Design Discussion

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By James Wharram

I began my May web letter moaning about the hard work to anti-foul, clean and polish the topsides of my/our 63-foot catamaran ‘Spirit of Gaia’ at her Greek sea base in Gouvia Marina, Corfu.

For six days we have been back in Devoran, our Cornish land base. To keep fit and enjoy Devoran’s beautiful scenery, each morning Hanneke and I go for a walk along the tree-lined estuary. On that walk can be a digression up a steep hill. Normally it needs two or three stops to “admire the scenery”. In fact, it is to rest and get our breath back to normal. Since our return from Corfu and its “hard sailing work”, we are striding up that hill without a stop and able to converse without gasping for each breath.

This fact opens a discussion on the subject of Yacht Design. For the last ten to fifteen years yacht design has increasingly evolved to enable sluggish, unfit urban people to enjoy the “joys” of sailing without physically and mentally making any personal adaptations.

Now, I am not going to take up a moral stance on this subject. As you will see, I have commitments to both sides of the discussion. But I do think that yacht magazines should discuss this subject more so that their readers can make their own choice, because boats where people adapt themselves to sea living are much cheaper to build and to service.

Norwegian Fembøring
The Fembøring ‘Patronen’, built 2004 (replica of ‘Drauen’ built in Tromsø in 1847 for cod-fishing in Lofoten and Finnmark).

As an example of people adapting themselves to sea living this year, we saw a 39 foot replica of a Norwegian Fembøring, which overnighted in Gouvia. She is a type of open craft that for hundreds of years has been a workboat for fishing, passengers and light cargo in the cold, stormy seas of north Norway. A craft with no decks and loose rock ballast that in no way could meet the European Recreational Craft Directive Rules. Fortunately, in the hundreds of years of sailing before 1998 (the legal beginning of the RCD), sailors and builders were not constrained by secret RCD committees issuing diktats on what they constituted as “safe”. So this economical, superb all-round craft was able to develop.

This year we developed a friendship with an Englishman, Dave Wilkins and his American wife Ellie. Dave and Ellie are sailing and reconstructing a classic catamaran, namely the 30-foot Oceanic, designed and built in the finest of woods and plywood by Bill O’Brien 40 years ago.

This design was built for a Mr. Irons who at the time had a 14-year-old son called Nigel. Now Nigel Irons is one of the leading multi-hull ocean racing tri and catamaran designers in the world – for example, Ellen Macarthur’s round the world racer B&Q (see May 2005 issue of ‘Yachting World’ and many other yacht magazines).

Dave (from Essex) has been a multi-hull racing man all his life, beginning with the Prout 16-foot Shearwaters, moving onto other catamaran racing day-boats in the 1960s to 1980s, with a particular connection to the fabulous C-class catamarans (around 20 feet long). These C-class catamarans were the first racing catamarans to extensively develop the aerodynamic wing mast and on one design, an around-the-mast wing sail.

Wing sails were first experimented with in the 1920s by a Dane called Lungstrom, later in the C-class catamarans and in the late 1970s on the Freedom cruising boats by Garry Hoyt. None of these sail designs were practical for Mr and Mrs Average Sailor in all-round sailing conditions.

A couple on a boat
Costa and Irena on their French catamaran.
People having lunch on deck
Lunch on deck with David and Ellie.

When I suggested to David that the wrap-around Tiki sail, or Wharram Soft Wing sail (developed by Hanneke and I in 1981 and used on hundreds of our designs) had solved many aerodynamic problems, he raised a very sceptical eyebrow, particularly when I commented that it worked close to the wind, even as a schooner rig (schooner rigs give a low centre of effort which equals more stability and ease of sail handling).

David’s sceptical eyebrow was typical of the world of yachting attitude to the Wharram wing sail. Because it has a short Gaff, or head stick, heavy batten, call it what you will, to give extra sail control, it looks like a Gaff sail. Therefore, it “cannot sail to Windward”!!

The lack of adventurous spirit of enquiry in modern sailors I find depressing. We suggested that Dave and Ellie sail on the Gaia for a few days and test the rig out for themselves.

Also in Gouvia was a twenty-eight-year-old Wharram enthusiast, Costa, of Israeli nationality, born in the Ukraine, and his Israeli partner Irena (born in Russia). Costa is a professional paid skipper of a well-known luxury type of catamaran, widely used for charter.

