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James Wharram: life and legacy of the iconic designer

Yachting World

  • January 29, 2024

Julien Girardot meets Hanneke Boon in Cornwall to discover the legend and legacy of pioneering catamaran designer James Wharram

spirit of gaia catamaran

Falmouth, Cornwall, 1955: a legend is born along Customs House Quay. A smartly dressed young man with wild, curly hair has launched a 23ft catamaran, built in just a few months for the modest sum of £200 (the equivalent of around £6,500 today).

Rigged as a ketch with battened junk sails, the aptly named Tangaroa (meaning ‘God of the Sea’ in Polynesian) marked the beginning of the epic Wharram story.

At the time, catamarans were considered dangerous and eccentric, while yachting was a pastime largely reserved for high society. But sailing already has other visionaries. On the deck of Tangaroa, beside James, are two young women: Jutta Schulze-Rhonhof and Ruth Merseburger. In puritanical post-war England, setting off to cross the Atlantic with two young women – and German ones at that – was downright shocking! But these three young people care not a jot about conventional thinking. They dream of adventure and their enterprise is an act of defiance.

For years James Wharram has nurtured a passion for the history of sailing pioneers and the ethnic origins of the multihull. Devouring every book on the subject he could lay his hands on, he discovered the story of Joshua Slocum, the first solo circumnavigator (1895-1898), and the voyage of Kaimiloa by the Frenchman Eric de Bisschop. The tale, published in English in 1940, of de Bisschop’s attempt to prove the seaworthiness of double canoes by making a voyage from Hawaii to France on a catamaran he had built on the beach, became Wharram’s primary source of inspiration.

spirit of gaia catamaran

Riding out the storm: James Wharram at the helm of Tangaroa in Biscay in 1955. Photo: Julien Girardot

Wharram disagreed with many assumptions of the time, and his first Atlantic crossing was an opportunity to refute Thor Heyerdahl’s theory on the settlement of the Pacific islands. Wharram contested the assertion of the Danish anthropologist who, after his voyage aboard the Kon-Tiki in 1947, affirmed that the boats used were simple rafts. Wharram was convinced that the boats were more akin to double canoes with sails, capable of going upwind and holding a course. These early multihulls, consisting of two hollowed-out tree trunks, were connected by crossbeams bound together with plant fibre. The sails were probably made from what is known as ‘tapa’ in Polynesia, hammered tree bark, which was also used to make clothes.

The three young adventurers left Falmouth on 27 September 1955 on a boat loaded with books, basic foods, and very little else. Despite a fraught passage, encountering storms in the Bay of Biscay and being suspected of being spies by Franco’s Guardia Civil, the trio successfully crossed the Atlantic and reached the island of Trinidad on 2 February 1957.

Without a penny to their name, they adopted a simple island life, and Jutta gave birth to her and James’ first child, Hannes. The unconventional polyamorous family lived aboard a raft inspired by the floating dwellings of the Pacific, nicknamed ‘the paradise island of the South Seas’. Tangaroa, now tired, was abandoned, as Wharram decided to build a new catamaran. By chance, two solo sailors came to anchor in the bay where the Wharram tribe lived afloat, and the legendary Bernard Moitessier and Henry Wakelam helped Wharram build his new design, Rongo.

spirit of gaia catamaran

Wharram, Merseburger and Schulze-Rhonhof aboard Tangaroa in Falmouth, 1955, before their Atlantic crossing. Photo: Julien Girardot

Thanks to the experience of his first transatlantic voyage, as well as knowledge gathered from Wharram’s endless reading, Rongo was much more accomplished. While Tangaroa was flat-bottomed, Rongo has V-hulls. To prove the design’s seaworthy qualities, Wharram decided to tackle the North Atlantic, sailing from west to east with his two companions. This route was known to strike fear into the hearts of multihull sailors of the time, as the two previous attempts had tragically ended in two deaths.

The crew left La Martinique for New York on 16 April 1959, one year after Rongo’s construction began. The return voyage to Conwy in Wales took 50 days, but the gamble paid off, and Wharram’s new design was the first to achieve what many thought impossible. The curly-haired eccentric became something of a celebrity, and following his great Atlantic adventure, James published his first book, Two girls, Two Catamarans. The years that followed were Wharram’s golden age, with plans released to suit every budget and every dream. Soon there were Wharram designs all over the world, connected by a powerful community spirit.

Drawing a Wharram

My own journey to this remote corner of Cornwall began decades before. After 15 years of travelling the world, inventing and reinventing my life, including many years living in the Pacific islands, I felt the need to capture these experiences by creating the boat of my dreams.

spirit of gaia catamaran

Illustrations inspired by a visit to the Wharram design office in Cornwall. Image: Benjamin Flao

While living in Tuamotu, I was involved in several incredible projects to build traditional sailing canoes under the directive of talented local Tahitian boatbuilder, Alexandre Genton (now chief of operations at Blue Composite shipyard in Tahiti). At first we launched small single-seat sailing canoes with two outrigger floats. These are the simplest way to sail: a sheet in one hand, a paddle in the other, which you plunge over the side of the canoe into the water, and it makes a perfect rudder. Then we built a larger version, Va’a Motu, for a hotel in Bora Bora, of splendid stripped kauri planking. Finally, we worked with the local population to build an ambitious 30ft Va’a Motu with a single ama, on the atoll of Fakarava in the Tuamotu archipelago.

Curiously, after many experimental trials at building and sailing canoes, my imagined ideal yacht turned out to be something very close to a Wharram design, which I learned as soon as I shared my first cautious sketches with friends. I realised I had to meet James Wharram.

In October 2021, I dialled the number of JW Designs. A woman answered; James’ long-term life and business partner Hanneke Boon. I tell her my ideas to build from one of their plans: the Islander 39. We began an email exchange and when I asked her what James thought of this model, in November 2021, less than a month before he died, she replied: “James is enthusiastic about your project. He’s now 93 years old and nearing the end of his life.

spirit of gaia catamaran

The Pahi 63 Spirit of Gaia which Wharram and Boon sailed around the world. Image: Benjamin Flao

“He has been looking at the Islander 39 design for several years and often says, ‘I wish I had one myself.’ It’s the only Wharram design that has never been built, so your project is a wish come true for him.”

