History of the Beetle Cat Boat


The Original Beetle Cat Boat was designed in 1920, and in 1921 it began to appear along the New England and south shores of Mishaum Point, on Buzzard's Bay, on Narragansett Bay, at Nantucket Island, and on the Great South Bay of Long Island. Over 4,000 of these boats have been built to date. As the virtues of this class of craft came to be appreciated, Beetles made an important place for themselves in racing.

The design of the Original Beetle Cat Boat was taken from the old 20-30 foot catboats that were being used for fishing in shallow waters along Cape Cod. Earning a living in this area required a boat capable of withstanding rough waters, and able to cross over the sand bars that were such a menace, particularly at low tide. Catboats could overcome this difficulty because they had rudders that were slightly above the keel line of the boat, and centerboards which could be pulled up. The Original Beetle Cat Boat is 12' 4" long, and is a design adaptation of the great Cape Cod Cats.

The Beetle Cat Boat was named after the Beetle family who designed and originally constructed it. This family lived for generations at Clark's Point, New Bedford, MA and were widely known for the "Beetle Whaleboat", unexcelled in design and workmanship. The Beetle family could build these whale boats very quickly, and at the same time keep their sound standards of construction. They developed pre-fabrication in boat building, and employed mass production methods. Where it was usual to build the ribs first in other types of boats, they 'wrapped' the planks around the skeleton first, and put the frames in afterwards. This made it possible to build a complete whale boat in one day.

In 1920 the Beetle's designed and built a small sail boat for one of the younger members of the family. This was the first Beetle Cat Boat. Outsiders, impressed with the performance of this boat in New England coastal waters and rivers, were quick to express interest in it. The result was that the Beetles turned to making catboats, adopting some of the manufacturing techniques they had used in building whaleboats, thereby making the Beetle Cat comparatively inexpensive -- within the reach of the average man.

John H. Beetle (son of the founder, James Beetle) headed the business when production of the Original Beetle Cat Boat was underway. Upon his death in 1928, Miss Ruth Beetle, his daughter, took over the management. A full page article in the New Bedford Standard Times, November 8, 1931 tells of Miss Beetle's dual role of school teacher and boatwright. In the New Bedford Standard Times, July 27, 1932, Miss Beetle is described as the only woman boatwright in the U.S. and the article tells of the transition of the business from the building of whaleboats to catboats, and the spreading of Beetles along the New England Coast.

World War II interrupted all production. When the war ended, Carl Beetle (brother of Ruth) produced some of these boats at New Bedford, MA, but then became interested in the development of plastics for boat construction, and transferred the rights, title, and interest of the Original Beetle Cat Boats to the Concordia Company, South Dartmouth, MA. It seems ironic that the person who tried to be a forerunner in the fiberglass boat market was involved with a boat that still built only of wood!

The Concordia Company was headed by Waldo Howland whose family, for generations, have been followers of the sea. His great grandfather was in the whaling business, and his father's first job was putting bungs in whale boats in the Beetle family boatyard. The latter, Llewellyn Howland, wrote a very readable book, "Sou'west and By West of Cape Cod" in which he gives a most interesting account of the building of one of these 30-foot whale boats. He also tells of putting 40 bungs a day in a boat, for which he was paid a penny a-piece. Little did he realize that his son, Waldo, would one day turn ship builder, and carry on the tradition of the Original Beetle Cat Boats.

Thus the Beetle Cat Boat is rich in a history that stems from whaling days. But what are the features that have given it such wide acceptance? The wide beam, with the rudder not extending below the bottom of the keel, and center-board that lifts up, as previously mentioned, are features that lend this boat to shallow waters. It is a boat that can be beached. The great beam (6'), makes it unusually stable, and gives it a large carrying capacity. While racing standards call for a skipper and one person as crew, these Original Beetle Cat Boats have been known to carry as many as six 150-pound persons. Made entirely of wood, (oak frames with cedar planking) with no ballast, it is non-sinkable. The large decked area forward on the boat means spray falls on the deck rather than inside the boat. The rig is similar to that used on the old, large-size Cape Cod cat boat, with the mast well forward, and using a single sail. With this type of rig (gaff rig), if you release the tiller, the boat will head into the wind and practically stop. This feature makes it an ideal boat for youngsters. There is a great deal to be said for a Gaff rig on a catboat. You can shorten sail and keep the center of the sail effort where you want it without fear of the boat taking charge and falling off.

The bow of this boat is generous in proportion, so that even an extra-large man can stand on it without tipping over ----- a feature that is much appreciated when landing at a dock or float. The fact that the mast is short and the deck is long reduces to a minimum the possibility that such a boat may capsize while riding at its moorings, even in exposed locations where seas become decidedly heavy.

In the years since the first boat was built, the design has remained essentially unchanged. The builders have aimed to maintain this as a definite one-design class boat for racing. Up to seventy boats per year have been built although that number has been reduced in recent years.

A 1948 revision to the regulations attempted to standardize the dimensions of the sail. However, the Narragansett Bay Beetle Association had dimensions which varied slightly over the years. In the Fall of 1963, a committee finally standardized these dimensions, which action was approved by the membership of the 1963 annual meeting. In 1994, after a few years of discussion, the regulations were again revised and are printed elsewhere in this handbook.

From available records it appears that one of the first sizeable fleets was organized at Duxbury, Mass., in 1923 under the guidance of Commodore Edward N. Farnsworth and Ralph Lawson. The popularity of these boats spread, and soon there were fleets scattered along Cape Cod and on Buzzard's Bay.

