My passion for catamarans started innocently enough one rainy morning in 1974 as I was reading the used boat listings in the Sunday Boston Globe. I found an ad that sparked my interest—a 30-foot, fire-damaged catamaran for sale via a closed-bid auction. I went to see her that afternoon. Taking in two double berths, two single berths, a compact galley and an enclosed head in a 30-foot vessel that outperforms single hulled vessels of the same length, I thought, “How cool is that?”
She had just sailed over from the UK and was damaged when a fire started on a boat in an adjoining slip. The deck and cabin trunk were seriously scorched on one side. In spite of her scars, I fell in love with her and started researching voraciously. She was an Iroquois, the smallest and most popular of a series of cruising cats designed by Rod Macalpine-Downie and built by Sailcraft in England, each named after a Native American tribe. While I did not win the closed bid auction, I caught the cat bug.
I devoured every book and magazine I could find and joined the New England Multihull Association (NEMA). The NEMA programs featured some of the leading multihull designers of the day and put me in touch with other members who had built their own cats and tris and sailed them for years.
The early days
The genesis of the modern catamaran has two roots—the greed for speed and the desire for accommodations. The first American catamaran, Amaryllis, was designed and built by Nathaniel Herreshoff, also known as “the wizard of Bristol.” During the Centennial Regatta of 1876 in New York Harbor, the 25-foot Amaryllis trounced a fleet of some 90 traditional craft and thereafter was ruled ineligible for further competition. For the next 100 years or so, multihulls were actively discriminated against by the yachting fraternity.
Not much happened in the catamaran world until after WWII. Arthur Piver, and later Jim Brown, produced a number of trimaran designs for home builders that provided inexpensive blue water sailing with reasonable accommodations and cruising performance. James Wharram produced simple catamaran designs with a Polynesian flavor. These boats can still be seen throughout the world.
Early multihull enthusiasts tended to be advanced tinkerers who flouted convention and were willing to try new ideas. To be sure, not all of these ideas were good ones, nor did they always produce structurally sound or aesthetically pleasing vessels. The spirit of adventure demonstrated by multihull enthusiasts, however, has produced numerous innovations that have in recent times trashed most known ocean racing records.
Arguably, the first modern catamaran after Amaryllis was Manukai, designed and built by the California team of Woody Brown, Rudy Choy and Alfred Kumalae, and launched in 1947. Choy and Kumalae teamed up with Warren Seamen to form C/S/K Catamarans, which produced a steady stream of beautiful, well-constructed, fast cats. Starting around 1954 on the right side of the Atlantic, Roland and Francis Prout produced seaworthy cats known more for their accommodations than their performance. The beach cat revolution started in the 1960s, and by 1981, 150,000 Hobie cats were thrilling participants and spectators alike.
Dick Newick, the famous multihull designer, is fond of saying that his clients want speed, accommodations and low cost and that he can give them any two of these attributes. As the volume and displacement of hulls is increased to provide more creature comforts, performance suffers. While some of the performance can be preserved through the use of super lightweight materials, this increases cost significantly. There are a growing number of cats available that strike a very attractive balance between performance and comfort. Chris White, John Conser and the firm of (Gino) Morellli and (Pete) Melvin, for example, produce beautiful, high performance cruising cat designs.
I became particularly interested in the work of another West Coast cat designer. Hugo Myers, a Ph.D. in applied mathematics, used his computer and engineering skills to develop a program to optimize speed in catamaran hull design. The program was employed in the design of Sea Bird, a 44-foot catamaran built in 1968 that set the Trans Pac Multihull record between Los Angeles and Honolulu in 1974. I saw her two years ago in Honolulu at the Waikiki Yacht Club and she was still going strong.