On 14 December 2021, James Wharram passed away. Out of respect for the bereavement, and due to Covid-related travel restrictions, we decided to postpone our meeting. Some months later on a beautiful spring afternoon, I landed in Plymouth with my friend and artist Benjamin Flao, himself the owner of a Wharram-designed Tiki 28, and headed for Devoran near Truro in Cornwall, the stronghold of the Wharram family.

Hanneke welcomes us into her office. It is a beautiful wooden cabin, warm and bright, overlooking the changing lights of Cornwall. The place looks like a museum telling the story of a life of travel and passion through yacht models, photographs and unusual objects. James is there, you can feel it. A glance at the shelves of the library shows an impressive array of rare and precious books, mostly dealing with navigation and shipbuilding in Oceania, and demonstrates the seriousness with which Wharram and Boon studied the history and technicality of ‘double canoes’.

“I’d like our boats to be called double canoes and not catamarans, which I think is a mistake,” Hanneke explains. The word catamaran, originally pronounced ‘catamaron’, comes from the Tamil dialect of katta ‘to bind’ and maram ‘wood’, as they were actually one-man rafts used to work on the outer hull of ships. The English pirate and adventurer William Dampier, in the 1690s, was the first to describe a two-hulled vessel as a catamaran, but although catamarans might be the commonly accepted word nowadays, it’s actually a mistake.

spirit of gaia catamaran

oon unfolds the plans of the Islander 39, the only Wharram design that has never been built. Many plans were hand-drawn by Boon. Photo: Julien Girardot

Hanneke unfolds the Islander 39 plan on her drawing board. Like all Wharram plans for half a century, it has been marked with her signature. Despite this unique pencil stroke, she has remained in the shadow of Wharram’s mythology for 50 years. Since 1970, Boon has drawn the majority of the construction plans by hand. They’re works of art and the best way to imagine yourself aboard a Wharram. Without her, JW Designs would not be what it is.

Originally from the Netherlands, Boon grew up in a family of sailing enthusiasts. By the age of 14 she was already building small canoes and at the age of 20 she joined the Wharram team and quickly became his co-designer. They criss-crossed the Atlantic twice in quick succession aboard Tehini, the crab claw-rigged double canoe on which James and several women lived for 10 years. Since then, Hanneke has escaped from her office whenever she can to sail thousands of miles on all the seas of the world, always using a double canoe.

Those radical vessels included the Spirit of Gaia, also built on site, through a sliding door next to Hanneke’s office. It was aboard this 63ft Pahi, Wharram’s flagship, that the Wharrams sailed around the world from 1994 to 1998. James described Spirit of Gaia as “a beautifully shaped woman he was in love with”.

spirit of gaia catamaran

Boon’s design office is adjacent to the Wharram HQ in Devoran and looks out over one of the River Fal’s many creeks. Photo: Julien Girardot

In Wharram’s wake

James and Hanneke’s home is a former veterinary surgery. The furnishings are basic, with only the essentials, but the doors close by themselves, thanks to an ingenious system of weights, ropes and pulleys. Benjamin and I offer to shop and cook, and in the living room, we put the dishes down and eat on the floor, like on the deck of a Wharram.

Jamie, James and Hanneke’s son, joins us for the meal with his partner Liz. “James has remained the icon of the business, but it’s really Hanneke who has been doing the job for the last 10 years. She is JW Designs,” confides Liz.

Jamie is at first more subdued, but talking to him you soon discover a true character. Given the world he grew up in, it’s surprising to learn that sailing is not really his thing: “I get bored quickly at sea and I’m sick most of the time! I prefer to be underwater. Above the line is not my thing.

spirit of gaia catamaran

Evocative illustration of the Wharram workshop in Devoran, Cornwall. Image: Benjamin Flao

“I do like the calmness of the ocean though, that parenthesis effect, detached from our hectic lives on land. In fact, I think the best thing about sailing is remembering long voyages, not making them,” Jamie jokes.

But he is keen to preserve Wharram’s legacy and the couple are thinking ahead to when Hanneke can no longer hold the fort. “As long as Hanneke is alive, the business will be run in her own way. But it’s certain that something will be put in place to enable people to continue to acquire the building plans, at the very least, this service will remain guaranteed.”

Back in the office next door, Nicki John answers clients and sends plans around the world. She’s only been with JWD for a couple of years, but that’s long enough for her to fall in love with the company’s story.

“One of the things I loved about James was that he came in every day. He’d knock on the door and jokingly ask, ‘Do you have time for some gossip?’ And then he’d tell me all sorts of stories. His travels, the women he had shared his life with, it was fascinating. When he was 18, he hitchhiked to Europe, smuggling coffee on the black market to finance his adventures. James’ story is just phenomenal.

spirit of gaia catamaran

Mana 24 is available as a CNC-cut self-build kit boat. Photo: Julien Girardot

“One day James came in, took out a plan, unfolded it as he sat down, and said, ‘Aren’t they beautiful?’ James was deeply convinced of Hanneke’s talent. He never stopped admiring her,” Nicki says fondly.

The community Wharram fosters is unique. Nicki shows us a photo that defines the ‘Wharram spirit’, of the hull of a Wharram being lifted out of the second floor window of a home in England. With no shed to build their Wharram design, they decided to use their living room as a boatyard. “This picture shows that if you really want to build a Wharram, you can do it anywhere,” says Nicki, “During Covid, we sold a lot more plans. Confined, people dreamed of freedom and took time to figure out how they wanted to live their lives.”

Now it’s Hanneke’s turn to shine as the head of JWD. In contrast to the technologically-led path that sailing often follows, James and Hanneke’s ‘low tech’ approach drives those who follow it to reconnect with past knowledge, practices, and philosophical approaches to our relationship with the world and the way we live in it.

