The Beaver and the Cat
or Sailing a 40-Year-Old Boat on a 40-Year-Old Lake

By Cdr John R. Butler

The early 1960s were a significant time for both the beaver and the cat. But in spite of their diverse origins and backgrounds, each seems to enjoy the presence of the other.

Construction of Beaver Lake, the beautiful (albeit man-made) impoundment in northwest Arkansas, was started in 1960 and was generating electrical power by 1965. Early fishermen were likely drowning bait by 1964, and have never quit.

Author Cdr John R. Butler relaxing on his sailboat.

The lake can trace its legal origin to the Congressional Water Supply Act of 1958. Its natural origin, however, is much older: a spring in the Boston Mountains, a range considered by some experts to be the oldest in our country.

This water source, 2,000 feet high, flows north to become the magnificent White River. Other springs and watersheds add to her flow, establishing her as a major river.

The Old Cat can trace her own origin to the same period as her lake. Her keel was laid by the father-and-son team of Christian W. Dahl, Jr. and Christian W. Dahl, III in Minneapolis in 1963. She was launched on Lake Minnetonka in 1964. Based upon a Charles W. Wittholz, NA, design, I think she is beautiful, too.

The origin of my Cape Cod Catboat's design is not as historic as her lake, but she can trace her history back to commercial fishermen of Cape Cod, some 150 years ago. Those resourceful New Englanders designed the craft to serve the very specific needs of their livelihood. They did their design work so well, the resulting Cape Cod Catboat was also adopted by commercial fishermen in New Jersey and even down to the Gulf Coast.

In fact, the design was so surprisingly successful that it has remained essentially unchanged to this day. And my sailboat is very true to her heritage. If I could just transport The Old Cat back in time to the early 1850s and tie her to one of the moorings off Osterville, Massachusetts, commercial fishermen would cast an approving eye over her lines and rigging. Their comments might sound like this:

"Looks just fine."

"Should market a good load of fish."

"She'll carry her sail well."

"Builder was a real craftsman. She's eye sweet."

Eye sweet. The term seems to define itself, but the history is unique. Long ago, very long ago, before computers and lawyers took over boat building plans and contracts, there was a standard clause in many boat building agreements: "Boat to be perfectly fair and eye sweet."

Scenic bluff with “location marker” number 8 at the shoreline.

In those days the designer, builder and future owner could look at a half model, talk things over, sign a simple document, shake hands, then share coffee to seal the deal.

Cape Cod Catboats were, and still are eye sweet, and any decent builder would be certain that their lines were fair.

The design continues to be so popular that several firms make accurate fiberglass replicas, and diehard traditionalists can still order one made of wood. For a price, of course.

Good used catboats are always available, and are found at, the web site of the popular and worldwide Catboat Association. That is where my old cat came from, and for only $4,000, because few owners want the intensive maintenance of a wooden boat that is varnished, not painted.
Beaver Lake, on the other hand, was completed in 1966 for over 10,000 times more money, $46,200,000. It is the first-in-line of several Corps of Engineers ventures to tame the mighty White River as it flows east to join the Mississippi River.

Before it was dammed multiple times, natives of the Ozark region probably gathered on the river with inner tubes from farm trucks and tractors to escape the summer heat. In addition to full baptisms in the fresh flowing river, there likely were gravel bar picnics of country fried chicken, homemade potato salad, corn bread, and perhaps some "corn squeezins". In the winter, drifting downstream on a raft or jon boat would provide both sport and fish for the family table.

As the White flows east, it is fed by another 10,000 springs. After leaving Beaver Lake it forms, in succession, the remainder of the "Great Lakes of the White River": Table Rock and Bull Shoals Lakes.

The new Beaver Lake map published by the Corps of Engineers shows no less than sixteen “Public launching ramps” in the lower left corner, but some of them require that old “local knowledge” to find them. The popular ones are at the Corp’s parks. I would personally recommend one they did not list, located on the north side of state highway 12, right at the west end of the long bridge over the lake. Map location C2.5, it is about six miles east of Rogers. The Arkansas Game and Fish Division wisely used properly identified tax receipts to pave, light and mark the area, and the two ramps are broad and gradual, easily accommodating four boats at a time. (The Old Cat’s home port is just a mile east, so I use it.)

Home to Beaver Lake is the fastest growing economic region in the country. The local economy is fueled, in part, by the home offices (and their many vendors) of the world's largest retailer (Wal-Mart) and the world's largest meat company (Tyson), and several other major corporations. Of course the lake cannot claim responsibility for this boom, but the growth could not have been supported without its abundant and clean water supply.

Lying in the northwest corner of Arkansas, Beaver's 28,000 acres of beautiful clear water with 450 miles of shoreline is never without a wide variety of boats enjoying the bounties of flood control.

While most boats are for summer use only, hardy souls and fishermen know each season has its special advantages.

Fishermen from around the country flock to Beaver Lake for superb fishing all year. The popular B.A.S.S. fishing tournaments got their start on Beaver Lake in 1967, and the Wal-Mart FLW Tour, with its "$1.5 million Championship Format," includes Beaver Lake as one of its seven destinations. The Central Pro-Am Association also schedules qualifying events here for its $650,000 series.

