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The Taming of the Cat
A Brief History: The Nine Lives of Catamarans
By Peter Nielsen
Reprinted with the kind permission of Sail Magazine
Released: 12/11/2007

The New York sailing establishment had never seen anything quite like Amaryllis. As a racing fleet that included "all the most famous flyers known to these waters" milled around the starting line for the Centennial Cup regatta of 1876, it was Nathaniel G. Herreshoff's latest creation that was the center of attention. This "nondescript half catamaran, half liferaft," as one contemporary account described it, was allowed to enter the race only because no one gave it a chance of winning.

At first lagging around the rear of the fleet, Amaryllis soon "flew along the Long Island Shore, passing yacht after yacht as if they were anchored." Sour faces abounded after the race; the "liferaft," the "cigar boat," had thrashed the fastest boats in New York, for the first - and last - time. Steps were quickly taken to ensure that a catamaran would never again compete in the same race as a monohull. Herreshoff would go on to build several more catamarans, but the establishment never came any closer to accepting them as legitimate sailing craft.

This episode is still quoted by the multihull fraternity as the basis for what they see as a pervasive anticatamaran bias in the sailing media and among sailors in general. In fact, the bias against two hulls predated Amaryllis by two centuries, for these intriguingly different craft were raising eyebrows - and hackles - as far back as 1662 when Sir William Petty launched a 30-foot catamaran called Simon & Jude. This boat, which reportedly was capable of 20 mph, was followed by a bigger square-rigged version that carried a crew of 30 along with 10 cannon - hardly a lightweight flyer.

Petty's catamarans suffered from the same failings as Herreshoff's did two centuries later - overweight, unsuitable rigs, and a reluctance to tack or go to weather satisfactorily - and when his third cat, the aptly named Experiment, was lost in the Bay of Biscay along with her 50 crew, that was that. The concept had failed to capture the imagination of the public or of shipbuilders, and for the next 250 years multihulls became the preserve of eccentrics and mad inventors. It wasn't until well into the twentieth century that any serious attempts were made to emulate the exploits of the Polynesian seafarers, who had criss-crossed the Pacific on giant catamarans 2,000 years earlier.

The legends of those master navigators of the South Seas inspired French sailor Eric de Bisschop to build a 38-foot catamaran loosely based on Polynesian designs. In 1937–38 he sailed Kaimiloa from Hawaii to France via the Indian and Atlantic oceans - the first ocean crossings by a cruising multihull. The native single and double outrigger canoes of the Pacific islands also caught the imagination of many westerners who were stationed there during the Second World War. One of them, Woody Brown, joined forces with young yacht designer Rudy Choy to build Manu Kai, a 38-footer that they sailed from Hawaii to Los Angeles. Their company, CSK, would become the preeminent multihull builder in the United States.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the beginnings of a small but persistent multihull movement began with the Prout brothers, who established a business that was at the forefront of cruising-catamaran construction for several decades. In 1950, a Frenchman became the first to sail a catamaran across the Atlantic, but that country would not become a force in catamaran construction until the 1980s. Meanwhile, Briton James Wharram proved in 1955 that even small cats could be seaworthy when he sailed his 23-foot Tangaroa across the Atlantic. Even today, Wharram's idiosyncratic, cheap-to-build designs have a strong following; he has sold more than 8,000 sets of plans. But he found that he was not taken seriously in his homeland. Writing in the late 1950s, he expressed dismay at the attitude of the Europeans towards catamarans and pointed toward the United States as "the home of the modern catamaran."

Slowly, during the 1950s and 60s, cat design and construction evolved towards its present state. Designers and builders continued to spring up and as quickly vanish; boatbuilding can be a heartbreaking business, and it must have been especially so for catamaran builders in the days when multihulls were still considered weird. The choice of rigs for many of these boats did nothing to dispel this stigma; in the early days many of them had variants of the Chinese junk rig. These evolved into hybrid rigs that gradually became more mainstream until, by the 1960s, most carried Marconi rigs.

By the 1970s, there were some pretty good catamarans on the market. The emphasis had shifted from the U.S. back to Europe, with the British, French, and Dutch at the forefront. Today, there are thriving catamaran builders on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in South Africa and Australia.


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