For many years they were a nautical oddity, their owners dismissed by the traditional yachting world as cranks and dreamers, but no longer! Today cruising catamarans and trimarans (collectively referred to as “multihulls”) can’t be ignored. They can be found crossing Puget Sound and racing around the world, and in the last twenty years they’ve also evolved into superb powerboats ranging from luxurious trawler yachts to 300-foot wavepiercing ferries.
The modern multihull’s history began in the 1950s, the 1930s……………….or the 1870s, depending on your point of view. Of course none of these pioneers truly “invented” anything new, but they didn’t complain when they were portrayed that way. What’s really surprising is that there was so little awareness of previous or contemporary work, but of course, the sailing magazines of the time reflected their readers’ conservatism and rarely covered these crazy inventors.
It wasn’t until the sixties arrived that the movement finally “took off” in the U.S., Australia, and England–where I was lucky enough to meet and work with the two best-known designers who were just getting started. The high-tech, streamlined multihulls we see today are the product of just 40 years evolution– comparable to the first few decades of the aeroplane after the Wright brothers. (Who knows where they will go in the future?)
But what makes the story of multihulls so unique is that this handful of westerners were just re-inventing the wheel: the story actually began in the distant past of the Stone Age in the SE Pacific, where these craft are still used today. Long before European sailors had ventured beyond the confines of their coasts, the ancient cultures that lived on the islands of southeast Asia had mastered the arts of boat building, navigation and ocean voyaging.
As far back as 3000 years ago, the early Polynesians departed Samoa in voyaging canoes to seek out the east Pacific Islands, known today as the Polynesian triangle. They discovered, and then colonized all the islands in their path, including New Zealand, Easter Island and Hawaii. This was a historical reality reflected in their oral histories and nautical culture but was flatly rejected by western scholars until 1976.
The idea that native peoples could cross the Pacific Ocean on boats made of natural materials with no navigation instruments was simply unacceptable to the western mindset. It is still alien to our culture, but it was clearly demonstrated in 1976 when a replica of a Hawaiian double canoe successfully reached Tahiti. Today, the renaissance of traditional canoe voyaging is complete. Every island group in Polynesia has its own voyaging boat, on which young people learn the ancient art of seafaring.
The first western explorers to witness the exploits of the indigenous Pacific sailors were not so circumspect as the later anthropologists. Antonio Pigefeta, who was probably the first European to write a description of a Micronesian sailing canoe when Magellan discovered Guam in 1521, wrote that “their outrigger boats passed by our ship very quickly even though we were under full sail. There is no difference between the bow and the stern of these boats and they are like dolphins bounding from wave to wave.”
Much has been written about the genius of this elegant design, which is one of four different ways to use the outrigger concept to stabilize a narrow dugout boat. They are:
1) The proa–found almost exclusively in Micronesia, up to 100′ long.
2) The single outrigger (with a bow and stern) and a balancing plank on the opposite side used in Polynesia–suitable only for daysailing.
3) The double outrigger–found from Africa to Indonesia–still used for trading.
4) The double canoe–used only in Polynesia for long trading or colonizing voyages. These could reach a length of 100 feet and carry up to 40 people, with supplies for a month or more.
(More later about the proa, that unique craft which continues to perplex and inspire western experimenters.)
The hulls were usually made from the breadfruit tree, the best wood available but far from ideal; the necessary dimensions were achieved by skillful edge-jointing and patching, by drilled holes and lashings made of coconut cordage. This was also the only way to keep the whole platform from coming apart in a seaway, where the hull, outrigger and crossarms are all working constantly and must have demanded constant inspection. (I once tried lashing the floats on my small trimaran; I watched them work loose in an hour and quickly reverted to the bolt and bracket approach.)
Western contemporaries acknowledged the canoes as “remarkably handsome and well furnished … our cabinet-makers do not polish the most costly furniture better. Sails were triangular and often extremely large, with a yard and boom on two sides. Woven in matting strips from the strongest pandanus leaves, they were sewn together most securely. ” Captain Cook recognized their great speeds — 12 knots, much more with racing craft — and that they sailed considerably faster than his ship could.
Why the multihull concept never arose in western maritime culture is a mystery–but Europeans quickly learned to build with planks, enabling them to use hull beam and ballast for stability. (In North America, natives perfected skin kayaks and umiaks, birch bark canoes and huge cedar dugouts, but never attached outriggers.) Nonetheless, an anonymous nineteenth century sailor left a vivid description of a trip on an outrigger: “Up went the huge sail, down went the great steering oars and away we shot like a racehorse. The mast bent like a reed, and at the great rate at which we were going the sea was like a hissing cauldron on either side of our course.”
