1. The crew of A Cat Tamwock moves deftly in front of the mast as the boat tacks.
2. A crewman grabs a downwind ride on
the boom of A Cat Torch.
3. Bill de Rouville Jr., left, and boatbuilder
George Schuld work on Wasp, the first of
the new generation of A Cats, at de Rouville’s boat shop in Toms River.
A Cats require a crew of six to eight experienced sailors.
They are especially challenging in a strong breeze. The skipper steers the boat with a long tiller, fighting to keep it close
to the wind. The mainsheet tender—typically, a sailor of great
physical strength—controls the boat’s long boom and huge
sail without the help of the mechanical winches common on
other racing boats. The remainder of the crew needs to be agile, leaning hard over the rail when the boat heels and moving
swiftly in the front of the mast when the boat tacks.
The A Cat era started in 1922, when Charles McKeehan, a
Philadelphia judge who summered at the Jersey Shore, commissioned yacht designer Charles D. Mower to build a boat to
compete in the prestigious Toms River Challenge Cup. The
prize: a majestic silver mug from Tiffany presented by the
Toms River Yacht Club since 1871.
Mower designed a new breed of catboat with a low stance
for stability, a shallow draft and a deep centerboard suitable
for local waters. Built by the Morton Johnson boatyard in
Bay Head, it had a modern Marconi sailing rig that was more
efficient than the older Gaff rigs common on working boats.
McKeehan named the boat Mary Ann after his mother. In her
first season, Mary Ann fulfilled McKeehan’s dream of winning
the cherished cup.
Sadly, the A Cats almost disappeared in the late 1970s. Four
of the original seven remained, but were literally falling apart.
At that point, two men stepped forward to keep the A Cats
from passing into the history books, explains Chip Hillyer, the
fleet’s current captain. Hillyer organizes A Cat events during
the racing season.
Nelson Hartranft, a retired businessman from Ocean Gate,
purchased the four boats before they were scrapped. Working
with local boatbuilders, Hartranft restored the A Cats to sailing condition and sold them to skippers who were dedicated
to racing. Incredibly, the original plans were discovered by a
boatyard worker in a Toms River antique shop. That enabled
Hartranft to build a new A Cat—the first in 60 years.
Hartranft’s new boat, which he dubbed Wasp, was constructed by master boatbuilder Lally Beaton at David Beaton
& Son boatyard in Brick. Five more A Cats were built and sold
in the 1990s by Peter Kellogg, a retired Wall Street trader who
summers in Bay Head. (Kellogg owned the A Cat Lotus as a
teenager in the 1930s.) Several more were constructed in New
Jersey in 2001 and 2002—at a cost of about $250,000.
The A Cats race nearly 30 times a season—a huge time
commitment for all involved—competing for series honors as
well as historic yacht club trophies, many named for famous
Barnegat Bay mariners. But more than the victories, the skippers savor the tradition. “We don’t want to see these A Cats
disappear,” says Stewart.
You can see the A Cats for yourself from River Avenue in
Toms River near the Island Heights Yacht Club ( 65 River
Avenue). Informal races take place on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons throughout the summer. ■
Freelance writer/photographer Art Petrosemolo covers horse
racing, sailboat racing and other action sports and events.