A cat of my own
I started a correspondence with Dr. Myers regarding the 28-foot version of Sea Bird, a design that leaned decidedly toward the performance end of the speed-creature comfort continuum. I learned that production molds had been built, but were not in use. The molds were owned by Bill Lee, a friend of Myers, who kept a Myers 28 on Biscayne Bay and also owned a 46-foot cruising cat designed by Myers. A trip to Disney World with my daughter Jessica gave me the opportunity to visit Bill Lee, check out his litter of cats, and sail on the 28-footer. I liked the 28 immediately and arranged to rent the molds. I drove from Boston to South Carolina to tow the molds on the decrepit trailer where they had been stored back to West Falmouth, Mass., where Damien McLaughlin took on the job of assisting me in the build of my own 28.
As an inveterate tinkerer, I decided that I wanted to make a few changes in the design. Fully prepared for an avalanche of scientific reasons for why my ideas were outrageously foolish, I called Dr. Myers and asked about changing the cross beams from H-beams to circular tubes for aesthetic reasons; moving the aft cross beam back two feet to shorten the tillers, increase trampoline area and allow for shifting weight aft while broad reaching; having the daggerboards exit the hull bottoms on the centerline but enter the deck somewhat inboard of the centerline, such that the leeward daggerboard would be vertical when the weather hull was just kissing the water; and finally, building her from Airex and FRP rather than plywood as specified. After a pause, during which I imagine he tried to determine how to deal with such a nut case, Hugo responded, “Sounds good John. Try it and let me know how it works out.”
My Myers 28 was launched in 1975 when I found myself in the revolutionary spirit of the forthcoming bicentennial, and so she was christened Two If By Sea, 99 years after Herreshoff’s revolutionary Amaryllis had upset the world of yachting. She had a beam of 14 feet, a 40-foot rotating mast, full battened main, twin daggerboards, balanced spade rudders, and a weight of about 1,300 pounds. Her main was 290 square feet and her working jib was 110 square feet. Hugo visited my home on the North Shore of Boston while touring New England with his family and was clearly delighted with Two If By Sea, giving his stamp of approval to my design changes.
The first race in which Two If By Sea was entered included both monohulls and multihulls and was run out of Boston Harbor on a windy day. My friend Peter diCicco was crew and the multihulls were the last of three groups to get the starting gun. By the first mark, we had passed all but a few of the largest boats. By the second mark, we took the lead. By the finish, no one else was in sight and the committee boat was not yet back on station, as they did not expect any boat to finish so quickly.
Multihull sailors were generally treated by owners of traditional boats with disdain or begrudging curiosity, or as freaks. I enjoyed playing on their prejudices by sailing in among them at speeds twice what they could achieve, relishing their vain efforts to pretend not to see us as we passed them to leeward. Very adolescent, but thoroughly enjoyable. Another form of mischief I haven’t been able to replicate with my single-hulled boats occurred when a Bertram 40-something was powering out of Boston Harbor, kicking up an enormous wake. The winds allowed Two If By Sea to surf on the Bertram bow wave about 20 feet off her stern quarter. We got a free ride at 20 knots or so. Great fun!
In 1977, the 12 meter yachts Courageous and Independence were match racing every weekend out of Marblehead in preparation for the America’s Cup trials. While they could clearly sail to weather better than Two If By Sea, we literally sailed circles around them—to be sure at a respectful distance. The total cost of my boat wouldn’t have paid for a 12 meter’s coffee grinder.
Two If By Sea dramatically increased the range of our sailing adventures. It was an easy matter to sail from the North Shore of Boston to Buzzard’s Bay—a distance of some 60 nautical miles—with much time to spare during daylight hours. A casual day sail from Nahant to Gloucester and back—a distance of some 50 nautical miles—was routine.
Clearly, the speed of cats is intoxicating. My bareboat charter experience, however, testifies to an additional strength of cats—they solve the dilemma of who gets the master cabin. Charter cats provide four approximately equal double berth cabins, each with its own head and shower—all in an attractive 42-foot package. Four double berth cabins with two cabins sharing one head and shower can fit comfortably in a somewhat smaller cat.
