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Jarlath Cunnane Pays Tribute to Pioneering Multihull Designer & Sailor James Wharram

27th December 2021
Dara McGee's - 'James Wharram 1928-2021
James Wharram 1928-2021 Credit: Courtesy Classic Boat

Irish polar adventurer and boatbuilder Jarlath Cunnane has paid tribute to the pioneering skills of fellow sailor and multihull designer James Wharram, who died earlier this month at the age of 93.

Wharram, renowned for his Polynesian double-canoe style sailing catamaran designs, passed away on December 14th in Cornwall, Britain.

“Some multihull designers find inspiration on the screen of the computer,” Wharram said on his company website.

“ I find inspiration when I am s**t scared at the rapid approach of a huge white-capped wave. It is as if the adrenaline of 'how do I get out of this'? gets connected to 'how do I design my way out of this?," the Manchester-born sailor and designer explained.

Cunnane first met Wharram in the mid-1970s when one of his vessels limped into Achill Sound, Co Mayo requiring some repairs.

Tehini Tehini was on the round Britain race in 1974, skippered by Robert Evans and Maggie Oliver, when the beams broke. Robert limped into Achill sound, for repairs. Achill sound seemed like a good place as the chart showed a convenient railway! Wharram and some of his team arrived to help

His 51-foot catamaran design named Tehini, sailed by Robert Evans and Maggie Oliver was, was participating in the Round Britain race when several laminated cross beams broke.

“They had looked at the charts and noticed a railway link to Achill, which would be useful for delivering materials,” Cunnane recalled.

Wharram and several of his team arrived in Mayo to help.

Beams replaced on TehiniBeams replaced on Tehini

“I was his agent in Ireland at the time, he called me and we had a very interesting time rebuilding new beams which had gone rotten over a period of about two weeks,” Cunnane said.

Wharram, who crossed the Atlantic in his home-built vessel and undertook many other voyages with his partners Ruth Merseburger and Jutta Schultze-Rohnhof, kept in touch with Cunnane.

He moved from Milford Haven to New Ross, Co Wexford for a period to set up his boatbuilding and design business there, but returned to England.He had previously spent some time living aboard in Dun Laoghaire harbour, after he returned from a Caribbean voyage.

“Wharram always had several female partners,” Cunnane recalled. “ It was part of his approach to being somewhat different. And he credited them in helping him with his business.”

“He was from an era when people used to build boats – and he supplied designs for self-built models – whereas now people just go off and buy them,” Cunnane explained.

“I built one of his catamarans for myself and eventually sold it on, and followed his practise of giving Polynesian names to all his vessels,” Cunnane said.

“Wharram was an amateur designer with no formal qualifications, but his Dutch partner Hanneke Boon brought it to a new level with him, improving many of his designs,” Cunnane said.

Wharram is said to have hated the word “catamaran”, as recorded by Sam Fortescue in an interview with him for Sail magazine.

Fortescue explained that while studying construction engineering like his father, Wharram had read Eric de Bisschop’s book about building a Polynesian double canoe Kaimiloa which he then sailed from Honolulu to Cannes in France in 1936-37.

“Using the model of a fishing canoe in the British Science Museum and de Bisschop’s scant descriptions, he built the 23ft 6in catamaran Tangaroa in his parents’ garden in Manchester, miles from the sea. His father was dismayed,”Fortescue wrote.

Friends helped to drive Wharram’s two hulls some 200 miles away to Brightlingsea on the English east coast of England. and he sailed to Emshaven, Germany, to collect Ruth and Jutta.

“After that he aimed to cross the Atlantic, proving the seaworthiness of his primitive craft and validating the designs of the ancient Pacific islanders.

“I only ever became the ‘great James Wharram,’ through the auspices of these two German women,” Wharram told Fortescue.

. “Effectively, I’d say that in attitudes I’m post-war part German. The Germans really pioneered oceanic multihull cruising in the ‘50s, notably with the Schwarzenfeld brothers, who built in steel. I was just the fourth of about five at the time,”Wharram added.

When Wharram and the two women sailed to Trinidad, a local newspaper sensationalised the relationship – at this point, Jutta was pregnant. They lived on board a houseboat, and when it was destroyed in a storm they built a new boat with American friends and French sailor Bernard Moitessier.

