|When the railroad arrived at the Jersey shore the cat boat was there, waiting, ready for the opportunities this development would bring. In the popular imagination the event most defining American life after the Civil War was the driving of a golden spike at Promontory, Utah in 1869. A great picture was taken there but the real profits that made such a risky venture seem worthwhile were being made in much more prosaic places: places that had no Indians left to resist, places were a hold up was a dairy cow standing on the tracks probably ruminating on great cattle drives and disappearing bison. Places like New Jersey.
The cat was waiting, having migrated down the coast from New York harbor some years earlier, prior to the Civil War. In those days the cat was more of a sloop really. Her summer apparel was a jib and mainsail. In winter she did business as a simple cat. These were practical working boats; they existed to oyster, haul freight , and carry passengers. They were denizens of the aquatic meadow lands around New York, shallow , wide, and amply rigged. The fastest evolved into the sandbagger, famous for the size of their rigs and the wagers placed on a machine as likely to capsize as to finish a race. The sandbaggers were sprinters among dray horses, they quickly moved so far from their roots as to be unsuited for any actual work unless a whole different rig was placed in them. The boats that moved down the coast did so to work and they left the summer rigs of New York in favor of the cat’s simplicity and practicality. Their rigs still appear large to the modern eye but they had several sets of reef points, no other means of locomotion in light air, and sailors expert at handling them because they did so every day
Trains brought people in droves eager to escape the hot, yet to be air conditioned cities of New York and Philadelphia. The sea breezes of the beaches and back bays of the New Jersey coast proved impossible to resist from June to September. They still are. The first trains did not reach the barrier islands, the back bays were transited by boat until bridges were built. Hotels were financed by railroad men; they had to create destinations once they had laid the track. It wasn’t long before anyone with capital was putting up a hotel.; it was as close as a businessman could get to a sure thing. The development of beach front property was as rapid as anything a modern developer could wish. The infrastructure didn’t quite keep pace with development, while trains could deliver crowds to the hotels that sprang up, only boats could carry them along shore. It was only much later with the advent of the car that local roads would be seen as a viable means of travel.Some people just aren’t made to sit on a beach or a hotel verandah. For them relaxation comes to resemble boredom a little to closely. A true respite from the heat and toil of the city soon requires a dose of adventure, a boat is needed. Before long the local water men realized the opportunities and became fishers of men and fish. Piers and clubhouses were built where client and Captain could meet. The local boat builders were busy and journeyman from shops around New York and Philadelphia found opportunities to set up on their own along the shore. Some of these built cat boats but there were also specialists in the garvey, sneakbox, and seabright. Each type would follow its own trajectory through history, sometimes intersecting and sometimes diverging from each other. All of this based on the restless vacationer in need of a picnic on an unexplored beach, a fishing trip, or hunting expedition, and soon enough, the urge to race.
A person in need of a boat in the 1860’s started by deciding which of the local types suited his needs then went to a builder who specialized in that type. If the desired model was significantly different from the builder’s stock boats a half model was made and key dimensions taken from that. Drawings, science and mathematics did not enter into it except maybe in the matter of money. The builder knew what to do as had long line of predecessors, the apprentice system ensured that this information passed from one generation to the next. Designs evolved over time to suit specific functions and specific bodies of water and each came with rules of thumb for establishing proportions and scantlings. The process was organic and slow to change but the resulting boats were well suited to their work and no more expensive than they had to be. They were a sort of folk science of the highest order.
With his commission in hand the builder set to work. He knew the only way to get a boat built and make any money was to attack the rather complex procedure directly. Nothing was done that was not essential to the boat’s function. These weren’t yachts in construction or finish. The one element that dictated the life span of the finished boat was the fasteners. In those days iron nails were the most common way to hold a work boat together. That iron was more durable than modern steel though not as strong but it still placed a limit on durability, typically somewhere between 20 and 30 years depending on maintenance. There was no point in providing joinery that would last longer than the nails and in these utilitarian vessels frills were kept to a minimum though staving would be beaded and doors occasionally utilized raised panels. It was an age that assumed a certain level of decoration even in simple objects.
To start a big piece of oak, say 10” by 12” by roughly the waterline length of the intended vessel, was dragged into the shop and set up on blocks Often the available stock dictated the boat’s length. A centerboard slot was drilled and cut, and a rabbet roughed in. The stem was set up with a knee to support it . Aft a stack of wood on top of the keel and backed up by a stern post took the upward curve of the rabbet and gave something to attach the transom to. All of this was held together with drifts or rivets. There was a huge amount of handwork with ax, adze. chisel and plane but the routines were well established and the skill with tools as phenomenal as it was taken for granted.
