Home > Jim's Column > 2010 > The Polynesian Catamaran Association

The Polynesian Catamaran Association

By James Wharram

The PCA was founded in 1967 by a small group of the first Wharram builders. It started with the writing of a thin, rough, but very poetic magazine, called ‘The Sailorman’.

Who were these first Wharram builders? During WWII thousands of young Englishmen were taken out of the pre-War English class system into the Army, Navy and Airforce.There they learnt the value of being oneself, to have the courage to stand alone, as we would now say: “to learn to think outside the box”.

Before the War not many of these ordinary people had the opportunity to enter the Class ridden society of ‘Yachting’. After the War, with the arrival of boats like the ‘Folkboat’ there was a beginning of small boat sailing for a wider public.

Even so, a large number of would-be sailors, through lack of money and being in the wrong social class, were frustrated in attempts to find the beauty, solitude and companionship of Sailing the Sea. You could say I was one of them, no-one in the British established yachting circles of the early 1950s was prepared to take my wish to cross oceans on a catamaran seriously, I came from the North of England, spoke with the wrong accent and had no ‘friends’ in yachting circles. I was on my own, but did get help from old working sailors of that time and they taught me a lot.

Eric Jones smoking a pipe
Eric Jones

My early pioneering voyages are now well known. When I settled back in Britain in the early 1960s and was living on my 40ft catamaran Rongo in North Wales, I was approached by an ex-Wartime soldier, Eric Jones. A steam railway engineer from Crewe, he asked me to design a seagoing catamaran that would cost him no more than £600 to build.

So I designed the 35ft Tangaroa (MkI, now no longer available). Almost by chance it got published in the long forgotten magazine ‘Yachting and Boating’ and within a month I had 10 orders for Plans!! Those men and women of the War years recognised an answer to their inner Sea dreams.

The first Tangaroa design was quickly followed by the 46ft Oro, the 40ft Narai, the 22ft Hina and the other Classic Designs. It was the builders of these first Wharram catamarans that got together to start the PCA to keep in contact, to support each other during the hard times of self building. By issue Nr.3, November 1968, the Association had 163 members, 116 in the UK and the rest scattered round the world in 22 different countries (about 75% of builders were members!)

Tangaroa hulls on land
Tangaroa Nr.4 built by Ken Patterson, who wrote many of the first articles in 'The Sailorman'.

This was the time of the swinging sixties, lots of the freedom seeking people of this time were attracted to Wharram catamarans for their simplicity, being able to build their boat themselves, for being able to take them to sea with the little money they had saved.

The 1970s were the boom years of the PCA, particularly in Britain. The AGM, which was held in Richmond, London, used to be packed with sixty to hundred people. They were all full of enthusiasm and very opinionated, so I remember some intense arguments. Then there were the sailing meetings with many boats attending. This photo is the 27ft Tane of Commander James Briggs, packed to the gunnels with Wharramites at a meeting in Weymouth in 1975.

It must not be forgotten though that there were also a lot of overseas members, who kept in touch through the magazine, they also organised their own meetings in other countries.

Then in the early 1980s things went pearshaped. The editor was not very good, the magazine lacked the articles and artistic merit to make people want to be a member. There was talk within the committee that all the Wharram builders had now gone sailing and lost interest. They were for packing up the association.

Tane sailing with many people aboard
27ft Tane of Commander James Briggs

We as designers decided to step in and at our own expense produced the first ‘Seapeople’ magazine, in which we tried to give a space to all the different interests of Wharramites, building, sailing, Coastal Trekking, fishing, swimming with dolphins, craft work for your boat, net making, etc. As soon as the flagging members and ex-members saw the new magazine, they all came flocking back.

We produced the Seapeople Magazine ourselves for 4 years then handed it back to an independent PCA editor, it stayed at a high quality through the 1980s and most of the 1990s. There were regular meetings of boats and membership numbers were high. This was a meeting in Plymouth in 1995, with many large Wharrams attending.

Then there was the next crisis, this time caused by a committee that had their own commercial interests in Wharram catamarans and tried to use the membership to make a profit. A vicious ‘War’ raged on internet for a short time, until a solicitors letter brought it to an end.

Wharram catamarans side by side
Meeting of Wharram owners - Plymouth 1995

For several years after this the PCA struggled to find a harmonious committee, but finally it settled down with Ken Hook at the helm. Which brings us to the present day, with dear Ken no longer with us and a leaderless PCA. But we do have an excellent magazine so there is no good reason to end it all.

I have always stood back from the PCA, I wanted it to be independent from our commercial interest, to be run by the owners and builders of Wharram catamarans, for the owners and builders, with freedom to criticize. I think there is still a strong need for this.

Do read Bob Bois’ view of why we still need a PCA (here). We are still building Wharram catamarans, we are still sailing them, probably now with more boats on the water than ever before. After 43 years the PCA is one of the longest standing owners associations and must not be allowed to die.

- James Wharram