Nic Compton learns how the unorthodox British designer, James Wharram, took his family and fans around the world in his handcrafted catamaran, Spirit of Gaia, gaining some valuable lessons along the way

The morning breeze was just starting to fill in as we headed out of Port Vathi on board Ionian Spirit, an old Danish fishing boat converted for charter. As we headed north, dramatic clouds piled up on the mountains of Ithaca, re-evoking the spirit of Odysseus, the island’s most famous citizen, and creating an unforgettable scene.

Then a sail appeared on the bay ahead, and I was half-expecting to find a Greek trireme re-enacting the ancient story. Instead, we came across another kind of ancient craft: a Polynesian double-canoe of the type that sailed the Pacific at about the same time as Odysseus sailed the Ionian. Or, to be exact, British designer James Wharram’s interpretation of such a craft, the 63ft Spirit of Gaia, sailing once again after a five-year restoration.

It was a fortuitous meeting as, although I’ve met James and his partner Hanneke Boon several times and written many articles about their designs (I even started building my own Tiki 21 back in the late 1980s), I had never seen this, the biggest of the Wharram lineage. Spirit of Gaia was not only James’s most ambitious design but a few years earlier had also completed his most ambitious voyage: sailing 32,000 miles around the world, from England to Greece via the Pacific.

Spirit of Gaia’s 1992 launch at Cornwall’s Restronguet Creek

It didn’t take much persuasion for me to join them on board when we caught up with them the following day in an idyllic anchorage on the island of Lefkas. As we sat in Gaia’s ‘village square’ (i.e. the central platform) enjoying a cup of Greek ‘mountain tea’, James and Hanneke told me about the boat’s fascinating origins, her eventful circumnavigation, and her subsequent restoration.

Spirit of Gaia was designed and built as an act of love. And I don’t mean human love – although James’s and Hanneke’s son Jamie was born at about that time, and there was plenty of love from the volunteers who helped build, launch and sail the boat – I’m talking about sealife love.

Research ship

Dolphin and whale research was a growing subject in the 1980s when the Spirit of Gaia project was conceived. The Wharrams had been involved in dolphin encounter projects with their previous boat, the 51ft Tehini, and swam with dolphins from their Tiki 21. In 1985, when she was seven months pregnant, Hanneke went swimming with dolphins in Spain and later gave birth to son Jamie in water.

Most dolphin studies up until then, however, had taken place either in captivity or close to land. The Wharrams (by which I mean James and his partners Ruth and Hanneke) wanted to change that. Spirit of Gaia was conceived as a base ship for studying dolphin and whale behaviour out at sea, capable of staying at sea for long periods with up to 16 people on board.

The resulting design was the biggest in the Pahi range, which has a more rounded hull form than either the Classic or Tiki range of Wharram cats. The new ‘dolphin exploration ship’ had a low freeboard with the trademark Wharram ‘short gaff Wingsail’ and ‘soft’ (i.e. rope) rigging – both later emulated by Open 60 and America’s Cup sailors – in a schooner configuration. Auxiliary power would come from a pair of outboards.

Construction was of Douglas fir ply – the same as the Wharrams’s previous boat Tehini, even though James reckoned the sheets weren’t of such good quality as in 1969. A single layer of 11mm ply was used for the hulls, with the ‘bad’ (knotty) side facing outwards; any blemishes were filled with epoxy and the whole outer surface was sheathed with cloth and epoxy resin. For the decks, a ply/foam sandwich construction was used, to provide extra insulation against the heat of the sun.

Morris dancers at Gaia‘s launch

Another development since the 1960s was the design of the crossbeams, which had evolved from solid laminated construction to ply and timber I-beam construction, which provides greater strength for less weight. The beams were lashed with rope, in the now customary Wharram style. It’s a more forgiving approach than conventional rigid attachments and, as James points out, it’s a lot easier to replace a worn lashing than repair a fractured hull.

The accommodation was intended to resemble a ‘village’, with private double cabins (the ‘cottages’) at each end of both hulls and communal areas in the middle, including a fire box (the ‘hearth’) in the central seating platform (the aforementioned village square) and a hatch (the ‘well’) for collecting buckets of seawater. James calls the concept a ‘tribal boat’, and it’s an ideal setup for chartering, schooling – or indeed dolphin and whale observation.

