Heavy Weather Sailing on Wharrams

Home Articles How We Design Heavy Weather Sailing on Wharrams
By James Wharram

I wrote in my description of the TIKI 46:

"Some multihull designers find inspiration on the screen of the computer. I find inspiration when I am s**t scared at the rapid approach of a huge white capped wave. It is as if the adrenaline of 'how do I get out of this'? gets connected to 'how do I design my way out of this?'"

Someone asked, what did I mean? Recently, going through our files I discovered this range of storm wave pictures, dating from the first in the history of multihulls North Atlantic crossing aboard the Rongo in 1959, ending with the pictures of Spirit of Gaia in the Red Sea in 1998.

Large wave off the stern of Rongo
Rongo Atlantic crossing, 1959
Raka in large waves
'Raka' Atlantic 1977

I have been sailing offshore on double canoe/catamarans for 45 years. Each storm at sea has its own individuality, within that storm certain waves brand themselves into ones consciousness.

A prime design requirement within my designs is to ride, without damage, the seas I have met.

A fellow speaker at the German Multihull Symposium in Bonn 1999 was Henk de Velde, a Dutch Ocean Multihull racer, who began his ocean sailing life sailing an ORO around the world. I realised during his lecture, from the emotions he expressed, our sea kinship. From that I realised what made me different from most other multihull designers (not all).

My "stand point" from the beginning of a design, is not an urban office way of life, but "out there", living in the ocean. This is where my strengths and weaknesses as a designer originate.

In a recent article requested by the American ‘Multihulls’ magazine I wrote about our 1959 crossing of the North Atlantic:

"After ten days, beginning with calms, light winds, sunbathing weather, we were 1000 miles on our way. Then on the edge of the Gulf Stream one night I saw lightning on the horizon. I had heard on the radio of an ex-tropical cyclone doing damage in Halifax. Carelessly I went to sleep leaving the boat under headsail and mizzen, to be awakened later to the moaning of the wind and the shouts of the girls. On deck vivid flashes of lightning lit up the dark. The wind I now estimate through years of experience (I could not stand or breath against it) about 60 knots.

"Jutta, steering, had done as we had learnt, run off before the wind. Great white bow waves roared out, a rooster tail plumed behind. The mizzen sail, eased out had jammed against the rigging. Death was suddenly close to us. Even in 1959 from my Ancient Pacific studies I knew of the dangers of pitch poling, the danger of driving the hulls into the waves ahead and capsizing over the bows.

"From the beginning of my design career I have always tried to get low centre of effort rigs (to give stability) with good windward performance. Rongo was not only the first catamaran to sail the North Atlantic, it was the first one (at sea) to use full-length battens to get a large roach and now, most of the wooden battens (no fibreglass in those days) had snapped, and the sail was bent over the mizzen backstay.

"The waves were building up. A prayer to the Sea Gods and a brief lull and we had the tattered sail and the broken battens down. We trailed our anchor warps behind us to prevent broaching."

Rongo in high seas
Rongo North Atlantic 1959
Tangaroa Mk I in high seas
Tangaroa Mk I 'KM' Tasman Sea 1976

Later I wrote in my book ‘Two Girls Two Catamarans':

"Crawling back to the cockpit in the vivid lightning flashes, I saw Jutta sitting astride the steering bench, working the tiller backwards and forwards like a great oar, her long golden hair streaming in the wind like a banner of defiance. She was twenty years old. No one could have handled the ship better. As each wave with its snarling crest leapt at us, Jutta eased our pointed twin sterns into them. The wave parted, then ran down the side of the hulls, hardly checked in speed. So there was no build-up of water pressure to pile up and wash over our decks sweeping us away."

'Yachting World' February 2000, published a report about the 105ft racing catamaran Play Station’s Atlantic speed record attempt on December 16th 1999, being dashed by a wind situation and broken batten problem uncannily similar to the situation we were in 41 years ago. They reported:

"Firstly, we are all okay, but we took a hammering last night. We’d already had a scare when the bows went down, the rudders came out of the water and the boat slewed round, throwing a few people forward."...