I met him whilst he was cursing a failed electric pump that is necessary to operate his craft’s toilet, and the worry was the owner was expected to fly in soon! His own sailing dream is to sail “to where the coconuts grow with three girls” on the simplest boat to operate. You can see why he is a Wharram enthusiast. We invited Costa and Irena to join us for the sail. They could manage just one day before getting back to the work of preparing their boat.

Wharram Wingsail
You can see the ‘wing’ shape of the sails with the very clean leading edge.

‘Spirit of Gaia’ was designed in the late 1980s, just as the modern, luxury, high-freeboard/windage catamarans were evolving. Design elements of Gaia’s hull form were adapted from our studies of ancient Pacific sailing craft.

Hull accommodation is in 6 separate compartments, divided by watertight bulkheads, and is described as “Flexispace”, in that there is no typical Western-style cabin furniture in the boat. People who go backpacking across the mountains or explorer types who visit un-Westernised South-East Asian peoples will know what I mean. You relax in a reclining mode or cross-legged. Seeing others naked, dressing or washing themselves, is not a “shock, horror” situation.

Washing dishes, often with seawater, is done in large plastic bowls on deck. Showers are of the hand-pump, garden-spray type. Hot water comes from solar black bags. Water is carried in plastic Jerry cans. Extra water is often supplied by rain catchment. Water is carefully used to where the word rationing could be applied.

Engines are two 9.9 four-stroke Yamaha outboards. There are no electric sheet winches. Navigation is the simple hand-held Garmin GPS, paper charts and a back-up sextant. We also have electronic wind and water speed/depth instruments, which failed in one aspect or another in about every two to three years of use.

The Gaia is not a boat designed by a “consumer focus group”, but in her twelve-year use, including an around-the-world voyage, she has made dozens of people happy by giving the mental liberation from accepted urban values. Why, is a complex debateable study in the psychology and subconscious needs of our species, and is outside this web letter.

David and Costa were primarily sailing on ‘Spirit of Gaia’ not to discuss philosophical attitudes on accommodation and yachting gear, but to see how well the boat could sail, particularly in very light airs, where most modern yachts need to use their engines. Here is the letter written by David after his 4 day voyage:

Dear James and Hanneke,

Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful boat. My apologies if I “hogged” the helm. “Spirit” is such a sailor’s boat and a joy to sail. Indeed as someone who, over the past years, has delegated steering virtually exclusively to electronic autopilots, it says a lot that I enjoyed so much coaxing 4 knots out of “Spirit” in 8 knots of apparent wind.

It was a shame that the gods gave us under 10 knots of wind for most of our trip, but “Spirit”’s brisk acceleration to 8 knots of hull speed in slightly under 16 knots (apparent wind speed) off Plataria leaves me in no doubt as to this boat’s capabilities.Trade wind passages of nearly 200 miles a day must be attainable without great difficulty.

I was most interested to read extracts from Hanneke’s Gaia sailing log. There seems to be a definite correlation of about 1:2 between boat speed and apparent wind speed, and this is in accordance with my own observations during the time I sailed her. At about 43º to the apparent wind (sheets slightly eased), I was getting speeds of about 3.2 knots in 6 knots apparent and slightly over 5 knots in 10 knots apparent.

The schooner rig is not renowned for its windward abilities but I was amazed at how close winded she was. I am sure your wingsail rig is capable, even in only moderately capable hands of achieving excellent Velocity Made Good (vmg) to windward. This you have proved yourself in your excellent passage time to windward up the Red Sea (in very strong winds) and to Madeira from the Canary Isles (in very light winds).

In light airs, I found “Spirit” liked her sheets eased a bit and sailed at about 43 degrees to the apparent wind making (I suspect) about 5 degrees leeway. As the wind increased, higher pointing was possible. I think that in most average sailing conditions a competent helmsmen will average an attack angle in the high 30 degrees, which compares more than favourably with the many “high windage” modern cat designs found in great numbers in various charter fleets throughout the world.

- Dave

Does this mean that Wharram Catamarans can only achieve their sailing ability with the Spartan sailing comforts of an ancient Pacific double canoe craft or a modern high-speed ocean-racing catamaran? Fortunately, no, and George Gritsis has proved it.

George Gritsis is a Greek sailing hero. While in the Navy he served on the Greek replica Trireme. He twice sailed around the world on small sailing boats, passing through the Magellan Straits and wrote books about them. Last time, on a self-built plywood 26-foot sloop! He described the Magellan Straits as “when it is not blowing a gale of snow, it is an incredibly beautiful place”!!