Nat Herreshoff–The Wizard of Bristol
The multihull concept was definitely part of the historical record after Cook’s Pacific voyages, for the expedition’s official artist depicted native craft in his illustrations. But it wasn’t until 1876 that the catamaran concept appeared in the American popular press. That was the year of the centennial. A series of yacht races were organized by the New York Yacht Club as the Centennial Regatta. That gave the great Nathanael Herreshoff a chance to show off his latest creation, the 25-foot “double-hull” Amaryllis–and the NYYC a chance to demonstrate the kind of sportsmanship they would use to maintain their grip on the America’s Cup.
The Amaryllis was a marvel for that, or any other time, since it would be equally capable of winning races in 1976! It was 15 feet wide with a 20-inch hull beam, radiused foredecks, canoe sterns and 2.5 feet of clearance under the central cockpit. The cross beam-hull joints were articulated and the jib boom was a massive 18-feet long.
The race was run in a brisk wind over two laps of a 10-mile triangle off Coney Island, with thousands watching from the beach. The big boats having run the previous day, this part of the regatta was for smaller craft, and the maximum length was 33 feet. Deduct several feet for the long overhangs that were standard at that time and you can see that the Amaryllis was the boat to beat. (Never having seen a catamaran before, the skippers merely scoffed at this oddity.)
That was a serious mistake. After three hours of tough racing, Herreshoff was the clear winner by several minutes. The losers tried to protest, but were informed they should have done that BEFORE the race. However, the Amaryllis was promptly banned from all future races. A newspaper correspondent looked into a crystal ball and considered what would happen “lest somebody build a 100-foot Amaryllis and convert the large schooners into useless lumber.”
“I hope that the interest in the catamaran will find many of these new craft afloat in the coming summer,” wrote Captain Nat, after applying for a patent. He launched seven cats in all, but his prediction would have to wait for the bicentennial. His son Francis Herreshoff, also a prolific experimenter, launched a second Amaryllis in 1933 that is on display in the family museum in Bristol.
The Perplexing Proa……
“The construction of this proa is a direct contradiction to the practice of all the rest of mankind,” stated the English Admiral Anson. “For as the rest of the world make the head of their vessels different from the stern, but the two sides alike; the proa, on the contrary, has her head and stern exactly alike, but her two sides very different; the side intended to be always the lee side is flat, and the windward side is made rounding in the manner of other vessels.”
This is but one of the many detailed descriptions and numerous sketches of the Micronesian “flying proa” provided by many of the early explorers, all of whom were impressed by the sailing qualities of these vessels. “From some rude estimations made by our people of the velocity with which they crossed the horizon at a distance, while we lay at Tinian, I cannot help believing that with a brisk tradewind they will run near 20 miles an hour, a prodigious degree of swiftness…” was one careful report.
On the bigger proas, keel, passengers and goods were carried on a transverse platform over the crossarms. The crew acted as ballast, their number on the platform depending on the weather — a gentle breeze being a one-man wind and a strong blow a four-man wind. Cargo could also be stowed in the hold but had to tolerate water since much was shipped and baling ceaseless.
Tacking the “lateen” sail was accomplished by reversing the boat, so to speak, the stays being hauled to slant the mast’s forward lean in the other direction and the tack of the sail moved and lashed to the opposite end of the ship, all of which took place in less than a minute. Sail was shortened in squally weather by a spiller which raised the boom and reduced the total area.
The proa is a strange beast indeed, a stone age boat that harnesses the wind’s energy with incredible efficiency………………..as long as it isn’t tacking up a narrow channel! Proa enthusiasts constitute the extreme “left wing” of the multihull movement and countless hours have been spent (wasted) trying to update the idea–and even debating the right terminology! “They do not come about like a Christian,” mused the great Nathaniel Herreshoff..
Dick Newick–Proa Constructor!
The only way to demonstrate the superiority of the proa would be in an open ocean race, where there was plenty of time and space to tack. That happened just once, in the Singlehanded Trans-Atlantic Race of 1968, when the all-American proa Cheers, designed by Dick Newick, finished third in 27 days. He had turned the proa idea on its head by putting the outrigger to leeward, and stepping two unstayed masts-adding another level of confusion to an already perplexing subject. (This and other options of reversing rig and rudder are discussed endlessly on the proa discussion group on Yahoo).
