Catboat – What Is It and Why Are They Called Catboats?

Will you be able to recognize a catboat when you see one? Even those who have been boating for years may not be able to tell the difference between this boat from other types of boats. What is a catboat?

A catboat is a type of sailboat that has only one sail hoisted on a single mast. The mast and sail are set well forward in the boat’s bow. These boats are traditionally gaff-rigged. Most of them have shallow drafts with centerboards. Some catboats are equipped with keels.

The name ‘catboat’ was attributed to the fishermen who had to shoo the cats after the dead fish on their decks. It was not particularly related to the design of the boat. These boats were popular in New England due to their retractable centerboard, shallow draft, and seaworthy hull shape.

Read on to learn more about catboats, their origin, and essential information that you need to understand their real nature.

What Is a Catboat?


Catboats are simple and easy to sail and control. With the mast and sail located far forward, catboats offer more salon space compared to other boats of their size. Most catboats have centerboards, while a few have keels. Some catboats are built with outboard rudders, while a few have under-slung rudders.

Some catboats are designed for cruising. These boats are typically 16 to 26 feet long and are equipped with cabins for more comfortable cruising for their passengers. Other smaller catboats are just designed for camp cruising or day sailing. They can be partially or fully decked.

The majority of catboats use gaff rigging, but there a few that use Marconi sails. Most of them also have broad beams. For instance, the classic Cape Cod catboat has a beam that is nearly half the length of its waterline. This design makes catboats very stable boats.

Catboats Are Different from Catamarans

Many people, especially those who are not well-acquainted with boats, confuse catboats with catamarans. They use the term ‘cat’ to mean both catamarans and catboats. In reality, they are distinct from each other.

The catboat primarily refers to the style of the boat, while the catamaran refers to a type of boat hull or structure of the hull. So, you could easily see the difference from the basic meaning of the word.

Multi-Hulled vs Monohulls

Catamarans are multi-hulled boats, while catboats have only one single hull. Boats with multi-hulls usually have two to three hulls. In general, catamarans have two symmetrical hulls. On the other hand, Tri-hulls have three asymmetrical hulls, where one large main hull is at the middle and two smaller hulls on both sides.

Multi-hull boats usually have a raised trampoline for trapezing and crew seating. They also have daggerboards, and their decks are well above the waterline compared to other traditionally designed boats.

Many design elements differentiate one boat from another. Boats have three distinct characteristics. They all have distinct mast and sail set up, keel type, and hull type. Conventional powered boats and sailboats have only one hull, which is called a monohull.

Catamarans vs Trimarans

Catamarans have two hulls, while trimarans have three. These multi-hull boats depend on their breadth or width to ensure their stability on the water. Monohulls, on the other hand, rely on their ballast. 

But it’s different with catboats. While they are basically classified as monohull boats, they don’t solely depend on their ballast to achieve stability. They primarily depend on their heavy hulls and their wider beams to remain upright.

The majority of catboats use the traditional sail design, which uses a gaff rig with four-sided sails. Some catboats are not equipped with this traditional sail design. Instead, they use the Marconi rig, which is composed of three-sided sails.

How the Catboat Differs from Other Boats

Catboats have certain elements that make them different from other boats. Here are some of these elements:

Sail and Mast Configuration

The sail and mast setup in catboats is the primary distinction between them and other boats. In sailboat design and construction, there are several sails and mast configurations that boat builders use. They are:

  • Schooner
  • Sloop
  • Cutter
  • Yawl
  • Fractional Rig Sloop
  • Ketch
  • Cat

Catboats are the only ones equipped with a single mast and single sail. On top of that, the mast is not located in the middle of the boat but well forward in the bow section. While some boats have single masts, all of them have multiple sails, except catboats.

Wide Beams

Catboats are usually designed with wider beams. Their small ballasts have to be compensated with wider beams to enhance their stability. Some catboats have beams that are almost half the length of their water line.


In a catboat, the keel is its centerboard. The keel counters the force of the wind. It causes the forward motion of the boat with lift. The keel also provides ballast, and it can be lowered or raised when required. This configuration considerably reduces draft, which in turn allows the boat to venture into places where other sailboats cannot sail.

Catboat Design


The basic design of a catboat easily distinguishes it from other boats. It has a single mast and single sail. These boats were traditionally gaff-rigged. Most of them have shallow draft designs. The majority of catboats have centerboards, but a few have keels. The hull length of catboats usually ranges from 12 to 40 feet. Their beams are usually half as wide as their waterline lengths.


Since their beams are typically half as wide as their lengths, they can accommodate more people and equipment on their decks. While they are traditionally gaff-rigged, you can also use other rigging styles can also be used.

