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Building Meerkat

a very small catboat
by John MacBeath Watkins Rather than wanting a bigger boat, I find I keep wanting a smaller one. I had a 30-foot keelboat, a Yankee One-Design, which was great. But wouldn't it cost less and make life simpler if I had a smaller one? I restored a 50-year-old Snipe, but it was too heavy for me, with my bad back, to pull up on the dinghy dock by myself, and it would only hold two people, so I had to have exactly two people every time I went sailing. I designed and built a sharpie, Black Swan, using the Snipe rig. She was light enough for me to pull on the dinghy dock and roomy enough for three people, and was very pleased with this boat as long as I kept it on a dinghy dock. Then I moved to Vashon Island, where it cost more than $100 to get on the ferry while towing a boat on a trailer. And the rather complex Snipe racing rig took a while to set up on launching.


Clearly, I needed a boat that I could fit in the back of my 1997 Nissan truck and under its canopy, pull out and plop in the water, and still take a friend out on. I'd been teaching myself to use some yacht design software, Delftship, when I ran across an ad on Craig's List for a $200 El Toro. The 8-foot bullship seemed to fit the bill, except that if I took a friend, they'd need to be small, and the daggerboard and rudder would snub when coming into a beach, and if I needed to tow the boat behind another vessel, water would shoot up the daggerboard case and the El Toro would stubbornly refuse to exceed its hull speed of about four knots. I bought it anyway, for the rig, then designed a boat of about the same beam and a little more length that could readily accommodate two adults, row well and tow well and exceed hull speed rather than sail under in the comical fashion I'd seen back when I raced El Toros in strong winds. The El Toro rig is a cat rig, so I designed a catboat. But most catboats are based on the Cape Cod catboats perfected by the Crosby family. If the boat were to have the displacement to carry two people and be narrow enough to fit in a truck bed with a canopy, I needed to keep the beam narrow. There is an older type of catboat, the New York catboat, in lager sizes given a sloop rig. One of these catboats, the 16-foot Una, wowed the British when she showed up at the Isle of Wight in 1852. The type, in addition to inspiring the sandbaggers that raced in the 1860s to about 1880, inspired Cape Cod catboats, also led to the British centerboard dinghies, which were revolutionized by Uffa Fox and became in their turn the basis for most racing dinghies today. An example of the type is Comet, designed and built by Archibald Cary Smith in 1862 and raced both as a catboat and a sloop. She was pretty much designed on the building molds, but John Hyslop took her lines off about 30 years later. 2

But the boat would have to live out of the water and still not leak, and I'd need to design it for construction by a method a ten-thumbed wood butcher like myself could do. I chose plywood, and stitch and glue construction, which should allow me to build the boat in the narrow window of at most two months in which an outdoor boat builder can count on not too much rain the the Pacific Northwest. This meant that I would have to find some way to simulate the slack bilges of the New York catboat in plywood. Here's my solution:

At 9 ½ feet long, she's about half the length of Comet, but has nearly the same freeboard, which I think is about the right amount for a boat this size. Because she is a catboat, I've given her a barn-door rudder, but put it behind a short, deep skeg so that she's not too likely to be caught in irons. The faceted midsection, with a narrow, flat bottom, flaring bilges and straight sides, is very much like that of the first boat I ever owned, a Thai sampoa. This midsection always struck me as a nice compromise between stability, load carrying, and form resistance, and yielded a boat that handled well. It was a boat like this:


I needed scale drawings of the templates for the plywood panels, but the free version of Delftship does not allow you to print these out. A Canadian on-line friend, Bruce Taylor, had helped write the code for Deftship, and been given the professional version in return. He printed them out and sent them to me. Then, I changed the design. Too embarrassed to ask for the favor a second time, I discovered that I could download Freeship, the program Delftship was derived from, replicate the design in it, and print out the panels in 1/12 scale. Vashon Printing & Design scanned them and printed full-sized panels on their plotter. I still wasn't out of the woods. I needed bulkheads to put the panels around, to help give the hull shape. I lofted those from the offsets Delftship provided. Then I glued the sheets to doorskin panels, thinking I would be able to use a rounter to make a nice, clean cut on my building panels. They proved too thin for the roller on the router bit to read properly, so I laid the panels over my 4 mm okume 4

marine plywood (scarfed to the right length,) roughed them out with a jigsaw, and finished them with a hand plane. They looked like this:

And stitched together like this:

It only took about a week to produce the shape of the hull:


The hull was at this point fairly flexible, and I used a spreader – a 1x1 with some screws in it at the right places – to hold the right beam, and added the right weights and support to straighten out the hull before I added the sheer clamps (1x1 rails inside the top of the sides) and the decks enclosing the air chambers at bow and stern. At that point, the boat was fairly stiff. Then I had to design and build the centerboard case and centerboard. A boat designed to be launched at a beach needs a kick-up centerboard so that you can sail into the beach without having it stop the boat the way a daggerboard does. It has to be fitted to the shape of the bottom, and it needs something with a bit of meat to it to key into. I put a 6' X 6” X ½” piece of western red ceder in the bottom to key the centerboard case into and provide some strength. It took longer to do this, cut the slot for the centerboard, build the centerboard case, and build the centerboard than it did to build the hull.

I used 4 mm Okume for the sides of the centerboard case and 1x3 pine for the bed logs for the case, with some ½ inch western red cedar at the top and on the sides to take the loads of the centerboard pin. The case is designed to take up as little room as possible in the boat while providing a nice, long leading edge to the centerboard, which is key shaped. The fairly high pin allows me to have less of the centerboard case and its lifting handle ahead of the pin while still having enough board in the case 6

provide plenty of structure. The board is ½ inch plywood, plenty strong for the minimal forces that will be placed on it. I made the front edge rounded, the back of the board tapered, and didn't worry too much about a perfect foil shape. I figure when I'm sailing, it's at about the angle you see here, held down with a line through that hole at the top, which I lead to a cleat on the case. Because Meerkat is much deeper forward than the El Toro my mast came out of, I built the mast step so that the mast is suspended about 8” above the bottom of the boat. The fillets, by the way, are milled fiberglass mixed with epoxy, which have proven strong enough for my friend Bruce Smith to go pounding around at 30 knots in his little powerboats. I didn't like the idea of sanding this mixture, so instead I used fairing compound to cover them and faired that. I couldn't get her out of the back yard by myself, so I enlisted the aid of Joby, the local postmistress, and took her on the first sail. Meerkat (the name means sea cat, though why a creature that is the South African equivalent to a prairie dog is called that I don't know) stepped along nicely, though it quickly became evident that the 45-year old mast was too flexible and the 45-year-old sail was a horribly blown-out bag. But no time to worry about that, I'd finished her just in time for the Norm Blanchard WOOD 7

regatta. A couple of instrument makers from Dusty Strings helped me carry the boat down to the dock and launch her. The next morning, after a brief conference with a naval architect about what revisions we should make to the Coleen Wagner, the Egret replica the Center for Wooden Boats uses for public sail, I ducked out in time to rig the boat and go racing against a Beetle Cat (which rates faster) and a Pelican (which rates slower) and in a class where my fleet times were compared to El Toros. The sail still looked like a bag, but Meerkat proved quick in spite of it, gaining a provisional rating a bit faster than the better boats in the El Toro class. I won my class, but unfortunately the glue joint between the two halves of the ancient mast failed in the last race, and my mast split vertically. Well, I'm now ready with a new mast, my old sail, and a Meerkart for Meerkat so that I don't have to rely upon the kindness of strangers for help loading or launching the boat. Anyone want to go sailing?