Going Back in Time

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By James Wharram

It has been a long time since my last ‘Web Letter’, and I will begin this letter as I ended my last one, with acknowledgement and thanks to Steve Goodman for the hard work and determination he put into establishing this website 7 years ago.

Amongst many other things, this summer, Hanneke and her two young website designers (Dave and Sharon from Tweet Bus), were faced with the challenge that this website has more readers than a fair sized yacht magazine, and so, like a yacht magazine, it has to have a reader’s forum, advertising pages, sales pages, general interest pages, and so on. In addition to the structural layout, new concepts and ideas have been bubbling up this summer, that will give depth to the website.

For example, in May/June of this year, 2006, Plymouth University (England) had a lecture series entitled “Challenging the Margins of Time”. Its unstated idea was to raise the ever debatable question, “When, during the 1.5 million years of Homo Erectus’ existence and the following 100,000 years plus, of Homo Sapiens existence, did the abstract thinking abilities of modern man emerge?” I was invited to give a lecture in this series, which I titled ‘Sailing from the Unconscious’.

Outrigger canoe being assembled
Assembling the outrigger canoe.
Outrigger canoe suspended from ceiling
Melanesia suspended in the entry lobby.

The week before my lecture, Graham Hancock, a popular writer and TV program maker, gave a lecture which suggested that abstract thinking began with the evidence of world wide cave painting about 35,000 years ago, which he claims were inspired by hallucinogenic drugs, the taking of which jolted man’s conceptual consciousness into being.

In my lecture, I stated that ‘abstract thinking’ can be traced back to the first settlement of Australia by Man at least 50,000 years ago (as proven by Carbon 14 dating). 50,000 years ago, due to the Ice Age, sea levels were much lower. The islands of present-day Indonesia were still part of the Euro-Asian continent, an area now referred to as Sundaland. How wide the permanent sea gap between Sundaland and Australia was, is still under discussion, but it was wide enough to prevent accidental drift voyages on rafts of vegetation, proof of which is that the only non-marsupial mammals in Australia were Man and Dog. The ancestors of the native Australians must have arrived there in some form of ‘directed’ watercraft, bringing their dogs with them.

I asked the audience to imagine standing at Dover where, on a fine day, you can just discern France 21 miles away. Imagine a thick jungle behind you, a beach at your feet rich in seafood, so you are not hungry; the only tool you have is a split sharp rock and fingers that can twist fibres into twine. Think…. What kind of personal and collective thinking is required to have the concept of making a raft/watercraft and go out into that sea to explore shadows on the horizon?

Pile of artefacts
Artefacts we have collected during our Pacific voyages.
Framed photographs on a staircase wall
Some of our photos of the Pacific.

From my studies, I am coming to believe that the use of small watercraft goes so far back in the history of our species that it is an inherited affinity. This innate affinity is what inspired me fifty years ago, and hundreds of our sailors since. Three weeks later, in June, we took our 21ft Tahiti Wayfarer to the Beale Park Boat Show, an open-air, small boat enthusiasts’ Boat Show by the River Thames. The Tahiti Wayfarer (made ‘stitch & glue fashion out of just 10 sheets of ply) was originally designed and built to study aspects of a certain Pacific hull-form. With a recent rise in ‘Raid’ concept boats (i.e., trailer boats), gathering for rally type events, it suddenly has a modern-day purpose.

What surprised me at the Beale Park Boat show was the number of people who expressed discontent at the present day yachting scene; describing it as “too artificial”, “too expensive” “too much regulation”. There seemed to be what could be described as an emotional hunger for a lost world of freedom that existed in sailing until less than 10 years ago. A boat freedom that has existed for over 50,000 years.

After the Beale Park Boat Show, we (well, mostly Hanneke and friends) got down to extensively testing the Tahiti Wayfarer. One weekend she and I set off for a Falmouth Estuary sail in her, camping out at night in a small tent on the deck. Remember, I am approaching 80 years of age and I am used to ‘swanning around’ on a 63ft catamaran, attending conferences and launchings of ocean going designs. It was good to be ‘living young’ again.