Always one to enjoy a bit of playful symbolism, he also says the shape of the knees below decks were intended to echo “the iconic Cretan double axe” while the curved openings in the bulkheads gave a “womb-like feeling” to the cabins. Back on deck, the stem heads were shaped to resemble “the male phallus” while the sternposts represented “a more feminine shape”. All were hand-crafted “in the spirit of the Arts & Crafts movement”.

Spirit of Gaia was launched with the help of hundreds of Wharram family, friends and volunteers in the quiet waters of Restronguet Creek in Cornwall in May 1992. The boat was given a Christian blessing by the local vicar, the Rev Michael Palmer, a Hawaiian blessing by a Hawaiian kumu (or elder), Kiko Johnston Kitazawa, and a Celtic blessing by the Grand Bard of Cornwall. And, just for good measure, the Cornish Morris Dancers also gave a special performance.

A communal boat for a modern age

Once launched, Spirit of Gaia looked like nothing else around: she was a communal boat for a modern age; a highly sophisticated and deliberate blend of cultural influences. We’ve got so used to Wharram’s unorthodox approach, it’s easy to miss what an achievement the boat really was.

For the past 50 years, while everyone else was busy churning out identical modern GRP boats or faithful copies of old wooden boats, James and Hanneke stuck steadfastly to their vision and created dozens of designs that are both traditional and yet modern; practical and yet with a strong design aesthetic; easy and relatively cheap to build and yet strong, safe and durable. Spirit of Gaia was the ultimate expression of that vision and, while she might not appeal to everyone, she was undoubtedly different and, in her own way, perfect.

After fitting the boat out, the Wharrams spent two years organising dolphin expeditions off the Canaries in 1993-94. The boat proved itself comfortable and safe, yet still capable of some impressive turns of speed. “We sustained 16 knots for quite a while, sailing across one of the acceleration zones from Tenerife to Gran Canaria,” remembers Hanneke. “We were on a reach with only the foresail and staysail up. There was fine spray shooting over the foredeck and huge rooster tails behind. It was quite exciting!”

A sociable time

It was a sociable time, with nights drinking and dancing with new and old friends, that James would write about in typically romantic way: “There was the memorable voyage, 500 miles from Gran Canaria to Funchal on Madeira, when, with the rudder lashed, in light winds, the Double canoe glided across the ocean. For a while, we left this century and the western world to become a part of the Polynesian sea world. Turtles in the sea, dolphins around, sea birds flying into the sunset, and the night lit with brilliant stars. We loved our ship.”

And there were dolphins too – even if, ironically, their biggest spotting was a pod off the Lizard, just as they were leaving the UK. Another group of dolphins joined them one night while they were sailing off Portugal. “I woke up at 1am and could hear them chirping through the hull – you can hear them especially well in the chart room which is below the waterline,” says Hanneke. “I went up on deck and they were like torpedoes in the water, lit up by phosphorescence.”

To help pay the way, they chartered Spirit of Gaia to a couple of Spanish environmental groups, and took a large crew of divers and camera men and all their associated equipment around every island in the Canaries – including a memorable passage down the coast of La Palma in winds of over 40 knots, when the boat recorded speeds of up to 9 knots under bare poles.

The promotional illustration hints at an alternative onboard lifestyle

Another time, they worked with a German group running an ‘open sexuality’ workshop based on the theories of German sociologist Dieter Duhm.

The dolphins proved elusive, however, and soon the idea of a voyage into the Pacific began to emerge. Astonishingly, despite their entire careers being based on reinterpreting Polynesian sailing craft, neither James nor Hanneke had ever sailed in the Pacific.

James and Ruth had sailed across the Atlantic six times (including famously when they became the first people to sail a multihull across the North Atlantic from West to East in 1959) and Hanneke twice on Tehini. Only Ruth had seen the Pacific, when she once crossed the Tasman Sea to New Zealand on a Wharram catamaran.