The new vessel was named Rongo,after the Polynesian god of cultivation. They then set sail for New York via the Virgin islands and found that the north American sailing community was more open to the concept off ocean going multihulls than the British sailing establishment. A third of his orders for over 10,000 craft are said to have come from north America.

Cunnane recalls that Wharram relished being an outsider, but was also critical of this lack of acceptance by the British sailing “elite”. He and Hanneke Boon took his most ambitious design, the 63 ft Spirit of Gaia, built in 1992 around the world.

The couple sailed Spirit of Gaia to the Pacific to research traditional sailing craft in 1995, and found a 200-year-old canoe with the same V-hull design on the island of Tikapia.

In 2008-9, when Wharram was 80, the couple undertook the “Lapita” voyages, aiming to prove settlers could have reached the Pacific islands from southeast Asia, As Boon told Sail magazine, they discovered a simple double canoe could complete the voyage, sailing to windward with “crab-claw sails”.

In April 2018, Wharram received that “establishment” recognition in his home country when he was presented with a Classic Boat “lifetime achievement” award as pioneer catamaran builder, sailor and multihull designer in the Royal Thames Yacht Club in London.

Rob Peak, the editor of Classic Boat, recalled in his speech how, in 1956, Wharram made the first successful Atlantic crossing in a multihull – “the 23ft 6in (7.2m) Tangaroa, which he designed and built himself for £200 and sailed with two German girls”.

“ In 1959 they were the first to cross the North Atlantic from West to East (New York to N. Wales) in a multihull, the 40ft catamaran Rongo, built in Trinidad. Since then, he has sold more than 10,000 of his plans for cruising multihulls worldwide, and some consider him to be the father of modern multihull sailing,” Peak said.

“ More than that, James has always understood that sailing is not about expenditure. He has remained firmly wedded to his 'less is more' philosophy, always looking for simpler effective ways to build and rig his designs. What should be specially noted is his simple, but highly efficient Wharram Wingsail rig. He is 90 this year and shows no sign of stopping. He is, simply, a living legend," Peak said.

In Wharram’s own address on receiving the award, he said:

"Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous American architect was once asked how he achieved fame. He answered: " I lived longer than the others". Maybe being close to my 90th birthday and having survived most of my design competitors, is why I am standing here today to receive this Classic Boat 'Lifetime Achievement Award.”

"So, who were my competitors? In the design of multihulls, there have been three lines of development,” Wharram continued.

"Some multihull designers focussed on the narrow beam length ratio of the individual hulls to achieve 'speed', faster than the maximum speed of fixed ballast monohull yachts, due to their wave drag,”he said.

"Other designers used the raft configuration of the multihull to create comfortable floating villas, as an alternative to buying expensive coastal land for a villa by the sea,”he continued.

"I belong to a third group of boat-owners and sailors, summed up in poetry, as in: "I must go down to the sea again to the lonely sea and the sky". We 'dreamers of dreams' follow an essential part of the human psyche, either consciously or unconsciously,” he said.

"The development of early man has over the years been viewed from different perspectives. Until fairly recently, the view was of ‘Early Man the Great Hunter’, followed by women and children picking up their scraps,” Wharram said.

"However with more studies into human DNA and further archaeological finds, it is becoming clear that ‘Early Woman/Man’ followed coastlines and rivers where fish and shellfish was abundant and easily gathered. The making of watercraft must have been one of mankind's earliest skills. The first people to reach Australia, as early as 60,000 years ago, arrived there by some form of watercraft,” he said.

"This archaic affinity with the sea and watercraft is in the DNA of all of us, and I believe, leads us to want to own and sail our boats. Many of present-day sailing people are not interested in male competitive sports, they are not interested in a sea villa, they are moved by a deep instinct of our species to be on, or by, the water,” Wharram said.

"Throughout my life, beginning as a fell walker and pioneering catamaran sailor, I have been aware of this instinct and as a designer have tried to express it in my boats. Having sold over 10,000 designs, it does seem many of my builders connect with this,” he said.

"Classic Boat is a magazine that has always expressed the beauty of traditional watercraft and the love of being on the water in a beautiful boat. Over the years, I have enjoyed every issue and still keep them all, including number 1, on my overflowing library shelves,” he said.

"I am honoured to receive this Award from a magazine I value and admire,” he concluded.

Published in News Update
Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

Email The Author

Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004) on Irish helicopter search and rescue; and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010).

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