Newick had already designed and built a series of successful multihulls in the Virgin Islands, starting with the 40–foot charter cat Ay Ay in 1957. “Cheers was as successful as a radical new craft built on a moderate budget could expect to be,” Newick wrote to me in 1969. This breathtakingly elegant boat never crossed an ocean again, and now resides in a maritime museum in France. Thirty two years later, the US has no more than a handful of proas being daysailed on both coasts, and it still takes a really ambitious sailor to take one offshore.
Cheers inspired many imitators, but the harder designers tried, the more complicated their proas became. And the faster they went, the closer they came to capsizing. Port Townsend resident Russell Brown is one sailor who persevered and learned the dark secrets of proa sailing. He is the only westerner I know of who has followed in the wake of the islanders and sailed his proa, the 36 footer Jzerro, to Hawaii and back. Russell is the son of Jim Brown, the trimaran pioneer and has been building and cruising proas for more than 20 years. All his boats carry a small outrigger to windward that can be filled with water ballast to stay upright.
So is the proa a lost cause? Consider this: all recent short-course speed sailing machines like the Australian “triscaphe” Yellow Pages have been asymmetric (one-way) multihulls, and during Steve Fossett’s recent trans-Atlantic record he sailed in perfect proa weather–broad reaching in a steady wind on the same tack the entire 4 days 17 hours!
Eric de Bisschop–the Original French Connection
But it was only appropriate that the renaissance of Polynesian voyaging should begin in Hawaii, which had been colonized after incredibly demanding voyages across the equator by these “vikings of the sunrise.” Ironically, it was a Frenchman who built the first modern cruising catamaran on Waikiki Beach in 1937. He was Eric de Bisschop, and his 35′ double canoe was called the Kaimiloa. It consisted of two hard-chine planked hulls held together by solid timber crossbeams.
He rigged the boat with a large Chinese junk sail aft and a short foremast and sailed through the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, back to Cannes, France. De Bisschop was given a civic welcome when he arrived, and wrote a book that was later translated into English; but his feat was soon forgotten in his native France and Hawaii. So the next French cruising cat was the 47′ Copula, an overweight steel boat weighing 22 tons that crossed the Atlantic in 1947.
(Of course, we all know what happened when the French re-discovered their multihull heritage, with big budget sponsors and a sports-crazy country they quickly dragged multihulls into the 21st century with events like the 60-foot trimaran circuit and the unlimited The Race around the world.)
Rudy Choy– Hawaii’s Catamaran Pioneer:
Appropriately, it was in Hawaii, also in 1947, that the first truly “modern” design emerged. Woodbridge (Woody) Brown had become fascinated with native sailing craft during his wartime service in the Pacific. He teamed up with Alfred Kumalae, a boatbuilder, and Rudy Choy, a young local sailor, to build the 38′ Manu Kai. This was the forerunner of all Hawaiian charter catamaran, and its lightweight plywood construction made it the first multihull in history capable of sustained high speed.
The July 29, 1947, headline in The Honolulu Advertiser read: “Youths Design Sleek Canoe.” The word “catamaran” was already in use on the east coast but apparently wasn’t used in Hawaii. (It is Tamil in origin, meaing raft, and was picked up by the Royal Navy to describe a painting raft or float.) The first catamarans were considered little more than curiosities on Waikiki Beach. But Brown had dreams of revolutionizing yacht racing. So did Choy, who went off to the Air Force and won a Distinguished Flying Cross.
In 1954, Choy and Brown built the 40-foot Ali’i Kai, then came the Waikiki Surf for one Ernie Nowell, who agreed to enter his boat in the Transpac Race in July 1955. That raised all kinds of hackles. On demand of the race committee, the Coast Guard promised to tow the Waikiki Surf away if it tried to start. (It took 40 years before multihulls got a start in the Transpac.) Without Brown and Choy, the boat set out anyway in an unofficial attempt to beat the field. In one of the stormiest TransPacs on record, they came in ahead of forty-nine others in an elapsed time of ten days and fifteen hours, beaten only by the famous 70 footers Ticonderoga and Stormvogel.
Brown dropped out of the business, but Choy was joined by Warren Seaman and established C/S/K Catamarans, the world’s foremost multihull designer and builder. Their first commission in 1957 was a 46-foot raceboat for Ken Murphy, a California automobile dealer. This became the famous Aikane (“friend” in Hawaiian) and marked Choy’s first run at the Transpac.
