Building Meercat – A Very Small Catboat
by John Watkins
Rather than wanting a bigger boat, I find that I keep wanting a smaller one.
I had a 30’ keelboat, a Yankee One-Design, which was great. But wouldn’t it cost less and make life simpler if I had a smaller one?
I restored a 50-year-old Snipe but, with my bad back, it was too heavy for me to pull up on the dinghy dock by myself, and it would only hold two people, so I had to have exactly two people every time I went sailing.
I designed and built a sharpie, Black Swan, using the Snipe rig. She was light enough for me to pull onto the dinghy dock and roomy enough for three people. I was very pleased with this boat as long as I kept it on a dinghy dock. Then I moved to Vashon Island, where it cost more than $100 to get on the ferry while towing a boat on a trailer. And the rather complex Snipe racing rig took a while to set up on launching.
Clearly, I needed a boat that I could fit in the back and under the canopy of my 1997 Nissan truck, could pull out and plop in the water, and still take a friend out on.
I’d been teaching myself to use the Delftship yacht design software when I ran across an ad on craigslist for a $200 El Toro. The 8’ bullship seemed to fit the bill, except that if I took a friend, they’d need to be small, and the daggerboard and rudder would snub when coming into a beach, and if I needed to tow the boat behind another vessel, water would shoot up the daggerboard case and the El Toro would stubbornly refuse to exceed its hull speed of about four knots.
I bought it anyway, for the rig, then designed a boat of about the same beam and a little more length that could readily accommodate two adults, row well and tow well and exceed hull speed rather than sail under in the comical fashion I’d seen back when I raced El Toros in strong winds.
The El Toro rig is a cat rig. Most catboats were perfected by the Crosby family of Cape Cod. If the boat were to have the displacement to carry two people and be narrow enough to fit in a truck bed with a canopy, I needed to keep the beam narrow.
There is an older type of catboat, the New York catboat, in larger sizes given a sloop rig. One of these catboats, the 16” Una, wowed the British when she showed up at the Isle of Wight in 1852. The type, in addition to inspiring the sandbaggers who raced in the 1860s and 1870s and Cape Cod catboats, also led to the British centerboard dinghies, which were revolutionized by Uffa Fox and became in their turn the basis for most racing dinghies today.
An example of the type is Comet, designed and built by Archibald Cary Smith in 1862 and raced both as a catboat and a sloop. She was pretty much designed on the building molds, but John Hyslop took her lines off about 30 years later.
My boat would have to live out of the water and still not leak and I’d need to design it for construction by a method a 10-thumbed wood butcher like myself could do. I chose plywood, and stitch-and-glue construction, which should allow me to build the boat in the narrow window of at most two months in which an outdoor boat builder can count on not too much rain in the Pacific Northwest.
This meant that I would have to find some way to simulate the slack bilges of the New York catboat in plywood. At nine-and-half-feet long, my boat is about half the length of Comet, but has nearly the same freeboard, which I think is about the right amount for a boat this size. Because she is a catboat, I’ve given her a barn-door rudder, but put it behind a short, deep skeg so that she’s not too likely to be caught in irons. The midsection, by the way, is quite a bit like that of the very first boat I ever owned, a Thai sampoa, with a narrow, flat bottom, angled bilges and straight sides, though on the sampoa these are formed by the coaming. This midsection gives a good compromise between load carrying, stability and resistance. It also means that when lightly loaded, the boat is sporty and fast; with two adults aboard, it is stable and easy to sail.
I needed scale drawings of the templates for the plywood panels, but the free version of Delftship does not allow you to print these out. A Canadian on-line friend, Bruce Taylor, had helped write the code for Deftship, and been given the professional version in return. He printed them out and sent them to me.