Their love of minimalism is also at odds with many trends in modern yachting, but it brings its own luxury. The joy of not having too much of anything allows you to make room for the essentials, and for the beauty that surrounds you.

My dream of building Wharram’s unfulfilled plan, the Islander 39, remains. I’m in no hurry. Like the libertarian vision of James Wharram, it endures.

If you enjoyed this….

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Yachting Monthly

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James Wharram: Eight bells for the multihull pioneer

  • Katy Stickland
  • January 7, 2022

Tributes have been paid to pioneering multihull designer and sailor James Wharram, who has died aged 93

James Wharram dedicated his life to to proving the Polynesian double canoe was an ocean worthy craft. Credit: James Wharram Designs

James Wharram dedicated his life to to proving the Polynesian double canoe was an ocean worthy craft. Credit: James Wharram Designs

James Wharram, considered by many as the father of modern multihull cruising, has died, aged 93.

The free-spirited sailor and designer specialised in double-canoe style sailing catamarans, inspired by the Polynesian double canoe.

Born in Manchester in 1928, Wharram designed his first offshore cruising catamaran, Tangaroa in 1953 having read about Frenchman Éric de Bisschop’s 1937-1939 voyage from Hawaii to France in his double canoe.

Ruth Merseburger, later Ruth Wharram, was an early believer in James's designs and theories and helped build his first multihull, Tangaroa

Ruth Merseburger, later Ruth Wharram, was an early believer in James’s designs and theories and helped build his first multihull, Tangaroa . Courtesy: James Wharram Designs

Determined to prove the seagoing qualities of the double canoe, Wharram, accompanied by Ruth Merseburger, who later became Ruth Wharram, and Jutta Schultze-Rohnhof, sailed his 23ft 6 inch multihull from Falmouth across the Atlantic to Trinidad in 1956.

Wharram wrote about crossing the Bay of Biscay in Tangaroa for Yachting Monthly in 1956, going into details about the catamaran’s performance, easy motion and stability. This was in direct contrast to the then held opinion that a motion of a catamaran would be worse than on a keel yacht.

Three years later, having built the 40ft Rongo on a beach in Trinidad with the help of French sailor Bernard Moistessier, Wharram, Ruth and Jutta sailed to New York before crossing the North Atlantic – the first ever North Atlantic West-to-East crossing by multihull.

Onboard Rongo in the Atlantic with his son Hannes.

Onboard Rongo in the Atlantic with his son Hannes. Courtesy: James Wharram Designs

James Wharram started designing for self-builders in 1965.

Along with his partners Ruth Wharram and Hanneke Boon, he created distinctive V-hull double-ended catamarans, from 13ft to over 60ft, selling more than 10,000 sets of plans.

Jutta Schultze-Rohnhof and Ruth Merseburger with James Wharram before they left Falmouth onboard Tangaroa. Courtesy: James Wharram Designs

Jutta Schultze-Rohnhof and Ruth Merseburger with James Wharram before they left Falmouth onboard Tangaroa. Courtesy: James Wharram Designs

Wharram believed in a ‘less is more’ approach to boat building, and all of his boats are of simple construction, aimed at amateur boat builders, including the Tiki 21, Cooking Fat , which became the smallest catamaran to sail around the world when skippered by Rory McDougall from 1991-1997.

In May 1992, Wharram launched the 63ft Pahi, Spirit of Gaia , from his home on Restronguet Creek in Cornwall, sailing 32,000 miles around the world from England to Greece via the Pacific.

Spirit of Gaia. Courtesy: James Wharram Designs

Spirit of Gaia. Courtesy: James Wharram Designs

The catamaran, which has a low freeboard and trademark Wharram Wingsail Rig, was conceived as a base ship for studying whales and dolphins at sea, able to accommodate 16 people offshore.

Continues below…

spirit of gaia catamaran

Wharram cats launched to search for ancestors

Lapita voyage boats launched in Philippines

James Wharram with his crew, Jutta and Ruth, in Falmouth September 1955 aboard TANGAROA

60th anniversary of first Wharram catamaran to set sail from Falmouth

60 years ago, on the 27th September 1955, James Wharram set sail from Falmouth aboard a self-built 23ft 6in flat-bottomed

In 2008, Wharram’s career came full circle, when 50 years after his pioneering voyages, he sailed 4,000 miles on one of two 38ft double canoes along the island chains of the Philippines, Indonesia, New Guinea and the Solomons.

Sailing Spirit of Gaia

Sailing Spirit of Gaia. Courtesy: James Wharram Designs

Known as the Lapita Voyage , the canoes were based on an ancient Polynesian canoe hull-form, and were powered by sail alone, using traditional Polynesian crab claw sails and steering paddles.

Paying tribute to her life partner, Hanneke Boon wrote: ‘ James was a trailblazer, a fighter with great determination and vision. From a young age he followed his passions – to roam the hills – for fair politics – for intelligent women – to sail the seas – to prove the Polynesian double canoe an ocean worthy craft – to become a Man of the Sea.

With his life partners, Ruth Wharram, who died in 2013 aged 92 and Hanneke Boon.

With his life partners, Ruth Wharram, who died in 2013 aged 92 and Hanneke Boon. Courtesy: James Wharram Designs

‘These passions made him into a pioneer of catamaran sailing and a world-renowned designer of unique double-canoe catamarans that now sail the oceans.

‘He designed for people who wanted to break out of mundane lives, gave them boats they could build at an affordable cost and gave them the opportunity to become People of the Sea like himself.’

A man looking at a model of a boat

James Wharram preferred sailing to building and tried to make all of his design as simple as possible to build. Courtesy: James Wharram Designs

In the last few years of Wharram’s life he developed Alzheimer’s. He died on 14 December.

