Chatham Yacht Club

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Beginner's wooden daysailer | Boat plans, Boat, Wooden sailboatBeetle Cats at Chatham Yacht Club

– Ted Dickson

There are several origin stories for Beetle Cats at Chatham Yacht Club. The first mention is in the handicap system that Alan McClennen, Sr. devised in the late 1930s. The Handicap Fleet sailed under a complex formula based on waterline, sail area, and weight (we have the original notes in the archives). Over the 2.84 mile Head-Winslow-Sipson course (the only three buoys at the time), Knockabouts were the scratch boat, and Beetle Cats had a 3 minutes 25 seconds handicap. On May 31, 1941, John C. Atwood, Jr. wrote a letter to Alan McClennen, Sr. indicating that he was not interested in trading his Catabout for a Mercury, and then included the following: But may I ask the favor of your early advice on the following. We want to purchase at once a safe small boat for our young children to sail this summer. We want a cat boat with lots of beam and a very shallow rudder - one which will lift the rudder out of the water and head up before it heels so far as to capsize. Mrs. Atwood says that Mrs. Rogers, a member of the yacht club, told her that there are several such boats around Pleasant Bay known as “Beetle Cats.”

Chuck Bartlett remembers those early years this way: My family first came to the Cape during the Second World War. At that time, all the boats on the Bay were made of wood. There were two fleets of boats racing at CYC. The so-called handicap fleet consisted of Baybirds and Cape Cod Knockabouts. The second fleet consisted of Mercuries. Occasionally a Catabout would race with that fleet. After the War, fiberglass boats began to appear on the Bay. In particular, one was the imitation beetlecat made by the Beetle Boat Company. This boat was 12 feet long, beamy and had a large cockpit like a Beetle Cat. What was distinctly different was that the Beetle Boat had a tall mast and a marconi-rigged sail. The first Beetle Boat on Pleasant Bay was purchased by Mrs. Carolyn Rogers, a past Commodore of CYC. My father thought this was a great boat because it was the right size for me, I was 12 at the time; it didn’t leak, unlike wooden boats; and it needed minimum upkeep. He bought a Beetle Boat for me to sail in 1948. Now that we had two Beetle Boats in our harbor, Mrs. Rogers thought it would be a great idea if we raced on Saturday afternoons at CYC. And so we did, for eight races during the summer of 1948. Mrs. Rogers was alone in her boat, and I raced with my best friend at the time, Dudley Summers. The fleet expanded in 1949 to include two more Beetle Boats (including one owned by Corinne Benson) and some traditional wooden Beetle Cats. A point of much discussion was which boat was the faster and should one be handicapped over the other. The issue was never resolved, and we just raced against one another. Sometimes one boat won and sometimes the other. With the expanded fleet, we were able to race on some Tuesdays that summer along with the Saturday races. We had started a whole new class of boats for CYC. The series pennants I received those two summers have “Beetle” printed across the top. My impression is that the Beetle Boats quickly died away as a part of the CYC fleet as the wooden Beetle Cat became the class boat.

But, ever since 1949, there has been a class of 12-foot catboats racing at CYC.

The Carolyn Rogers and Corinne Benson who Chuck mentions both served as Commodores at CYC and may have even been the first female Yacht Club commodores in the United States. The 1954 CYC membership list identifies four Beetle Cats; by 1956 there were five boats; and in 1957 there were fourteen (including five owned by one of the sailing camps). In 1955, Marty Rich won both the Saturday and Tuesday Beetle Cat series and John Ryan, Jr. won the Junior Series. The Summers family bought one of those wooden Beetle Cats, named the Jolly Three, in 1949.

The Jolly Three was built in 1926 and had seats! It sailed at CYC for 65 years and made its last appearance on July 3, 2021, helping CYC finish second in the Chatham July 4th Parade. It was the first Beetle Cat that I skippered in a race in 1974. It has been retired to Beetle, Inc, to be disassembled and then studied as a historic artifact. The Beetle, Inc people think that the "shear of the bow" is different from modern Beetles, which may explain its speed despite the additional weight of the seats, since the sail was not believed to be bigger than the standard size.

