A beachcat is an off-the-beach class of catamaran ("cat") sailboat. Although the term "Beachcat" is most popularly known through surf board designer Hobie Alter who designed the paradigm-changing Hobie 14 in 1965, followed in 1967 with the Hobie 16, the concept is hundreds, if not thousands of years old. The Polynesians are credited with the first "catamaran" designs, although it is probable that the initial design was more in the form of an "outrigger" of "Proa" design, with one of the hulls serving as a balancing brace for a main canoe. The adventures of Thor Heyerdahl, in proving that travel between Polynesia and South America, as chronicled in the book Kon Tiki, is a testament to the inherent stability (even when made up of bundles of river reeds) of the catamaran design.
Art Javes designed and marketed one of the first fiberglass catamaran sailboats in the United States. His design was the 12-foot-long fiberglass hulled Aqua Cat which he built and was marketing in 1961. It featured two flat-bottomed, foam filled, symmetric fiberglass hulls. These hulls were connected with aluminum tubing that supported a trampoline-style deck that was large enough for several people. It also featured an unusual "lateen rigged" sail that was supported by a rigid aluminum A-frame. The mast itself was topped with a styrofoam float that helped insure that a capsizing, (especially in shallow water that could damage the mast), would be easily righted and result only in the boat going part way over. If capsized it was designed to rest on one hull, with the ball at the top of the mast preventing it from going fully inverted. The flat bottomed hulls made it a beach-friendly catamaran, but its reliance on dagger boards meant it had a draft of 2 ft with the dagger boards in position.
In 1961, Hobie Alter was selling surfboards at an Anaheim boat show where he met Art Javes and the AQUA CAT 12. Shortly after this boat show, Hobie entered the catamaran business as well. The Hobie Cat was introduced in 1965 and borrowed some features from the AQUA CAT. The fledgling catamaran sailboat business benefited from both designs, and both found popularity at many beach resorts. Both designs are still in production. The AQUA CAT was made by American Fiberglass Corp from 1962 to 1972. Originally based in Norwalk, CT, the company was in the sailboat division of General Recreation Corp in Charleston, SC as of 1970. Around 1976, an employee purchased the AQUA CAT product line and it is still available from American Sail, Inc. in Charleston, SC. With more than 30,000 boats shipped, the AQUA CAT was inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame in 2001. The original AQUA CAT 12 was modified to an improved AQUA CAT 12.5 and is also available as an Aqua Cat 14 Catamaran which features upturned hulls and is available in an easier sailing resort model. The 14' model uses small keels to replace the dagger boards found on the smaller AQUA CATS.
Hobie Alter acknowledged other influences on the design of his 1965 Hobie Cat. was heavily influenced by the Molokai and Honolulu beach cats of the 25–40 ft range, used to take tourists on rides off the beach. These "beach cats" had been in use since at least the 1950s as a commercial venture, though GIs in World War II mention them in memoirs (inter alia, James Jones [cite]). The unique feature of these designs were asymmetrical hulls, a naval architecture term for hulls that are perpendicular (flat) on the outside of the hull, but curved on the inside. The design allows lateral resistance upwind, without the need for a skeg, daggerboard or centreboard. When running in and out of the surf, the lack of dagger boards or center boards makes "beaching" almost effortless.
In 1960 the "original" beach cat appeared in California, the Pacific Cat. The Pacific Cat was designed by Carter Pyle and was first built in 1960 just slightly smaller than 19 ft × 8 ft solid fiberglass catamaran with a solid core deck and traditional catamaran sail plan. The design's chief flaw was weight, with Pacific Cats weighing in at over 500 lb with approximately 300 square feet (28 m2) of sail area. The design was also a traditional design from the naval architecture view with dagger boards and a hard deck. By comparison, the AQUA CAT 12 weighed in at 160 pounds and could easily be carried by two people, and the mast raised by one person. The Hobie Cat was the only design of the three that did not use dagger boards, and now it offers designs with dagger boards and skegs.
Photos of the Pacific Cat demonstrate that is was adept at handling the daunting Pacific coast surf, probably due to the momentum it carried even with the limited [for the time] sail plan. The Pacific Cat boats were (are?) made by Newport Boats / Mobjack Manufacturing. (Reference)
The resulting and nearly ubiquitous Hobie Cat, is now the most recognized beach cat of the last thirty years. It combines the structure of the earlier AQUA CAT, with the asymmetrical hull design of the Molokai, HI, and the beaching ability of the Pacific Cat. Combining these features, along with optional skeg and daggerboard options, Hobie created a catamaran that could easily sail on and off the beach through the surf.