The frames were often cedar crooks gotten from the roots of the same trees that provided the decking and hull planking. The shape of the available crooks might also influence the finished shape of the boat. In later boats frames would be sawn out of oak boards and bolted together to keep a good run of grain. With the stem, transom and midship frames set up the master builder would set up battens and describe the shape of the remaining frames. A boat built for capacity would have a full midsection , one built for speed would have a sharp angle to the bottom. A wine glass transom and hollow bows were seen as attributes of a fast vessel. These shapes gave a great deal of efficiency when moving heavy weights with a small amount of power. In the days before power a premium was placed on light air ability. In a strong breeze these boats would kick up a big bow and quarter wave but reefing was always an option, Any boat could get home with wind to drive her, the trick was to get there when drifting across a glassy bay. Not coincidentally the clipper ships employed the same concepts.
The frames were up and held in place with battens and cross spalls, as planking commenced . Spiling, steaming , fitting , fairing and caulking went quickly. The decisions were behind the builder now, he just had to do it. A ceiling went into the living / cargo areas, not the ends. The sheer clamp provided a landing for the deck beam ends. Hanging and lodging knees were put in where it was thought necessary. The deck was usually tongue and groove and might be canvas covered if it was not expected to suffer a lot of abuse. The cockpit staving was a major hull stiffener. Paint was applied to the surfaces that were directly in the weather but not the bilge or under the fore deck etc. Often the frames and floors went in with the sawyers marks still on them. Providing the issues of drainage and ventilation were attended to and good quality white oak and white cedar were used it was rusting metal, not rough or unpainted wood, that determined the life of these boats. Built in short order with a high degree of skill at a reasonable cost everything about the working cat boats was utilitarian.Catboat rigs had a simplicity that only comes of long use and development; wood jaws on the gaff and boom, hoops around the mast but lacing on the other spars. The running rig was guided by wooden cleats and wood shell blocks. Usually there was no standing rigging at all. The spars were solid and heavy but quickly made and dependable in all weather. Metal work was expensive and kept to minimum.
But what is with those cabins? Sometimes a perfectly proportioned graceful hull was topped with an ungainly structure that might not have looked out of place on the fore deck of a battle ship if it had a couple cannon sticking out of it. These cabins were actually built in a number of styles, staved, paneled and steam bent. They could reflect the character and craftsmanship of the builder even more than the hull. All of the cabins had large windows, sometimes with removable glass, sometimes with a canvas covering. All were removable in the early days. A boat out racing would leave the cabin on the dock saving considerable weight and windage by so doing. With their low freeboard and strong sheer lines these early cats looked very graceful when the cabin was left behind.
A glance at a photograph taken at that time immediately reveals the utility of these rather ungainly structures. What a lot of clothes people wore then. Direct sunlight on the skin was to be avoided at all costs and there was no sun block. No gentleman escorted a lady without his jacket and no lady appeared in public without enough layers to survive a polar expedition. Wearing all that regalia it is no wonder the crowds were eager to leave the heat of the cities. Such fashions greatly enhanced the value of a well ventilated, shaded area and the day cabins provided that. Being open aft they permitted the passenger free communication with those in that part of the boat. The windows could be closed against rain or spray and opened when sailing off the wind. So whatever their appearance, which could be quite handsome once the eye grows accustomed to their height, the day cabin was essential to the well being of the passenger.
The summer time weather conditions on the back bays were very conducive to the charter business and sailing in general. On a hot summer day a sea breeze can be counted on as the land heats up . This generally comes up out of the south west just after noon and builds all afternoon usually peaking at 15 to 20 knots. A charter Captain had all morning to prepare for his guests and the guests could enjoy a leisurely morning before setting out for the docks. These same conditions made it fairly easy to sail up and down the coast though heading south required good windward ability. The cat rig was always considered the most weatherly and these conditions could place a premium on that quality.
A charter cat set out on a great variety of expeditions. Before dawn they would drift out with a flotilla of sneakboxes laden with decoys in tow. The guide would lead his sports to a favored sedge and moor the cat to it sending the sneak boxes out to hide in the reeds. When the hunt was over the cat would tow her charges home, possibly providing a warm beverage in the process. All manner of fishing expeditions were undertaken both for pleasure and profit and at all hours of the day. In the shell fish industry the cats provided a base of operations for a fleet of garveys and some were even built to operate as buy boats. Crabs, bluefish, flounder, shad, stripers, sea bass and numerous other species were to be readily caught along much of the coast. On the way to and from these fishing and hunting spots many an impromptu race was undertaken and it was inevitable that more formal contest should be arranged with cabins left behind and rigs tuned to perfection or at least with the sail stretched out as best it could be.
