Arthur Piver: Pioneer Trimaran Designer-Sailor

Arthur Piver (1910–1968) was a World War II pilot, an amateur sailor, author, printshop owner and legendary boatbuilder who lived in Mill Valley on San Francisco Bay. In the late 1950s, Piver (rhymes with “diver”) designed and built a series of simple three-hulled, plywood yachts starting with a 16 footer.

He quickly developed his ideas into a seaworthy 21 footer capable of sailing out of SF Bay and down the California coast. Within a few years, he would be hailed as “the father of the modern multihull.”

Piver created his first design for an ocean-going cruiser, the modern-looking, demountable 30 foot Nimble. In 1960, he trucked it across the USA, assembled it in New England and departed from Swansee, Mass., on a voyage to England with two crew. After a stop in the Azores he successfully reached Plymouth—the first recorded crossing of the North Atlantic by a trimaran.

(Note that the word “trimaran” was coined by Viktor Tchetchet, a Ukrainian emigrant to the US who built a couple of impractical, heavy boats and tested them on Long Island Sound in the late 1940s. They were featured in Popular Mechanics as suitable for beginners to construct and sail, but had some very odd and impractical features.)

Piver had hoped to enter the first Observer Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race (OSTAR) in 1960, but arrived well after the start. It appears that he tried to do some marketing of his plans, and may have sold the boat rahter than ship it home.

Back on the west coast, Rich Gerling, built and sailed a Piver Nugget from Los Angeles to Honolulu in 1961, possibly the first solo ocean crossing on a small trimaran.

Piver wrote the book “Trans-Atlantic Trimaran,” and drew up a series of tri’s, each with a wide cabin extending over the wingdecks, beginning with a 30 foot design also called the Nimble. This gave the boats a lot more accommodation, which attracted a lot more interest and helped sell his do-it-yourself plans. In a remarkably short time, Piver also built himself a 35-foot ketch-rigged solid-wing cruising trimaran named Lodestar.

Hed set off In 1962 to sail it around the Pacific Ocean and reached  New Zealand without any mishaps. Sailing east in the roaring forties, he experienced the ability of a lightweight multihull to surf in strong winds and big seas. This convinced him that a big trimaran racer could easily beat all the old sail records. In his next book, “Trans-Pacific Trimaran,” he predicted that a racing trimaran should be able to cover 1,000 a day in the right conditions.

This was an outrageous claim that showed his tendency to egotism and exaggeration, since he was only covering 200-300 miles in a day. But it was almost achieved early in the 21st century when the 98′-130 Ultimate” trimarans were launched in France. Piver was endlessly optimistic about the ability of his designs, but was quick to criticize any one who dared try to compete with him–as one of his protegees, Jim Brown, began to draw the Searunner range of tris with some very different features. 

It seemed that Piver truly believed that anyone could build one of his boats even if they had no experience and very little money–or at least that was the way he promoted his plans. Doing business as Pi-Craft, he began his one-man crusade preaching the gospel of his fast, cheap, easy-to build trimarans. In England, Cox Marine started building his boats in Sufflok and found a ready market, often with Americans who would sail them home.

Derek Kelsall’s 35′ trimaran was the fastest boat in the OSTAR, but had to return to Plymouth to repair a broken rudder.

In 1964, British sailor Derek Kelsall bought a 35′ Lodestar bare hull, named it “Folatre.” and completed it with a flush deck on the River Medway, and entered the second OSTAR. After ten days, he was ahead of Frenchman Eric Tabarly when he struck some flotsam and broke his daggerboard and rudder. He returned to SW England for replacements, restarted and still finished in a respectable time of 64 days.

Arthur Piver quickly drew plans for a range of trimarans, culminating in the 64-foot Empress-class that was built by a yard in wadebridge, Cornwall in England for charter in the Caribbean. (I worked there in the spring of 1965 and went out on the trials for a 45′ Trident-class.) Literally hundreds of these designs were begun at this time, many of them were completed satisfactorily, and some did indeed fulfil their owners’ dreams.

But many more were overweight, flimsy and poorly rigged, which led to less-than-spectacular performance. A few deteriorated into floating junk heaps and brought the whole DIY concept into disrepute. Piver’s confidence, some would say arrogance, was unsinkable, and he refined the underwater shape of the next generation of design (the Advanced Amateur) with multiple chines and some very stylish cabin lines.Piver’s next personal yacht was the 33′ Stiletto, on which he hoped to enter the next OSTAR.

