Farewell to James Wharram, hippy designer of modern Polynesian catamarans

In the 1960s he reinterpreted the traditional boats of the Pacific archipelago, almost all of his 10,000 projects sold sail

Farewell to James Wharram, English pyrotechnic designer and true legend of offshore sailing with his projects of Polynesian catamarans revisited in an apparently modern key and almost exclusively for the construction techniques and materials used. One of his many companions, Hanneke Boon, mother of her second child and partner in James Wharram Design, made the announcement in recent days.

Among the many peculiarities of the life of the great English designer, in fact, his polygamy in the light of the sun, coming to have five companions at the same time in the 70s in the height of the flower children, for whom he was a kind of marine guru, considering himself and the other navigators who followed him “the people of the sea”, also the title of his last book published shortly before his death. Wharram, born in 1930, passed away at the age of 93 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s resulting in his decision to die.

Its story begins in the late 1950s, in a complicated post-war period for the British, in search of a new way of being in the world. The young James dreams of traveling by sea and studies in English museums the models of double canoe boats with which the Polynesians have colonized the vastness of the Pacific bringing with them entire villages including farm animals and succeeding perfectly in their intent.

Wharram falls in love with the double canoe and, adapting the construction principles of a thousand years earlier to modern materials, builds his first boat: a wooden catamaran, with a flat bottom (the only boat with these characteristics, all the others will have a V in the hulls) of only 23 feet.

He embarks with two girls, Jutta Schulze-Rhonhof and Ruth Merseburger. The second becomes pregnant while crossing the Atlantic and will die a few years later, the second will always remain with him until she is 92, who passed away 8 years ago. To return from the Caribbean to Europe, he will build the progenitor of his projects, the Rongo. The story is told in his first book, which will focus on him the attention of all the “freaks” of the sea, “Two girls two catamarans”.

A peculiarity of his boats, which terrifies anyone who has never really traveled on one of these, is the “elastic” coupling of the two hulls with the central platform, using only non-pre-stretched and Polynesian-style cordage, that is, turning the top and turning the vault as much as possible with a simple stick. The effect is that the hulls accompany the wave motion, of any size, without stressing the entire sailing structure and smoothly navigating even very steep waves.

“James was a pioneer, a fighter with great determination and vision. From a young age he followed his passions: wandering the hills, fair politics, intelligent women, plowing the seas, proving that the Polynesian double canoe is a boat worthy of the ocean, to become a man of the sea, “writes Hanneke Boon in announcing the death of Wharram.

“Unfortunately in recent years James’s brain, which he always spoke of as a separate entity, began to fail due to Alzheimer’s. He was very distressed at having lost his mental abilities and struggled with his impaired existence. Not he could face the prospect of further deterioration and decided to end it himself. It was with great courage that he lived his life and with great courage he decided it was time to end. “

Their studio has sold over 10,000 complete projects, most of which have been built and sailed in every sea of ​​the world. His latest boat, usually a kind of hippy commune, is the “Spirit of Gaia”, a traditional Pahi line design of 63 feet, nearly twenty meters, which is usually stationed between Nidri and Vliko on the Greek island of Lefkada.

(by Paolo Bellino)