The first formal racing was for the Toms River Cup in 1871. A club was formed and a trophy purchased in the town of that name, From the first cat boats from New York to Beach Haven showed up to compete. A number of the early winners of this contest came from the shop of Capt. Bill Force of Keyport, New Jersey. Capt. Force was a noted builder of sandbaggers in New York. The Barnegat boats all carried sandbags but generally sailed with the cat rig though many could be rigged as sloops. A tattered photograph of Bill Force’s Martha still exists. She has a plumb stem and transom, an out board rudder, a rather rudimentary day cabin. and a slender solid mast. The large sail has a rather low peak and the boom extends well outboard. Other boats from this shop are Rival, winner of the cup in 1883, and Gem, winner in 1886 and 1893. Martha herself won in 1876, 1882, and 1884. The cup records are intermittent but do extend to the present day and provide a good indicator of the types of boats raced in each era. It is fair to assume that the boat types through this period were similar as no single boat appears to dominate the field. By the 1880’s the under slung rudder was introduced allowing the transom to be kept clear of the water, producing a straighter run and giving vastly improved steering when off the wind. This was the classic New Jersey cat boat with a plumb stem, under slung rudder, low freeboard, day cabin, and large gaff rig. Fleets of these boats would be built and used along the full length of the New Jersey coast.
Within these parameters a considerable variation in hull shape could be found when looking over the work of various builders. Some thought a narrow transom provided better sailing though these absolutely had to be kept flat in a breeze as there weather helm was even more brutal when heeled. Most builders tended to carry the wide beam all the way aft. Some boats were built with hollow garboards and a marked deadrise, giving up some carrying capacity in the search for racing silver. Each boat carried the unmistakable stamp of her builder and much research needs to be done to assign these styles to the builders responsible more than a hundred years after the fact. The professional yacht designers who would follow these prolific rule of thumb builders had a cornucopia of ideas to choose from when they sat at there drawing boards and worked out solutions to the problem all sailing presents.
A date that radically altered racing on the back bays was 1893 when the Nat Herreshoff creation, “Merry Thought,” entered the bay and started winning races. Commissioned by Philadelphia business man John P. Crozer, ‘Merry Thought” so dominated the work boat fleets that races once attracting 40 boats soon attracted none and cat boat racing in the Beach Haven area died out completely. The working boats built in the old manner cost between $1,000 and $1,500, “Merry Thought” cost $5,000. So it has always been and will always be with racing. In design, cost, and construction “Merry Thought” signaled the arrival of the industrial revolution in relatively small scale boat building. She had a spoon bow with its cut away forefoot, and full forward waterlines. She had an underslung rudder and was steered with a horizontal wheel, Her freeboard was rather higher than the local cats and she had no day cabin though some shelter was to be had under the fore deck. For ballast she carried lead shot in bags with leather handles. Like many of the older New York boats she could be rigged as a sloop or a cat, though she raced as a cat. All of this was the outward manifestation of a much more profound change. Boat building was no longer the province of folk science and rules of thumb, it had become a process of engineering and building to precise plans. A successful boat may still be a blend of art and science but now science would have its full share. Those who embraced this trend won races. Those who did not or could not retired.
The impact all this had on the south Jersey cat boat cannot be overstated. On the heels of this new trend in racing came another revolution in how boats were powered. Almost overnight the work boat fleets of North America lost their rigs to be pushed along by small internal combustion engines. At first the existing boats received auxiliary power. As soon as confidence grew in the engine’s reliability the rigs were left ashore. These boats did not exist to sail, they existed to perform tasks made much easier and more profitable by mechanical aid. Piers once lined with boats drying their sails now had not so much as a single mast. Cabins were made even higher as there were no booms to clear them. As boats wore out and were replaced their shapes and construction were altered to suit the new propulsion. Another type existed, better suited to be the beginning of this design process than the heavily built cat. It was the Sea Bright skiff found on the beaches which would become the very well known Jersey Sea Skiff. And so the reign of the working cat over the marshes and beaches of south Jersey came to a close.
The advent of the internal combustion engine and soon after it the car had another effect on how boats were used, an effect that came from the construction of roads and bridges. The boat was no longer the most efficient way to move up and down the coast. Boats were out on the water for work or pleasure but they were no longer considered basic local transportation. The hotels now competed with cottages and bungalows as the best shelter for a vacationing city dweller. The charter business was limited to deep sea fishing cruises as smaller boats were sailed by their owners.
But there was sailing for pleasure, both cruising and racing. A number of the old boats hung on as family boats and the development of the cat as a racer continued at a phenomenal pace in the upper reaches of the Barnegat Bay. Among other things the “Merry Thought” showed what could be gained by separating the design process from building. Nat Herreshoff still used models to describe the shapes of his boats but from there the design went to a team of draftsmen who made detailed drawings for the builders. In Herreshoff’s case this all happened in one location but the two processes were very separate none the less. This was a more expensive way to build unless several of the same type of boat were being built or if the boat were large enough to absorb the cost of the set up. This may have been a factor in why no more Herreshoff boats would dominate Barnegat Bay racing. It was the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company after all, not the Herreshoff Boat Shop. The building of relatively small one off boats remained the province of small shops located close to the places the boat’s sailed, but now they would be drawn up by professional designers located in the cities close to the owner’s place of business.
