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A HISTORY OF A CATS

It’s no accident that boats evolve from the waters they ply. The Scandinavians designed long,  narrow boats to battle choppy seas,  Dutch boats use lee boards on flat-bottom hulls to sail shallow waters, and the Polynesians created multihulls to swiftly travel from island to island. The mariners of Barnegat Bay needed sturdy boats to move cargo across its choppy waters. Single-sail catboats were powerful vessels that could handle heavy loads, and while big sails were a handful, they were necessary to make good time, efficient in both strong or light winds.

Being first to bring goods to market or deliver passengers has always been a priority for profit- minded   entrepreneurs. And racing for almost any reason is part of the fabric of human nature. It was inevitable that the workboats of Barnegat Bay would compete. With the advent of the railroads prosperous people could move easily, and like today, the “Jet Set” of the 1800s wanted to go to the sea. Elaborate resorts along the Jersey Shore attracted the well- to-do from Philadelphia. Along popular rail routes, yacht clubs were formed in Bay Head, Seaside Park, and Island Heights. Sailing the workboats became sport. It didn’t take long for owners and skippers to strive to sail faster, a passion that continues to drive the A Cat sailors of today.

Barnegat Bay and the Catboat

Dutch captain Cornelius Mey is credited with naming the inlet “Barendegat,” which translates as “breaking inlet,” due to the rough conditions where the bay meets the Atlantic. Inlets have opened closed through the years, but the long, shallow bay was home to Native Americans and, later, a sucession of settlers. The early settlers took advantage of the native white cedar to build watercraft, a necessary means transportation along the bay with all its coves, estuaries, islands, and marshes. Life on Barnegat Bay was not that difficult. Natural resources abounded, food was easy to come by, the pleasures of the bay and the ocean beaches were close at hand. The woods and marshes provided salt, hay, and timber. Glass was made from the ubiquitous sand, and the bogs provided soft iron.  And then there were the bay’s own riches: plentiful fish, seafood, and waterfowl. But one needed a boat to move around.

The timber had to be felled and hauled to various mills, and fish and seafood had to be caught and brought to port. A special kind of boat was needed to operate in the shoal waters of Barnegat Bay. They were generally wide, low, and stable, allowing for the transportation of passengers, timber, seafood, and other goods. These boats eventually became known as “catboats,” possibly derived from portholes in the forward part of the hull that resemble cat eyes. The low freeboard makes them look like cats lying in the grass. In the 1830s, Hazelton Seaman is credited with building the first Barnegat Bay sneakbox, a type of catboat, in West Creek. This small, extremely shallow-draft vessel was well-suited to navigating shoal waters and marshy coves. It was easily covered with camouflage for hunters. The first example was called a “devil’s coffin.”

In the early 1900s, J .H. Perrine began building sneakboxes in Barnegat. The sneakboxes were also daysailed purely for pleasure and raced competitively.

The Leisure Class and Racing

Once the railroad opened Barnegat Bay to summer visitors from New York and Philadelphia, names like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Gould, Astor, Kipp, Rhinelander, and Wanamaker were heard more and more in the little villages.

By 1871, there were enough sailboats informally racing on Barnegat Bay to prompt the town of Toms River to organize the Toms River Challenge Cup and to create the Toms River Yacht Club to host the race. Captains and crews of boats that plied their trades along the coast took great pleasure in outsailing each other. Wagering was prevalent, passions ran high during these races.

A suitable trophy for the Toms River Challenge Cup, a 3.5 -pound ornate silver “mug” with an anchor and line on the handles, was made by Tiffany – Company for the enormous sum of $17 5. This is the second oldest American sailing trophy in continuous competition, second only to the America’s Cup.

Rules for the July 27 race agreed that “the race would be open to all yachts with ownership not to have changed hands within three months of the event, and whose owners lived between Bay Head and Tuckertown.” The anchored start was to take place at exactly 10 in the mornmg.

Boats would draw for their positions on the line, and maintain a certain distance between them.

The trophy was hotly contested from the beginning. It was reported that armed guards stood watch to protect against night raids by other competitors. It all sounds similar to the atmosphere surrounding the America’s Cup of today.

Eight gaff-rigged cats competed in that first race. Vapor won and she immediately received four challenges.

The race committee met the next day and added a few rules, indicating there must have been fierce competition. For example, measurement protocols were initiated (there was the question of ratings even then). Catboats could only carry one sail, while sloops were permitted one jib and a mainsail. The Challenge Cup was raced again in October 1871, and Vapor won again. The racing was reported to be quite evenly matched, despite the boats’ design disparities. Just before the turn of the last century, two boats changed the competition on the bay. Amos Lewis’ Bouquet, a Carey Smith design, and Edwin Schoettle’s Scat, a 26-foot Crosby Cat from Cape Cod by way of Long Island, brought new design ideas. In 1896 the working catboats were edged out of competition by these yachts designed to win races. The workboats couldn’t compete with the newer “naval architect-designed” innovations.

