Catboats have been a staple of Bay Head Yacht Club since our founding in 1888. So much so, that in 1978, the Club officially declared the Sanderling the official sailing class of BHYC. To this day the Club has a vibrant catboat fleet featuring a total of seven Sanderlings and 25 Sandpipers, the Sanderling's little sister. The success of these boats, not only at BHYC, but up and down the Barnegat Bay, can be credited to the entire history of the catboat, specifically the graceful and awe inspiring A and B cats. Their story traverses time and is deeply embedded in our home waterway and our yacht club. Without knowing the full history behind these crafts it is hard to understand how they have retained their place as the ideal vessel for competition and leisure on our waters.
A catboat is classified as a sailing vessel featuring a single unstayed mast placed well forward near the bow. They are handcrafted and are constructed out of a mix of cedar, ash, fir and spruce and take roughly 5,000 man hours to complete. Although there is still a debate as to where the first catboat was built, it is undeniable that the vessel excelled in the shallow waters of Barnegat Bay. With a length of 28 feet and boasting a 46 foot mast outfitted with a 600 square foot sail, the catboat was well equipped to transport goods such as timber and seafood up and down the bay. The catboat was the closest thing we had to a modern day ferry as it effortlessly traversed passengers between the western mainland and the barrier island. This jump started the New Jersey tourist industry. By 1886 a railroad bridge had been constructed connecting the mainland to the island, eliminating the need to only travel by water. These new transportation options paired with the continued increase of sailing clubs up and down the coast had catboat owners beginning to outfit their vessels for competitive sailing.
The catboat was altered forever in 1922 when Charles D. Mower revolutionized the traditional design. Honing in on a low stance, shallow draft and deep centerboard a new breed of Barnegat Bay racing craft was about to be born. The most unique aspect of his new design was the use of Marconi-rigging, which was much more efficient than the traditional gaff-rigging style. When it was finished Charles McKeehan was presented with a vessel that would forever change catboat racing. The vessel was respectfully named Mary Ann, after his wife. She effortlessly claimed the cherished Toms River Challenge Cup in her first season. As a result of the immediate success of Mary Ann three additional catboats were constructed in the embodiment of Bat, SPY and Lotus. All were crafted by Morton Johnson Boatworks in Bay Head, New Jersey. With a consistent string of Challenge Cup victories by this fleet of marconi-rigged boats a choice was made to create 2 classes differentiated by the rigging styles of the vessels. Thus the A-Cat and more traditional B-Cat were officially born.
Over the next 50 years three additional A-Cats joined the ranks ramping the fleet up to seven. However, by the end of the 1970's the entire fleet was in peril. With the hope of saving them Nelson Hartranft, a retired businessman from Ocean Gate, made the decision to purchase the four remaining crafts and begin the restoration process. Working with several local boat builders, Hartranft restored and sold all four boats to dedicated Barnegat Bay skippers. The sweetest part of the entire project was the rediscovery of the original plans in a Toms River Antique Shop. This led to the construction of the first new A-Cat in nearly 60 years. With the plans now available, BHYC's very own Peter Kellog built five more A-Cats throughout the 1990s. This reassured the success of the fleet for years to come. These magnificent vessels continue to dazzle throughout the golden New Jersey summers, gracefully gliding up and down the Barnegat Bay, still competing for that cherished Challenge Cup.