prettiest of the litter.
Hoyt describes the Alerion’s interior as a “huddling spot.” The entry is cubby-style beneath the foredeck rather than via a standard sliding companionway. Sleeping is athwartships on a pieced-together platform. There is space for a porta-potty.
Construction. TPI’s patented SCRIMP system is a proven technique for producing strong, lightweight hulls. It’s used on all J-Boats. By infusing the resin into the laminate in a single shot, TPI is able to count on a finished product with a high glass/resin ratio and a minimum of voids. The Alerion cat weighs just 1,750 lbs., and its moderately light displacement comes almost entirely from the weight saved by employing the resin infusion process in conjunction with a laminate schedule engineered to make the most of modern fabrics. The process bonds all plies simultaneously rather than depending, as does traditional layer-by-layer construction, upon a series of what amounts to secondary bonds. Air chambers aft and in the way of the mast provide positive flotation. A raised sole makes the cockpit self-bailing.
Performance. Under sail is where the advances incorporated in Hoyt’s design pay off. “It’s not that we walk away from Sanderlings, but on every point of sail we’re just a little bit faster.” Hoyt said. Whenever new cat has met old that’s been the case. The Alerion is significantly lighter than competing cats, has a foil-shaped centerboard, a dagger rudder, a larger sail, and a computer-optimized hull design. In very light breezes, the traditionally boomed Sanderlings seem, said Hoyt, to hold their sails better than the Alerion’s loose-footed main, but once the wind tops 3 knots the Alerion has proven faster.
Reducing weather helm is a significant achievement that gives the Alerion much-improved sailing “manners,” especially on a reach in a breeze. Hoyt gave his cat 300 pounds of internal ballast, 150 pounds in the weighted board, and that weight contributes righting moment as the board is lowered to its 4′ 4″ maximum draft. Also, it significantly reduces the braking effect of an over-taxed barn door rudder. The Sanderling has 500 pounds of ballast.
The catboat’s weatherliness was convincingly demonstrated when we sailed the Alerion off Newport. We hooked up with a J/22 (admittedly sailed by students) and more than held our own over 3 miles of upwind work in 12 knots of breeze and chop. Ancient as the cat rig may be, it was clear to us that this one is no dog.
Comfort and sailing ease are big parts of catboat appeal. The Alerion’s easy-handling sail systems, combined with the high coamings and maximum elbow room of the archetypal catboat cockpit, make the Alerion shine in these areas. The standard cockpit table on the Alerion is convenient and suitably placed for optimal bracing, but it takes up a fair amount of room and the clearance between it and the tiller is minimal. Sailing up to a dock or mooring is simplified because you can get rid of part or all of the sail at a moment’s notice.
A lightweight spar plus custom-built gin-pole simplify rigging and suit the new cat for trailering.
Catboats have proven virtues. Both the Sanderling and the Alerion Cat are nimble sailboats. (But both are a challenge to jibe in heavy air.) Both can carry more people in comfort than your average 19-footer. Both have superior initial stability but a centerboarder’s vulnerability to capsizing.
Marshall moved cats into fiberglass and used the materials and concepts of his day to improve the breed. Generations have embraced his design and the Marshall cat has become a mini-classic. Hoyt’s Alerion furthers the process. It is a clear step forward in performance and handling ease. The Alerion’s comfort under sail is superior, but by making the interior something of an afterthought we feel Hoyt reduced its overall versatility and creature-friendliness.
Contact- Alerion Express Cat 19, Newport R&D, 1 Maritime Dr., Portsmouth, RI 02871; 401/683-9450. Sanderling, Marshall Marine Corp., Box P-266, South Dartmouth, MA 02748; 508/994-0414.