Leaving the Canaries

The final push for the voyage was an invitation to the Na ‘Ohana Holo Moana, a Great Gathering of double canoes at Raiatea in French Polynesia in March 1995. At last, they had a goal to aim for and a reason to sail 8,500 nautical miles, almost to the other side of the world.

Spirit of Gaia set off from the Canaries just before Christmas 1994. On board were the core crew of James, Ruth, Hanneke and son Jamie, who were joined by Joke and three other volunteers. By then they had devised their own self-steering system, made of wood and using a minimum of expensive fittings, which worked well up to about 9-10 knots, after which hand steering was more reliable. Water was stored in 25lt (5gal) jerry cans stored under the bunks, and topped up by rainwater funnelled from the deck pod roofs.

They had an easy crossing, catching several fish along the way, and made landfall at Antigua after 20 days at sea – an average of 134 nautical miles per day, or 5.5 knots. It wasn’t exactly racing, but it was still quite a respectable average speed. After a few days in Antigua, they set off again, first to St Maarten to pick up new crew, and then across 1,000 miles to Porto Colon at the entrance to the Panama Canal. This passage went a bit faster, culminating in an exciting romp pushed by gale force winds of 28-35 knots, when the boat surfed down waves at speeds of up to 11 knots.

They made it through the Panama Canal – where James almost drowned when Spirit of Gaia’s mooring line was improperly tied by the crew of a US army vessel, and the boat collided with the canal wall. James went over the side but was helped out by the ship’s crew, who were rewarded with a lambasting, and Spirit of Gaia survived remarkably unscathed.

Finally, on 4 February 1995, James, Ruth and Hanneke and their crew, set out across the Pacific. It was of course just a great big blue ocean, much like any other, but the 4,500-mile crossing from Panama to French Polynesia was also richly symbolic. After decades of dreaming about these waters, they were finally here. And for James, it was as if part of him belonged there already.

“I just felt supremely at home,” he says. “I had always venerated Polynesian sailors, and now there I was sailing among them.”

Spirit of Gaia and the fleet of local craft at the island of Raiatea

Spirit of Gaia and her crew were now well used to making long passages, and even their son Jamie, now nine years old, was able to carry on with his schoolwork while sailing across the Pacific – even if he would rather have been cooling off in a tub of water.

“The clear tropical starlit nights were the best part,” writes James in his forthcoming biography. “When seeing that huge dome of dark sky filled with bright stars and no land light to spoil the vision, one can easily understand how the Polynesians developed their superb star navigation methods. That night sky, also when ashore on their islands, was like their bedroom ceiling. They knew it like you or I would know every crack and blemish. It is an ever-moving map that one can watch and study and remember.”

They arrived at Huahine (where the celebrations were to begin) on 9 March after 33 days at sea – an average of 139 miles per day, or 5.8 knots – despite having a week of no wind off the Galapagos Islands. Their best day’s run was 221 miles, at an average of 9.2 knots.

If the Wharrams expected a grand welcome after sailing 8,500 miles to Huahine, they were to be sorely disappointed. The Na ‘Ohana Holo Moana (literally meaning the Voyaging Families of the Ocean) turned out to be a strictly local affair, and only Pacific-built replicas with Polynesian crews were allowed to take part in the official events. Spirit of Gaia was clearly regarded as a European interloper and pushed firmly to the margins, regardless of having been invited and that she and her crew had sailed nearly half way round the world to be there.

Cultural exclusion

Faced with this culture exclusion zone, all the Wharram family could do was look and enjoy the spectacle of the boats in their native setting – even if they seemed to be towed more than they were actually sailed. Spirit of Gaia shadowed the fleet for several weeks, as the boats were towed to the nearby islands of Raiatea and Tahiti, mostly in a strict ‘order of protocol’ in which the Wharrams were always placed last. They were also told they could not attend certain ceremonies which were deemed unsuitable for Westerners.

By the time it came to head north to the Marquesas Islands and then on to Hawaii for the next part of the event, they decided they’d seen enough. Instead of carrying on with the fleet, they decided to head south to take up an invitation from their agent in New Zealand to moor the boat at his home on the outskirts of Auckland.