‘He could not face the prospect of further disintegration and made the very hard call to end it himself. It was with great courage that he lived his life and with great courage he decided it was the time to finish,’ wrote Hanneke

‘In this moment of great loss we should all remember the good and glorious times of a life fulfilled. This is not the end, I, we, all the Wharram World will keep his work alive.’

James Wharram 1928-2021

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Nomads of the wind – an article by James Wharram

  • January 5, 2022

In light of the recent passing of pioneering multihull designer James Wharram, we share his Practical Boat Owner article from our October 1994 issue, published for the first time online.


To Gran Canaria from Tenerife at 14 to 16 knots

In 1993 James Wharram and his family adopted the life-style of Polynesian migrants on board their double canoe Spirit of Gaia .

They voyaged 6,000 miles, experienced dozens of adventures and discovered why those intrepid pacific explorers worshipped their boats as gods..

An article by James Wharram.

The BBC’s acclaimed series Nomads of the Wind , was the fantastic story of the Polynesian migrations and subsequent island discoveries across thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean aboard sea-going double canoes.

These double canoe raft ships were known to have been developed for offshore sailing 2,000 years ago.

A direct descendant of these craft are the present day catamarans.

Can we compare the sailing ability of the modern catamaran to the ancient double canoe vessels of the Polynesians?

Can we present-day sailors and designers learn anything from one of Man’s great ethnic ship designs of history ?

I think we can.

Spirit of Gaia

Where the spirit took them: Spirit of Gaia

Live-aboard lifestyle

In 1993 I lived as a ‘ Nomad of the Wind ‘ aboard our 63ft ethnic proportioned Double Canoe, the Spirit of Gaia .

We made a voyage of 6,000 miles, sailing from landfall to landfall: Falmouth, North Spain, South Portugal, and from island group to island group: the Canaries, the Madeiras, the Baleares (in the Mediterranean), a voyage of many adventures, that stimulated new ideas and gave us insights into the minds of Polynesians.

There was the memorable voyage, 500 miles from Gran Canaria to Funchal on Maderia, when, with the rudders lashed, in light winds, the Double Canoe glided across the ocean.

For a while, we left this century and the western world to become a part of the Polynesian sea world.

Turtles in the sea, dolphins around, sea birds flying in the sunset, and the nights lit with brilliant stars.

We loved our ship.

Poetry of the sea

Throughout history seafaring races have been poetical about their seafaring craft.

But you can only be in love with a ship that returns affection in sailing ability.

It could be the ability to point into the wind, so that you can reach a sheltering bay or harbour that lies upwind; it may be that the sails are easily handled in a squall; its motion may feel like a dance over the waves or it may have the lift and buoyancy to ride out storms.

Maybe it has a sense of power in reserve for that emergency, when you need to push the boat harder without incurring damage to the craft.

Sea-people learn to trust their subjective and instinctive boat feeling, that their craft is in tune with nature.

The Spirit of Gaia is such a ship.

To satisfy the Western analysing part of our nature, we fitted the Spirit of Gaia with Brookes and Gatehouse “Focus” instruments for recording true and apparent wind angles, windspeed and a sensitive log for speed through the water.

In addition we carried a Sony GPS for point position finding.

Some yachting magazines print boat performance in a diagram called a polar curve, which combines three facts: True wind speed, true wind angle and boat speed, but to get a better picture of how the boat sails, you need more information: apparent wind angles, sail area carried related to the stability of the vessel (most important for multihulls) and speed/length ratios to compare the results with other boats.

Hanneke, my design partner, chief mate on the Spirit of Gaia , has drawn the Gaia’s sailing performance in wind force 5-7 (see figure 1) giving all this additional information and, for those interested in the finer points of sailing, the contain much to study.

Spirit of Gaia - sailing performance

Spirit of Gaia – sailing performance in open ocean wind force 5-7, waves 5-6ft high, occasionally 10-13ft

The Polynesian ethnic proportioned Spirit of Gaia can sail with her schooner rig 45º off the true wind, can cruise in force 4 (11-16 knots) winds at average speeds of 10 knots, which is a speed/length ratio of almost 1.5√WLL, (WLL being the waterline length) equivalent to the top average which a monohull racer, hard driven over on her ear, can be expected to achieve.

Pushed a little harder, she sails at 14-16 knots, which equals 2.2√WLL.

Note, at this speed her stability of 56 knots!

Many people fear fast catamarans as they are known to capsize.

Festive feel on the helm

Spirit of Gaia aerial view

The joy of sailing the Spirit of Gaia at an easy 10 knots was best summed up by an Austrian sailor, who, after four hours at the wheel, when offered a relief, declined, saying:

“This is like Christmas all the time.”

To sail with ease, upright and with little structural stress at speeds proportional to the Clipper Ships and hard-driven modern Ocean Racers, in wind strength of only 13-15 knots (force 4) does demonstrate the design genius of the ancient Polynesian Double Canoes.

A student of the pre-European Polynesian Double Canoe designs could point out:

“Your Spirit of Gaia may have Polynesian hull shapes, rounded V hulls and waterline/length ratios of 17:1, but she is different in certain aspects of design from an ethnic Polynesian Double Canoes. “You have improved on the basic concept with modern design concepts, for the Spirit of Gaia has the wide overall beam and the large sail area/displacement ratio of a modern multihull, using advanced sail design with sails made of modern Terylene. “The Polynesian sails were made of ‘matting’.”

This is all true, and, using the hulls of the existing Spirit of Gaia , Hanneke has drawn out a more ethnic Polynesian Double Canoe (see figure 2).

In reverence to the Spirit of Gaia’s Hawaiian name, given to her by her Hawaiian launching crew, who came to Cornwall specifically for the occasion, we will refer to this craft as the Makua Hine Honua .

James Wharram

The author in relaxed mode

Seagoing performance

Makua Hine Honua

At first glance, the diagram suggests a very narrow beamed catamaran with peculiar shaped sails of moderate area and a deep paddle for steering and another for leeway prevention.

Can such a craft compare in speed and seagoing ability with a modern performance catamaran?

