By Bob Perry
Beetle Cat: Lowtech Tradition
The Beetle Cat
Let’s say you want to listen to some music. Options abound, but first you turn on your tube-powered amplifier and wait a half an hour for the tubes to warm up and stabilize. You check each tube to determine that it’s working properly. You can even start by polishing the pins to ensure perfect contact.
Then you start your turntable and search through your venerable record collection. Let’s see, should I listen to a baroque trumpet concerto by Beiber or Elvis Costello?
With the tubes glowing and giving off a shimmer of heat, you check your cartridge and delicately brush off the needle, back to front only. You clean off your brush, then wipe the LP surface. Then, with steady fingers, you ease the needle down into the first groove and sit back. Sure, the record pops and crackles on occasion, but the sound is analog exquisite and transports you back to predigital days. Is it better or worse than a solid-state muscle amp powering a Wadia CD player? Beats me, but it sure is fun to have this degree of tactile involvement with the music. When audiophiles get bogged down in technical discussions, someone usually puts an end to the argument with the taunt, “It’s the music, stupid.”
Triode-power-tube-powered amps and Beetle Cats are not high-tech. They are “untech.” You have to haul up the throat halyard along with the peak halyard to get the gaff angle and throat tension just right so the sail sets properly. There’s no vang. There’s no traveler. There are no jib leads. There’s no crying in catboats. The centerboard is big and crude. The rudder is about as silly a shape as you can imagine. Heavy? This 12-foot-4-inch boat will weigh well in excess of 560 pounds when you are aboard. Balance? Beetle Cats defined weather helm. We won’t even discuss the speed issue.
But if the tube amp-turntable combination can truly express the ultimate in listener-involved music reproduction, then the Beetle Cat can express the ultimate in the personal sailing experience. This is not about high-tech. “It’s the sailing, stupid.” This is about enjoying an afternoon of sailing. This is about sailing along with your head about 2 feet off the water, tiller in one hand and mainsheet in the other. I know of no boat better able to convey the joy of sailing than the Beetle Cat.
I’ll tell you some Beetle Cat stories. When I was about 22 years old, I rented a houseboat on Seattle’s Lake Union. My dock neighbor was Dick Wagner and he had an eclectic fleet of small wooden boats he rented out. These included a Concordia sloop, several clinker-built Scandinavian sloops and two Beetle Cats. I would work on the boats in my spare time in exchange for sailing time. I sailed all the boats, but quickly chose the Beetle Cat as my ride of choice. Despite its genetic quirks, the little Beetle Cat just seemed to be the most fun. It’s stiff as a church and revels in a breeze.
Jaime Barerra, a boat building friend of mine, and I decided to race Beetle Cats around Lake Union after work. We bet a six-pack on the outcome. I used every trick to get my Beetle to go. Board up, board down, board partway up. More peak halyard, less throat halyard. I worked that boat and managed to beat Jaime by about 250 yards after sailing a 2-mile course. Back on the dock I asked Jaime if he had pulled his board up when he was off the wind. Jaime said, “Pull it up? I never put it down.”
It was a blustery fall afternoon, and I decided I’d take a Beetle Cat out. Barreling along, I thought I’d light my pipe. I was in the middle of the lake so I just steered with my foot and ducked my head under the foredeck to get out of the wind. This took some time, but eventually I had a blaze going in my bowl when ? Bam! The boat came to a jarring halt. I had run head-on into a big, black, steel navigational buoy. I was probably doing Beetle Cat hull speed — all of 4 knots — at the time. The boat was fine. The steel buoy had a dent in it and some of its paint was rubbed off onto the cast bronze stem pieces of the Beetle Cat. Beetle Cats are very strong.
I’ve got more stories, but let’s take a look at the history of the boat. The Beetle Cat was designed in 1921 by the Beetle family of Clark’s Point, New Bedford, Massachusetts. The Concordia Co. bought the rights to the Beetle Cat in 1946. In 1960 Concordia’s Beetle Cat Division was moved to South Dartmouth. Leo Telesmanick was the foreman and stayed with the project until his retirement in 1983. Charlie York was trained by Leo and in 1993 bought the rights to the Beetle from Concordia. Leo still looks in on the shop. Today there are more than 3,500 Beetle Cats.
Beetle Cats are true to the traditional Cape Cod catboat model. They are fat and heavy. They have no overhangs. The strange-looking rudder is designed to give you control in a very shoal-draft boat. Unfortunately, this puts the center of pressure on the rudder blade way aft which exaggerates any helm pressure. The stern is broad. The mast is in the eye of the bow. I’m not going to quote numbers. This is not about numbers.
When you first sail a Beetle Cat, you will be impressed with its big-boat, solid feel. I don’t think you could tip a Beetle over without a lot of concerted effort. I certainly never even came close to capsizing one, and I sailed them in lots of breeze. You sit down low in the Beetle, so the sense of speed is exaggerated. The expansive cockpit is roomy enough for two big adults. You could even sail a Beetle with a crew of four if you wanted.
The big gaff mainsail looks great. The gaff sail has a nice, if not the most efficient shape. Off the wind, the sail presents a good amount of sail area. Upwind, the gaff falls off, inducing a lot of twist to the mainsail. Note the way the low boom overhangs the transom. You will learn a lot about controlled jibing sailing a Beetle. The rig is not a weatherly rig, but then again, the hull and board are not weatherly either. If it takes you six extra tacks to get back home, that’s just six extra tacks of fun.
This is a fabulous-looking boat. Beetle Cats are built in the plank-over-frame method of wooden boatbuilding. No, there are no GRP Beetle Cats. Beetles are planked with Atlantic white cedar over white oak frames. The seams are caulked (pronounced “corked”) with cotton. The deck is framed in white pine with cedar planking covered with canvas. The fastenings and hardware are all bronze. The spars are fir.
(That was fun.)
There’s a place for Mumm 36s and 600-watt Krell solid-state amplifiers. They are a blast. There’s also a place for 15-watt single-ended tube amplifiers on Beetle Cats. I imagine taking a future grandchild sailing. I’d like to introduce the child to sailing in a simple, old-fashioned boat that emphasizes the romance and unique experience of sailing. If you want high-tech, go sit at your computer for three hours. If you want to go sailing, find a Beetle Cat.
Sturdy, traditional catboat with a lively personality.
|Draft||board down 2′, board up 8″|
|Sail Area||100 sq.ft.|