Cruising: Beetle Cat Sailor Families

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Is there a better way to take advantage of a perfect summer day than aboard a Beetle Cat?

Is there a better way to take advantage of a perfect summer day than aboard a Beetle Cat?

When you talk to Beetle Cat sailors, it’s immediately apparent you’re talking about more than just a 12ft 4in catboat.

“It began with my great-grandmother, who bought a boat for her four sons in 1928. They named it after her, called it the Queen Mary,” says New England Beetle Cat Boat Association Chairman, Bob Hawes. “My grandfather sailed it with his brothers on [Massachusetts’s] Westport River, and then when he came back from the war, he married his best friend’s sister, my mother, and immediately bought a Beetle Cat. My mother’s name was Ann, so he named it the Queen Ann.” Bob also brought his daughters, Heather and Jillian, up in Beetle Cats, and Heather now has three children of her own, all of who will someday skipper the family Beetle Cat, Pollywog. That makes six generations (and seven Beetles) for the Hawes family.

As adults, Heather and Jillian still race Pollywog together every summer. “I love that time together. I’ve always been her crew. There have been fights and tears, but most of all lots of laughs,” Jillian says. “Honestly,” she adds, turning to her sister, “if you ever had to get a new crew, it would probably drive you crazy.”

“It would,” Heather agrees, half-jokingly, “You’re the only person I can boss around and not feel bad about it.”

“A couple times I’ve wanted to jump ship during a race,” Jillian says. “All the boats around us can hear us bickering. They think it’s hysterical.”

“It’s more than the just racing, though,” Bob insists. “When I see them going out on their own or going out with their children, you know they’re learning lessons that go way beyond just sitting in the boat.”

Another mainstay of Hawes family lore is Bob’s father, a mariner in the truest sense of the word. “Our grandfather would sit on the dock with binoculars, and he’d say ‘Jill, bring her around again!’ He had this very distinct voice, very slow and steady,” Jillian remembers. It was only in his final years that the family learned he’d earned a military Silver Star in the Second World War for hand steering a heavily damaged ship to safety after the entire command staff above him was taken out of action in an attack on the ship’s bridge. A nearby hospital ship had been turning other ships away due to the rough seas, but he was able to pull alongside easily—docking with a precision he credited to his time spent in the Beetle Cat. “My grandfather used to say, ‘Once you master a boat like the Beetle Cat, you can sail anything,’” Heather remembers.

An Extended Family

Half an hour northwest of the waters the Hawes family has been exploring for generations, the Edgewood Yacht Club in Cranston, Rhode Island, is home to one of the country’s oldest Beetle Cat fleets. “Beetles have been at Edgewood from the late 1920s through today, without any years off. But within that tradition there have been ups and downs,” says former Edgewood commodore and current archivist, George Schuster. Like the Hawes family, he’s a legacy Beetle Cat sailor. His grandfather was a commodore and his mother, Janet Bouclin, grew up sailing a Beetle Cat. Today, George has a Beetle Cat that his teenage daughters sail—named Sea Shell after his mother’s beloved Beetle.

During what Edgewood sailors now refer to as their “Golden Age of Beetle Cats,” the club was home to well over 50 of the boats, and though they were bought for the children to learn in, parents also soon formed leagues of their own—a men’s league called the Peppy Pappies and a women’s league called the Wet Hens.

“If you look over time, from the Wet Hens to the present day, the Beetle has been a boat where women have successfully competed with men, and where gender has not been a barrier,” George says, noting how from the earliest days of Beetles, daughters were taught to sail alongside sons. This early female involvement and leadership went all the way back to the builder—Ruth Beetle ran the business in the years leading up to the second World War when few other women were running shops.

To this day Edgewood has a large youth program, though in the 1970s it began including fiberglass boats as well. Some kids prefer the speed of a 420 to the gentle pace of what Heather affectionately refers to as a “wooden bathtub.” But while she’s far from alone in acknowledging that the boat isn’t perfect, she and other Beetle Cat fans are equally quick to note all the things it’s so good at—exploration, adventure, freedom and building lasting relationships. That’s why, 50 years after Edgewood brought in fiberglass boats, Beetle Cats have yet to be eclipsed by the club’s Sunfish and 420s. “You won’t see a child and their grandparent out in a 420 together, but you will see them in a Beetle Cat,” George says.

The Boat

The boat itself is special both functionally and aesthetically. It’s no accident that while hundreds, even thousands, of other designs that have come and gone since the very first Beetle Cat splashed back in 1921, the class has not just survived but thrived.

“When you go into wooden boat shops, it’s so special with the smell of the oak and the pine planks. Unlike other boats made from fiberglass, wood is alive. It’s not synthetic. It’s like an antique piece of furniture, you respect it.” Bob Hawes says. Wood is part of the allure for many Beetle owners. However, for others, it’s a concern. Beetle Cat Inc.’s current owner, Bill Womack has heard this complaint many times.

“The thing you have to remember is that any boat you have is going to require maintenance,” he says. “Every boat needs bottom paint. Every boat needs spars and has brightwork that needs varnish or oil. The sails need to be washed and dried. The rigging needs to be replaced. Beetles have a cedar cockpit, which isn’t painted. There’s no maintenance for that. So we’re down to the topsides. You have to sand it, prime it and paint it. On a fiberglass boat, you clean it, wax it and buff it. People get scared of maintenance, but they don’t know what it entails.”