Let us look in more detail at the possibilities.

The prime factor in design of cruising catamaran speed and sea-going ability is sufficient stability, for without it, you have an upside down catamaran.

The ‘narrow beamed’ (by modern standards) Makua Hine Honua with her low rig has a calculated static stability of 28 knots!

This means, under full sail, it would take a gale of 28 knots to capsize her (though, to allow for wind gusts, ie dynamic stability, it would be advisable to consider reefing at 23 knots of wind).

Many of the wide-beamed, modern, performance, cruising catamarans on the market, to which the Makua Hine Honua is compared, have a static stability as low as 25-27 knots.

This means, if you do not stand by the sheets at wind speeds of force 4 prepared for instant release, in a wind gust, there is a risk of sudden capsize.

Nobody is quite certain why Polynesian Catamarans had, in relation to the modern catamarans, a narrow overall beam, though we can see, that it did not affect stability.

For years I thought it was for greater manoeuvrability when under power (ie paddle power).

Now I am beginning to suspect that the Polynesians were as advanced in hull dynamics as they were in the aerodynamics of sail design.

Perhaps the interacting bow waves, through their narrow hull separation, provide close to the bows a hydro-dynamic lift against pitchpoling – a problem of some modern catamarans.

The sail rig on the Makua Hine Honua does look like the modern Bermudan sail rig set upside down.

C. A. Marchaj, a leading theoretician on aero and fluid dynamics of yacht design, did tunnel testing of Polynesian sail shapes, and found that close hauled at a true wind angle of 40º the Polynesian sail gave 5% less drive than the modern “High Performance” Bermudan mainsail and jib.

However, free the Polynesian sail off to wind angles of 50º-60º on the beam, and this sail shape gives 5-10% more drive than the Bermudan mainsail and jib.

Polynesian know-how

The Polynesian sails of old were made of matting but not the type of matting you may have on your kitchen floor.

Generations of Polynesians had developed a tough, finger-woven “fabric” from finely split tensile Pandanus palm leaves.

It was a most effective windward material.

The rig shown on the Makua Hine Honua with modern theory and experiments in wind tunnels in its favour can be regarded as an efficient, high pointing windward rig.

The original Polynesians lived and sailed in the trade wind areas, where for most of the time winds blow between force 4-7.

The Polynesians did not need large sail areas.

In winds of force 4 upwards, the moderate 800 square feet Polynesian rig of the Makua Hine Honua would power her on a close reach (55º-60º off the wind) between 150-250 miles in a 24 hour period.

So, with light overall weight (we calculated her weight at 7 tons in traditional materials), plus high stability, efficient windward sails mounted on an efficient windward hull form, the Makua Hine Honua of antiquity is, by present day analysis, an efficient sailing machine.

In fact, the oldest, (by 2,000 years), earliest double-hulled craft is a basic point of reference by which to judge subsequent double-hulled sailing craft.

With reference to the Spirit of Gaia , I have written “We loved our ship.”

Well, the Polynesians worshipped theirs.

Article continues below…


Fair winds to pioneering multihull designer James Wharram

Fair winds to free-spirited sailor and pioneering multihull designer James Wharram who passed away on 14 December, at the age

spirit of gaia catamaran

Sailing for All – the 1950s: a short history of yacht design

Although the post-war period was a time of scarcity – food rationing in the UK continued until 1954 – it…

spirit of gaia catamaran

British designer James Wharram’s round-the-world adventure on Spirit of Gaia

The morning breeze was just starting to fill in as we headed out of Port Vathi on board Ionian Spirit,…

‘Go faster’ lines

The double canoe and sailing the oceans was at the heart of their religious beliefs and social customs and attitudes.

According to the early European sailors, the finish and decoration of their ships “was of the highest standards.”

Polynesian hulls were a vivid polished black, red or yellow colour.

They were decorated at bows and sterns by highly elaborate, sacred carvings and had what we might call ‘go faster’ lines – not in paint but glittering inlays of mother of pearl shell, or, in some observed examples, sacred bird feathers, usually coloured red, fixed in a shimmering band around the hulls, just below the gunwales.

Heading upwind, swooping across the tradewind seas, such craft could easily sail distances between 1,500 to 2,000 miles in 10 days.

If they found no new land, they could easily turn around and run with the wind home.

Returning ships like these were described by the early Europeans as riding through the passes in the reefs at high speed towards the beaches.

Streamers from the sails were flying in the wind, people singing, drums beating, conch-shells blowing and naked girls dancing on the high bow and stern platforms.

Spirit of Gaia

Mediterranean idyll: anchored on the Costa Brava

For sailing in colder northern latitudes, as we did a western cruising catamaran designer needs to add some creature comforts to the basic Polynesian sailing machine:

For example:

  • Weather shelter
  • Private toilet facilities
  • Private sleeping places with double bunks
  • A communal dining table

In the first 25 years of western cruising catamaran development from 1960 to 1985, designers did succeed in developing catamarans with speeds of equal and above the fast monohulls, that provided sufficient weather shelter, western privacy standards, a fixed table with seats around, and most important, a high degree of static stability against capsize, at moderate cost unit.

Around 1985 a new trend in western catamaran development began.

This design trend encompasses the “Modern Performance Catamaran”.

It is hard to remember in the financially stringent 1990s, how the mid-1980s was a time of large amounts of surplus wealth, known as the ‘Yuppy Era’.

The non-heeling, wide beam of the raft-like catamaran provides a superb base for luxurious, spacious accommodation.

In theory, it only needed to join this accommodation to the high speeds of the ocean racing catamaran of the mid-1980s, and you had, for the requirements of the ‘Yuppy era’, an excellent package for marketing purposes.

A cruiser incorporating speed, high-tech and luxury.

Five star luxury

New designers came forward to develop this package.

They looked to computer technology for design inspiration, rather than to nature and man’s sailing history.

The Polynesians, if these people had ever heard of them, had no relevance at all to the modern catamaran design.