In 1978, Hugo invited me to join him, his wife Barbara and their friends Landgrave and Dulcey Smith on a trip to the Canary Islands to sail aboard a 58-foot ketch rigged catamaran of Hugo’s design called Veroa Kane. She had been built by two German brothers, Adolf and Reini Arlt, on the Costa del Sol and was operating as a day charter vessel out of Grand Canary Island. She was beautiful, and the Arlts allowed us to take turns at the helm as we raced through the waves “faster than the wind,” as it said in the tourist brochure and t-shirts. The Arlts moved their day charter operation to St. Thomas, where in 1989 hurricane winds of 170 mph lifted Veroa Kane out of the water while at her mooring and she somersaulted to destruction. Ironically, the hurricane was named “Hugo.”
As we relaxed by the pool at our hotel on Grand Canary Island, I confessed to Hugo my interest in having a cat that I could enter in the Multihull Newport-Bermuda Race. I told him that I could not afford to build a competitive boat to his design, but that I was thinking about the MacGregor 36, which was being produced for a price I could afford in Costa Mesa, Calif. Since I had almost no blue water experience and did not know celestial navigation, I asked Hugo if he would be willing to serve as sailing master for the race. He agreed.
I christened my MacGregor Alliance. Landgrave Smith signed on as crew, as he was also skilled in celestial navigation. I recruited two members of the New England Multihull Association, Richard Boehmer and Jeff Livingstone. Hugo, Landgrave and Richard were to make the trip to Bermuda with me. Jeff flew to Bermuda to help me sail home to Massachusetts, as the others could not afford the time for the round trip. My task was to learn sufficient celestial navigation skills on the way to Bermuda to get us home to Massachusetts.
Alliance got off to a good start and we settled down to the routine of watch keeping. Hugo and I were watch captains with two people on four-hour watches. We dispensed with assigned berths, as the off watch would always rest in the weather hull. We practiced the Hugo Myers Chicken Rule, where one person is assigned to each sheet with instructions to release the sheet without waiting to be told by the watch captain any time the sheet handler feels there is risk of capsize.
Conditions in the Gulf Stream proved troublesome, with winds over 50 knots and waves coming from three different directions at the same time—occasionally colliding in spectacular peaks. As the boat would free fall from a crest and crash into a trough, I found myself examining every bolt and fitting that held Alliance together, wondering whether I had torqued them adequately. Alliance passed this test admirably. The only time I was truly scared was one night while at the helm I was smacked hard in the chest by a flying fish (not knowing what it was at that moment).
We completed the voyage to Bermuda in five and a half days, finishing 11th out of 16 boats on elapsed time and 13th on corrected time. Landgrave and Hugo had taught me the basics of celestial navigation on the way to Bermuda. I figured that it would be comparatively easy to find North America with my rudimentary celestial navigation skills compared to their feat of finding the St. George’s entrance channel on the little speck on the chart called Bermuda.
Jeff and I made the return trip in four and a half days, the first 200 miles of which we covered in 10 hours. This was truly the most spectacular sailing of my life, with the weather hull just kissing the surface of the water and the rudders producing a delightful humming sound hour after hour. We changed down from the genoa to working jib as night approached and the jib remained in place until we reached home, allowing us some margin of safety to take catnaps without worry. Our navigation proved quite accurate as we not only found North America, but managed to make landfall in our home waters of Massachusetts.
In spite of bad weather and sea conditions on the trip down and some high winds on the return, at no time did I feel we were in danger of capsize. Hugo impressed upon us the importance of the Myers Chicken Rule to prevent capsize, and we were diligent in placing safety as the paramount priority. Alliance came equipped with a flotation wing at the top of the mast designed to keep the boat from turning turtle in the event of capsize. The wing measured almost six feet across. To emphasize the importance of capsize prevention, in letters large enough for the crew to read each time they looked aloft at the wind indicator, I printed on the underside of the wing:
THIS END UP.
Hugo and Barbara Myers and Landgrave and Dulcey Smith shared a bareboat charter with me and my friend Donna one winter and we exchanged visits during the years following our Bermuda adventure. Dying of cancer in 1988, Hugo was in a hospice the last time I saw him, surrounded by family and friends. I had to force back tears as I reported the news to my good friend and catamaran pioneer that the American entry for the America’s Cup that year would be a catamaran.