They finished (unofficially) 26-hours ahead of the first monohull. In 1959, they tried again, and beat the 161-foot schooner Goodwill by 19 hours. Well, by that time Choy reckoned he’d proved his point. The yachting establishment still refused to budge, so he settled down to establish a charter business and build top-quality custom boats. His customers included TV celebrities James Arness and Buddy Ebsen. (Just to prove that they could play the game too, the owners of Choy catamarans in southern California formed the ORCA, Ocean Racing Catamaran Association, and refused entry to trimarans!)
It wasn’t until 1983 that another challenger came on the Transpac scene–the 65-foot cat Double Bullet from Los Angeles owned by Bob Hanel. He finally showed what a catamaran could do with a time of 7 days: 7 hours. Choy was galvanized into action and responded with a new boat: the 62-foot Aikane X-5 in 1985. That year he had the 48-foot Wind Warrior for competition, but the tradewind was a no-show. Needless to say, he beat the monohulls, but that was a foregone conclusion. He came back to the mainland in 1986 for more testing and enlisted Olympic Tornado sailor and sailmaker Randy Smyth to re-rig the boat.
With a wingmast and a big roach Kevlar mainsail they set off for one more (unofficial) Transpac. With the record in reach, a crack appeared under the boat’s mast step and they were forced to back off. In 1988, the indefatigable Choy was back again with sponsorship from powerboat racer Tom Gentry. The boat performed perfectly, but again the wind never got above a 12-knot average and they finished 16 hours off the record. The next year, 1989, it finally came together for this tireless catamaran advocate. He slid under the 7-day mark by 20 minutes and the record was brought home to Hawaii where it belonged.
“We don’t feel the French have a monopoly on design creativity,” he declared more recently. “They don’t even acknowledge their debt to us American pioneers in the field. Their single advantage to date has been lots of sponsor money.” Indeed, by that time the French had already built many fast boats and had gained enough experience to build super-light multihulls of unprecedented size and speed. In 1995, an Open 60 trimaran (sailed by Steve Fossett) lowered Choy’s mark at the first try, followed by a 75′ catamaran (sailed by Bruno Peyron) in 1997 that easily lowered the mark to 5 days 9 hours.
The Prout Brothers
As far back as the early 1950s, there were a number of experienced English yachtsmen experimenting with catamarans, including Michael Henderson and Eric Manners. The Prout brothers, Roland and Francis are the best-known because their interest grew into a boatbuilding business that continues to this day. They began in 1948, experimenting by tying two racing kayaks together and rigging a dinghy sail, although this little diversion didn’t stop them from becoming Olympic canoeists In 1952.
In 1954, they built the first Shearwater catamaran, using vacuum bagged wood veneers, with a wide but semicircular hull cross-section, center rudder and dagger board – and raced it with much success. During the following years thousands of Shearwaters were produced; one took first place in the 30-mile Cross Channel dinghy race from Folkestone to Boulogne.
Long before French companies like Jeanneau and Fontaine-Pajot began to revolutionize the industry with their Mediterranean styling, the Prouts were producing a full range of sensible, solid ocean-cruising cats. They started with the 38-foot Snow Goose, which soon led to the biggest, most comfortable boats to date up to 50 feet in length.
In 1955 the 36ft Flamingo became the first vacuum-bagged, cold-moulded cruiser, and by 1960 the 38′ Snowgoose model was the center of attention at the London Boat Show. Prout was the first company to mass-produce big fiberglass catamarans, many of which were exported to the US, including their biggest model the 50-foot Quasar. To open up the cabin space, they developed a unique mast-aft rig. If you see a cruising cat with the mast stepped on the cockpit bulkhead, a huge jib and a tiny main, it is very likely a Prout.
Prouts also built the first catamaran to sail around the world. Dr. David Lewis’ 40′ Rehu Moana competed in the 1964 OSTAR, then sailed south to the Straits of Magellan. (Lewis was the first westerner to seriously test the Pacific Islanders navigation methods, during the passage west from Chile.) With 4500 boats launched, Prouts continues a long tradition. All their cruisers are characterized by narrow beam–less than 50% of length and have an excellent safety record.
Other influences were the Little America’s Cup (the International Catamaran Challenge), which England dominated in the early years, and a flourishing one design and club sailing scene. This led to the introduction of many new classes of cruising and racing cats, the fastest of which was the Tornado, designed to use John Mazzotti’s tortured-plywood construction method, and still the Olympic catamaran.