With computer-aided design they set out to optimise every aspect of the previous designed western catamaran: freeboard, internal volume, overall beam, mast height, sail area.

This optimised package was then styled, internally to the luxury of a five star hotel suite and externally to car and powerboat styling concepts to imply speed.

How far these new designs diverged in design aspects from the ethnic proportioned catamaran can be seen in the bottom of the graphic.

The shaded catamaran is a composite of five ‘modern performance’ catamarans.

Easily combined, they had remarkably similar freeboard, mast height and sail area proportions.

The modern performance catamaran has everything a modern, wealthy, soft, urban commuter could wish for.

For every two crew members there is an ensuite toilet and shower.

That means four toilets to eight people.

Double beds five feet wide (though I have notices that they often lack the ergonomics for a varied sex life).

They have water desalinators, washing machines, microwave ovens, deep freezers, quality stereos, television, electronic instruments to aeroplane cockpit display standards and so on.

In these aspects, they are certainly ‘modern.’

Spirit of Gaia specifications

Spirit of Gaia specifications

Performance values

But how do they measure-up when it comes to performance.

Indeed, what is meant by the word performance ?

It is a very slippery word.

It is a modern advertising word and means different things to people of different attitudes.

To myself and many designers, it is always used together with other words, like performance in relation ‘to’.

The practical proven windward performance of the Spirit of Gaia is 45º off the true wind.

The theoretical windward performance of the ‘High Performance Bermudan Racing Rig’, as used on the composite ‘Modern Performance Catamaran’, is 3-5º closer to the wind, ie 40º off the true wind.

The Spirit of Gaia rig costs £11,000; the shown Bermudan rig was worked out at approximately £50,000.

So, in order to achieve a theoretical ability to sail 5º closer to the wind, you have to spend £40,000 more.

In cost efficiency, the shown Bermudan rig has very poor ‘performance’.

In stability values, the shown Bermudan rig has also poor performance.

The composite ‘Performance Catamaran’ with his high heeling rig, for safety in wind gusts, would need to be reefed at force5, whereas the narrow beamed Double Canoe Makua Hine Honua only needs reefing at force 6. (So does the Spirit of Gaia ).

The high profile (so high, they were last used in sailing ships of the 16th and 17th century) of the composite craft, will reduce windward performance in winds above force 5 to the point where engines become a vital component of the windward performance.

That is the reason, why the manufacturers of modern performance catamarans, always stress the power and quality of their engines when it comes to the hard sell.

(The 63ft Spirit of Gaia has two 9.9hp, four stroke Yamaha outboards).

The Polynesian Double Canoe is a product of evolutionary design logic for a fast craft using the minimum of materials and resources to sail the seas.

The modern performance catamaran is a consumer product which has evolved over a relatively short time period and is suitable only for a limited number of people.

It was mainly due to the high advertising budgets of the late 1980s, that the modern performance catamaran was projected as ‘state of the art’ in the cruising catamaran development.

In the more financially stringent 1990s, the numerical market base of wealthy yacht owners has narrowed considerably.

Can the present day ‘modern’ cruising catamaran concept survive on such a narrow market base?

What the ancient Polynesian Double Canoe designers have sown through the Spirit of Gaia is an opening into a ‘Post Modern’ school of catamaran design, that can move forward in the financially stringent 1990s, using the logical design principles of the Polynesian Double Canoe, improving its lack of accommodation and weather shelter within the constraints of evolutionary developed sailing ship design.

James Wharram

Author James Wharram, pictured in 2004

Conche conscious

It makes sense never to forget: cruising is more than hard efficiency or wealth display.

It is about the joy of sailing and companionship.

I remember a night in a quiet Mallorcan anchorage, sitting on deck, with our mixed crew of Japanese Shige, Canary Islander Sergio, and four exotic Spanish Catalan women, the fire flickering in the central deck fire-pit, stars overhead, the crew began to beat drums, tapping together pieces of fire log and clicking stones into a hypnotic primitive rhythm.

Someone began to blow the conche shell.

From the aft cabin pod, the call was sung into the night: ‘ Makua Hine Honua ‘.

Shige began to dance a primitive Okinawan dance.

Then, one of the Catalan women, dressed only in a sarong, stood up and also began to dance.

Her long hair swinging in a cloud around her, she approached me and drew me into her dance.

By the time you read this article, Shige, the Japanese, Sergio the Canary Islander, Dora, the Catalan, Hanneke, the Dutch, Ruther, the German, my son Jamie and me, the sea-gods willing, will be heading across the ocean on Spirit of Gaia , swimming and communicating with the dolphins, so much revered by the Polynesians.

The Metaphorical Boat

Friday 11 April 2014

Moscow metro - spirit of a city (e.p).

spirit of gaia catamaran

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#video MOSCOW METRO ‘Spirit of a City’

LIMERICK band Moscow Metro have released a video for ‘Spirit of a City’ from the forthcoming EP of the same name. “‘Spirit Of A City’ explores several dark themes – feeling trapped by your situation, death and loss, social tensions and escaping the aftermath of a failed relationship,” says the band. Meeting through mutual friends, the quartet’s early rehearsals took place in a storage warehouse, a ten foot by ten metal box that shook with sound vibrations, leading to the inspiration for their name. Today Moscow Metro’s music is epic in sound and universal in language. In the coming months Moscow Metro will tour Ireland and Germany, playing Whelan’s Dublin on March 13 and Nenagh Arts Centre on March 29 before moving on to play Karrera Klub, Berlin, May 24 and joining The National and Warpaint at The Maifeld Derby Festival in Mannheim on May 30.


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Moscow Metro – Spirit of a City EP | Review

Article Published: April 3, 2014

spirit of gaia catamaran

That populist revival hasn’t really let up since – just look at White Lies, Airbourne Toxic Event, and too many other bands to name here – and, with the release of their debut EP, ‘Spirit of a City’, Limerick band Moscow Metro are the latest to join the cause. Here, they’ve offered up four tracks in that dark and brooding vein, which, although solid and polished in their own right, sound perhaps too close to the myriad of others that have gone before them to leave any real lasting mark.