According to its recorded history, catboats made their first appearance in New York. This was around the time of the 1800s. Then other areas in the United States adopted this boat design. With a shallow draft, they were initially designed for inshore navigation. This design enabled them to navigate through shallow waters.

This boat style is popular in the United States. There are boat groups and associations that promote catboat sailing. They celebrate their heritage and collect artifacts and information about catboats of historical interest.

Several boat builders are continuing their production of catboats along with its traditional design concepts. Some builders create traditional handmade wooden catboats. The designs of these boats are really gorgeous, but they can be pretty expensive.

Catboats Cannot Handle the Rigors of the Open Seas

However, catboats are not able to handle the rigors of the open seas. These boats can get tippy and unsafe in rough waters. If you want to modify it for racing, you have to outfit it with parts and equipment suited for the sport.

There will be a lot of considerable changes you have to make on the boat. That will entail a lot of expense. This is one reason why catboat racing has not been taken up by many water sportsmen today.

Advantages of Catboats Over Other Boats

Sailing is a very pleasurable activity, and it can also be fascinating. But it is also tedious and tiring if you are in a sailboat that needs to be controlled and managed all the time. In this area lies one advantage of catboats over other boats. There are other advantages to sailing in a catboat.

Here are some of them:

1. Easy to Sail and Manage

The biggest advantage of catboats over other sailboats is that they can sail, control, and manage. There is just one single sail that you have to worry about. This boat has no rigging that you need to set up.

You can get a catboat rig up and running in a short time. It only needs just one single person to control the rig, not two or three people like in other types of sailboats.

2. Just One Rig Means Cost Savings

If the boat has only one rig, that means considerable savings on maintenance, replacement of parts, and tuning up. You need to maintain only a few parts, which means easy, less time-consuming, and very inexpensive work.

3. More Relaxed Sailing

With a few things to worry about, your trip on the water will be more relaxed. You will have more time to enjoy the activity instead of spending most of the time controlling and maintaining the rig.

4. More Efficient and Economical

Catboats are easily maneuverable, making them more efficient and economical to operate compared to other boats. They are ideal for downwind passages and short-handed sailing. There is one downside, though, with catboats: they are not efficient in upwind situations.

If you want to address the upwind problems of catboats, get a catboat with a modern design like Wylie boats. They applied some innovations to their catboats, such as the wishbone boom that enabled their catboats to handle the upwind problem.

History of Catboats

what is a catboat

Catboats for Fishing

Catboats made their first appearance on the coastline of New England. This was in the 1850s. They were originally made for fishing. These boats are still being used for fishing today. But the sailors also use them for recreational boating and racing.

Use for Transport

According to historical records, they are also used for transport, especially in several island communities. Catboats were the dominant boats starting in the 1850s to the early 1900s. But when motorized boats were introduced and promoted, their popularity started to decline.

For instance, in the racing department, the growing demand was for larger sails and not for single mast and single sailboats. So, the development of other boat rigging styles started. That started the decline in the demand for catboats.


The boat also underwent modifications to adapt it to fit the boaters’ different conditions along the open coastlines. Sailors made these modifications to fit the different conditions in the fishing locations they were going to.

Eventually, the boat caught the attention of sailing enthusiasts. They turned it into a racing boat, cruising boat, family daysailer, and sail trainer. Catboats have survived all these changes. They are now considered pleasurable boats that offer comfort, plenty of room, and simplicity of operation.

How Catboats Changed Throughout History

Originally, catboats were working boats used for fishing and to ferry passengers. The name ‘catboat’ was actually coined by these early fishermen who have to shoo away cats from their boats. The cats were after the dead fish that they left behind on their decks.

About the turn of the century, catboats were slowly being brushed aside by other efficient means of water transport. Their workdays slowly came to an end. At that time, people were changing them from workboats to pleasure boats. They started using catboats for their vacations and not for their vocations.

Then the catboat became the choice boat for racing in New England. At that time, they were used by people for day sailing during the day. Since they are wide and offered plenty of room, they were used as pleasure boats by families and a group of friends. And that’s how they are being used now.

Conclusion: Catboats

The typical catboat is a sailboat that has one single sail and a single mast. The sail and mast are set well forward in the bow of the boat. Traditionally, these sailboats are gaff rigged. Most of these boats have shallow drafts with centerboards. Some catboats are equipped with keels.

With only one mast and one sail, catboats are easy and simple to operate. If you want a more relaxed sailing and cruising, you should consider getting a catboat.

Other advantages of having a catboat include the following:

  1. Easy to Sail and Manage
  2. Just One Rig Means Cost Savings
  3. More Relaxed Sailing
  4. More Efficient and Economical