The Brits had another early advantage–a slightly eccentric country doctor named John Morwood who was fascinated by the range of obscure possibilities sailing offered. He was much too dignified to actually get into any of these strange contraptions, but he made a huge contribution by founding the Amateur Yacht Research Society, which became a clearing house for information from around the world.
At the meetings I attended in the late 60s, the topics of self-steering vanes, hydrofoils, multihull capsize etc. were all thoroughly explored. Indeed, it seemed only a matter of time before every sailboat would be flying across the bay on hydrofoils, propelled by a wingsail, and steered by electronics. A few years have passed and some of these solutions have yet to be perfected!
Hobie Alter–the Man Behind the Boat
In the early 60s, if you could find a beach cat at all, it would have been the odd looking Aqua Cats with their tripod masts, the heavily-built Pacific Catamaran with a solid cockpit, or the Malibu Outrigger–the only assymetric multihull to ever gain any acceptance. The big disadvantage of these three boats was their size and weight. They could only be moved up and down the beach for storage on an inflatable beach roller with 4 to 6 strong bodies.
By 1967, well-known surfer Hobie Alter had sold his successful surfboard business, recognized a new opportunity, and gone back to the drawing board. His attention was focused on developing an affordable, off-the-beach catamaran. One that was durable, could be easily rigged and sailed, and was light enough that it could be launched by one person.
Hobie and a man named Art Hendrickson, an advisor to Hobie in the sale of his surfboard company, each put $5000 into a bank account, and Coast Catamaran was born. Work began in a Quonset hut (formerly home to Hobie’s motorcycles) in an alley behind a hardware store near Capistrano Beach. Using the foam and fiberglass techniques they had perfected building surfboards, they shaped many different hulls, testing them against each other on their two prototype 14 footers.
The result was a refined product they called the Hobie Cat 14. By the following summer, six boats were ready to race. The first regatta was held on July 4, 1968. Soon Hobie and a handful of employees were producing Hobie 14s out of the Quonset hut. As they ran out of room they would rent more space. By 1969, they were growing, but not fast, selling boats largely by word of mouth. The boat’s price was only $1000. It could be easily trailered or cartopped, but could also be quickly disassembled and put in a car or van.
Hobie and Art travelled to boat dealers who were painfully unimpressed with the cats. So, they went to boat shows instead, selling directly to the public. It was during this time that they hit on the idea of the decade, when they traded surfing movie producer Dick Barrymore and Bill Amberg a couple of cats in return for a 20-minute movie showing the guys on the beach designing a boat in the sand, then building it, and finally sailing it and having a great time. Ordinary people who had never been on a boat came to the boat shows, saw the movie and bought the boat.
Shortly thereafter, the single, most important event in the growth of catamarans took place. The popular Life magazine did a feature on this new watercraft that included, of course, one of their trademark great pictures. It showed Hobie Alter sailing his new “Hobie Cat” off the top of a wave in about 25 knots of wind. The boat was virtually airborne! In that one photo, Life had captured the essence of cat sailing…it’s fast, it’s fun and it’s exciting. Almost overnight sales took off.
The Hobie 14 soon became the largest class of cat in the world. The two-person Hobie 16 came out in 1971 to equal acclaim. It is still the largest class of cats existing in the world. Over 200,000 Hobie Cats have been sold to date–and that’s an awful lot of boats! (Hobie Alter Sr. now keeps a catamaran motor sailer in the San Juans.)
Arthur Piver: West Coast Trimaran Pioneer
The man who popularized trimarans in the west had a brief but brilliant career. He was Arthur Piver, and there is no question that in a meteoric decade he singlehandedly took the trimaran from a pipe dream to a reality and set in motion the popular cruising multihull movement. He lived in Mill Valley in Marin county long before it was fashionable, and when he wasn’t running a small printing shop he was busy trying out ideas in his backyard.
Piver had been a pilot in World War II and hadn’t lost his taste for adventure. First, he tried building small catamarans. By spring of 1958, he was zipping along the Sausalito waterfront in a 16-foot tri called Frolic. (The word “trimaran” was actually the name of a three-hull daysailer built by Russian emmigre Victor Tchetchet a decade earlier in the New York area.)
Piver’s antics had caught the attention of the houseboat dwellers and dreamers on the waterfront, and he soon had a group young followers building copies of his boats. One of them was Jim Brown, who would later become famous as the designer of the Searunner range and inventor of the Constant Camber method. It was Brown who first ventured beyond the Golden Gate in a plywood Piver trimaran, a 24-footer he called Moondog.