The brilliance of the initial Hobie design was the combination the asymmetrical hull design with the smaller, surf "friendly" layout. Without dagger boards but with a large sail area to weight ratio (the "16" weighed 325 pounds (147 kg) at its inception and, with over 350 square feet (33 m2) of sail), the initial Hobie designs were able to sail into and out of heavy surf with safely. The asymmetric hulls reduced lateral drift which made dagger board-dependent designs more difficult to handle in unfavorable winds or over extended shallow areas where dagger boards could not be deployed.
Within a very few years of the Hobie design (particularly the "16") hitting the market, other designers followed with modifications and their improvements on the beach cat design.
The Prindle Cat, introduced in 1972, sought to improve on the basic Hobie design by increasing the forward buoyancy with an almost vertical sheer (a trend that is currently the vogue in forward design, see, the 2011 Hobie "Wild Cat" F18 design and virtually every current cruising design from Fountaine Pajot, Dolphin, Privilege and Lagoon).
The Prindle Cats, initially 16- and 18-ft designs, were comparable to the Hobies but were remarkable for their resistance to "pearling" (in surfer parlance) or "pitch poling" (in sailing vernacular). Even a well-sailed Hobie 16 was (and still is) quite capable of burying a hull and pitching end-over-end. The Prindles, with more forward buoyancy, resist this tendency, allowing more forward weight balance in heavier air (wind speed), although Prindles are still capable of pitch-poling given the right combination of forward weight, wind and sea conditions. Although out of production, the Prindle 16 is still in good supply on the used market, but the asymmetrical hulled 18s are rare.
Prindle moved into the classes production in the early 1990s, with the development of the Prindle 19, a well designed, fast and balanced ship. The Prindle 19 class continues to grow but is at best a borderline "beach cat", with more of an emphasis on hydrodynamically linear hull design and the use of dagger boards.
But the Prindle and Hobie were by no means the only beach cats to arise out of the golden age of the design in the early 1970s. Deviating from the raised platform and asymmetrical design typified by the Hobie 14 and 16, and the asymmetrical designs with the cross members set at deck level, as typified by the Prindle, new designs sprang up between 1972–1980, which sought to "ride the wave" (so to speak) to the Hobie success story. Some survived, but others produced only a few hundred (or even dozen) hulls and passed into naval architecture history. Those surviving and prospering included the speedsters from NACRA (North American Catamaran Racing Association) and the glass-fibre British Tornado design, which became an Olympic design for the 1984 Los Angeles Games but was (amongst much controversy), dropped from the 2012 London Games.
Designs that briefly prospered but were out of production by the early 1980s included the Sol Cat, the CatYak from Dayton Marine and the Alpha Cat, all with a fuller bow section design but none garnering enough success (financial or popular), to remain in production.
This is also not to say that other designs, some even preceding the Hobie 14, did not succeed and remain in production to this day. The Shark Catamaran, produced and popularized throughout the Great Lakes Region, and the AquaCat, with its tubular design, "A" frame mast plan and mesh trampoline (which again, preceded the Hobie as an innovation), were popular and successful designs that remain available to this day.
The AquaCat is a good example of one of the early 1960s catamarans that is still in production. The original Aqua Cat featured two symmetric hulls connected with inverted U shaped tubes and a folding A-frame that supported a high-aspect sail that did not require a boom. (The sail was originally based on a genoa (jib, or overlapping headsail) for a much larger boat. The Aqua Cat was designed by Art Javes, who partnered with Billy Mills to produce about 1,000 boats a year for a 10 year run.
After the Hobie 14/16 and Prindle 16/18 "era", beach cat manufacturers increasingly moved away from the asymmetrical designs which moved easily on and off the beach, and focused on theoretically faster symmetrical designs, including the aforesaid Prindle 19, the Hobie 18, the Nacra 5.2 and the Boston Whaler "SuperCat 20". The influence of the Tornado as an Olympic class beginning in 1984 cannot be underestimated in the emphasis placed on symmetrical, dagger board based models. The Tornado, with its estimated thirty naut top speed, and Olympic panache, contributed to the continuance development of faster and faster "beach cats", which, theoretically, could sail in and out of the surf, but in reality, were much more adept at one design racing. Hence, the development of the F (for Formula) 18 class certification and class.