Good luck to pioneering multihull designer James Wharram

Free-spirited sailor and pioneering multihull designer James Wharram died on December 14 at the age of 93.

Wharram, who has occasionally contributed to Convenient boat owner magazine, made the first modern catamaran trip from west to east of the Atlantic aboard its 40-foot multihull, Rongo.

There was nothing new to the concept of catamarans in the 1950s – Polynesians began to travel there thousands of years earlier.

Herreshoff had successfully experimented with catamaran designs as early as the 1870s, while a commodore at the New York Yacht Club at the same time imported a traditional catamaran from Polynesia.

But it was not until the 1950s that the modern multihull revolution finally began.

Much of the early pioneering was done by British designers, including Wharram, who sought simple and worry-free long-distance cruises.

Olympic canoeists Francis and Roland Prout, for their part, initially focused on the speed potential offered by multihulls.

Inspired by French sailor Eric De Bisschop’s pioneering journey from Hawaii to Marseille on his 38-foot double canoe / catamaran Kaimiloa in 1937/8, Wharram was keen to further prove the concept’s seaworthiness.

Pioneering journey

Tangaroa in Falmouth in 1955. Image courtesy of James Wharram Designs

In 1953 he designed and built a 23 foot 6 inch plywood “double canoe”.

Two years later, on September 27, 1955, Wharram sailed from Falmouth across the Atlantic to Trinidad aboard this flat-bottom catamaran called Tangaroa with two German daughters, Ruth Merseburger and Jutta Schultze-Rohnhoff as a crew, in an effort to prove that the design of the double canoe was a seaworthy vessel.

For the return trip, he built a 40-foot version on the beach in Trinidad, allegedly with the help of Bernard Moitessier, before sailing first to New York, then crossing the North Atlantic, to arrive in the River Conwy in North Wales, September 30, 1959.

It was the start of a prolific career that saw him designing dozens of distinctive V-hull catamarans, from 13 feet to over 60 feet.

He has sold over 10,000 sets of plans, with the bulk of the completed boats built by enthusiastic hobbyists.

Wharram was still sailing his designs at the age of 90.

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James Wharram pictured in Falmouth in 1955 with Jutta Schultze-Rohnhoff and Ruth Merseburger. Image courtesy of James Wharram Designs

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James Wharram aboard the Tangaroa crossing the Bay of Biscay in 1955. Image courtesy of James Wharram Designs

The success of the crossing made it possible to prove the seaworthiness of the catamarans, which was not recognized in the 1950s.

Famous designs

Wharram’s renowned multihulls included the Tiki 21, Cooking grease, which became the smallest catamaran to sail around the world when skippered by Rory McDougall from 1991 to 1997.

Rongo was designed and built by Wharram in Trinidad in 1957-58 after the three sailors had already crossed the South Atlantic in 1956 along the trade winds route from the Canaries to Trinidad in their small 23ft 6in catamaran Tangaroa, also designed and built by Wharram in England in 1954.

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James Wharram with Hanneke Boon. Image courtesy of James Wharram Designs

Free-spirited sailor

Wharram’s life partner Hanneke Boon paid tribute.

She said: “We are very sad to announce that on December 14, James Wharram left this earthly world, joining Ruth, Jutta and his many close friends who left before him.

“At 93, his mind set off on the journey to navigate the oceans of the sky.

“James was a trailblazer, a fighter with great determination and great vision. From an early age he followed his passions – roaming the hills – for a fair policy – for intelligent women – to navigate the seas – to prove that the Polynesian double canoe is a profession worthy of the ocean – to become a man of the sea.

“These passions made him a pioneer of catamaran sailing and a world-renowned designer of unique double canoe catamarans that now sail the oceans.

“He designed for people who wanted to get away from the mundane life, gave them boats they could build affordably and gave them the opportunity to become seafarers like him.

“The life he chose has never been easy, he has always fought convention and conventional thinking head on.

“His passionate and multi-faceted personality was very attractive to the strong and independent women who helped him in his activities, starting with the Ruth farm, without whom he would never have achieved his goals.

“Young Jutta joined them on their pioneering oceanic voyages and was the mother of her first son.

“Sadly, she passed away from a mental illness at a young age as a result of her traumatic childhood experiences during World War II.”

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Ruth and James on Annie in 1953. Image courtesy of James Wharram Designs

Hanneke added: “James has lived his entire life openly with more than one woman at a time, up to five at his prime in the 1970s, with whom he built and sailed his boats.

“Next to Ruth, who died eight years ago at the age of 92, I was her other life partner and soul mate.

“I first met James while he was designing his line of classic designs in the 1960s, which led to him becoming a cult figure in alternative society in the 1970s.

“Over time I became his design partner and with Ruth we were an unbreakable unit.

“I gave birth to her second son and together we have given birth to many new models of double canoes.
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“James has achieved all he set out to do in this life, but has only received public recognition from the establishment in recent years.

“The final project was his autobiography, published a year ago under the title “The people of the sea”, which he worked on for many years, as he was very critical of his own writing.

“We worked together to complete it and get it published.

“People referred to James as the great James Wharram, the living legend, but he didn’t see himself as such.

“He was aware that it was his great number of builders and sailors, their beautiful boats and their great voyages that created the famous Wharram World.

“He considered them to be the real heroes.

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Ruth, James and Hanneke photographed in 2005. Image courtesy of James Wharram Designs

“Unfortunately, over the past few years, James’s brain, which he always referred to as a separate entity, started failing him due to Alzheimer’s disease.

“He was very grieved at losing his mental abilities and struggled with his diminished existence.

“He couldn’t face the prospect of further disintegration and made the call very hard to end it himself.

“It was with great courage that he lived his life and with great courage he decided that it was time to end.

“At this time of great loss, we should all remember the good and glorious times of a fulfilled life.

“This is not the end, me, us, everyone at Wharram will keep their work alive.”


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