..."The wind then increased to 45 knots and we were winding in the jib when, without warning it gusted 60 knots plus. I saw 62 on the true wind speed indicator. Gino Morelli was steering and we’d been bearing away. By this time we were dead downwind with no options. The boat was covered in a cloud of spray. Gino did a fantastic job of stopping us capsizing, but as we went dead downwind the main slammed against the lazy jacks and broke at least four battens."...

My 45-year fear of driving the bows under and "raising the rudder out of the water" can be seen to be a valid design fear, in my case driven home by so many "wave experiences" (see photographs)

The concept of turning to run away from a squall or gale front should be a part of all multihull sailors’ automatic reactions.

Recently a new edition of Adlard Coles’ ‘Heavy Weather Sailing’ has been written with a new chapter on multihull handling. They did not contact this office for information, though from a review in 'Yachting World' it appears that they show a photo of Raka in a gale, taken by Ruth in the Atlantic in 1977. The Raka, running before the seas, is trailing a big loop of warp.

For the 63 foot Spirit of Gaia we designed and made a big drogue, 9 foot across, but never used it. Spirit of Gaia sailed on a close reach under storm jib in wind speeds up to 47 knots (force 9) for several days (New Zealand to Fiji), with waves building up bigger all the time. In force 8 gales we have successfully drifted ‘beam on’, with all sails down, making only 1-1½ knots leeway.

Pahi 63 in high seas
Pahi 63 'Spirit of Gaia' South Pacific 1996
Tangaroa Mk I in high seas
Tangaroa Mk I 'KM' Tasman Sea 1976
Pahi 63 in high seas
Pahi 63 'Spirit of Gaia' Red Sea 1998

I am not the only Wharram sailor. "Out there" are many Wharram sailors, who have experienced sufficient offshore bad weather to have positive practical knowledge. Would they like to submit their experience to this website?

Note I write Wharram sailors with practical experience, because:

  1. Wharram Designs are designed specifically to run before gales, with canoe sterns and overhanging bows, no, or low, deck cabin, no in-hull cockpits. (Most other multihull designs are not);
  2. There is a large amount of theoretical discussion on gale handling. We need to begin with a discussion of actual experience.

Storm Tactics On Wharram Catamarans

Don Brazier, Wharram agent in New Zealand and owner/builder of a beautiful 41 foot Narai Mk IV, has been collecting accounts from many Wharram sailors who have experienced severe weather at sea. He himself has made a number of voyages in the Pacific and encountered severe weather, in which he deployed drogue and parachute. Read them here.

Narai Mk IV stern, heavy seas

Submit Your Story..

This can be the beginning of a data file of "real experiences in sea survival", as it relates to Wharram Designs. So lets hear from you. Would you like to submit your experience? Contact us.

Further Reading:

  • Philosophy behind the Ethnic Approach

    An overview of James Wharram Design's core design principles and how new designs are created to reflect these principles.

  • The Wharram Wingsail Rig

    First designed in the early 1980s for the Tiki 21, the unique Wharram Wingsail Rig is a simple, aerodynamically clean sail rig. It is now available for use on all Wharram designs as sloop, or schooner rig. This article gives all the details of what makes it work.

  • Catamaran Stability

    What makes a multihull stable. This seminal article was published in several yachting magazines. It is still as valid today as when it was written in 1991.

  • Freeboard and Windage

    Freeboard affects the windage and hence the windward sailing ability of a catamaran. This article written for an Australian yacht magazine in 2003 looks at the origins of multihulls and what makes them work.

  • Design Discussion

    James compares Gaia’s design features with those of the charter Pahi 52. Spirit of Gaia’s Wingsail Rig is tested by other catamaran sailors.