It was nearly 2,500 miles away, but such is the Wharram fanbase that there was rarely a shortage of crew willing to join them for the various sections of the voyage. After a short crossing with just the ‘core crew’ on board, they were joined in Rarotonga by Kiwi volunteers Rob and Ross, who sailed with them the rest of the way to New Zealand.

Living exhibit

There, Spirit of Gaia was given pride of place as a ‘living exhibit’ at the heart of the National Maritime Museum on Hobson Wharf. The Wharrams were given free access to the library and James was invited to give lectures at the museum as part of the Vaka Moana Symposium. It was a befitting welcome to the ship and crew that had travelled so far – and a complete contrast to their reception at the Great Gathering.

But the great discovery of the voyage – and something which would have a lasting impact on all their lives – was made not at the maritime museum but at the War Memorial Museum in Auckland. There, among a display of various Pacific sea craft, they spotted a boat called the Sacred Tikopian Canoe, which stopped them in their tracks.

Unlike the other canoes in the museum (and indeed most of those at the Great Gathering), which were much more rounded, the Tikopian canoe had a V-shaped hull similar to the kind of boat James (and before him Eric de Bisschop) had been designing for decades. Not only did this reaffirm that the Polynesians had indeed had boats capable of sailing to windward but it was also vindication for James, who had long been criticised for creating a Westernised ideal of Polynesian craft which didn’t match the real thing.

The Tikopian canoe was not only very real but, as they discovered after they were given permission to measure the boat, remarkably similar to the Wharram Pahi hull shape. Hanneke would later describe this discovery as their “eureka moment”, and it would indeed result in a whole new line of Wharram designs called the Ethnic range (more of which later).

‘Here was my final proof,’ James writes, ‘that the original Polynesian canoes could have made the windward voyages needed to discover all the remote islands.’

Spirit of Gaia was given pride of place as a ‘living exhibit’ at Auckland’s National Maritime Museum

Returning to New Zealand

After the disappointment of the Great Gathering of 1995, the Wharrams returned to New Zealand the following year with renewed vigour. They and their boat were soon put to the test, as they faced the biggest storm of the voyage between New Zealand and Fiji.

As the north-easterly wind built from 30 to 40 then 50 knots, with waves to match, James, Hanneke and volunteer crew Lew took turns at the helm, while Ruth (by then, aged 75 and with limited mobility) and another volunteer crew Freya handed up food from the galley to keep them going.

At one point, James was at the helm at night, with Hanneke and Lew resting after having spent several hours making an improvised sea anchor out of three car tyres. “Suddenly I heard this huge wave,” says James. “I thought, Christ, we’re on a reef. This great wall of water swept right over the boat and dumped on the cockpit on the other side. The boat shook, then raised itself, as the water poured through the slatted decks, and carried on forward. There was no damage, but we were all terribly shaken.”

After three days, the wind eased and they completed the passage to Fiji to begin what proved to be the most fruitful part of the whole round-the-world voyage.

The islands of Melanesia

For six months, they sailed around the islands of Melanesia – from Fiji to Vanuatu, then Tikopia and New Caledonia – doing what they arguably should have done half a lifetime before: looking at, measuring and talking to people about local canoes of all shapes and sizes.

Their visit to Vanuatu seems to have been especially productive. “Canoes in Vanuatu are like bicycles in Holland,” says Hanneke. “People live on the small offlying islands and in the day paddle to the main island where they have their gardens in amongst the jungle.

“They work there during the day, then pile the produce onto the canoe and paddle home again. Sometimes, if the wind is favourable, they get some palm leaves, lash them together, hold them upright and sail home. It’s like the origins of sail!”

Here, too, they found real sailors willing to engage and talk about their boats. “It’s amazing how easy it was to talk to people and to relate to them. We had boatbuilders from the village come on board, looking at how the boat sailed through the water; an old man scratching a stick in the sand to show us how sails were rigged in the past.

“We always had good relations with the villagers. They found our boat interesting so we’d ask them on board, and then we’d ask them about their canoe and how it was built. You have to respect their hierarchy, and always address the old men first, even though most of the young men speak English. Sometimes we made tea and scones for them, just to give them something different.”

