Jarlath Cunnane pays tribute to pioneering multihull designer and sailor James Wharram


Irish polar adventurer and boatbuilder Jarlath Cunnane paid tribute to the pioneering skills of fellow sailor and multihull designer James Wharram, who died earlier this month at the age of 93.

Wharram, renowned for his Polynesian designs of double canoe style sailing catamarans, died on December 14 in Cornwall, Britain.

“Some multihull designers find inspiration on the computer screen,” Wharram said on his company’s website.

“I find inspiration when I’m afraid of the rapid approach of a huge white-crowned wave. It’s like the adrenaline rush of “how do I get out of this”? connects to “how do i get by?” », Explained the sailor and designer born in Manchester.

Cunnane first encountered Wharram in the mid-1970s when one of his ships limped in Achill Sound, Co. Mayo, needing some repairs.

Tehini was racing around Great Britain in 1974, skippered by Robert Evans and Maggie Oliver, when the beams broke. Robert limped into the sound of Achill, for repairs. Achill Sound seemed like a good spot as the map showed a convenient railroad track! Wharram and part of his team arrived to help

Her 51ft catamaran design named Tehini, piloted by Robert Evans and Maggie Oliver, was competing in the Round Britain race when several rolled ties broke.

“They had looked at the maps and noticed a rail link with Achill, which would be useful for delivering materials,” Cunnane recalls.

Wharram and several members of his team arrived in Mayo to help.

Beams replaced on TehiniBeams replaced on Tehini

“I was his agent in Ireland at the time, he called me and we had a really interesting time rebuilding new beams that were rotten over a period of about two weeks,” Cunnane said.

Wharram, who crossed the Atlantic in his home-built ship and undertook many other voyages with his partners Ruth Merseburger and Jutta Schultze-Rohnhof, kept in touch with Cunnane.

He moved from Milford Haven to New Ross, County Wexford for a time to set up his boat building and design business there, but returned to England. He had previously lived on board for some time in Dun Laoghaire harbor, after returning from a trip to the Caribbean.

“Wharram has always had several female partners,” Cunnane recalls. “It was part of his approach to be a little different. And he thanked them for helping him with his business.

“There was a time when people were building boats – and he was providing designs for self-built models – when now people are just going to buy them,” Cunnane explained.

“I built one of his catamarans for myself and finally sold it, and followed his practice of giving Polynesian names to all of his ships,” Cunnane said.

“Wharram was an amateur designer with no formal qualifications, but his Dutch partner Hanneke Boon took him to a new level with him, improving many of his designs,” Cunnane said.

Wharram would have hated the word “catamaran”, as recorded by Sam Fortescue in an interview with him for Sail magazine.

Fortescue explained that while studying construction engineering like his father, Wharram read Eric de Bisschop’s book on building a Polynesian double canoe Kaimiloa which he then sailed from Honolulu to Cannes in France. in 1936-37.

“Using the model of a fishing boat in the British Science Museum and de Bisschop’s rare descriptions, he built the 23-foot-6 Tangaroa catamaran in his parents’ garden in Manchester, miles from the sea. His father was appalled, ”Fortescue wrote.

Friends helped drive the two hulls of the Wharram about 200 miles from Brightlingsea on the English east coast of England. and he sailed to Emshaven, Germany, to recover Ruth and Jutta.

“After that, he aimed to cross the Atlantic, proving the seaworthiness of his primitive craft and validating the designs of the ancient Pacific Islanders.

“I never became the ‘great James Wharram’, except under the auspices of these two German women,” Wharram told Fortescue.

. “Indeed, I would say that in attitudes, I am partly post-war German. The Germans were really the pioneers of oceanic multihull cruising in the 1950s, especially with the Schwarzenfeld brothers, who built in steel. I was only fourth of about five at the time, ”Wharram added.

When Wharram and the two women sailed to Trinidad, a local newspaper sensationalized the relationship – at this point, Jutta was pregnant. They lived aboard a barge, and when it was destroyed in a storm, they built a new boat with American friends and French sailor Bernard Moitessier.