People who met Piver say he was a social man who enjoyed being the center of attention in his circle of boating friends and felt that the trimaran was his own personal invention. But he was definitely not the “singlehander” type, although he made short solo passages to qualify for the OSTAR. (The offshore catamaran racing events in southern California were strictly limited to big twin hulls similar to the very conservative CSK designs.)

So Piver became obsessed by the Trans-Atlantic solo race happening 6,000 miles away because it was the only long-distance race in the world in the 1960’s open to all types of boat without handicap. To redeem his previous failure, and maintain his position as the world’s top multihull designer, again sailed the North Atlantic a second time, in the Stiletto and competed with the growing fleet of very modern multihulls that was based on the south coast of England in 1967. He left his boat in England over the winter of 1967, and returned home.

That winter, he very publicly announced from California that he would enter the next OSTAR in 1968. Having no time left for a solo qualification passage in English waters, he still had to complete a 500-mile solo qualification voyage, which he elected to do from San Francisco. He borrowed one of his 25′ tris home-built locally and casually set off into the Pacific. He was never seen again.

But Piver’s one-man publicity machine had such a profound impact that his death did not affect his fans: the designs became incredibly popular and inspired many novices to believe they could build their own boats and set off for the tropics. Despite the other tragedies encountered on Piver vessels around the time of his death, his concept had broadened the public perception of seaworthiness for the trimaran concept. His boxy cruising designs could never sail well upwind but were very stable; many did carry their owners to the tropics and allowed them to fulfill their cruising dreams. Actually they did a lot more than that—they remain in use to this day.

Many properly built Piver tris made long, hard voyages. Quen Cultra built a Lodestar on his farm in Illinois, and sailed it around the world with no prior experience. He wrote a book about the voyage titled Queequeg’s Odyssey. Dream voyages like this inspired many non-sailors to think Piver boats had some intangible (magic) ability. Thus Arthur Piver was often said to be the man most responsible for popularizing this nautical phenomenon long after his death.

His fans often wrote apologies like this: “A well built Piver, while not as “modern” as new tris, will still hold their own and are quite suitable for cruising, especially when modified with a Norm Cross design “fin keel and large area spade rudder.”

Randy Thomas, was a trimaran cruiser in the 1980’s who thought his Kristofferson design (very similar to the Hedley Nichol type from Australia) was far superior—until it capsized. “It was Arthur Piver’s bang-’em-together, sheet-plywood boats that launched the modern multihull movement in the early sixties, and simultaneously set its advancement back a dozen years. It wasn’t Piver’s fault that so many backyard builders erected condominiums atop his slender hulls, giving multihulls an ugly duckling reputation.” Yachting magazine 1985. Piver’s collected papers are preserved at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, VA.

However, it wasn’t long before other designers began developing trimaran designs. By the mid-60s, these included one of his young fans, Jim Brown with the Searunner series that are still sailing today, Norman A. Cross Designs of San Diego, California who had some 1,400 boats building or sailing by the 1980s, Jay Kantola in southern California with his stylish streamlined tris, and Derek Kelsall in England, the first designer to use foam and fiberglass “sandwich” construction and win a long-distance race with his prototype the 42 foot Toria.

The next year, 1969, the Golden Globe solo non-stop round-the-world race was announced; two of the entrants set off in 40-foot Piver Victress trimarans. Nigel Tetley was sailing a full-cabin version, Donald Crowhurst was in a Cox Marine flush-decker similar to Kelsall’s 35′ “Folatre.” Both these voyages ended disastrously and their failures marked the end of attempts to race Piver tris across oceans.

 

Author’s note: I wrote this Piver biography for wikipedia around 2010, and watched as it was amended and rendered un-readable by people with little or no experience of the subject matter—or writing ability. (I sailed on  45′ and 64′ Pivers built in Cornwall in 1965, worked with Derek Kelsall and James Wharram, met Nigel Tetley, and into Jim Brown in Port Townsend around 2006. ) It wasn’t until January, 2017 that I realized I could retrieve my Piver biograpy from Wikipediait, add some pictures, edit it properly, and re-publish it on this website..

 

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