No fishing is done from The Old Cat, but she does know that each season has its own special sailing pleasures. Summers tend to be hot and the winds more light and variable, but picnic lunches in the shade of a rock bluff, or diving from the deck into the warm water makes up for less than perfect sailing.
That perfect sailing usually comes in the spring and fall when the lake is less crowded and the winds fresh and steady. Winter sailing can be surprisingly good, with many days of fine breezes and temperatures in the 50s.

The lake is, as you might guess, serpentine, since it follows the beds of the White and its tributary creeks, and sailing is a constant challenge. Straight stretches of the lake are broken by abrupt U-turns, and the wide areas are wide only in comparison to the narrow runs.

The Old Cat is an ideal boat for such sailing, for tacking a catboat involves only in putting the helm to leeward. No jib sheet to cast off, nor a flogging sheet on the other side to tame and winch in. No running back stays to tend. Just "Ready about?", then "Hard alee!"

Cape Cod Catboats have their signature "barn door rudders," very large to control the many moods of the cat, and they come about quickly. In fact, the origin of the term "catboat" is lost in history, but one story is that they are "as nimble as a cat."

Another feature of these one-time work boats is their very broad beam. As commercial fishing boats, that gave them great cargo capacity, plus exceptional stability in the wide variety of weather encountered off Cape Cod. Catboats typically have beams that are nearly half their length. The Old Cat measures 18' 6" overall, and her beam is a full 8' 6", so I don't have to switch sides when coming about to keep my ballasting weight to windward.

Picturesque rock bluff with its seasonal waterfall, dubbed “Mini-Tracy Arm” by author due to its small scale similarity with the end of a fjord on Southeast Alaska.

Beaver Lake's many feeder creeks, once streams rushing to join the White River, are now coves with interesting names like War Eagle, Rambo, Indian, Big Clifty, Prairie, Hogscald and Coose. These picturesque coves are now great places to drop an anchor for an overnight stay, and I like to rate each cove with my own variety of standards.

The larger coves have many spurs that invite exploration as destinations for my mini-cruises. Some of the smaller coves are seasonal because of the possibility of shallow waters at varying lake levels.

Varying lake levels? Yes, since Beaver Lake is a Corps of Engineers impoundment, authorized by Congress for water supply, flood control, hydroelectric power generation and recreation, its level can rise dramatically after extended heavy rains, or drop just as dramatically during long droughts and high demands for electricity.

Author and his Cape Cod Catboat The Old Cat out on an afternoon’s sail.
Photo by Mary Lu Butler

The normal, or "pool level," is 1,120 feet above mean sea level, but it typically varies several feet above and below. An all time high was reached, in April of 2002, of 1,130.37', and the lowest level was 1,092.92' in January of 1977. That is an astounding range of 37.45', but normal fluctuations are more in the single digits from pool level. So, some of my overnighting coves become unusable at low levels.

Scenic beauty is always important for my cove ratings, and beautiful stone bluffs and verdant shorelines add many points. One of the spur coves off Big Clifty Creek is Penitentiary Hollow which splits into a "Y" with a waterfall over a rock bluff pouring into each fork. While the southern fork has a private home overlooking the waterfall, the northern one is still as primitive and scenic as one could wish.

In scenic beauty, it is a rival, at perhaps one tenth scale, to the end of Tracy Arm in Southeast Alaska, where each fork has a portion of the Sawyer Glacier calving at its end, instead of a clear waterfall. We anchored off one of those glaciers back in 1970 while cruising in a vintage Owens "Sedan Cruiser." One of my strange habits is to name each cove that I frequent, so of course I named this spur cove "Mini-Tracy Arm."

Another of my rating factors is the privacy or seclusion each cove offers. L. Francis Herreshoff, in his book "Sensible Cruising Designs," extols the virtues of good cruising sailboats (his designs, of course), and of the joys of "Undisturbed reading--ah, yes, this is one of the objects of the cruise."

Along with undisturbed reading while anchored in my secluded coves, I also like the privacy should I wish for a quick swim without getting my suit wet.
In its upper reaches, especially during periods of low water, Beaver Lake can be quite shallow, often good only for canoeing or kayaking, and fishing of course. But most sailors solve this problem by sailing beyond the state highway 12 bridge which rather cuts the lake in two. Downstream from the bridge, mostly to the east, the lake has fine depths, sometimes well over 170 feet.

The free Corps of Engineers map (not a chart, no water depths indicated) is sufficient for casual sailing. For the serious sailor and gunkholer, go to one of the many stores catering to fishermen and buy one of the maps made from old topographic maps dating back before the White was flooded.

These maps will not only provide fine detail, they have interesting features. For instance, as I pass over the one-time "Butler Cemetery," I am sure to doff my sun hat. The cemetery's location now lies some 80 feet below the surface.