Then, I changed the design. Too embarrassed to ask for the favor a second time, I discovered that I could download Freeship, the program Delftship was derived from, replicate the design in it, and print out the panels in 1/12 scale. Vashon Printing & Design scanned them and printed full-sized panels on their plotter. Meerkat’s midsection is based on the midsection of the Thai sampoa that is on display at CWB.
I still wasn’t out of the woods. I needed bulkheads to put the panels around, to help give the hull shape. I lofted those from the offsets Delftship provided. Then I glued the sheets to doorskin panels, thinking I would be able to use a router to make a nice, clean cut on my building panels. They proved too thin for the roller on the router bit to read properly, so I laid the panels over my 4 mm okume marine plywood (scarfed to the right length), roughed them out with a jigsaw, and finished them with a hand plane.
It only took about a week to produce the shape of the hull. At this point, the hull was fairly flexible. I used a spreader – a 1×1 with some screws in it at the right places – to hold the right beam, and added the right weights and support to straighten out the hull before I added the sheer clamps (1×1 rails inside the top of the sides) and the decks enclosing the air chambers at bow and stern. At that point, the boat was fairly stiff.
Then I had to design and build the centerboard case and centerboard. A boat designed to be launched at a beach needs a kick-up centerboard so that you can sail into the beach without having it stop the boat the way a daggerboard does. It has to be fitted to the shape of the bottom, and it needs something with a bit of meat for the key. I put a 6’ x 6” x ½” piece of western red cedar in the bottom to key the centerboard case into and provide some strength. It took longer to do this, cut the slot for the centerboard, build the centerboard case and build the centerboard than it did to build the hull.
I used 4mm okume for the sides of the centerboard case and 1×3 pine for the bed logs for the case, with some half-inch western red cedar at the top and on the sides to take the loads of the centerboard pin.
The case is designed to take up as little room as possible in the boat while providing a nice, long leading edge to the centerboard, which is key shaped. The fairly high pin allows me to have less of the centerboard case and its lifting handle ahead of the pin while still having enough board in the case to provide plenty of structure. The board is half-inch plywood, strong for the minimal forces that will be placed on it. I made the front edge rounded, the back of the board tapered, and didn’t worry too much about a perfect foil shape. I figure when I’m sailing the angle is set by a line through a hole at the top, which I cleat on the case.
Because Meerkat is much deeper forward than the El Toro my mast came out of, I built the mast step so that the mast is suspended about 8” above the bottom of the boat. The fillets, by the way, are milled fiberglass mixed with epoxy, which have proven strong enough for my friend Bruce Smith to go pounding around at 30 knots in his little powerboats. I didn’t like the idea of sanding this mixture, so instead I used fairing compound to cover them and faired that.
I couldn’t get the boat out of the backyard by myself, so I enlisted the aid of Joby, the local postmistress, and took her on the first sail.
Meerkat (the name means sea cat, though why a creature that is the South African equivalent to a prairie dog is called that I don’t know) stepped along nicely, though it quickly became evident that the 45-year-old mast was too flexible and the 45-year-old sail was a horribly blown-out bag.
But no time to worry about that. I’d finished her just in time for CWB’s Norm Blanchard W.O.O.D. Regatta. A couple of instrument makers from Dusty Strings helped me carry the boat down to the dock and launch her. The next morning, after a brief conference with a naval architect about what revisions we should make to the Colleen Wagner, the Egret replica The Center for Wooden Boats uses for public sails, I ducked out in time to rig the boat and go racing against a Beetle Cat (which rates faster) and a Pelican (which rates slower) and in a class where my fleet times were compared to El Toros.
The sail still looked like a bag, but Meerkat proved quick in spite of it, gaining a provisional rating a bit faster than the better boats in the El Toro class. I won my class, but unfortunately the glue joint between the two halves of the ancient mast failed in the last race and my mast split vertically.
Well, I’m now ready with a new mast, my old sail, and a “Meerkart” for Meerkat so that I don’t have to rely upon the kindness of strangers for help loading or launching the boat. Anyone want to go sailing?