In 1955, CYC started a sailing school for the children of members with 26 students. The first director was Charlie Leighton, who would go on to become the Executive Director of US Sailing. From the very beginning, the beginners in the Crew class were taught by an instructor in a Beetle Cat. Even with the onset of Optimists, this is still true today. Virtually every sailor who has gone through CYC’s sailing program has started in a Beetle Cat, and many of them have returned to the fleet as adults.

In the 1960s, there was a large and active Beetle Cat fleet at CYC, racing competitive series on Tuesdays, Thursdays (Junior), and Saturdays. For example, in 1969, Dorothy Cary won the Juniors ahead of Cathy Knight and Billy Ryan (Dorothy also skippered the Mighty Mites that year); Chris Donnelly won the Midweek Series; and Bill Clary won the McClennen Bowl for the Saturday series. 

Chatham Yacht Club sailors also competed in the SMYRA Beetle Cat Championships, which was an event run separately from NEBCBA. One of the yacht club’s best young sailors, Sammy Rogers, Jr., won this championship in 1967.

In the 1970s, CYC members became more active in participating in and hosting NEBCBA events, as well as in racing Beetles at other locations such as the Beverly Yacht Club Junior Regatta. The club hosted the 1972 Women’s Championship, the Tired Parents in 1977, 1985 and 1987; and the Men’s in 1986. Intraclub eliminations were held each year to determine who would represent CYC at the Mighty Mites and the Juniors. In 1980-1982, intrepid young CYC (10-11 years old) sailors formed their own “Bassing Harbor Yacht Club” and would take their Beetle Cats for overnights around the Bay.

The “Bassing Harbor Yacht Club” members were the same sailors that sailed the Mighty Mite events for CYC, and in 1982, three of these youngsters won the Mitey Mites for the first time for CYC: John Dickson, Jeff Howell, and Peter Viechnicki. CYC’s increased involvement in NEBCBA events was rewarded in 1983, when CYC won the Chairman’s Trophy for the first time.

A number of CYC members served as NEBCBA officers in the 1980s and onward. Bill Coleman served as Secretary from 1986-1988, and Dolly Howell served as Secretary from 1990-1994. Ted Howell served as NEBCBA Treasurer from 1994-1996, and Kim Donovan served as NEBCBA Treasurer from 1996-1998.

In the 1990s, Roy Terwilliger joined the Beetle fleet at CYC and became the pied piper of Beetle Cat sailing at CYC, working with other club members such as the Colemans, the Howells, and John Dickson to increase NEBCBA participation even further. Roy also served as NEBCBA Vice Chairman 1994-1996, as Chairman 1996-2000, and as Treasurer 2004-2006. CYC hosted the Mitey Mites on Pleasant Bay in 1991 and 1995. Mike Berdik and crew won the Mitey Mites in 1990, and Jonathan Spring, Elizabeth Sampson, and Paul Ronty won it again for CYC in 1992. Jonathan also won the SMYRA Beetle Cat Championship in 1995. CYC won the NEBCBA Chairman’s Trophy in 1993, 1995, 1997, and 1998.

When the NEBCBA Championships evolved into the Leo J. Telesmanick Regatta, CYC hosted in 1995, 2009, 2014, and now again in 2021. In addition to Roy Terwilliger, Cathy Taylor was a driving force behind hosting these events as well as a very competitive sailor, winning the CYC Women’s Series several times.

In 2021, beginners at CYC still learn in Beetles, and we average eight boats on the line for every race series (Tuesdays, Women’s Series on Tuesdays, and multiple races on Saturdays). CYC sailors racing Beetles in club races range in age from 3 to 94! We are honored by the opportunity to celebrate two centennials by hosting the 2021 Leos.


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