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This monthly feature highlights recent and fascinating National Register listings, tax act projects, compliance review success stories, as well as outstanding local efforts in New Jersey’s historic preservation efforts.

Catboats … Jersey Cats … A-Cats

Barnegat Bay, NJ


In 1985, the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office submitted an unusual thematic nomination to the New Jersey State Review Board. It was all about boats. Four of them, to be exact. Catboats – a specific style of functional, working sail boat that plied Barnegat Bay, NJ beginning in the early 1800s. By 1920, these boats had also evolved into seductive racing boats enthusiastically competing in the annual Toms River Challenge Cup on the bay. This nomination is for four of the 1920s racing Catboats – called A-cats (for Class A Racing Catboats).

An original fleet of seven A-cats was built between 1922-1925. The four surviving boats that make up this nomination are the:

  • Mary Ann (1922)
  • Bat (1923)
  • SPY (Seaside Park Yacht Club) (1924)
  • Lotus (1925)
Photos courtesy of barnegatbaycats.com

All vessels have been meticulously maintained over the decades, and continue to compete in the prestigious Toms River Challenge Cup. But, more about racing, later!

A Catboat is a sail boat characterized by a single, unstayed mast placed well forward near the bow, a shallow draft, and a broad beam. Historically, this design contained a center board with a “barn door” rudder, and left the cockpit open for fishing with room for a large catch. They were generally wide, low and stable, allowing for 19th century transportation of passengers, timber, seafood and other goods on Barnegat Bay. The name was possibly derived from the portholes in the forward part of the hull that resemble cat eyes. The low freeboard makes them look like “cats lying in the grass,” according to barnegatbaycats.com.

SPY design; Photo courtesy of towndock.net
Barnegat Bay


Barnegat Bay, NJ is a shallow, sheltered waterway with access to the Atlantic Ocean through natural inlets in the barrier islands. Its broad waters have been a source of recreation and commerce since the American Revolution. Settled by the Dutch, “Barendegat” means “breaking inlet” due to the rough conditions where the bay meets the ocean. A special kind of boat was needed to operate in the shallow and turbulent shoal waters of this bay.

Catboats came from a Dutch design as workboats long before anyone thought of them as purely pleasure craft. Before the Civil War, these were hardworking boats that existed to oyster, haul freight and carry passengers. Mid-19th century photos show Catboats being used for pleasure and work in the inlet and on Long Beach Island, NJ.

“In these utilitarian vessels, frills were kept to a minimum though staving would be beaded and doors occasionally utilized raised panels. It was an age that assumed a certain level of decoration even in simple objects.” - woodenboatbuilder.com

Vintage A-cats; Photo courtesy of woodboatbuilder.com

There is some debate as to where the Catboat was originally built – New Jersey, Long Island Sound or Massachusetts. The first Sneakbox, which was essentially a Catboat, was built in Barnegat, NJ in 1836. Regardless, they were alive and in generous use on the bay in the mid-1880s. In fact, these trustworthy boats helped spawn the nascent tourism industry on New Jersey’s coast by ferrying summer visitors and their luggage from points west across to the barrier islands.

1800s tourists on a Catboat; Photo courtesy of woodboatbuilder.com

The eager vacationers’ needs also led to a thriving pleasure boat industry, as fishing trips, and picnics on unexplored beaches were requested. Fishing expeditions surged in popularity, and on the way to and from these spots, many an impromptu race was undertaken with the Catboats. In 1886, a railroad bridge was built to the island and the use of working Catboats quickly waned. The popular boats’ use began to shift significantly from utilitarian to one of pleasure. Sailing clubs sprang up along the Jersey coastline, and racing Catboats quickly emerged as a popular pastime.

Barnegat Inlet engraving (detail) 1878; Photo courtesy of mapsofantiquity.com

Toms River Challenge Cup; Photo courtesy of barnegatbayacats.com


One of the original sailing clubs was the Toms River Yacht Club, organized in 1871. On July 26th of that year, it sponsored its first regatta. The course was from Long Point to Forked River, and back. The prize was the Toms River Challenge Cup. Today, this is the oldest perpetual racing trophy in America, having been raced every year since (except in 1942-45 during WWII). The coveted Challenge Cup was designed by Joseph Schattelier, a New York jewelry designer at Tiffany’s, and a charter member of the Club. Shaped like a Greek urn, Tiffany made it of coin silver, standing 12.5” high on an ebony base.

In 1922, just two weeks before that year’s Toms River Challenge Cup, a brand new Catboat was launched, named the Mary Ann, after the owner’s wife. She would alter Catboat racing forever. The Mary Ann was designed by noted New York naval architect, Charles Mower, incorporating a Marconi rigged sail. The Marconi (or Bermuda) rig eliminated the large gaff and ran a 605 sq.ft. triangular sail up a 45’ mast. She easily won the 1922 Challenge Cup. As a result, three other boats were built to the plans of the Mary Ann – all by the Morton Johnson Boat Works in Bay Head, NJ – the Bat, SPY and Lotus. Consistently winning subsequent Challenge Cup races, the Marconi-rigged boats were declared a separate class, the “A” class, and the traditional gaff rigs became the “B” class; and Catboat racing was transformed.

These four boats – Mary Ann, Bat, SPY and Lotus – dominated the first place slot in the Challenge Cup against all other challengers for 60 years, from 1922-1982.

The Lotus & Mary Ann; Photo courtesy of barnegatbayacats.com

Today, the elegant A-cats are loved for their unsurpassed beauty, as well as the joy of sailing them. It is the sturdiness of these boats, the labor of the various owners, and the comradery amongst the sailors which have kept these boats sailing the waters of Barnegat Bay for over 160 years.

The Lotus; Photo courtesy of barnegatbayacats.com

“There’s something different about A-cats. With other classes, when you ask who won, they tell you the name of the skipper, but with the A-cats, they give you the name of the boat.” - Peter Kellogg, Wooden Boat 171

These four boats are still the queens of the bay, and to the sailing community represent the greatest achievement of the long tradition of Barnegat Bay boating.

Additional Sources: US Department of the Interior, National Register of Historic Places, “Barnegat Bay Class A racing catboats 1922-1925”, 1985; “Catboats were a Popular Transportation in the 1800s,” Asbury Park Press, March 27, 2013; “So Where do Catboats Really Come From?” Tuckerton Seaport; “Jersey Cats,” Woodboatbuilder.com; “A History of A-cats,” Barnegatbayacats.com.

“Sailing Barnegat Inlet”
Photo credit: Carol Senske


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Last Updated: April 4, 2019