There are shallows, to be sure, especially up the coves, and The Old Cat draws 32", so I do watch my sounder. Almost as good is eyeball sounding, however, for the bottom shows yellowish, from a short distance away, when the depth is below some four to five feet.

Cape Cod Catboats are normally equipped with large centerboards, The Old Cat included. They were essential to the commercial fisherman working the shallows, and are still desired by pleasure sailors desiring a competitive edge when racing.

Since I am neither a commercial fisherman nor competitive sailor, and the centerboard trunk intruded into the cockpit and divided the spacious cabin, I converted to a keel, losing about a foot of shallow water capability, but gaining much in convenience and roominess. A great bargain for me.

A spacious cabin on an 18' boat? Not really, of course, but the broad beam, high freeboard and steep crown does make it roomy and comfortable. Since I never eat, read or sleep standing up, I don't miss the lack of "full headroom," and there is plenty of room for sitting and moving about. Some catboaters, myself included, find more comfort and security in their small cabins, than that felt in a modern yacht.

Another signature characteristic of catboats is the mast being stepped on the keel and very close to the bow, so there is no mast to dodge in the cabin.
There is abundant storage under the two vee berths, and the space between the feet of the berths that housed a head before pollution rules outlawed overboard dumping, adds more space. Now Herreshoff's solution for a head works fine for me, except his oaken bucket has been replaced by a hard rubber farm bucket, good also for cleaning ship.

For quiet evenings at anchor, I have devised a cross between a hammock and a recliner, quickly and easily rigged across the cabin and most comfortable. And for cool mornings, or winter cruising, a small stove of my design keeps my cabin toasty. I have tried wood, coal and charcoal briquettes, but have found the natural oak charcoal is the best by far.

My stove opens the entire year to overnight "cruises," and it has kept me cozy while a bucket of water froze in the cockpit.

Commercial fishing from catboats declined rapidly with the advent of practical inboard engines about the turn of the century (1900 to 2000, that is!), making the powerful gaff sail semi-obsolete, but many catboats today still have inboard engines, now usually small diesels.

The Old Cat had the beautiful little Atomic Two, a genuine marine engine, when I bought it, but Tom (The Old Motor) expired of old age a few years ago. So, with repair parts no longer available, I repowered with a used two horsepower golf cart electric motor, a new electronic power controller, and a bank of batteries in the bilge. Kitten (because of her soft purr when running) will push us to hull speed, or idle down to an imperceptible speed. And Kitten's endurance is fine for my lake: I can return from the farthest reaches, if the wind fails, at about four knots.

While Kitten may push The Old Cat to her theoretical hull speed of 5.68 knots (6.5 miles per hour), her large sail has pulled her to 7.39 knots in a broad reach with a capful of wind.

Cape Cod Catboats' sails are powerful: They were designed to develop enough power to drag oyster dredges over the bottom in a light breeze, yet could have as many as four rows of reef points to shorten the canvas to a mere rag so fishing could continue in a really hard blow.

The Old Cat's sail measures 270 square feet, huge compared to most small sailboats. While the luff is just a couple feet aft of the bow, the very long boom (another signature characteristic) extends far beyond the transom. Sailing in a freshening breeze can be a thrill--or a challenge! And the catboater's mantra is "reef before you even think you might need it."

When the wind fails, or you're in a runabout or jet ski, beaching to do a bit of hiking or beach combing is always popular, especially on the deserted islands. A word of caution to hikers: Beware of the "Bane of the Ozarks," the chiggers and ticks. Check with locals about cautions and cures. Conversely, I rarely see more than one mosquito a year. Thanks to the bats?

While all of the graveyards were moved before the lake was flooded, remains of old farms and homesteads may still be discovered. One afternoon, during high water, My granddaughter and I paddled my canoe right into the remains of an old cement farm building, probably a milking house.

With the anchor set, sail furled and the sun "well over the yardarm," an evening libation in the broad cockpit can be so gentle and rewarding. As dusk settles in, the careful eye will observe a few bats swooping overhead, cleaning up any remaining bugs in the air.

Do you especially enjoy Mother Nature's sounds? How about these, all heard in one or more of my favorite overnighting coves: the basso profundo of bull frogs, the comforting and endless calls of the whippoorwills, a variety of owls, a wild turkey's gobble, the yap of a coyote or the snarl of a wild cat.

An early catboat builder, H. Manley Crosby, one of the eight generations of Crosbys building catboats, expressed it well for this old man and his old boat: "There's nothing like a good boat to make a man feel young again." And a beautiful lake to sail on makes it all quite perfect.

Cdr Butler retired from the Coast Guard in 1974 after prior Navy enlisted service, flying SAR in amphibious planes and helicopters on the West Coast, Phillipine Islands, Gulf and East Coasts and Alaska. A desk job in New Orleans lead him to retire. Always a sailor, he sailed a snipe as a kid, then a variety of sailboats from the classic Pearson Triton to the capable Montgomery 15. He crewed on a 102’ schooner in The Tall Ships Race during Australia’s Bicentennial Celebration in 1988. His present wooden catboat is kind to his increasing age and physical disabilities, and is thoroughly described at <>