Brown and his new wife Jo Anna sailed down the Baja coast and back on a short cruise that proved Piver’s ideas and started an incredible boating phenomenon–the home-built trimaran craze of the 1960s. In 1959, Piver took the next step forward when he built a 30-footer, trucked it to the east coast, and sailed to England via the Azores. He had no singlehanded experience, but Arthur Piver never lacked ambition and had already set his sights on entering the first Observer Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race (OSTAR).
Perhaps fortunately, he arrived after the start, the first of many disappointments as he tried to gain the maximum publicity for his designs. This was the only demountable ocean-going boat that Piver ever built–its daggerboard, v-deck floats and open wing decks make it look fairly modern. But Piver was now sensing the potential market for the right boat and realized that he’d have to fit more accommodation if he was going to attract more customers.
Just a year later, he was off again on a Pacific crossing on his new 35′ ketch-rigged Lodestar, with the full wing-deck supporting a highly cambered cabin roof and clipper bow that became his trademark. He departed Wairoa, New Zealand on December 9, 1962, for the passage home through the Roaring Forties. Although they sailed south to the forty-second parallel, the only heavy weather was an hour-long squall. The best day’s run was a respectable 250 miles, but that didn’t stop Piver from claiming that “thousand-mile days” were possible in the future.
The sixties had arrived and Piver found himself in the curious role of “design guru.” News of his boats spread by word-of-mouth, and suddenly hundreds of hippies and drop-outs wanted to build a boat and escape from the evils of civilization. Trimaran builders began setting up shop all over America, from mid-western farms to cabins in the mountains. A few of these plywood craft went around the world, but many became houseboats when their owners found that sailing was more complicated than they had been led to believe.
In England in the early 60s, Cox Marine had jumped on the bandwagon and was turning out bare and finished Piver hulls at a rapid rate, setting the stage for trimarans in the second OSTAR. (Piver announced he would enter his new 38-foot Bird but ended up in the Bermuda Race instead–where he lost to Dick Newick’s 35-foot Trice by 12 hours.) It was left to Derek Kelsall, an English sailor who’d built a Piver tri in the US and already cruised across the Atlantic, to take up the cause–in more ways than one.
Early in 1964, he picked up three bare hulls from Cox Marine, set up shop on the south side of the Thames estuary and launched a flush-decked 35-foot Lodestar with a tiny doghouse five weeks later. Now he was ready to challenge Francis Chichester in his 40′ cutter and Eric Tabarly in his 44′ lightweight hard-chine ketch. Also in Millbay Docks was David Lewis’ 40-foot cruising cat and Mike Butterfield’s 32-foot Henderson cat with ballast keels–all of which fascinated me as an ambitious 16-year old spectator.
Kelsall was doing well and keeping pace with the leaders for a week until he hit something and broke his rudder and daggerboard. He cut down the stub of the board to make a rough rudder blade and turned back to England. He repaired the damage, turned around, and made the crossing in 34 days, the fourth fastest time to date and the fastest by a boat under 40 feet. (One year later, Kelsall was back in the UK ready to design and build the first “second generation” tri.)
In the following years, Arthur Piver would inspire many other sailors around the world to try their hand at drawing trimarans–these included Bill Kristofferson in B.C., Jim Brown and Louis Macouillard in the Bay Area, and Norm Cross and Ed Horstmann in southern California. In Australia, Hedley Nichol and Lock Crowther built fast, molded-wood racing boats.
They all aimed to improve on Piver’s basic concept, primarily by smoothing the edges caused by those hard chines and opening up the wingdecks. His response was the AA series (for advanced amateur) that used multi-chines to improve the underwater shape. To test the idea, he built the handsome 33-foot Stiletto and sailed it to the UK, determined to show these English upstarts that he was still #1 in the trimaran world.
Again, his boat failed to live up to its potential. His racing program was full of halyard breakages and sail rips, but he confidently left the boat at Cox Marine, intending to return the next year and enter the third OSTAR. Interest in the race had exploded, so the Royal Western Yacht Club was tightening the rules and forcing everyone to make a 500-mile solo qualifying passage. It was his third try and it proved his downfall.
The qualifier could be done anywhere, in any kind of boat, so Arthur Piver, by then 58, took one of his 25-foot tris out from Sausalito bound for San Diego on March 17. He was never seen again. His wife reported him overdue on March 31, a total of seven Coast Guard planes searched for a week, but no trace was ever found.