What the four-piece has produced is an exploration of the kind of themes perfect for moody posturing (death, break-ups, social ennui), underpinned by an expansive and echo-laden soundscape. Drums pound and crash behind speedy, driving guitars and synths, building towards almost-anthemic hooks. Seán Corcoran’s vocals, meanwhile, take on rich, sober tones uncannily close to Matt Berninger of The National, which often counteract the insistence of the music behind them.

It’s a well-constructed, well-produced and confident record, but the problem is that there’s not enough distinction between the tracks to make any particular one stand out, and they sound so close to their influences that it actually gets distracting. Opener Spirit of a City ? It may as well be that Editors track being belted out on a dancefloor back in the day. Future Fades and Where It All Ends ? They could be old lost demo tapes from The National. If you toned the synth down, you could probably even throw the remaining track, Headlights , into that latter category as well.

Is it a bad thing to know what you like and be influenced by that? No. Is it a bad thing to know what you like so well that it becomes less of an influence and more of an identity? Probably. It’s a pity that Moscow Metro haven’t pushed outside the post-rock revivalist boundaries with this EP. There’s clearly a lot of talent and energy there; it would be good to see that used to make something other than the well-worn sound of ten years ago.

Other album reviews

Paddy hanna, ‘imagine i’m hoping’, all the leaves are falling, without willow, left behind, last animals, danny g & the major 7ths, the lookout, various artists, a litany of failures: volume iii, fever dreams, this was paradise.


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Spirit of Gaia renovation (Part 5)

I am writing this while quietly gliding along the Ionian Sea somewhere midway between Greece and Sicily. We are sailing aboard Largyalo, sister ship of Spirit of Gaia. See Part 4

Largyalo spent the winter with Gaia in Messolonghi marina. Petra and Bertie, her owners, worked many weeks this Spring getting her painted and doing many other jobs to get her ready for another Season's sailing. She was relaunched on 9th May and ready to sail on the 16th, the day after James's birthday.

Deck of Largyalo

We arrived by car in Messolonghi at the end of March accompanied by Michael, our Dutch helper. We were ready for another stint of work and hoping to get it all finished before planning to return home sometime at the end of May. Tony, my other helper last Spring, who was also planning to come had to cancel as he had hurt his back, so it was Michael and I for the first couple weeks. James was also with us, his plan was to write his book whilst enjoying being in Greece, surrounded by boats and sailing people. After several years away he could reconnect with Gaia and get inspiration from her.

First thing to check was, were the termites truly dead? Careful inspection showed absolutely no signs of life, the insecticide had done its job and I was happy to start restoring the woodwork. We bought new plywood to fill in the hole. I first started making two new hatches to replace the two that had been too rotten to be repaired. It was nice to work with new wood and create something beautiful. Much easier than splicing new bits into something old.

Hanneke making hatches under the boat

In April we had more helpers arrive. There was Willie, a German sculptor, he took on the task of sanding down and oiling the toe rails, he then progressed to sanding down the bowsprit/pulpit, which was made from beautiful yellow cedar, but looked grey and dull. Willie got inspired to make a sculpture for Gaia's bow, a lady that will grace her bowsprit. He showed us photos of the many sculptures he has made from tree trunks and recycled timber, they have a beautiful pagan feel and their style will match our boat.

James, Hanneke and Willie aboard Gaia

Willie was joined by Mairi, our chiropractor from Cornwall, she is very keen to learn about boatbuilding and woodwork and had a few days to spare to come to Greece. She became my workmate for repairing the deckpod. She got stuck in with a sander, preparing all the edges for new epoxy. She sanded the glass finish I had applied to the big heavy panel that would fill the hole and epoxy coated all the splice plates I had prepared. It was now ready to be glued into place. This was a milestone, finally a deckpod that would be whole again.

Next to arrive was Sigrid, Michael's Norwegian girl friend. She had helped us last Autumn. Her job was to sand the two gaffs, peel off patches of delaminated glass cloth and get them ready for new epoxy and finally paint.

Mairi with roller and epoxy tray

I also made new outer deck coamings for the new hatches. These had been badly rotted and had been removed completely last Spring. We were lucky in that we still had some curved pieces of hardwood that had been cut as spare 23 years ago when the original hatches were built. They had been lying in our workshop waiting for this moment. They fitted perfectly. After gluing them in Michael made nice fillets to blend them to the deck.

Michael making epoxy fillets

On the 12th April the citizens of Messolonghi organised a huge procession through the town, the ‘Exodus’ parade, an annual commemoration of the yearlong siege of Messolonghi by the Turks and the Exodus of the people of Messolonghi in 1826.


Hundreds of people dressed in traditional Greek costumes slowly proceed through the town along a special route, music bands playing, ending in the Garden of Heroes, a memorial park to the people that fought for the freedom of Greece. Messolonghi is the town where Lord Byron came in 1824 as one of the Philhellenes to help in the fight for freedom and later died. He is still remembered as a hero in the town and has a museum and big statue (see: www.messolonghibyronsociety.gr )

James, Mairie, Willie and I walked to the town to view the parade, hundreds of people along the route all watching as the sun set and darkness fell. We celebrated with a drink in the gardens while the music played on and still more people walked the procession.

Large crowd watching a parade in town

Soon Mairie had to leave, then Willie and also Michael and Sigrid. For one day James and I were alone, but the next day Paul arrived from America.

In Paul I had the perfect workmate. Paul was an experienced machinist and engineer with a life of precision work behind him. He is building his own Hitia 17 back home in Oklahoma. We met him in Florida at the Hui in 2012. After meeting us there he decided he would devote 2 months of his time in helping us get Gaia back in order, but also to learn more about boat building, repair and about our life philosophy and designing. He also wanted to come to Europe to experience what life is like outside the USA.

