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Beetle Cat

courtesy of Classic Boat magazine
Ubiquitous Beetle Cats. They seem as much an all­American icon as blue jeans. With more than 4,000 built they seem to be everywhere, especially on the New England east coast, where the catboat type traces its lineage back to the simply rigged, strongly built, shoal­draught working boats with their characteristic unstayed mast set well forward in the bows, dating from the 1840s onwards.

And the 12ft (3.7m) Beetle Cats have themselves been built for nearly 100 years now. They came about in 1921 in New Bedford ­ the Massachusetts home to America’s whaling industry where James Beetle had built a business supplying open whalers to the whaling fleet; there’s even a Beetle Street in New Bedford. Between 1834 and 1854 Beetles were building 50 whalers a year.
This was successful. In fact it was so successful that the company boasted it could build a whaler from laying the keel in 48 hours. Beetle had developed a production line for this, with pre­made pieces of the boat fashioned and ready to hand to be assembled. It was one of the world’s first production lines and Beetle history has it that Henry Ford visited the workshop prior to developing motorcar production in Detroit.

The 1920s were the last gasp for commercial whaling in America but also a time of burgeoning pleasure sailing and so in 1921 John Beetle, the current head of the firm, produced this sweet­lined, charming family dayboat. Cut to today and in a curious twist of history the modern Beetle Cat firm, now based in Wareham, 10 miles up the road from New Bedford, last year built the whaler for the restored-to-sail whaling ship Charles W Morgan (CB318). Current CEO and owner of Beetle Cat Bill Womack explained that once they got the scantlings, from the Whaling Museum at New Bedford, they realised the Beetle Cats were made exactly the same way as the earlier whalers. "We found planks, frames, the keel sections, were all the same thickness and width to what we were used to ­ so the original Beetle Cats must have been made with cut­down existing stock from the whaler trade. It was a joy to build a whaler again and the museum even had the old iron Beetle branding stamp we could use," says Bill, who describes himself not as the owner, but as the fifth caretaker in 93 years.

It’s great to hear that the carvel plank-on-frame Beetle Cat is built the same way today as it was in 1921. Earlier in CB’s trip to this part of the world I had seen piles of old Beetles waiting to be restored at the International Yacht Restoration School (CB317), and it’s hard to find a New England sailor who has not at some point sailed in one, or indeed learned to sail in one, at one of the many clubs that established racing fleets from the 1920s onwards. There has been an annual Junior Championship, initiated by the New England Beetle Cat Boat Association since 1940.

So it’s tempting to call the Beetle Cat the forerunner of class boats like the Optimist. The two craft certainly have simplicity in common, but you can’t deny the children’s Opti its cardboard box parentage, whereas a Beetle Cat is a sublime little boat that can be sailed by a 10­year­old as well as a large man. Its super­wide beam makes it very stable, giving it a good carrying capacity - up to six of you can sit on the bottom boards for a picnic day out with both hampers and crew protected from spray by the foredeck, which extends well aft of the mast.

"The 14 is a boat that’s bigger for the baby boomers to get into"
The boat is fairly heavy, for a dinghy, at 450lb (204kg), but this makes it stable too. And larger owners praise the capacious bow sections that allow a man to stand forward without tipping the craft; the low mast to deck ratio also keeps the boats upright at their moorings in weather. That shoal draught, with the barn­door rudder that does not extend deeper than the keel also makes them ideal for exploring creeks in sand­bar country; there are several aficionados who camper­cruise them. Some fleets, like the rainbow fleet of Nantucket, are famous.

Bill took over Beetle in 2003. The company had by then moved to South Dartmouth after the last family member ­ Ruth Beetle, famously a school teacher as well as a boatwright ­ had seen it through the 1930s. Her brother Carl sold it to the Concordia (yawl) Company after the Second World War and they had run it as a separate division from the yacht business, making some 50 boats a year, overseen largely by Leo J Telesmanick, a legendary craftsman who ran it through to 1983. Leo made a few improvements ­ most notably upgrading the fastenings from galvanised iron to bronze in 1973. The company was still making 25 or so boats a year in the 1990s, under Charlie York, who’d trained with Leo. At a spry 71, Bill Womack, a civil engineer by trade, describes himself as:

"Someone who should be retired, but I’m still working my ass off!" Alabama-born Bill decided to move Beetle away from the waterfront to Wareham where there was more space to expand. The company offers winter storage facilities for Beetle boats, with a maintenance programme that ensures your pride and joy gets back in the water each spring in tip­top condition. "We keep them in tobacco barns with pine sidings to let the air through," Bill explains in his engaging southern drawl. They can squeeze 110 boats into one barn and will even drive out to collect boats locally. The service starts at around $425 per year and is clearly a boon to the business in times when new boats are expensive. A deluxe version of this service, at $2,000, involves remedial work. "But if they do that then they get the boat back up good in a couple of seasons," says Bill.

At the side of one barn there are four "ponds" where boats can take up so that they are watertight on launch. It’s a simple thing but ensures no sinkings as the boats get back out onto their summer moorings.

New boats are being built too, about 10 per year, and of the same clear grain white cedar and oak that Beetle has sourced for nearly two centuries. They are made the same way, using pre­machined parts formed on the original mould. The business employs five craftsmen with Michelle Buoniconto running the office. Head craftsman Bill Sauerbrey also designed the Beetle 14 in 2007, which has thwarts to sit on and expands the rig to 180sqft (16.7m2). "It’s bigger for the baby boomers to get into," comments Bill wryly. The new 14 costs $35,350 (£22,550), which is a baby booming step up from the $17,495 (£11,160) of the 12 ­ reflecting much more boat in those two extra feet.

"We sell a 40­year boat here," assures Bill. "If you store her properly over the winter, then the materials and construction are good for at least that longevity." Bill’s passion for the class extends to providing a room for the association to use, and so the memories of the class are here too. Clearly the pretty, ubiquitous Beetle Cats are in fine form.

For more information on Beetle Cat, visit beetlecat.com and beetlecat.org.

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