What are Catboats?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 06 April 2020
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Catboats are a type of sailing boat native to the coastline of New England, where they were originally developed for fishing. Catboats continue to be used for this purpose today, and they are also utilized for recreation, with some people even racing catboats, although their design is not ideal for racing. These boats were also historically used for transport and may be used for this purpose in some island communities.

The design of a catboat is characterized by a single sail, which is carried forward on the body of the boat. Catboats are also typically broad, about half as wide as they are long, and they can accommodate a lot of people and equipment as a result. Traditionally, catboats are gaff rigged, although other rigging styles may be used as well.

History suggests that this design appeared in New York around the 1800s, and was gradually adopted in other areas. Catboats are well suited to inshore navigation, with a shallow draft which allows them to be used in relatively shallow waters. In heavy seas, they can become tippy and dangerous, making them less suitable to applications which involve offshore waters. When outfitted for racing, substantial changes to the boat can also result in instability and a lack of safety, which is one reason why catboat racing is not as widely practiced as it once was.


This style of boat is very popular in the United States, and some catboat owners belong to enthusiast organizations which promote the use of catboats, celebrate their heritage, and collect information and artifacts of historical interest. Several firms continue to build these boats, including firms which specialize in traditional handmade wooden boats, which can be quite beautiful in addition to very costly.

The term “cat” is sometimes used in reference to a catamaran, causing some confusion. A catamaran is a type of hull structure, while a catboat is a style of boat. The meaning is usually clear from context, but novice sailors sometimes find these two similar terms perplexing.

People who are interested in sailing on a catboat may want to contact an enthusiast organization to get a list of sailors in their area who own catboats and offer tours or trips. Some sailors are also happy to answer questions and take visitors on tours of their boats if people happen to be wandering a harbor and they see a boat which looks interesting with someone aboard.


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