WRITTEN BY Chris Gaydos | PHOTOGRAPHY BY SEARCHINGFORAMERICA.COM AND MARSHALL MARINE CORP.
Seeing a fleet of sailboats darting or cruising the shallow waters of Barnegat Bay makes one think of fun and leisure. If you stop and look closely, you might spot a small sailboat, wide in the body with a mast positioned far forward, a lengthy boom, and a four-sided gaff-rigged sail. You would be looking at a catboat—a uniquely American boat originally described as far back as the late-1700s and whose design has remained virtually unchanged in more than 200 years.
The catboat of the 1800s was not an object of leisure or sport, but was used by watermen who worked the bays for their abundant resources. These boats could be seen in the waters along Cape Cod, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey, their popularity reaching a peak around 1880. Sailing the catboat with its shallow draft and single large sail, watermen could navigate the treacherous waters along a bay and haul oysters, scallops, fish, traps, and nets in the cat’s versatile wide beam design. Winslow Homer’s 1876 painting, “Breezing Up,” depicts a catboat hauling in a day’s catch.
As railroads were built to bring tourists and sportsmen to South Jersey, the catboat also worked as a ferry to transport visitors to the coastal islands. Summer boat excursions became a source of leisure and the catboat adapted nicely to families seeking the cool bay breezes. Catboat racing is said to have started around 1900, but probably started decades earlier as watermen sped to get their “catch” to the market as early as possible to obtain the best prices. Early catboat racing was for working watermen and their boats only. Use of the catboat as a working vessel declined with the development of better sailing designs and gas engines, but did continue throughout the early 1900s until WWII.
Originally built with local cedar and oak, variations of Jersey catboats include the sneakbox used primarily for duck hunting, garveys, and sea brights. Today’s catboats are primarily built with fiberglass. In 1962, boat builder Breckenridge Marshall built the first fiberglass cat, the Sanderling. The Sanderling dominates the LBI catboat scene and several island yacht clubs have catboat fleets. Harvey Cedars has hosted an annual Labor Day cat-boat race for the past 27 years.
How did the name “cat” come about? A few popular theories exist. The two portholes, often seen along the waterline are said to peer out like the eyes of a cat. Some believe the name started when early catboat designer Herbert Crosby is said to have commented “These boats sail quick as a cat.” Regardless of its origin, the name has remained. The catboat continues to work for those who enjoy sailing them—it appears not much has changed over the past 200 years.