Tahiti Wayfarer on Beale Park lake
Tahiti Wayfarer at Beale Park.
Tahiti Wayfarer double canoe with tent on deck
Living in our little tent aboard Tahiti Wayfarer.

This little 21ft boat is “impertinently cocky”. It sails in less than 12 inches of water and with a small, home-made sail, goes to windward, not as well as a small racing dinghy, but sufficiently well for young hot-shot day racing catamaran sailors to slow down and shout across the water: “She looks beautiful".

A few months earlier, we had a visit of ”the Greeks, bearing gifts”, in the form of large loaves of Greek country bread, wine, olives and honey. They were a freelance Greek TV company, one of whom had sailed with George Gritsis on his first 52ft Pahi, built in Thailand in 2005, on its delivery trip to Greece, where she is now used as a charter boat (www.archipelclub.com). They were shooting the last section of a TV film about this voyage of ‘Hecate’, i.e. the designers in their office. I have worked with several TV film teams before; these lads were efficient, very professional and a pleasure to work with.

In conversation with Georges (the film maker), we revealed that Ruth Wharram had shot a “film” on a 16mm Bolex, of the building and the sailing of our 51 ft Tehini design in 1968-71. It had been edited by an early Wharram Narai builder, Phil Wrestler (sadly now dead), who by chance was Action Director on the classic films “The Italian Job” and the Bond film “Octopussy”.

Tahiti Wayfarer sailing on a lake
Tahiti Wayfarer at Beale Park.
Tahiti Wayfarer being sailed with a steering paddle

Show me the film, said Georges. After digging through the archive loft, the film was found and played on an ancient creaking projector. The sound was awful, the colour a bit faded, but in spite of its defects, it brought an aching lump to my throat.

In articles on my life, published in recent years, in trying to explain the phenomena of the success of Wharram Catamarans (so different to the accepted boats of the “establishment”), one or two writers, have evoked the ‘Hippy Era’ using that phrase in a derogatory manner. Well, living in tents, following music festivals is one thing, the discipline of building a boat and sailing the seas is another. These films by Ruth Wharram show the precise difference in life styles.

On watching the film, “This should be cleaned up and turned into a DVD”, said our Greek Director. With his help, it has been done and the DVD is now available to purchase from our web shop. Get your copy here.

To pursue our historic watercraft studies, Hanneke and I went in September to the 11th ‘International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology’ in Mainz, Germany. We are members of this group and at the last conference in the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum 3 years ago, I gave a lecture on ‘The Pacific Migrations by Canoe Form Craft’. See James letter of December 2003.

This year several papers were presented about recent discoveries of ancient Log Boats of Europe, (they are not called dug-outs any more). Some of them showed wear signs and holes on the gunnels, which indicated they had been joined by cross beams, i.e. into what we now call catamarans.

Forming part of the ‘Challenging the Margins of Time’ lectures in May, Henry Green and Ralph Stocker from the Indigenous Nations of Northwest Canada (Tsimshian, Haida, Nootka etc.) were in Plymouth carving a large Totem pole and giving lectures on their Nation’s sea history. Their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were building sea-going log boats 60ft long (they were used for whaling) and according to Henry they would lash two canoes with beams into a stable ‘catamaran’ shape when they needed such a vehicle. Rafts and canoes and the combinations of the two craft, appear to have been used all over early man’s world; much of early man’s evolution seems to have been along sea-coasts and rivers.

Henry Green will be building a fleet of replica Tsimshian canoes for the Tsimshian Cultural Event 2007. He will be using a form of strip planking to build the replicas, similar to the construction of the Child of the Sea, which is also a logboat replica. In Mainz we presented a poster on the different techniques of ‘Building logboat replicas’.

Building log boat replicas (Click to enlarge)
Building log boat replicas

So for a conversation piece in Yacht Club, Marina or just along the beach, while talking to the owner of a luxury charter/yacht catamaran, just say: “Do you know that the essential design aspects of your craft were developed by Stone Age Sailors, particularly by Stone Age Sailors of the Pacific?” You could then really start an argument by saying: “Of course, your boat’s high freeboard and fat hulls, all designed for soft living Westerners, do detract from the innate good sailing abilities of the original Stone Age concept!!”

- James Wharram