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Lots of boats come to Oriental, some tie up at the Town Dock for a night or two, others drop anchor in the harbor for a while. If you've spent any time on the water you know that every boat has a story. The Shipping News on TownDock.net brings you the stories of the boats that have visited recently.

Magic Cat
September 26, 2014

‘d never built one.” Art Halpern says of his decades working on boats. “I’ve built every part of a boat you can imagine.” But constructing one from the keel up was something he didn’t do until moving to Oriental a few years ago. After two years of creating “Felix,” Art can now say he’s built a boat from scratch.

Felix, though, is not just any boat. For starters, it is, like its cartoon feline namesake, a “wonderful cat.” The 37-foot long wood composite vessel is one of the largest catboats of its style on the East Coast.

cat boat felix art terry halpern side view
Felix’s low free board and shoal draft were inspired by century old work boats. With her centerboard raised, she draws 3 feet. With the board lowered, she draws 10 feet.
cat boat felix art terry halpern side view
The main cabin is one large compartment. It is divided longitudinally by the long, narrow centerboard case. Art is still finishing the interior.

For decades, Art and his wife Terry lived and sailed in St Thomas, US Virgin Islands. Art worked as a mechanic, repaired diesel engines and supplied batteries to boaters. A few years ago, the Halperns moved to Oriental. Art decided to build a boat.

He settled on a design influenced by Barnegat Bay catboats. Art describes them as, “work boats that carried lots of sail to get them home in light air”. To deal with the area’s shallow waters, the craft had a centerboard that could be lifted to access shoal areas. For stability, they relied on wide beam, up to 50 percent of the boat’s length on deck.

Art wanted a boat that would sail well, even in light airs. For that, Art says, “you need lots of sail area and minimum wetted area.” The design that caught his eye was Charles Mower’s “Spy” design from the early 1920s.

felix art halpern cat boat spy design
The line drawings for Charles Mower’s 1924 “Spy” design. The top, side on view, illustrates the vessel’s distinct features. Instead of a large fixed keel that runs the length of the hull, the design relies primarily on the centerboard for lateral resistance. The rudder hangs on a large wooden skeg that ends just aft the centerboard.

As much as he liked the design, there were some things he wanted to change. The original plans did not show an engine. Art wanted one. The centerboard reflected the building materials available at the time – iron and timber. This resulted in a large centerboard that occupied a good deal of the cabin. Art thought it would be better to have a long, narrow, foil-shaped centerboard. This would give the board more lift, allowing the boat to sail closer to the wind. It would also take up less interior room.

He enlisted naval architect Morgan MacDonald to redraw the almost-century old lines. Art built Felix based on this new set of drawings.

cat boat felix line drawing art terry halpern
A photo of the new set of line drawings that reflect the changes made to the old design. The large centerboard has been replaced by a long, narrow one and the skeg in front of the rudder has been shortened. The original design was stretched to 37 feet. The pencil marks and stains were incurred in the course of Felix’s construction.

One unusual thing about Felix is how she’s powered. For motoring, most sailboats this size rely on an inboard engine attached to a propeller via a steel shaft. When the boat is under sail, the shaft and propeller create drag.

Art felt there was a better way. He designed and built a propulsion unit that would retract in to the hull when not needed. A 12-horsepower diesel generator drives a hydraulic pump. Hydraulic lines lead from the pump to a propeller assembly mounted in a tube. When the motor is needed, the unit is lowered in the water. To reduce drag while under sail, the propeller retracts up the tube, in to the boat. Art estimates this reduces drag by 10 to 15 percent, and lets him “add a few knots of speed”.

cat boat felix art terry motor generator cockpit
The generator that drives the hydraulic pump resides below the cockpit sole. The straight end of the varnished mahogany rests on the end of the centerboard. The round end covers the well in which the propeller unit resides.
cat boat felix art terry motor propulsion assembly
A closer view of the pulley arrangement used to raise and lower the propulsion unit in its circular well.
cat boat felix art terry motor down
The propeller in the motoring position. It is designed around a 9.9 horsepower high thrust Yamaha outboard engine lower unit. The unit retracts in to the hull. In the raised position, the circular disk forms a seal against the hull, reducing water turbulence. (Art and Terry Halpern photo)

A traditional shaft and propeller aren’t the only things missing from the bottom of Felix’s hull. Absent in the underbody is a keel.


Most monohull sailboats Felix’s size rely on a heavy keel for stability and to keep them upright. As the boat heels over, the heavy weight acts as a counterbalance, overcoming the sail’s tendency to push the boat on its side.

Not so with Felix. This cat does not have a ballast keel or internal ballast. Instead, to remain upright under sail, she relies on a wide beam. Felix is 14 feet wide. Much like a person standing with their legs spread wide, this makes it harder for the sails to push the boat over on its side.

felix cat boat art terry halpern bow view
The head-on view. In naval architecture terms, the wide beam gives Felix plenty of “form stability”.
felix cat boat art terry halpern stern view
Viewed from aft, the wide beam is especially apparent.
felix cat boat art terry halpern cockpit
A wide, clear view for the helmsman

Art Halpern built Felix with this lack of ballast in mind. For its length, the boat is light. It displaces 8,500 pounds. The weight is concentrated as low as possible in the hull. The diesel engine, stoutly built centerboard case and the centerboard are located just at or below the waterline. The decks are three-quarter inch plywood sheathed in fiberglass. The top of the cabin house is one half inch thick. Instead of heavy stringers, frames and bulkheads, Art says the laminated cabin house sides add most of the longitudinal stiffness.

