JAMES WHARRAM: His New Autobiography

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Dec. 18/2020:  James Wharram, who first came to notice back in the 1950s after sailing a crude homemade catamaran across the Atlantic from England to Trinidad with two occasionally (and famously) unclad women, has cut a unique trail through the firmament of modern yacht design. He has always planted his flag far outside the boundaries of Western nautical convention, and in spite of this, or because of it, became one of the most successful creators of build-it-yourself boat designs in the history of sailing. Now in his tenth decade, with the help of his longtime design and business partner Hanneke Boon, James has at last shared his full story in People of the Sea, recently published by Lodestar Books. Those who have long wondered about this enigmatic figure, and even those who have never heard of him, will find it a fascinating tale.

Coming of age in Manchester, England, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, James Wharram came from a working-class background and early on developed a liberal, some would say libertine, frame of mind. His first exposure to outdoor sports was as a “bog-trotter” who spent weekends mucking about the moors and mountains of northern Britain, but his interest soon switched to seafaring after he found a seductive node of small-boat adventure books in the Manchester Central Library. The most influential of these was The Voyage of the Kamiloa, by Eric de Bisschop, who sailed a Polynesian-style “double canoe” from Hawaii to France via the Cape of Good Hope in the late 1930s.

The great “anti-influence” in Wharram’s life was the much more renowned Thor Heyerdahl, whose raft voyage from South America to Polynesia was documented in his bestselling book Kon-Tiki. Heyerdahl had hoped to prove that the Pacific islands were first populated by mariners who drifted downwind from the Americas. Wharram, with de Bisschop as his inspiration, has spent his life championing the opposite proposition, which has ultimately proven correct, that the islands were in fact first populated by mariners from Asia, sailing to windward in supple, seaworthy double-canoes.

Though he made his name in catamarans, Wharram’s first serious boat was a 20-foot converted lifeboat with a junk rig named Annie E. Evans. He’s seen here aboard Annie with his first sea-going partner, Ruth Merseburger. Ruth and James lived and worked together until her death in 2013

 

Ruth aboard Wharram’s first catamaran, Tangaroa, built in 1954

 

James sailed transatlantic on Tangaroa in 1955-56 with both Ruth (right) and another woman, Jutta Shultze Rhonhof (left). His first book, Two Girls Two Catamarans, tells the story of this voyage and its aftermath. Both Ruth and Jutta were German, hardy survivors of the apocalyptic postwar scene there. Jutta, sadly, was traumatized and badly scarred by her postwar experience

 

Tangaroa eventually disintegrated after James and crew reached Trinidad aboard her. Here we see James building a new boat there, a 40-footer to be named Rongo, with some help from the famous French singlehander Bernard Moitessier (center) and Henry Wakelam (right), who was a great friend and mentor to Moitessier

 

Rongo under sail. Wharram sailed her with Ruth and Jutta from Trinidad first to New York City, then on back to the UK in 1959. Rongo was Wharram’s first design with a V-shaped hull, a feature that became increasingly important to him

Those familiar with Wharram’s career will wonder if he explains in this new book what exactly has been going on with all the women around him. In addition to Ruth and Jutta, seen above, James’s Dutch partner, Hanneke Boon, whom he first met when she was but a teenager, has also played a very major role in his life. He has had children by both her and by Jutta. And indeed, one intriguing fact we learn in this autobiography is that Wharram at one point worked professionally with a group of five different women in Ireland, but was ultimately “divorced” by three of them.

To his credit, Wharram’s treatment of the subject is perfectly straightforward and not at all lascivious. He makes it all seem very natural–as it obviously has been for him and all concerned–and by the end you are left to wonder why more people don’t live this way. Wharram’s great talent it seems, both as a designer and as a person, is not that he has attracted women to sailing per se, but rather that he has fostered sailing communities (hence the book’s title) in which women have played very prominent roles.

Sailing in the West Indies aboard the third ocean-going double-canoe James designed and built for himself, the 52-foot Tehini

One of the great overarching goals of Wharram’s life had always been to sail one of his own boats into the Pacific, and it is surprising how long it took for him to achieve this. It wasn’t until 1995, aboard his great Pahi 63, Spirit ofGaia, the most Polynesian of his design iterations, that James and company (after a nearly calamitous Panama Canal transit) finally emerged in the great ocean that had originally inspired him as a designer.

It is also a bit ironic that just as James sought and did not receive recognition from the British yachting establishment early in his career, he likewise was dissed during his voyage into the Pacific by the traditional Polynesian sailing revivalists who emerged in the late 20th century. In the end, however, Wharram has had his sweet revenge. The British establishment has at last paid him his due. And in what was likely a crowning affirmation of Wharram’s career, when the last of the great traditional Polynesian navigators, Mau Piailug, boarded Gaia in Raiatea he at once pronounced “this is how it should be done.” Mau in fact was so impressed he eventually asked James for a custom design, the Islander 65, but unfortunately passed on before it could be built.

Design for the Pahi 63. James and company ultimately sailed this boat around the world

 

James meeting with elders aboard Gaia at Tikopia in the Solomon Islands

 

Hanneke Boon steering Lapita Anuta, a recreation of a prehistoric Pacific voyaging craft, into Rabaul, Papua New Guinea

I have read many memoirs by yacht designers, but this one, I have to say, has been by far the most various and intriguing. I am sure anyone else interested in the “outer limits” of modern yacht design will feel the same way.

People of the Sea

James Wharram with Hanneke Boon

288 pp.

Lodestar Books (2020)

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1 Response
  1. The enthusiasm for trimarans and cats in the 1960s-70s is an under-recorded part of the history of sailing. I think it’s because they were part the of counter-culture of the time (aka hippies) and the boats were not ends in themselves but part of a voyaging lifestyle- embodied by the likes of James Wharram, and Arthur Piver. I was a tangential part of that movement in the ’70s on the West Coast and it was a fabulous time. The sailing sky seemed to be unlimited and the Pacific Ocean a blue highway to a better, more integrated life. The whole scene had a lot of flaws but it was fun while it lasted!

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