Wharram Pahi 52
Hecate sailing up the Red Sea.
Wharram Pahi 52, cockpit lit with red LEDs
The deckpod galley is lit by red LEDs when sailing at night.

After being a skipper of a 55-foot mono-hull charter boat, he commissioned Günther Nutt of SeaScape in Phuket, Thailand to build two of our 52-foot Pahi designs, specially fitted out for charter guests (with plans for more boats in the future). In February/March this year, he sailed his first Pahi 52, ‘Hecate’, from Thailand, across the Indian Ocean, and up the Red Sea to the Aegean and the Greek island of Paros – his home and charter base.

James and George in the cockpit
George and James in discussion in the cockpit.
RIB dinghy
The RIB dinghy is stored on a full width ramp ready to slide into the water.

He saw a possible pirate boat off the entrance to the Red Sea, but outran it with the spinnaker up at 12 knots. Two weeks ago Hanneke and I flew from Corfu to view and test sail his boat. There had been a slight blur in communication between ourselves and Günther the builder. A brief inspection on stepping on board and we realised why. My God, there are five toilets on board – one for each of the en-suite bedrooms (we call them cabins) and one for George’s personal use. Here is a list of “goodies” on George’s boat:

  • 2 deck-mounted 29hp Yanmar diesel engines with beautifully engineered lifting ‘long-tail’ propeller shafts. They charge a bank of batteries producing the electricity to run the ship. In addition, the cooling water heats up a 30l tank of fresh water for use in the showers.
  • Powerful watermaker capable of making 60l per hour.
  • Full integrated electronic instruments, incl. GPS, electronic charts and radar.
  • Powerful inverter that will run power tools as well as charge guests electronic equipment.
  • Electric winch and windlass.
  • 5 sea toilets and hot water showers, 1 hot deck shower.
  • 5 cabin lights per cabin.
  • Red LED lights in cockpit and galley for night sailing.
  • Galley with large fridge.
  • 3.5m RIB plus 15hp outboard.
  • 10 person life raft and all other required safety equipment.

George, with his sailing experience, is not a man to argue with. He says “his customers are going to have the highest physical comfort and to hell with the simplistic philosophy”!!! Our concern was, how would the resultant, heavier than designed, boat sail? On the voyage from Syros to Paros, again we had light winds, the test for windward ability, and Hecate sailed (after Hanneke re-rigged the sheets to our experience) nearly as well as the Gaia (at about 40-45% the apparent windspeed and just as close to the wind).

Sunbathing on the bow netting
The ‘woven’ netting, beautifully made by the Thai builders is very comfortable to lie on.
Wharram Islander 55
Islander 55 ready to go into the water.

George has already proven that the latest large Wharram catamarans can carry all the “goodies” and still sail well, both to windward in light winds and in a storm. As I am writing this web letter, pictures are coming in of the launching and first sail of the Islander 55 in Surabaya, Indonesia. We will have to see if the higher aft deckpod (raised to customer’s wishes) affects the Islander’s windward sailing abilities.

The hulls, as designed, sent a shiver through me. They have a sharp, powerful look. They need it, as the Islander 55 will most likely sail to Europe around the Cape of Good Hope, to be used for charter in the Mediterranean and/or Caribbean.

Sailing under spinnaker
Trying out the spinnaker on first sail.

Does this mean that in my old age I have abandoned the type of people who have supported us over 50 years? No, our main drive over the next year is to further develop the Hitia 17, the Tahiti Wayfarer and the Tiki 8m. We still believe that small boat coastal sailing with car-trailing possibilities is the future for people with limited time and finance, who love a certain solitude to enjoy the ‘mystical art of sailing’.

- James

Gaia's Performance Statistics (Click to enlarge)

Spirit of Gaia - sailing performance in open ocean, wind force 2-4
Wind Force 2-4
Spirit of Gaia - sailing performance in open ocean, wind force 5-7
Wind Force 5-7

Further Reading:

  • Wharram's Polynesian Dream

    Nic Compton learns how the unorthodox British designer, James Wharram, took his family and fans around the world in his handcrafted catamaran, gaining some valuable lessons along the way.

  • In The Spirit

    An article from Cruising Helmsman magazine about Mark Smaalders's cruise on Pahi 63 'Spirit of Gaia' from Cairns to Darwin. He discusses Gaia's characteristics from a traditional monohull sailor's point of view.

  • 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.

  • Heavy Weather Sailing on Wharrams

    How the design of Wharram catamarans is influenced by the experiences of many ocean storms.

  • 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.