Catboat Rendezvous

On the Run. With gaff sails outstretched, the Sanderling, Menger Cat, and Molly Cat (top, 1. to r.) coast down Buzzards Bay.

Cape Cod Character in a Trio of Pocket Cruisers

by Steve Henkel
photographs by Allan Weitz


For the type of small boat sailing that most of us do — knocking about in relatively sheltered waters, daysailing and weekend sailing along shore — a traditional gaff-rigged cruising catboat is an absolutely splendid choice. She’s pretty, full of character, and easy and fun to sail. Her deck is free of expensive winches and complicated rigging, and she can be singlehanded with ease. She can be made ready to sail, tacked, reefed, and put to bed in no time flat. She floats in water not much deeper than the morning dew and has more room for her length than any other sailing design.

All these great features are perhaps unsurprising in a workboat design that’s been perfected for over 140 years in the boisterous bays and sounds from Southern New England to New Jersey. But maybe the best thing about catboats is the people who own them. They’re a salty lot with a love for tradition, and many are highly experienced mariners who have commanded bigger, more imposing boats. Many also belong to the Catboat Association (7 Stillman Rd., Box 31, Saundertown, RI 02874), an organization of enthusiasts more than 1,300 strong, which organizes gatherings of catboats through-out the summer.

Last August, a group of us — SBJ editor Tom Baker, naval architect Eric Sponberg, and myself — attended a Catboat Association weekend rendezvous at the Concordia Boat Yard in Padanaram, Massachusetts. There we had the opportunity to check Out the 40 catboats in attendance and to meet the delightful people who own and sail them. But our real mission was to test three fiberglass cruising catboats in the 17- to 18-foot range and see how they compared. The three catboats we picked were the Marshall 18 (also known as the Sanderling), the 17-foot Menger Cat, and the 17-foot Molly Cat. By prearrangement, the owner-managers of the three companies that build the boats, John Garfield of Marshall Marine, Bill Menger of Menger Enterprises, and Phil Fernandes of Fernandes Boat Works, were present for the occasion.

The weather for our test-sails was only partially cooperative. It blew like stink and rained on and off throughout the weekend. Luckily, the rain let up and the wind subsided to 15 to 20 knots (higher in gusts), long enough to get some good sailing shots and to go over all the boats with a fine-toothed comb at dockside.

Rafted together, these beamy boats display the simple rigs and roomy cockpits that make cats a perennial favorite.