Thanks to various aid projects, there were several sailing catamarans on Vanuatu, and it was here James and Hanneke found inspiration for a new design, when they watched a small outrigger canoe scooting across the bay at Havannah Harbour. The result was the Melanesia design, a 16ft outrigger canoe, which first appeared in the Wharram design catalogue in 1997.

Time for a refit

After a refit in Brisbane in July 1997, the Wharrams continued up the coast of Australia, sailing in daylight only for fear of hitting a reef. Compared to their long ocean passages of the past two years, it was exhausting having to raise the sails every morning, tack to windward all day, and then find a mooring every evening.

Worse still, for the first time on this voyage, the Wharram network let them down and they had to sail short-handed, at one point being reduced to three adults and a child (Jamie, by now 11) as they tacked up the Great Barrier Reef.

More reinforcements came in Darwin, as they sailed across to Kupang in South Timor, then Bali, Sumatra, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and an easy passage across the Arabian Sea to Oman. Sailing off Sumatra, the main problem was lack of wind.
“But Gaia ghosts well,” says Hanneke.

“You appear to be going nowhere and the speedo says zero, but at the end of the day you find you’ve moved 20 miles north, or wherever – as long as you keep her pointing the right way, which is not always easy. We had a big genoa off Tehini, almost like an equilateral triangle, which we set between the bows on a double pulley bridle, so we could set it more to windward or to leeward, depending on the angle of sail.”

Interior accommodation is practical and comfortable

After a short visit to Djibouti, they headed north and were making steady progress up the Red Sea when, halfway up at Port Sudan, they were hit by strong northerly winds. The sails were by now worn out, having sailed most of the way round the world, and started splitting at the seams.

Rather than pull into harbour and face yet more paperwork, the Wharrams decided to heave-to for 24 hours and restitch the seams at sea. Even the foresail, which was too difficult to remove quickly, was reinforced by bringing a sewing machine on deck and restitching as much as they could reach with it.

Meanwhile, the wind carried on blowing, rising from a Force 6 to 7 and then 8, all on the nose. For 12 days they tacked to windward, clawing their way north at a rate of 60 miles a day, until they eventually reached the Gulf of Suez. There they took a well-earned holiday at Luxor, sailing a felucca on the Nile, before continuing on the final leg of their journey.

With both engines playing up, they motorsailed up the Suez Canal and entered the Mediterranean Sea on 4 May 1998. As they hoisted the aft sail for the first time since Port Sudan, the material was stiff with salt and went up like a concertina, bathing everyone and everything under it in a shower of crystals. It was as if the boat was shaking off its old skin and readying itself for a new life.

After leaving the boat in Ashkelon Marina in Israel for a few months, James and Hanneke returned in August (1998) and sailed Spirit of Gaia to Greece, where she’d remain for the next 20 years. By this time, Ruth, who had sailed with James on his pioneering transatlantic voyages in the 1950s and been a steady hand at the helm ever since, was unwell, and the family took a pause from sailing to look after her in her final years.

Inspiration for the future

The Wharrams’s original purpose of sailing with dolphins hadn’t worked out as planned, and neither had the Great Gathering in Tahiti. But much else had come from the Spirit of Gaia project – not least sailing around the world and finally discovering authentic Pacific sea craft.

The voyage even led to James being made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society – quite a recognition for the man who was once the enfant terrible of the British yachting establishment! Back home at their design office in Cornwall, James and Hanneke set about creating new designs inspired by the traditional craft they’d studied during the voyage. The designs combined plywood hulls with solid timber beams and spars, traditional Pacific rigs and paddle steering.

A 63ft Polynesian-inspired catamaran crawling out of a remote Cornish creek and sailing around the world? What a cause for celebration! What a breath of fresh air! James and Hanneke (and Ruth) – I salute you for your vision, your tenacity and your sheer bloody-mindedness. The world needs people like you to think outside the box and to dare to do things differently.

About the author

Nic Compton has been writing about boats and the sea for nearly 30 years. He is currently boatless and spending much more time than is healthy looking at second-hand boats on the internet.

This article was originally published in PBO April 20.