The critics pointed to Piver’s age, his lack of solo experience, the poor condition of the small boat he was sailing and the dangers of multihulls in general. His fans preferred to think he had been run down by a freighter, or overwhelmed by a rogue wave. (In Australia, Hedley Nichol’s boat capsized in a gale and he was never found.) Later that year, I discovered the Stiletto laid up on blocks at Cox Marine, where Piver had left it.
Derek Kelsall-The First Multihull Victory
While American designers moved cautiously beyond Piver’s ideas, in England Derek Kelsall found a backer and put all his experience into a 40-foot tri to compete in the newly-announced Round Britain Race of 1966. (Like the OSTAR, this was open to all-comers.) The Toria (named after his new daughter Victoria) was the fore-runner of a new generation of boats that led directly to today’s technological marvels. The standard v-floats and hard chine main hull were gone, replaced with semi-circular underwater sections, and the plywood and nails were replaced with molded foam-glass construction–in its first recorded use in an offshore yacht.
With no wing decks, an arched forward cross-beam and long, lean floats, the Toria looked fast at the dock. (Since I’d had a small hand in building it, I was biased.) Objectively, it was also in a class of its own on all points of sail. On a long and punishing course around Ireland and the Shetland Islands in the far north, it sailed away from a large mixed fleet and had a huge lead by the time it returned to Plymouth. This was the first time a multihull had won an ocean race. (Rudy Choy’s cats had easily outpaced monohulls in the 1950s but had never been allowed to enter a race, so the initiative moved to Europe. ) Kelsall’s triumph was also a reflection of the liberal attitude at the RWYC, which was now the best-known club in Britain after organizing two OSTARs.
That winter, the London Boat Show wanted the Toria set up outside the entrance. Kelsall asked Eric Tabarly if he’d like to help deliver the boat to the Thames………and that was how multihulls were re-discovered in France! Tabarly’s interpretation of the Toria in aluminum took an entirely different tack, and his overuse of tubing proved a poor choice. With Alain Colas as the owner, this boat finally raced around the world non-stop, but took well over 200 days.
Ironically, Kelsall’s first order was for a cruising catamaran utilizing the Toria main hull mold. The owner of the Torcat was Pat Patterson, who went on to create his own line of bridgedeck cats, called Heavenly Twins. Then Major Ralph Tarrant commissioned a race-oriented tri and the Trifle was launched in 1967. With tubular cross arms, a rotating mast and full-battened sail, all the elements of the modern high-performance boat were in place. (Unfortunately, 35 years later many home-builders are still devoted to the plywood-and-nails method, and there seems to be no end to stream of boxy “roomarans.” ) In a future article, I’ll explain Kelsall’s ingenious answer for homebuilders, KSS–the Kelsall Swiftbuild Sandwich building system.
Disaster Strikes in the Golden Globe
But nothing could stop the trimaran mania. Simple, cheap Piver boats still fueled the dreams of sailors and they continued to set off for distant horizons: two 40-foot Victress models were entered in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in 1968. They were Donald Crowhurst’s Teignmouth Electron and Nigel Tetley’s Victress. Crowhurst’s sad descent into madness as he tried to fake a circumnavigation has been exploited by several authors hoping to write best-sellers, so I’ll take this small opportunity to devote a few lines to his rival Tetley.
Tetley was an officer in the Royal Navy who, like all the entrants, was using his own money to mount his voyage and in his case his own boat, fitted with a comfortable wheelhouse
that had already sailed many miles. His only sponsor was Music for Pleasure, a cut-price record company that gave him a huge collection of classical music on tape–during one terrifying storm he recalled choosing Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony as appropriate soundtrack.
Tetley loaded his boat with fine food and wine and celebrated his passage past the great capes in style–with a gourmet dinner and a symphony in the background. It was an incredible achievement to survive the southern ocean and Cape Horn in an overloaded basic Piver design. He became the first person to sail around the world via the five capes in a multihull–and he did it nonstop and singlehanded! In 32 years, only three other men have repeated Tetley’s feat, all in big sponsored boats.
Unfortunately, this achievement was fatally marred. As he strove to say ahead of Crowhurst’s “phantom voyage,” he pushed his boat too hard and broke off a bow in the Bay of Biscay–after crossing his outward track. He was rescued from his waterlogged yacht by a ship, while fellow Brit Robin Knox-Johnson sailed home to fame and fortune. (That’s where the journalists end the story.)
