Free-spirited sailor and pioneering multihull designer James Wharram passed away on 14 December, at the age of 93.
Wharram, who was an occasional contributor to Practical Boat Owner magazine, achieved the first modern catamaran voyage from west to east Atlantic aboard his 40ft multihull, Rongo.
There was nothing new about the concept of catamarans in the 1950s – Polynesians started voyaging in them thousands of years earlier.
Herreshoff had experimented successfully with catamaran designs as early as the 1870s, while a commodore of the New York Yacht Club in the same era imported a traditional catamaran from Polynesia.
But it was not until the 1950s that the modern multihull revolution finally got under way.
Much of the early pioneering was by British designers, including Wharram, who craved simple and care-free long distance cruising.
Olympic canoeists Francis and Roland Prout, on the other hand, were initially focussed on the speed potential multihulls offered.
Inspired by French sailor Eric De Bisschop’s pioneering voyage from Hawaii to Marseille on his 38ft double canoe/catamaran Kaimiloa in 1937/8, Wharram was keen to further prove the seaworthiness of the concept.
In 1953 he designed and built a plywood 23ft 6in ‘double canoe’.
Two years later, on 27 September 1955, Wharram sailed from Falmouth across the Atlantic to Trinidad aboard this flat-bottomed catamaran called Tangaroa with two German girls, Ruth Merseburger and Jutta Schultze-Rohnhoff as crew, with the aim of proving the double canoe design was a seaworthy vessel.
For the return journey he built a 40ft version on the beach in Trinidad, reputedly with help from Bernard Moitessier, before sailing first to New York and then back across the North Atlantic.
Wharram and his female crew sailed Rongo into the Irish Sea and made a brief stop in Dunloaghaire as they were very short of food and there was bad weather.
The trio then continued to the River Conwy in North Wales, where they finished their voyage on 30 September 1959.
This was the start of a prolific career that saw Wharram design dozens of distinctive V-hull double-ended catamarans, from 13ft to more than 60ft.
He sold more than 10,000 sets of plans, with the bulk of boats completed built by enthusiastic amateurs.
Wharram was still sailing his creations at the age of 90.
The success of the crossing helped prove the seaworthiness of catamarans, something that was not acknowledged in the 1950s.
Wharram renowned multihulls included the Tiki 21, Cooking Fat, which became the smallest catamaran to sail around the world when skippered by Rory McDougall from 1991-1997.
Rongo was designed and built by Wharram in Trinidad in 1957-58 after the three sailors had already crossed the Southern Atlantic in 1956 along the trade wind route from the Canaries to Trinidad in their small 23ft 6in catamaran Tangaroa, also designed and built by Wharram in England in 1954.
Free spirited sailor
Wharram’s life partner Hanneke Boon has paid tribute.
She said: “We are very sad to announce that on the 14th December James Wharram left this earthly world, joining Ruth, Jutta and his many close friends that departed before him.
“At 93 years old his spirit has set out on the voyage to sail the oceans of heaven.
“James was a trailblazer, a fighter with great determination and vision. From a young age he followed his passions – to roam the hills – for fair politics – for intelligent women – to sail the seas – to prove the Polynesian double canoe an ocean worthy craft – to become a Man of the Sea.
“These passions made him into 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 break out of mundane lives, gave them boats they could build at an affordable cost and gave them the opportunity to become People of the Sea like himself.
“His chosen life was never easy, he would always fight convention and conventional thinking head on.
“His passionate and multi-faceted personality was very attractive to strong, independent women who helped him in his pursuits, starting with the steadfast Ruth, without whom he would never have reached his goals.
“Young Jutta joined them on their pioneering ocean voyages and was the mother of his first son.
“Sadly she died very young from mental illness as a result of her traumatic Second World War childhood experiences.”
A cult figure
Hanneke added: “James lived his entire life openly with more than one woman at the same time, as many as five in his prime in the 1970s, with whom he built and sailed his boats.
“Alongside Ruth, who died eight years ago at the age of 92, I was his other life partner and soulmate.
“I first met James when he was in the full flow of designing his range of Classic Designs in the 1960s, which led to him becoming a cult figure in the alternative society of 1970s.
“In time I became his design partner and together with Ruth we were an unbreakable unit.
“I gave birth to his second son and together we gave birth to many new double canoe designs.
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“James achieved everything he set out to do in this lifetime, but only received public recognition from the establishment in more recent years.
“The final project was his autobiography, published a year ago as People of the Sea, on which he worked for many years, as he was very critical of his own writing.
“We worked together to complete it and to get it published.
“People would refer to James as the great James Wharram, the living Legend, but he didn’t see himself as such.
“He was aware it was his large following of builders and sailors, their beautiful boats and great voyages that created the famous Wharram World.
“He saw them as the real heroes.
“Sadly in the last few years James’ brain, which he always talked about as a separate entity, started to fail him due to Alzheimer’s.
“He was very distressed by losing his mental abilities, and struggled with his diminished existence.
“He could not face the prospect of further disintegration and made the very hard call to end it himself.
“It was with great courage that he lived his life and with great courage he decided it was the time to finish.
“In this moment of great loss we should all remember the good and glorious times of a life fulfilled.
“This is not the end, I, we, all the Wharram World will keep his work alive.”
Read James Wharram’s sailing tales
Wharram wrote two books, Two Girls Two Catamarans in 1968 about his early pioneering voyages on Tangaroa and Rongo and recently his autobiography People of the Sea, published in 2020 by Lodestar Books.
Both books are available on the Wharram.com website.