Cal Fuller can still remember the day that would change his life. He was sailing a Flying Dutchman on Lake Hopatcong, sometime in the 1960s. “A young boy in a catamaran came sailing by,” he said. “I had never seen a catamaran before. But here we are, trapezing, thinking we’re going fast. And there he goes, having a great time, sailing right by us.”
And that was all it took for Fuller, to decide that he needed to start sailing catamarans. Shortly after, he went down to the Jersey Shore and saw a catamaran towing a waterskier. “That got me really excited,” he said.
But he didn’t just pick up the sport—the sales engineer for a rubber company started designing and building a version of the boat himself in the basement of his East Rutherford home. In fact, Fuller, now 87, is credited with designing the boat that would become the predecessor for all modern-day A-Cats, a vessel he named Cat-Nip. “My father couldn’t hammer a nail,” he said. “And neither could I. But I just decided to go out and do it.”
Fuller built 31 A-Cat class boats, all out of flexible plywood. “Anything I built couldn’t be longer than 18 feet, because that was the length of the house,” he said.
“And it had to fit through the window,” added his wife of 55 years, Ruth.
Until this week, Cal and Ruth owned a summer house in the Northwood section of the lake for 43 years, renting a place on Chincopee Road for 11 years before that.
“Cal is the father of the A-Cat class at Lake Hopatcong,” his good friend and fellow Lake Hopatcong sailor Peter Block said. Block met Fuller in 1969 when he bought a summer home three houses down from the Fullers. “I saw Cal’s boat, swam over, and ended up buying his No. 3 boat for $1,200. And we’ve been friends ever since.”
Today, a new A-Cat would sell in the mid-$20,000 range. They are also now made of carbon fiber, a much lighter material, and have modified designs. But the A-Cats—double-hulled single-handed boats with a tall, thin sail—racing across Lake Hopatcong and around the world have roots in Fuller’s design.
“You see these catamarans in the America’s Cup now,” said A-Cat sailor Dean Lennox of the Lake Hopatcong Yacht Club. “And we’ve got the guy who started it right here. Cal’s a catamaran legend.”
Fuller wasn’t just successful as an influencer of boat hulls, though he also designed and built 14 DN ice boats and a modified Renegade. He is also an accomplished racer. Block estimated that Fuller would win 90 out of every 100 races the Lake Hopatcong Multihull Club would hold in Henderson Bay decades back. Fuller is a three-time A-Cat North American champion, winning the title in 1973, 1974, and 1975. “I was lucky,” he said with a smile. (Fellow Lake Hopatcong sailor and good friend Doc Stern, now 91, won in 1972.)
When he turned 80, Fuller stopped sailing—and started noticing the lake a whole lot more. “I sailed up here for so many years and never saw the shoreline,” he said. “I was always watching where the wind was coming from, focusing on sailing. Now I’m starting to enjoy the view.”
Even after he stopped sailing, Fuller continued to watch the A-Cat races from the Jefferson House on Sundays. Over the years, he has seen the catamaran scene evolve on the lake: starting as the Lake Hopatcong Mulithull Club (a group that gave Fuller an outstanding membership award and named a trophy after him in 1992), the sailors raced among themselves for years, joining with the local Hobie fleet and growing to 50 boats in the 1970s and 1980s. The ranks got thinner over the years, but the fleet grew tremendously when the A-Cat fleet joined the Lake Hopatcong Yacht Club a few years back. “It really has taken off,” Block said.
Although it’s a single-person boat, the skippers share a tight camaraderie. “What inspired him the most from the start has been the fellowship with the boys,” Ruth Fuller said.
For Ruth, who crewed for Cal in the Flying Dutchman before his conversion to the A-Cat world, her husband’s switch catamarans meant she could actually do other things while they were at the lake. “We’d be sailing on the trapeze, all day long, as if we were racing,” she said. “After a full day, I’d say, ‘let’s go in,’ but he’d say, ‘we have two more hours of daylight.’ Once he started sailing A-Cats, he could stay out as long as he wanted.”
The lake itself was also a source of excitement for the couple, who live in Rutherford year-round. They said they were giddy with excitement when they bought their home on the lake. “I felt like a child with a new toy, I was so excited,” Ruth said.
As for her husband’s impressive resume, Ruth said she’s not surprised he did so much. “Cal does not dabble into things,” she said. “He goes headlong. It becomes an obsession.”
Block agreed. “His influence is unbelievable,” he said.
Fuller received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Catamaran Sailors of the North Jersey Yacht Racing Association, and the top senior boat at the North American Championships gets the Cal Fuller trophy. As he looked through his awards and a collection of photos and recalled days of sailing and building boats, Fuller just smiled at the memories. “I’ve had a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s been a great thing.”
To see A-Cat sailboats racing on the lake, check out their fall regatta out of the Lake Hopatcong Yacht Club on October 1 and 2.
Photos: An A-Cat on Cal Fuller's dock in Henderson Cove; a recently completed hull in Fuller's backyard; a damaged hull during a reg