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Picnic Cat

2008 November 10
Part of the charm of small boats is their accessibility. If you have a free hour or two you can go sailing, without having to find crew or spend a lot of time rigging the boat. When it comes to ease of rigging, it doesn't get much simpler than ComPac's 14-foot Picnic Cat.

On an afternoon in early autumn I met Barry Starke of Tred Avon Yacht Sales at Annapolis' Spa Creek launching ramp as he arrived with his Picnic Cat on a trailer. Rigging this boat couldn't have been easier. The mast folds down just above the gooseneck, using a permanently affixed hinge and a clever locking system to keep the mast rigid. The sails and stays are stored attached to the mast, and the hinge acts a tabernacle, so raising the mast is easy. I had the boat ready to go in 15 minutes.

We launched the boat with an afternoon breeze slowly building. We first lowered the centerboard, made of 1/4-inch stainless steel plate. The trunk is also made of stainless, covered with mahogany. The entire board and trunk assembly weights 100 pounds, most of it in the centerboard. The weight is a small fraction of the boat's total displacement of 500 pounds. It's the hull's nearly flat deadrise that gives the boat tremendous form stability. Couple this stability with the gaff rig's low center of effort and the skipper will probably get nervous about the weather a long time before the boat does.

Barry took the varnished, laminated tiller while I raised the mainsail. Pulling alternately on the throat and the peak halyard, the sail took a nice set, and we began to work our way across the creek. There's not really much for the crew to do on a catboat. The truly compulsive can fiddle with the two halyards, but the mainsheet and tiller can easily be handled by the same person. The Picnic Cat sails with near-neutral helm as long as you don't try to get too close to the wind. Weather helm increases as the wind picks up; scandalizing the rig by easing the peak halyard remedies this somewhat.

The mainsheet runs from midboom through a four-part tackle and a cam cleat on the centerboard trunk. There is just the right amount of mechanical advantage to allow you to take in the sheet as you jibe. Falling off gradually, I eased the sheet and we picked up speed, settling into a beam reach and clipping along with the slightest bit of heel. The shore approaching, I put the tiller over for a jibe, handed the sheet in, and ducked enough to clear the boom. Tacking is even easier. Put the tiller over, move to the other side, and wonder what all the fuss is about. When stepping across it would have be nice if the tiller was hinged, allowing the helmsman to step under it rather that around it. But it goes through a horizontal opening in the transom, making a hinge tricky to engineer.

One aspect that sets this boat apart from other catboats is the rudder. Catboats, with their shallow draft and sometimes diminutive keels, often rely heavily on a "barn door" rudder for directional stability. But the Picnic Cat's deep rudder, made of aluminum, does the job by going deeper rather than farther aft. The rudder hinges, kicking up if you want to beach the boat. With the board up and the rudder folded, 6 inches of water is enough, making beach landings a very real possibility. Surrounding the self-draining cockpit, which is 9 feet, 6 inches long, is a large bench seat with a high back rest. The seats lift to reveal a cavernous storage area.

Designed by Clark Mills, known to millions as the designer of the Optimist, the Picnic Cat has a nice sheer, with a high bow section flowing back to a slight lift at the stern. The bow is plumb and the transom nearly so, providing a waterline within inches of overall length. The fiberglass is all hand-laid with a sturdy feel to it. The boat I sailed did not have seat cushions, which would be one option I would definitely take. You can order them either as a two long cushions that run the length of the seat, or as six smaller cushions that can be stored under the seat. The Picnic Cat comes with an outboard bracket. Most owners report the Honda 2HP four-stroke as their engine of choice, and while the standard shaft will work, the long shaft version keeps the prop in the water when motoring in a seaway. A 3-gallon auxiliary tank fits neatly under the teak seat located amidships on the transom.

The Picnic Cat is designed right, just the thing for a good day on the water in a small boat and it's large enough for friends, small enough to take out by yourself.