Higher up, where cutting weight brings the most stability benefits, the boat is built with the lightest materials possible. The carbon fiber mast – at 60+ feet – weighs 125 pounds. Instead of metal wire rigging, the spar is held up with low stretch synthetic line. High tech laminates were used to build the sails.

art terry halpern felix cat boat terminal ends
The intersection of heavy and light materials as viewed from the forward compartment. The dark, carbon fiber mast rests on the mast step in the bottom of the hull.
art terry halpern felix cat boat terminal ends
The mast is held upright with high tech synthetic line. Here, the terminal fittings that secure some of the rigging to the hull.
art terry halpern felix cat boat logo doghouse
For all the emphasis on performance, the boat features some lighter touches such as this cartoon figure inlaid in the front of the wood cabin house. “Felix,” says Art, “was named for the magic cat.”

Up next, building Felix.


Art started building Felix in 2012 in a shed at Sailcraft Services boatyard. While he did much of the work himself, he credits Alan Arnfast and the marina crew with helping him get the boat finished in a timely manner. (Construction photos by Art and Terry Halpern)

felix cat boat construction
Work on Felix began in spring of 2012. To provide the hull’s shape, a series of computer-cut molds were aligned and secured. Here, the ash stem and backbone have been installed. The first strips of cedar have been epoxied in place. Ross Halpern stands behind the pump that mixes the epoxy resin and hardener in the proper ratio. Also assisting with construction was Kevin Hamilton.
felix cat boat art halpern hull cedar strip
Thin strips of milled cedar are edge-glued to each other with epoxy resin. They are held in place with plastic nails fired from a pneumatic nailer. Later, instead of removing them, as is traditionally done in this form of construction, they will be left in place when the molds were removed. Art says this saved lots of filling and sanding of nail holes.
felix cat boat art halpern hull cedar strip fiberglass
The hull is sheathed in three layers of fiberglass. This adds strength and prevents the wood strips from absorbing water.
felix cat boat art halpern hull cedar strip roll over
The hull was built upside down. Here, using a special cradle, the hull is being turned right side up so the centerboard case, decks and cabin house can be installed.
felix cat boat art halpern centerboard floor install
The floors, wood supports that span the center of the hull, are installed. The first bulkheads and the centerboard are also bonded in place. Aside from these few structural elements the hull is, and will remain, lightly built.
felix cat boat art halpern centerboard
The centerboard is built. It is foil-shaped to give the hull lift. This helps the boat sail closer to the wind than the flat board it would have been traditionally rigged with. So it will sink away from the hull when it is lowered, lead is added.
felix cat boat art halpern decks cabin house
The decks and cabin house are built. The front and sides of the curved superstructure were laid up of mahogany by Art Spink.
felix cat boat art halpern decks cabin house primer paint
Almost done. The hull before receiving its final coat of dark paint.

After two years of building, Felix was ready for launching. Art says without all the help of friends, family, hired help and volunteers, he wouldn’t have been able to complete the large project nearly as quickly.


Art says Felix’s build was as much about meeting new people as it was constructing a vessel. On May 29 many friends and onlookers gathered to watch his creation take to the water.

art terry halpern felix launch hull sling lift
A traveling crane carried Felix from the construction shed to the water. The rudder and its skeg stand prominently out from the vessel’s smooth under body.
art terry halpern felix launch hull sling lift alan arnfast bert green
Alan Arnfast and Bert Green prepare for the move. Bert pads the lift slings to protect the hull.
art terry halpern felix launch cockpit
Terry and Art celebrate the moment with some drink and shattered glass. They broke the bottle with a hammer, not Felix’s hull.
art terry halpern felix launch ripple
Felix feels the water for the first time. Ripples furrow the water where the rudder and skeg make contact.
art terry halpern felix cockpit
Art and Terry in Felix’s cockpit shortly after she’s been launched. The lift slings haven’t been removed yet, but shortly after they are…
art terry halpern felix motor home
…Felix and crew head to her new slip, behind the Halpern’s home.

Looking back on Felix’s build, Art says going from a person who’s worked on lots of boats but never built one, “wasn’t as big a leap as you’d imagine.”

Now he’s making the transition from boat builder back to boat sailor and Art says he feels “a bit sorry” that construction is done. It’s been bitter-sweet, the completion of “Felix.” With the boat now moored off his back yard, he doesn’t get as many visitors as when he was building her and so many people stopped by.

Now that there is a boat to sail, Art plans to take Felix on the Pamlico Sound for starters. There may be some more distant coastal cruising in the mix, too. So far, Felix has sailed to expectations – on one outing, she sailed 8 knots in 10 knots of wind.

art terry halpern felix cat boat full sail neuse side view
Felix under full canvas on the Neuse River. The carbon fiber mast reaches 63 feet above the water. The mainsail is 700 square feet and features two deep reef points. The jib adds an additional 300 square feet of canvas. (Photo courtesy of Art and Terry Halpern)
art terry halpern felix cat boat full sail neuse side view
Felix heading for the shore with a reef in the fully battened main sail. Mark Weinheimer and LuAnn Parins of Inner Banks Sails and Canvas in Oriental helped build the sail. (Photo courtesy of Art and Terry Halpern)

Posted Friday September 26, 2014 by Bernie Harberts

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