At Edgewood, they have a special way of managing this issue: The Garage, a makeshift workshop housed in club member Wayne Kezirian’s garage that is now home to a creative, collaborative group of Beetle owners who work together to maintain their boats.

“No one knew what they were doing, and they decided to figure it out together. In the spring, when they have to replace a garboard or a spar or whatever it is, they’ll get together and share the knowledge or if they don’t have the knowledge, they’ll figure it out.”

For the Hawes family, on the other hand, the knowledge of how to take care of the boats is another thing that has been passed down through the generations. Bob remembers the tradition of sanding, varnishing and painting the boats every May, and Jillian has begun to teach her nieces and nephew.

The Edgewood fleet is still going strong nearly a hundred years after its creation

The Edgewood fleet is still going strong nearly a hundred years after its creation

“Last year, Memorial day weekend, I brought out the sander because that’s what my grandfather did,” she says. “He got out the sander and said ‘Jill, it’s time to paint the boat.’ If you can get your kids invested at the early stages, it will continue.”

Of course, not everyone shares Jillian’s enthusiasm for the tradition of maintenance or Edgewood’s community to assist them. Many people simply lack the time or interest to learn. So, while the boats haven’t changed in 100 years, the business model for Beetle Cat, Inc. had to, as Bill Womack realized that if he wanted people to keep sailing Beetles, he was going to have to help them out.

“When we took over the company, we realized that families needed someone to do the maintenance for them,” says Bill. “So, we service the boat and put it on the mooring so it’s right there when they come down to the summer home. In 2003, we had 25 boats in the storage barn over the winter. This year we had 250 boats in the barn. We take care of them all. We paint, varnish, commission them in the spring then go get them in the fall.”

Whether passing down the knowledge from generation to generation, figuring it out with friends or simply letting the experts do what they do best, Beetle owners have no shortage of options when it comes to maintaining their wooden boats. And with each boat having an expected lifespan of 40 years, that’s a very good thing.

“The world has evolved, and it’s so much more complicated,” Bob says. “We’re tugged in so many different directions, and people are so stressed. The buzzword today is ‘mindfulness,’ but there’s nothing more mindful than sailing a Beetle Cat and just quietly listening to the water lap against the bow. You’re observing nature. Maybe it’s the poetic side of why Beetles are important to us.”

There’s a nostalgia with which these sailors all talk about their Beetles. They’re never just talking about this Wednesday night’s race or this weekend’s plans. It’s always superimposed with every past summer and every loved one who’s already gone or yet to come. When combined with decades of history and the craft of maintaining these boats, it’s clear that this community has captured something timeless and magical. 

100 Years in Brief

Like many of New England’s best sailing yarns, this story begins with whaling. Through the 1800s, money was flowing into Nantucket and New Bedford in the form of whale oil, and the enterprising James Beetle was determined to get his share by building boats—over 1,000 of them in the course his 20-year career. Along the way he also developed an assembly line process by which a prefab, 28ft combination rowing-and-sailing boat could be made and delivered in just 48 hours. Many of the boats ended up on the Charles W. Morgan, the last whaling ship to sail out of New Bedford and America’s oldest commercial ship still afloat.

By the early 1900s, steam was in and sails were out for commercial seafaring, and James’s son John knew it was time for the family business to shift gears in order to keep up with the times. He built the first Beetle Cat in 1921, after designing it for the children of the Beetle family. In no time, the assembly line was crafting scores of them. “It took off like a house afire,” says current company owner, Bill Womack. “Young people at the Duxbury Yacht Club had a fleet up there as early as 1924.”

The Beetle Cat had numerous selling points that made it a perfect starter boat for children. A wide beam and shallow draft made it difficult to tip but easy to navigate among New England’s sandbars and rocky seabeds. They are entirely wooden and virtually unsinkable. A proclivity for weather helm kept even the most absent-minded children out of too much trouble, and simple rigging made learning easy.

Upon John’s death in 1928, the business passed to his brother, Charlie. It remained very much a family affair as Charlie hired his son-in-law, John Baumann, as builder and niece, Ruth, as bookkeeper. Both Charlie and John passed in 1936, leaving Ruth in charge. Though a school teacher by trade, she successfully managed the family business and ran the shop until WWII broke out and production was forced to go on hiatus.

After the war, Concordia bought the business from the Beetle family. “The economy was kicking off, and yacht clubs, sailing clubs, youth groups, they all were looking for a boat that they could teach sailing in,” Womack says. “The assembly-line fashion made it so that Concordia was the only company that could produce the number of boats needed for every kid to sail in an identical boat.”

Leo Telesmanick, who’d worked for the Beetle family’s shop since he was 15 in 1930, was put in charge of building the boat at Concordia, and he continued to do so until his retirement in 1983. Ten years later, Concordia sold the rights to Charlie York who built the boats for another ten years before selling the rights to Womack in 2003. “If it survived the past 20 years, it’ll survive the next 100 years. As long as you can find someone to keep building them, they’ll survive,” he says.

June 2021

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