The History of the Rainbow and Rainbow Fleet on Nantucket
The Rainbow, known everywhere else as a Beetle Cat, has become a well-loved icon of Nantucket. The Rainbows were first immortalized rounding Brant Point on the 1930 postcard by H. Marshall Gardiner, but now you see them portrayed on all sorts of commercial goods representing Nantucket - candy tins, embroidered pillows, plates, jewelry and all types of art. In addition, the Rainbow Fleet itself is still active -- they race in the harbor every Saturday through the summer and parade around Brant Point every year, prior to the start of the Opera House Cup Regatta.
The beautiful little boat has an interesting history. The Rainbow is actually one of a series of catboats that have been active on Nantucket since the nineteenth century. In the late 1800's, larger catboats were used for recreational purposes as well as for commercial uses such as fishing and scalloping in the winter. John Beetle of New Bedford designed the 12', gaff-rigged, shallow draft wooden boat in 1920 as a safe, fun boat for children to sail. The Nantucket Yacht Club brought the boat to Nantucket in 1926 to start a racing fleet for young children. Each boat in the fleet was given a different colored sail so that parents could identify which boat their child was on.
According to a 1991 article in the Nantucket Journal by C.S. "Butsy" Lovelace, the commodore of the Nantucket Yacht Club in 1930, Austin Strong, was a great promoter, and he staged the famous photograph of the Rainbow Fleet with Gardiner to promote both the Yacht Club and Nantucket as a summer resort. Lovelace wrote, "If you look closely, the little boats are all tied together. This is not a lucky shot. It was staged for the big reflex camera on its tripod ...; I was nine years old. You can see my little head just above the coaming of the sixth boat. That's my brother Dick's boat, North Star (number 21)."
The Rainbow tradition has continued through several generations. "My mother started sailing when she was about 12. I spent my whole life hearing her talk about sailing in the Rainbow, and I've always wanted one," says Mijke Roggeveen, who is a sailor and also happens to be the granddaughter of Marshall Gardiner. "Last summer I finally went and bought one, with a blue sail, #6, just like my mother's original boat, and surprised her with it. My 80 year old mother said, 'it's a beautiful boat', then climbed in, grabbed the tiller and sailed away."
The Rainbows are loved for their solidness and ease of handling. They can be taken up onto the beach for a picnic, or sailed around the harbor in a good breeze. "It's a comfortable, safe boat. Kids need to be able to mess about in boats and learn," says Roggeveen, "and now my two sons are sailing in the blue Rainbow just like their grandmother used to do."
The Nantucket Rainbow Fleet almost died in the 1970's. By that time, most of the boats were disintegrating in people's garages or back yards, and children were racing faster, more exciting fiberglass boats. Local sailor Alan Newhouse, who had started sailing in a Rainbow in 1927, decided to get the fleet going again. Newhouse described how "I went around and found several boats in back yards, put them back together and fiberglassed the hulls to hold them together and keep afloat. I got 12 or 15 Rainbows sailing again, and sold or gave them to people if they promised to race." Newhouse's efforts got the Rainbow fleet going again, and this time, it was the adults instead of the children who started racing the boats.
There are now approximately 70 Rainbows on Nantucket, although not all of them are in the water. Anne and Dennis Cross were fleet captains for the Rainbow class for several years, and did much to get the Rainbows out of the back yards and into the water. The annual Rainbow Parade around Brant Point on the morning of the Opera House Cup Regatta (which benefits Nantucket Community Sailing), attracts hundreds of spectators cheering from the beach. Anne Cross initiated this parade to get the Rainbows out sailing, distributing flyers weighted down with pebbles to all the Rainbows in the harbor, and ensuring that there were plenty of sails of different colors. Today, not every Rainbow has a solid color sail --- there are stripes, a cloud, stars, and even an American flag. While there are other Beetle Cat fleets, the Nantucket fleet is unique in that it's the only fleet with rainbow-hued sails.
The Rainbow is still being built today to the same specs as the original --- framed in oak, with cedar planking and Douglas fir spars, and can be ordered from Beetle Inc. in Wareham, MA.