Tetley gave an inspiring talk in London at the AYRS that I attended. He seemed a very capable chap, witty and full of enthusiasm to obtain a better boat. The next year, he had Derek Kelsall build him a modern tri for another long voyage, but failed to find a sponsor to finance the fitting out. The sad and forgotten end to this saga is that Tetley was also overwhelmed by depression and took his own life–a terrible postscript to the first round-the-world race.
James Wharram: Still Doing It his Way
It seemed highly unlikely that England, with its rarified, upper class sailing world, would ever produce anyone as colorful or charismatic as Arthur Piver, but it did; in the late 50s he was already at work sailing his own particular style of catamaran. No one in the AYRS (including me) had ever met anyone like James Wharram, a working-class fellow from the North Country who leapt onto the multihull scene in the mid-60s. For those who knew him, and many who only read about him, sailing would never be quite the same again.
James (Jim) Wharram had never heard of Rudy Choy, but he read de Bisschop’s book, decided that was the way to go and built a rudimentary 23-foot Polynesian-type catamarans in 1957 costing all of $420. He enlisted two German girls as crew and crossed the Atlantic. In 1959, they built a 40 footer, the Rongo, in the Caribbean, sailed it to New York, then across the North Atlantic to England (another notable first). He beached the Rongo at Deganwy in North Wales, set up shop, and began refining his ideas in order to produce plans for home builders.
I also recall hearing Wharram speak at the AYRS in 1967 and although I ‘d never heard the word “guru” I sensed that here was someone who had the power to persuade ordinary people to drop what they were doing and change their lives. With his height, his accent, his attitude, he stood out from the yacht club crowd and he already had his disciples in the audience. The next weekend I found myself blasting up and down the River Orwell with one of them on one of the first 34-foot Wharram catamarans in existence.
Of course, I had to go visit the Wharram HQ in distant Wales. Here, there was already a considerable collection of plywood multihulls scattered along the shore, some partly-constructed, some already past their prime. Then there was the Wharram commune, where Jim enjoyed the attention of not only his wife Ruth, but three younger women as well. (I still remember their names!) Since I was in college at the time, this experience did little to help me with my studies.
The basic tenets of Wharram’s “Polynesian Catamarans” were well-established–even though he’d never actually been to the Pacific. All the designs featured deep-V hulls with a canoe stern, an overhanging bow and a low sailplan; the hulls were flexible connected with four, solid wood beams; all accommodation was within the hulls; there was no bridgedeck structure at all.
While America was overrun with eastern mystics in the 60s, this was as close to a spiritual experience as I would ever come in old England. So like a true seeker of boating knowledge, I stopped questioning and joined the faithful, bought the 30-foot outriggers from Wharram’s first and only trimaran, and quickly fashioned myself a 30-foot catamaran. It lacked rudders, but what the heck, it floated.
After an adventurous summer drifting around the Welsh coast and trying to master the steering oar, I returned to college. But like Piver’s disciples, I too wanted to draw my own boat and drifted away from the fold. The result kept me busy for a couple of years, but never quite lived up to my expectations. Chances are I’d have been disappointed in a Wharram too, but since seasickness was my real problem, I’ll never know…….
Jim Wharram is still drawing easy-to-build, low-tech boats today, and they are still immediately recognizable. He now calls his early boats, drawn between 1957 and 1976, the Classic Designs. In 1972 he introduced the prototype of the Pahi designs–a true Polynesian “double canoe” style boat, and built a Pahi 63 design for his second big personal boat, “Spirit of Gaia” that he ultimately sailed around the Pacific. The early 1980’s saw the development of the Coastal Trek or Tiki designs, which are distinguished by a “soft wingsail” gaff rig and lashed beams. In the late 90s, Rory McDougall built a Tiki 21 and became the record holder for the smallest catamaran to circumnavigate.
If anything, Wharram’s boats are more native–style now than they were in the beginning, and provide a unique contrast to production boats, whether they have one, two, or three hulls. It’s true that most Wharram owners could proudly display the “Love it or Leave it” bumper sticker, but that’s true of most of us. The numbers of his boats built is in the thousands, many have made long cruises around the world and most are extremely seaworthy, if a little less speedy than predicted–but that’s a shortcoming of every cruising multihull.
Author’s Note: Now you’ve read this far, perhaps you can understand why some of us old-timers occasionally get a little nostalgic for the Good Old Days, when all you needed was a sketch on the back of an envelope and a pile of re-cycled plywood to start building your dreamboat.