Cape Cod’s Beetle Cat | Up Close

A salute to Cape Cod’s unsinkable Beetle Cat.

By Jenn Johnson

Jun 21 2021


The Beetle Cat

Photo Credit : Billy Black
The Beetle Cat
Photo Credit : Billy Black

Sailors love to argue, so it’s no surprise they can’t agree on what cats have to do with catboats. Some say there’s a feline agility in how these broad-beamed, single-masted sailboats can dart in and out of shallow coastal waters; others claim that when first used by New England fishermen in the mid-19th century, the boats were magnets for hungry local cats.

Bill Womack isn’t ready to settle that argument. But when it comes to the classic Cape Cod catboat known as the Beetle Cat, he does see a definite “nine lives” connection. “There are so many times in the past 100 years where if certain people hadn’t stepped in or had a real love for this boat,” he says, “the Beetle Cat wouldn’t be here today.”

As the current owner of Beetle Inc. in Wareham, Massachusetts, which still builds the little wooden sailboat that John Beetle of New Bedford first launched in 1921, Womack is one of those people. Another is Leo J. Telesmanick, who started as a 15-year-old apprentice in the original Beetle family shop and went on to oversee the construction of virtually every Beetle Cat made before he passed away in 2001.

Womack’s shop still uses the mold that Telesmanick built in 1946, among other vintage tools and equipment. And why not? Little about the 12-foot, 4-inch Beetle Cat has changed in a century’s time: It’s entirely made from wood, and it’s entirely built by hand.

Also unchanged is the Beetle Cat’s appeal. One of the oldest wooden boat designs actively raced today, it’s nimble enough to have inspired Beetle Cat fleets up and down the New England coast—including at the Chatham Yacht Club, which this summer hosts the annual Leo J. Telesmanick Beetle Cat Championship Regatta (July 31–August 1). But it’s also roomy, sturdy, and easy to sail, making it a favorite for families. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis bought one for her kids; so did author Nathaniel Philbrick.

Families, in fact, are a big part of what may ultimately keep the Beetle Cat from using up that fabled ninth life. There’s a devotion to this boat that builds from generation to generation, says Womack, whose shop stores and refurbishes many, many more old Beetle Cats than it makes new ones. 

“The kids start out in it, then they get grown and put their kids in it, who put their kids in it,” he says. “And Granny can still sail it with the grandkids. In the end, it’s like a member of the family.”