Home > Jim's Column > 2006 > 50 Years On

50 Years On

By James Wharram

Woe, oh Woe, Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa. I have neglected my Website letters for months.

Last year, it was 50 years ago since I/we began our first major offshore catamaran voyage from Falmouth, England. At that time, 1955, the accepted opinion was that the ancient Pacific Double Canoes could not sail to windward, would break up on the high seas and that waves would wash the crew overboard. This tale of doom and gloom was propagated by the Pacific missionaries since the 1840s.

It enabled Thor Heyerdahl to declare in 1947-8 that the central Pacific Islands were some thousands of years ago populated from South America by means of Sailing Rafts using the prevailing, favourable winds and currents.

James, Jutta and Ruth
James with his German girl crew at Falmouth.
Double canoe Tangaroa in Falmouth harbour
Tangaroa in Falmouth (1955)

Before Heyerdahl, in 1937-9, a Frenchman, Eric de Bisschop, built a 38ft. double canoe/catamaran on Waikiki beach in Hawaii, then sailed it across 3 oceans back to France. This certainly ‘proved’ the double canoe concept. Unfortunately, with his great Pacific sailing experience, he told the Hawaiian Bishop Museum where to ‘stuff their canoe models’. As a result, in 1947-8, he had no friends in academic circles to advance his practical studies and to contradict Heyerdahl’s theories.

By 1953-5, I was one of the few men who had read and studied de Bisschop’s book ‘The voyage of the Kaimiloa’ (in addition to studying museum models, books and drawings).

In France, in 1948, a group of men tried to ‘improve’ on Eric de Bisschop’s double canoe design. Their 46 ft. steel built craft, the ‘Copula’, which looked in essence like many of the modern day deck cabin catamarans, was abandoned after a South Atlantic crossing.

Falmouth harbour
Falmouth 50 years on - James looks down into the dock where Tangaroa was moored.
Tangaroa double canoe on the sea
Tangaroa arrival in Trinidad (1957)

In Germany, just a year earlier than me, two brothers, the von Schwartzenfelds, built a 28 ft. double canoe/catamaran, also in steel, and sailed it to the West Indies where, like the ‘Copula’ crew, they gave up the double canoe/catamaran concept.

Both these voyages proved that steel was not a suitable material for building catamarans; they were just way too heavy and pounded dreadfully.

That left just me and my magnificent two German girl crew on our 23’6” catamaran, the ‘Tangaroa’ to arrive in the West Indies. There, with some help from the great French sailor, Bernard Moitissier, we begin building a fully developed 40’ catamaran design, the ‘Rongo”, with which we made the first ever catamaran crossing of the stormy North Atlantic in 1959.

Tahiti Wayfarer double canoe with tent on deck
Tahiti Wayfarer with tent for accommodation.
Tahiti Wayfarer double canoe with crabclaw sail up
Tahiti Wayfarer in the morning, testing the foresail.

Unknown to me, at this same time, Rudy Choy (using the Veed hull form developed by Woody Brown in 1948) was making his pioneering voyages in the Pacific, from Hawaii to Los Angeles. Rudy Choy, a keen racing sailor, exploited the speed potential of the double canoe/catamaran, sadly resulting in capsizes. I exploited the simplicity and seaworthiness of the ancient Pacific craft, so that Mr. Average could safely take to the oceans. When I finally met Rudy Choy in Hawaii in the early 1990s it was like meeting a long lost brother.

Much time in the last six months has been spent on correspondence and interviews with various Yacht Magazines that wanted to record our 50 years anniversary. This has resulted in 8 articles over the last year, starting with an article by Tom Cunliffe in the May 2005 Yachting World about my book Two Girls Two Catamarans. Then there were 6 more articles recording my 50 years in catamarans in Multihulls, Sept/Oct (USA), Blauwasser (Germany), Multihull Review, Nov/Dec (UK), Yachting Monthly, Jan (UK), Segel, May/June (Germany) and finally in Classic Boat (UK) in June this year. On top of this, there have been two very positive articles in Practical Boat Owner and Classic Boat about the editors chartering a Tiki 30 in Phuket, Thailand, for two weeks. It even made the monohull sailor editor Dan Houston (Classic Boat), to quote, “a cautious catamaran convert”!

James leaning against a rail, Falmouth harbour
James in Falmouth where Tangaroa set sail, 50 years ago

I am also being pressed to write in my own words a book on aspects of 'The Wharram Story'. With everything else going on, progress on this is slow.

Yachting Monthly has kindly given us permission to place their article 'The Wharram Way' by James Jermain online, so that those that do not have access to this magazine can also read it.

I would have liked to spend this summer sailing in the Black Sea. I/we are longing so much to go back to the sea again. We will, but first, the work. From 9-11th June we will be at Beale Park Boatshow with the Tahiti Wayfarer Ethnic design. A Study Plan and Building Plans of this design are now available.

- James Wharram