Paul next to his washing up on deck of Gaia

Paul spent many hours talking to James over lunch and dinner. The politics of America and the UK were discussed at great length. In Oklahoma (previously he used to live and work in Colorado), Paul is a lonely soul in a sea of land locked people. To learn about the attitudes and lifestyle of people in the Midwest was a revelation for us. Life in Europe is very different. Amongst our friends like Petra, Berti and crew on Largyalo, amongst all the other yachties of various European nationalities which we sat and talked with over a regular Sunday BBQ, Paul found much in common with his attitudes to life, food, health and culture. He most certainly wants to come back to Europe and particularly to Gaia, to sail on her next Spring.

Deckpod with missing floor panel

Paul and I got a great deal of work done. All the wood and epoxy work got finished and we were able to start painting. The first paintjob we tackled was the orange hull sides. The orange paint we applied 23 years ago was Awlgrip Persian Orange. Awlgrip pride themselves in producing guaranteed colourfast paints and they have succeeded. Reds are the most difficult pigments to make so they don’t fade. Our orange paint was very expensive (reds are more expensive than blues), we repainted the outsides and the inner bows and sterns back in 1997 in Australia, the inner sides under the centre decking had never been repainted, but the colour there was still exactly as it was when new.

We started with very careful preparation. We borrowed Berti’s disk sander, which had a superb vacuum extractor attached. With this Paul produced a perfect smooth base for new paint. In our on-board paint store I still had a gallon of Persian Orange Awlgrip paint, which we must have bought in 1997. After a good stir with an electric drill the paint was as good as it was 17 years ago!

Painting was planned for an early morning start, when the temperature is still low, no wind blows and the hulls are still in shade. Petra and Berti, who had repainted their topsides beautifully earlier in the Spring, came to help, to show us how to do it. I had not worked with two-pack polyurethane paints for many years and a little help was very welcome. Paul was an experienced house painter, but the two-pack paint was new for him.

The team under Gaia's deck

It is very important to apply two-pack polyurethane paint correctly, or it can become a real mess. We used a short mohair roller and a foam brush for tipping off. We worked with two people close together, one to roll a section about a foot wide, the other immediately tipping it off very lightly, just stroking it once and then not touching it again. We were very pleased with the results, suddenly Gaia glowed again, people stopped to look at her and commented on how beautiful she was.

I also repainted the orange logos on Gaia’s bows, they had been painted with normal paint and looked very dull and faded. Masking the black eye-symbol with plastic tape, the result was excellent.

Two-pack polyurethane paint is very prone to bleeding under masking tape. Petra discovered that the best tape that does not bleed is a (red) plastic tape, which she had discovered in France, I found I had a bit of a roll on board, also some blue, no idea where I got it. I intend to discover where to buy more for when we paint the rest of the boat. It is not the same as most fineline tapes I have seen before.

Petra and Hanneke painting the hull

With the orange paint finished it was time for a break. We had been working solid for weeks. Paul had come to help us with the promise of a sail on a catamaran at the end of it. By now we knew that Gaia was not going to be sailing this Spring. Meantime Largyalo had been launched and was getting ready to sail back to Majorca, via Zakynthos and Sicily. Why not sail with them to Sicily?

Petra and Berti were delighted with the idea. We moved on board after James’ birthday (celebrating his birthday aboard Largyalo is becoming a tradition!). To earn my keep I helped Berti with re-rigging the sheets on the main sails and early the next morning we departed for Zakynthos. It was wonderful to be at sea again, to see dolphins swim under the bows, to visit the magnificent ‘shipwreck bay’ in Zakynthos, to swim in the still chilly crystal clear sea, to steer during a night watch. I was able to relax and doze and not think about work. I was not responsible for this boat, Berti was the captain. This was my first ‘holiday’ for years!

James, Hanneke and crew of Largyalo toasting

Returning refreshed from our sailing trip, Paul and I continued with painting the masts, gaffs and boom, all of which we had spent a lot of time preparing. They had been varnished, but after all these years it was decided that paint would be more durable and need less upkeep. We applied two coats of epoxy primer, followed by two coats of two-pack polyurethane topcoat. We also painted all the new engine box lids, new hatches and other loose parts.

The white epoxy primer (made by Desoto Titanane) we used was even older than the Awlgrip paint. It was still a leftover from building the boat and bought in 1990/91. I had successfully used it 12 years earlier; after sitting this long it required some serious stirring (using power drill with paint stirrer) to distribute the solids in the bottom of the pot, but it then was good to use, also the activator was still fine. This paint has been on board for the last 22 years, kept in the dark under a bunk, but has been at fairly high temperatures throughout its life (15 to 30˚C), in the tropics and hot summers in Greece, it never got very cold or below freezing. I also used the original offwhite topcoat (also made by Desoto Titanane) left over from Gaia’s building time, again still good to use!

The yellow topcoat for painting all the spars was made by Jotun and bought new (we chose yellow so the masts will look like varnished wood from a distance. The new paint was no better to use than the old, in fact with a mixing rate of 10:1 was a lot more difficult to accurately measure than the other 2:1 paints.

Gaffs laid out on workbench

The sad thing about renovation work is that after weeks of hard work - replacing, repairing, patching, fairing, sanding and finally painting…. all the hard work becomes completely invisible and the boat looks just like it used to do. But YOU know what is underneath, that should be satisfaction enough.

Gaia deck

On the 4th June we were ready to head back to the UK, via a long trek through Europe, visiting boatbuilders, friends and family, finishing with a visit to Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey, where James is one of the two Patrons (Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is the other) of the ‘Queenborough Harbour Trust’. They have recently received a grant of £300,000 for improvements with which they hope to attract more multihulls to use the harbour.

The last stint of work on Gaia will involve a lot more painting, replacing all the rope lashings, reassembling the rig with the new Dyneema standing rigging, checking electrics and maybe a new slatted platform. We will return in September and WILL launch her in the Spring. Anyone wanting to help, please get in touch .


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