The A Cat is Born

In 1922, Charles D. Mower, a well-respected boat designer, accepted a commission from Judge Charles McKeehan of Philadelphia to design a sailing vessel that would win the Toms River Challenge Cup, and specifically, to beat the gaff- rigged cat, Virginia, also designed by Mower. The result was the first A Cat on Barnegat Bay, the MaryAnn, built by Morton Johnson of Bay Head.

Mary Ann,, named after Judge McKeehan’s mother, was 28 feet long overall, 22 feet at the waterline, with a 12-foot beam. Historic accounts described the new boat as, “Not quite half as wide as long, but close. With her low freeboard and her shallow bilges, she draws two and a half feet, perfect for navigating shallow Barnegat Bay. Mary Ann has a large centerboard, and a substantial skeg, from which the underhung rudder depends. With her centerboard down she draws 6 feet, giving her serious biting-in capabilities to weather.” The A Cats started with a “Swedish” rig, that is, with the main high on the hoist and a 9-foot gaff. Quickly, the gaff was retired in favor of a Marconi rig. Mary Ann’s mast set well forward, towered 46 feet above the deck, with two shrouds on either side, three forestays, and running backstays. Her boom, at 28 feet, allowed for an enormous 615 square feet of sail area. She was built of native Barnegat Bay cedar on oak, fastened with bronze and copper. Mary Ann out-sailed the other contestants for the Toms River Challenge Cup in July 1922. As a result of Mary Ann’s success, within a year two more A Cats graced the bay. Ed Crabbe hired Mower and the Morton Johnson yard to create Bat, while Frank Thatcher built Helen at Hopper’s Basin. Helen proved to be so slow that Thatcher did not race her a second season: he had Spy built in 1924 at the Morton Johnson yard, virtually identical to Mary Ann. Helen was probably destroyed. The last Mower/ Johnson A Cat, Lotus, was built in 1925 for Bob Truitt.

Meanwhile, Francis Sweisguth, another well- respected designer who had done the Star boat in 1911 based on a design by William Gardner, also drew two A Cat designs in 1923: Tamwock for Francis Larkin; and Forcem for Edwin Schoettle, Ed Harrington, and two other unknown partners. In contrast to the Mower design, which had a sloped bow, Sweisguth’s plans called for a blunt bow. The skegs were also a bit different, but the cabin, cockpit, and sailplans were the same. Both Tamwock and Forcem were built by John Kirk. Susan Davis, the granddaughter of Edwin Shoettle, reports that Forcem was slow, and legend has it the boat was scuttled early in her life.

The Great Depression curtailed further expansion of the A Cat fleet, and Tamwock was destroyed in 1940 in a fire, leaving only four of the original seven A Cats sailing on the bay.

A Cats Revived

Nelson R. Hartranft was enchanted as a boy by the sight of these boats. There are many adjectives to describe them: exotic, bold, powerful, businesslike, graceful, and sleek. An A Cat makes one strong statement when you look at it. The bow looks ready to push away the choppy waves. It is no wonder that A Cat crews look so intense: the boat demands it.

In the 1970s, one by one Nelson bought all the existing A Cats, which by then had been subject to decades of decline. He had a plan: he was going to revive the class. Nelson first bought Lotus in 1974. Then he rescued Spy in 1975 and Bat in 1976. In 1978, he bought Mary Ann. He worked with other A Cat enthusiasts to keep the boats sailing, helping with repairs and passing them on to others at modest prices as long as the new owners would agree to maintain and sail them. Nelson wanted to build a new A Cat but he couldn’t find any plans for the original boats. He tried to persuade Beaton’s to build one, confident of their abilities to do so. Beaton’s was not persuaded. Then, incredibly, a set of Francis Sweisguth’s plans for Tamwock were found in a chest of drawers in an antique shop, enabling Hartranft to convince Lachlan “Lolly” Beaton to build a traditional A Cat. Beaton thought that would be a good experience for his son, Tom. And so the boat was built as it would have been decades before, using white oak, white cedar planking, and canvas on fir for the deck. The spars were built hollow, using spruce-staved construction, strong and lightweight. Tommy Beaton reflects, “For the size of the boat they are not difficult in a traditional sense, but they are a lot of work for a 28-foot boat. There’s a lot of structure to support the mast that far forward.” An A Cat takes 4,000 hours to complete. Nelson Hartranft’s new boat was christened Wasp in 1980, and caused quite a stir on Barnegat Bay being the first new A Cat since Lotus in 1925. Beaton went on to rebuild Spy and Lotus, and the Mary Ann and Bat were also rebuilt during this time. Pumping water out of the bilge was a tradition most A Cat owners wanted to retire permanently. Everyone expected that the last rebuilt boat performed the best.

Another resurgence in the class came when Peter Kellogg, once owner of the Lotus (1964-1971), re-caught the A Cat bug and asked John Brady, of the Philadelphia Maritime Museum, to build a traditional boat. Brady used the Mower plans, while Beaton was using Sweisguth’s plans. It’s iromc that Mower and Sweisguth are still competing 80 years later. Both would be proud to see their enduring designs performing so well.