The new ship was named Rongo, after the Polynesian god of culture. They then set sail for New York via the Virgin Islands and found that the North American nautical community was more open to the concept of oceanic multihulls than the British sailing establishment. A third of its orders for more than 10,000 boats come from North America.

Cunnane recalls that Wharram liked to be an outsider, but also criticized this lack of acceptance from the British sailing “elite”. He and Hanneke Boon took his most ambitious design, the 63-foot Spirit of Gaia, built in 1992 around the world.

The couple sailed Spirit of Gaia to the Pacific to search for traditional sailing boats in 1995 and found a 200-year-old canoe with the same V-hull design on Tikapia Island.

In 2008-9, when Wharram was 80 years old, the couple embarked on the “Lapita” voyages, with the aim of proving that settlers could have reached the Pacific Islands from Southeast Asia. sail upwind with “crab claw sails”.

In April 2018, Wharram received this “establishment” recognition in his home country when he received a classic boat “Lifetime Achievement” award as a pioneering catamaran builder, sailor and designer of multihulls at the Royal Thames Yacht Club in London.

Rob Peak, editor of Classic Boat, recalled in his speech how, in 1956, Wharram made the first successful crossing of the Atlantic in a multihull – “the 23ft 6in (7.2m) Tangaroa, which he designed and built himself for £ 200 and sailed with two German girls “.

“In 1959, they were the first to cross the North Atlantic from West to East (New York to North Wales) aboard a multihull, the 40 foot catamaran Rongo, built in Trinidad. Since then he has sold over 10,000 of his cruising multihull designs worldwide, and some consider him to be the father of modern multihull sailing, ”said Peak.

“More than that, James has always understood that sailing is not about the expense. He has remained firmly committed to his “less is more” philosophy, always looking for simpler and more efficient ways to build and rig his designs. What should be noted in particular is her simple yet very efficient Wharram Wingsail rig. He’s 90 this year and shows no signs of stopping. He is, quite simply, a living legend, ”said Peak.

In Wharram’s own speech upon receiving the award, he said:

“Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous American architect, was once asked how he came to be famous. He replied: “I have lived longer than the others”. here today to receive this Lifetime Achievement Award for Classic Boat.

“So who were my competition? In the design of multihulls, there have been three areas of development, ”continues Wharram.

“Some multihull designers have focused on the narrow beam length ratio of individual hulls to achieve ‘speed’, faster than the maximum speed of fixed ballast monohull yachts, due to their wave drag,” a- he declared.

“Other designers have used the multihull raft configuration to create comfortable floating villas, as an alternative to buying expensive coastal land for a beachfront villa,” he continued.

“I belong to a third group of boaters and sailors, summed up in poetry, as in,“ I must descend to the sea to the lonely sea and the sky. ”We ‘dreamers’ follow an essential part of the psyche human, consciously or unconsciously, ”he said.

“The development of early man has been viewed over the years from different angles. Until fairly recently the view was that of ‘Early Man the Great Hunter’, followed by women and children picking up their remains,” Wharram said.

However, with more studies of human DNA and other archaeological findings, it becomes clear that ‘Early Woman / Man’ followed coasts and rivers where fish and shellfish were abundant and easy to collect. The making of boats must have been one of the first skills of mankind. The first people to reach Australia, 60,000 years ago, arrived there by some kind of boat, ”he said. he declares.

“This archaic affinity with the sea and personal watercraft is in the DNA of all of us, and I think it causes us to want to own and sail our boats. A lot of sailors today do not know. not interested in men’s competitive sports, they are not interested in a villa by the sea, they are driven by a deep instinct of our species to be on or near water, ”said Wharram.

“Throughout my life, starting out as a crazy walker and a pioneer in catamaran sailing, I was aware of this instinct and as a designer I tried to express it in my boats. Having sold over 10,000 models, it looks like a lot of my builders are hooking up with that, ”he said.

“Classic Boat is a magazine that has always expressed the beauty of traditional personal watercraft and the love of being on the water in a beautiful boat. Over the years, I have enjoyed every issue and still keep them all, including figured out number 1, on my overflow library shelves, ”he said.

“I am honored to receive this award from a magazine that I appreciate and admire,” he concluded.