Now the builder received a set of plans and construction began on the loft floor rather than with the keel timber. Precise patterns were made for the backbone and stations were set up to wrap the light steamed ribs and planking around. The size of every component was shown on the plan rather than left to builder’s instincts. Wood was chosen to suit the plans, altering the shape of a hull to suit a piece of wood soon became unthinkable. Quit rapidly the public perception was that there was no other way to build a good boat. As the early 20th century progressed building by eye might be mentioned in writing about boats and even admired in print but few builders actually did it. Boats were now built in much the same manner as ships and the method would not change until the materials boats are made of changed.
The effect all of this had was to change the nature of local types forever. Ideas were borrowed from boats up and down the coast , the Cape Cod Cat came to the Barnegat and vice versa for example. when designing a new boat the architect had access to a wealth of information about the boats that had preceded his and a knowledge of what other designers were doing with the types. Boats came to be recognized not so much by region as by designer and type. A cat boat designed in 1900 frequently could be based on the Cape, the Barnegat or on the Great Lakes. The Barnegat boats retained the character of their predecessors for some time but those characteristics could be found elsewhere as well. The development of rig and hull form exploded in these new conditions. To stay competitive a skipper needed to change boats every year or two. Handicap rules were devised in an attempt to even the playing field between new and old but these were exploited and led to the creation of extreme forms. When a correction in the rules was attempted a whole new form evolved, seemingly overnight. Trying to even the playing field before the advent of the one design class was like trying to hold Jell-O in a wide mesh net.
By the turn of the century at least one Crosby cat had worked her way down from cape Cod, winning a string of victories on Long Island Sound along the way. This was the “Scat,” built in 1896 and purchased by Edwin Schoettle of Island Heights, N.J. a few years later. “Bouquet” designed by A. Cary Smith and built by Amos Lewis of Forked River, N.J. proved to be a match for her. Bouquet was a pretty and fast boat, fitted with a day cabin when not racing. She received a great deal of attention as the boat to beat and was considered a “wholesome” design, meaning she was suitable for cruising and family outings when not racing. The list of designers who had their creations competing for the numerous cups now being sailed for on the Barnegat Bay now included F.O.Bailey, C.D. Mower, W.P. Kirk who was also a builder, V.D. Bacon and Nat Herreshoff. To be competitive it seemed the skipper needed to bring out a new boat every year or perform major alterations to the last year’s model.
The handicapping rules soon favored scow like hulls with long over hangs and large sails. Shifting ballast was still permitted but the trend was to sail without it, utilizing a large crew to keep the boats flat. Hollow spars with their attendant standing rig were becoming the norm. The hulls were highly engineered utilizing truss systems, hull strapping, bilge boards, and a number of ingenious ways to relieve the pressure on the mast steps. By 1906 the press began using the word “crank,” to describe the boat’s sailing character. This may have been due to cavitation around the spade rudders which were in use but not yet thoroughly understood. “Wholesome” wasn’t winning races. Eventually there would be a reaction to this and to the costliness of buying new boats to stay competitive, The era of one design racing was fast approaching.
In the 1920’s one last effort was made to bring back the wholesome racer. The handicap rules were altered to produce the A Cat . Charles Mower and Francis Sweisguth each designed versions of the class with fixed cabins, interior accommodations and a large marconi rig. The designers so well matched their creations to the body of water they race in that the boats are competing on the Barnegat to this day. With the advent of the A class cat boat racing was divided between the A class and the B. The B class continued for a time with the 1924 Sweisguth creation, “Silent Maid” as the queen of this fleet. Silent Maid was a big Cape Cod style cat, 33’ x 12’6” with a gaff rig though Sweisguth designed her with a marconi rig as well. She had a large cabin and innovations like outside ballast in her skeg. The B class faded from the racing scene however and has only returned relatively recently in the form of modern fiberglass cats with aluminum rigs. That resurgence is a separate story however.
In most surveys of working sail in its last days the Jersey cat seems to only manage the status of a footnote. Yet hundreds of these boats were built and refined by builders all along a couple hundred miles of mid Atlantic coast. Though a distinct type, they existed in numerous variations bearing the individual stamp of their creators and even after they passed from the scene the Jersey cats had a large but unrecognized impact on the development of light displacement hull forms. If a person were looking for a day sailor / cruiser of reasonable cost suitable for use in the waterways from New Jersey to Florida the late 19th century New Jersey cat boat would still be an excellent choice.
Photographs from; Independence Seaport Museum, Ocean County Historical Society, Toms River Seaport Society, Tuckerton Seaport, Atlantic Heritage Center, Herreshoff Museum