In 1927 the first Beetle came to Bass River, Cape Cod. Ted Rowley, the owner, used to go as far afield as Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard Island, with his boat, to attend regattas. One such trip proved to be rather rugged, beating to the windward all the way, but the staunch little Beetle took it in good form, and but for a sound wetting, Skipper Rowley fared quite well. His enthusiasm for his Beetle was caught by others and today there is still an active fleet at Bass River.

Barnstable soon joined the growing number of Beetle fleets. Donald Griffin holds the honor of being first to own one there (1930). In 1932 he persuaded four others to acquire Beetles, and in that year they began racing.

Meanwhile on Mishaum Point, races were being held by individual clubs as well as in Inter-club regattas. There was a strong feeling that the time was ripe to form a New England association for this growing class of boats.

Recognizing that Beetle Cats could no longer be considered a boat for juniors only, and in keeping with the great strides being made throughout the country in small boat racing, in 1946 the New England Beetle Cat Boat Association arranged senior championships for skippers over 18. The first senior series was held at the Falmouth Yacht Club and won by Philip Lenz of the Barrington Yacht Club. This remained an open series for men and women until the 1961 series when it was voted that the skipper be male and the crew of either sex. At that time the name of the series was changed from "Seniors" to "Men's".

About 1947, Beetles began appearing at Great Bay, Long Island, N.Y. Bayberry Yacht Club has a strong fleet. Bellport Yacht Club has organized a fleet. Reports indicate that the Beetle is well suited to the peculiar sea and strong winds of this area.

With the acquisition of the rights to build the wooden beetle, the Concordia Company published a small pamphlet in 1949. In 1950, a 6' x 9' booklet was published and edited by Waldo Howland, containing the list of officers, member clubs and reports from the secretaries of 19 member clubs.

The list of well-known New England skippers who, over the years, learned to handle a tiller in a Beetle Cat would be long and impressive. However, we cannot pass without mentioning Richard Perkins III, James L. Pingeon, Winston C. Pingeon, George L. Pingeon,  Phillip Douglas, Sam Douglas, Rebecca Flint, Hannah Flint, and Russell Pennoyer all of the Mishaum Point Yacht Club, who all distinguished themselves in Beetle Cat sailing.

A large part of the credit for the continued success of the Beetle Cat must go to one man, Leo J. Telesmanick. When Concordia fell heir to the Beetle Cat business in 1946, they received many more orders than they anticipated. They turned to the New Bedford boatbuilder Palmer Scott for help. Leo Telesmanick was working for Scott at the time and was put in charge of the building operations. In 1960 Palmer Scott retired and the entire operation, including Leo and his crew were transferred to Concordia, which set up a separate Beetle Cat operation on Smith Neck Road where the shop stands today. Leo made a number of changes over the years to improve productivity and to assure uniformity of the hulls, and in 1973 the fastenings were changed from galvanized to bronze. Many of the patterns, and the basic mold that the boat is build on, were developed by Leo and are still used today. In 1969, Waldo Howland sold The Concordia Company, including the Beetle Cat Division, to William Pinney, Jr. who managed it until he sold it to Robert A. (Brodie) MacGregor in 1981. In 1983 Leo Telesmanick retired as full time superintendent, although rumor has it that, even today, he walks down to the shop once in a while "just to make sure everything is being done correctly".

In December 1993 the Beetle Cat Division was sold to Charlie York and he now operates at the same location under the name Beetle, Inc. Beetle production had sunk to a low ebb, but Charlie has plans to increase production to 25-30 boats in 1995 and more in future years.

Beetle Cats are scattered in most of the fifty states and in most of the world. One of them was even sent to Scorpio, Greece a number of year ago for young John Kennedy, but that boat was eventually returned to Hyannisport. Recently, a Japanese TV company came to the shop to film operations for a documentary on traditional crafts, so maybe a market will open up in the Far East also.

Over the years a number of different Beetle Cat Regattas have been developed by different Clubs. At West Falmouth harbor, the Hog Island racers have had a Fall series for several years with as many as 37 boats on the starting line Sunday mornings. West Dennis has the Gusto Cup in September while Bass River holds its traditional Turkey Day race on Thanksgiving (weather permitting!). Recently, Chatham Yacht Club has conducted a single handed regatta. And in Connecticut, the Mystic River Beetle Cat Club conducts races on Summer evenings that include Beetles rented from the Mystic Seaport Museum.

The premier Beetle Cat Regatta in recent years has been the "Leo J. Telesmanick Championship". This regatta started in 1980 to honor Leo and is the annual "World Championship" for Beetle Cats. It includes divisions for Women, Juniors, and Old Salts (over 50 years of age) in addition to the overall winner of the open class which is emblematic of Beetle supremacy. In 1994, the format for the Mitey Mite and Junior Championships was changed and they are now held on the same weekend and at the same location as the Telesmanick Championship although the events are run separately. Also at this regatta, the Chairman's Trophy is awarded. This trophy was established in 1964 by William H. Potter to generate enthusiasm in regatta participation by member clubs. It is awarded to the club that has amassed the best cumulative point total in the Telesmanick Championship Series.

The Beetle Cat Class has a long and varied history. It is one of the oldest classes raced actively and probably the only one still made in wood. The Mishaum Point Yacht Club is dedicated to continuing this success into the future.

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