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The editor's focus

Habemus Wharram!

24/09/2013

Habemus Wharram!

85 years old and more in love than ever. With multihulls, firstly. And with life too. Passionate and fascinating, a remarkable, touching encounter with a simple, generous, humble man who refuses to be described as a living legend, yet...

At the old port in Sète, the wind was in Tramontane mode. Strong. The ‘Golden Oldies’, the former glories of ocean racing on two or three hulls, lovingly restored and maintained, wisely stayed tied up to the quay. Just like the tuna fishing boats, a few metres from the fish market. James Wharram had spent his afternoon showing people his superb personal Pahi 63: Spirit of Gaia. He arrived on the arm of Hanneke Boon, a member of “Wharram design” for forty years. It could only be the wind which curved his back a little, and the stick was without a doubt just to counter the most violent gusts, because otherwise, what a lively intellect, what a youthful outlook, what eloquence.
In these stormy weather conditions, everyone had sought refuge in the Saint Clair, THE bar in Sète, to watch the projection of Hanneke’s film about the Lapita expedition. 4,000 miles, from the Philippines to the north of Vanuatu, on the route of the first Polynesian migrations. Motionless throughout the whole projection, his gaze did not leave the screen for more than an hour. Captivated, as if he was seeing it for the first time. Although he had had to give up at the end of the voyage for health reasons, he had however covered nearly 80% of it, and was the centre of all the attention. But he preferred to stay in the background, not wishing to steal Hanneke’s thunder, and pushed her to answer the questions from the audience herself: “It’s your film...”.

Whilst his youth and his instinct would without a doubt have led him towards the mountains, two events were to lead him towards a completely different destiny, other summits: reading a book, at the age of 16, by the Frenchman Eric de Bisshop, the pre-war precursor of long-term cruising and Polynesia specialist. Then a slightly unusual encounter with a reproduction of a Polynesian outrigger canoe. At the British Science Museum in London, everything is there. The length/beam ratio of the hulls: 1:11 or 1:12 against 1:3 for western monohulls. The reasonable mast height (1 to 1.2 times the length of the boat). The huge masts were for Jim a fashion inherited from the racing world, making the boats dangerous and hard to handle. As the hull speed is a direct result of the waterline length, if you want to go fast, you must make the boat longer, not taller. Finally, and above all, the simplicity, dictated by the severity of humanity’s prehistory, which makes you search for maximum efficiency. Stability and natural performance make long-distance sailing possible, bringing about migrations which played a major role in the history of humanity. Whilst our European ancestors were still scribbling cave paintings in the Lascaux caves, the Polynesians were sailing to conquer the world, covering distances which were the equivalent of four Atlantic crossings! As a maritime historian AND an architect, he knows, and insists on reminding us, that we have not invented anything new. That our modern racing multihulls owe everything to these first sailing boats, built several thousand years ago in the middle of the Pacific. A real living encyclopaedia of multihulls, he knows all the publications in the world dealing with the multihulls! Since forever!

James Wharram has been faithful to his design and construction principles all his life. His first construction was a 23-foot catamaran (like the museum’s pirogue!) inspired by Captain Cook’s observations in Polynesia, his idol, Eric de Bisshop’s drawings, and the Kon Tiki raft! In 1955, three of them embarked for a first Atlantic crossing board ‘Tangaroa’, the Polynesian god of sea and fish. On arriving in Trinidad, as practical as ever, he built a bamboo raft with a straw hut on it to live in. But after such an epic crossing, rich in lessons, he was not lacking in ideas to continue his voyage. As a neighbour in an anchorage, he met Bernard Moitessier, who had also just completed his first Atlantic crossing. Did their meeting influence Bernard later, when he abandoned the Golden Globe to carry on to Tahiti? No one knows, but the then very ‘rational’, very ‘French’ Moitessier not only encouraged him, but helped James launch into the construction of his 40-foot design, to flee from the green bureaucratic hell that Trinidad then was. Named after another Polynesian divinity, Rongo, it allowed them to cruise in the Caribbean, then sail up to New York, before returning to Ireland. It was there that in 1964, he had an order for his first design, followed by a long series: a 35-foot Polynesian catamaran which at the time cost...600 pounds sterling!
Although his ‘nomadic instinct’ (as Hanneke mischievously called it) never left him, he never stopped designing boats. Always for the less well-off. On principle. Boats for going fast, over long distances, with fewer materials and less technology. Up to 10,000 designs produced from the brilliant inspiration of tribes too easily described as primitive. Which earned him official recognition in his native land. An award which you feel he appreciates. As the couturier of the sea and the wind, he says that designing a boat is like clothing a pretty woman, and reminds us of this English saying: ‘The straight line is the line of duty, the curve is the line of beauty’. Jim and Hanneke see a boat as a work of art, a functional sculpture.
His wake crossed those who were just as famous as Moitessier, Bob Harris, Herischof... This morning, like Brel, Ferré and Brassens in their time, sitting at a similar table, he put the world to rights with two other ‘giants’ of naval architecture: Marc Van Peteghem and Dick Newick. He said that he admired the work of Nigel Irens, would have liked to have lived at the time of Cook and Bougainville. Sometimes, when a name or a date escaped him, he put his hand tenderly on Hanneke’s knee, and she tactfully filled in for his forgetfulness. Similarly, when we asked him for a dedication for you, the readers of Multihulls World, it was Hanneke who took the pen to write, with a steady hand, the words which are clear and obvious:
“The sea is for sailing.
The multihull is the greatest, longest-existing type of sailing boat in history.
Build one, buy one, become a person of history.”
James Wharram

It was getting late. Hanneke didn’t want him to exhaust himself. So, on the quay at Sète, we watched them as they walked away arm in arm, just like when they were twenty years old. He still with a proud bearing; she at his side, incredibly thoughtful. Supporters of steel monohulls where 'nothing is ever too strong' have Bernard Moitessier. We, the fans of light, simple, seaworthy, stable multihulls, have Wharram.

Habemus Wharram!
Further reading

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