The new Kellogg boat was christened Tamwock in honor of the original boat that had been lost in a fire. A previous owner, AI Diss, had been asked for his permission to revive the name. He gave his approval, along with a treasure trove of memorabilia from the original Tamwock. Beaton’s built another Sweisguth-designed boat in 1994. William “Doc” Fortenbaugh’s Ghost utilized modern building techniques, useful for go-fast racing, but not of the cut-throat variety. Fortenbaugh did very well with Ghost, giving the credit to Beaton’s careful construction, his crew, and the fact that he didn’t let water sit in the bilge. Tom Beaton, an accomplished sailor himself, gives as much credit to Fortenbaugh’s skill on the water.

Meanwhile, Peter Kellogg had sold Tamwock and commissioned another A Cat, again by John Brady, who was now working for the Philadelphia Ship Preservation Guild. Go-fast was definitely on both their minds. Vapor, also launched in 1994, was named after the boat that won the first Toms River Challenge Cup in 187l.

These new boats were competing with the original A Cats, now nearly 80 years old. By 2000, Spy was once again giving the bailers hefty workouts. Owner Roy Wilkins didn’t want to abandon the wanted a truly competitive boat. original Mower-designed boat, but wasn’t sure that the boat could be competitive after another re-build. Peter Kellogg to the rescue! He had a plan: to buy Spy and donate her to the Toms River Seaport Museum, where she would be repaired and become an exhibit. Wilkins could then use the sale proceeds to pay John Brady, now at the Independence Seaport Museum, to build him a new A Cat, and Kellogg would make up the difference in cost. Wilkins agreed. Who wouldn’t? Brady recognized that this boat would be different from the others he’d built. He consciously set out to build a light boat, but not one that would “ruin the class.” Launched for the 2001 season she was christened Spy II and, happily for Wilkins and partners Maggie Groff, Gary Stewart, and Richard Yetman, won the BBYRA Championship.

Yet another boat had joined the fleet that year, Raven, built by Beaton’s for a syndicate of four. Dave Alldian, Pete Stagaard, Cory Wingerter, and Mike Tufariello, who had earlier bought the Tamwock, which proved to be slow, wanted a truly competitive boat.

Strength for the Future

Time for a reality check amongst the owners. A Cats long held a sort of even trade-off between the boats. Everyone seemed to hit a winning streak every now and then, but the advent of new construction methods and modern materials had demonstrably altered the playing field.

The owners decided to establish several new rules. Their one-design class, after all, had two designers and a variety of weights. The lightest was Spy II at 4,096 pounds, and the heaviest was Tamwock at 5,126 pounds, 25 percent heavier. Something had to be done. Minimum weights were set, and ballast stations assigned for the boats that were deemed too light. For future construction, rules were set as to the materials used. No “exotics except for rudder and centerboard were allowed and minimum numbers of frames, both hull and deck, were decided. Sail composition and cut were standardized. Sailmakers were chosen who would provide the sails at a fixed rate.

The measurement adjustments worked. In 2003 seven out of ten A Cats won at least one race. In 2004, six different A Cats won races.

Three more boats have graced the waters of Barnegat Bay since 200l. Torch was commissioned by Peter Kellogg, built once again by John Brady to Sweisguth’s design. She sailed very nicely in her debut season, as did Witch, built by Bill de Rouville in Lanoka Harbor for Austin and Gwen Fragomen. And Steve Brick, owner of Lotus, one of the older boats in the fleet, commissioned Beaton’s to build Lightning, which was launched in 2003. In 2005, Brick had Lotus restored to proper weight.

To sail an A Cat well takes at least seven crew to gain enough stability, although the early BBYRA limited the class to only six. Ballast is important. In the future a maximum crew weight might be considered. The helmsman has to have enough strength and endurance to hang on to the tiller, and the main sheet trimmer has to have enough brute power to haul on the line without benefit of winches. The tactician has to be aware of the idiosyncrasies of the various boats. Some sail fast upwind, some fly before the wind. The rest of the crew must be content to lie flat on the decks. And, of course, bailout the water. When an A Cat tacks, the crew scrambles around the front of the mast to avoid the boom. Jibing in a breeze is a challenge. Centerboards have to be hauled up in shallow water, as the bay has a sticky, muddy bottom.

When they first appeared, A Cats captivated the attention of sailors and non-sailors alike. It is no different today. Millie Applegate was succinct in her thoughts, “Once you get on an A Cat, you never want to get off.” The same names keep coming up as crew. A Cat trophies seem to pass regularly back and forth between all the boats, one of the great attractions of the class. The competition is fierce and the races hotly contested. The class as a whole tends to self-regulate and that continues to attract dedicated owners.

A Cat owners are motivated people. Maintaining one of them is a big commitment. Nelson Hartranft led the way and Peter Kellogg continues to carry the torch, investing in the continuation of the class and allowing sailors with the requisite dedication access to these intoxicating sailboats.