Julien Girardot meets Hanneke Boon in Cornwall to discover the legend and legacy of pioneering catamaran designer James Wharram
Falmouth, Cornwall, 1955: a legend is born along Customs House Quay. A smartly dressed young man with wild, curly hair has launched a 23ft catamaran, built in just a few months for the modest sum of £200 (the equivalent of around £6,500 today).
Rigged as a ketch with battened junk sails, the aptly named Tangaroa (meaning ‘God of the Sea’ in Polynesian) marked the beginning of the epic Wharram story.
At the time, catamarans were considered dangerous and eccentric, while yachting was a pastime largely reserved for high society. But sailing already has other visionaries. On the deck of Tangaroa, beside James, are two young women: Jutta Schulze-Rhonhof and Ruth Merseburger. In puritanical post-war England, setting off to cross the Atlantic with two young women – and German ones at that – was downright shocking! But these three young people care not a jot about conventional thinking. They dream of adventure and their enterprise is an act of defiance.
For years James Wharram has nurtured a passion for the history of sailing pioneers and the ethnic origins of the multihull. Devouring every book on the subject he could lay his hands on, he discovered the story of Joshua Slocum, the first solo circumnavigator (1895-1898), and the voyage of Kaimiloa by the Frenchman Eric de Bisschop. The tale, published in English in 1940, of de Bisschop’s attempt to prove the seaworthiness of double canoes by making a voyage from Hawaii to France on a catamaran he had built on the beach, became Wharram’s primary source of inspiration.
Wharram disagreed with many assumptions of the time, and his first Atlantic crossing was an opportunity to refute Thor Heyerdahl’s theory on the settlement of the Pacific islands. Wharram contested the assertion of the Danish anthropologist who, after his voyage aboard the Kon-Tiki in 1947, affirmed that the boats used were simple rafts. Wharram was convinced that the boats were more akin to double canoes with sails, capable of going upwind and holding a course. These early multihulls, consisting of two hollowed-out tree trunks, were connected by crossbeams bound together with plant fibre. The sails were probably made from what is known as ‘tapa’ in Polynesia, hammered tree bark, which was also used to make clothes.
The three young adventurers left Falmouth on 27 September 1955 on a boat loaded with books, basic foods, and very little else. Despite a fraught passage, encountering storms in the Bay of Biscay and being suspected of being spies by Franco’s Guardia Civil, the trio successfully crossed the Atlantic and reached the island of Trinidad on 2 February 1957.
Without a penny to their name, they adopted a simple island life, and Jutta gave birth to her and James’ first child, Hannes. The unconventional polyamorous family lived aboard a raft inspired by the floating dwellings of the Pacific, nicknamed ‘the paradise island of the South Seas’. Tangaroa, now tired, was abandoned, as Wharram decided to build a new catamaran. By chance, two solo sailors came to anchor in the bay where the Wharram tribe lived afloat, and the legendary Bernard Moitessier and Henry Wakelam helped Wharram build his new design, Rongo.
Thanks to the experience of his first transatlantic voyage, as well as knowledge gathered from Wharram’s endless reading, Rongo was much more accomplished. While Tangaroa was flat-bottomed, Rongo has V-hulls. To prove the design’s seaworthy qualities, Wharram decided to tackle the North Atlantic, sailing from west to east with his two companions. This route was known to strike fear into the hearts of multihull sailors of the time, as the two previous attempts had tragically ended in two deaths.
The crew left La Martinique for New York on 16 April 1959, one year after Rongo’s construction began. The return voyage to Conwy in Wales took 50 days, but the gamble paid off, and Wharram’s new design was the first to achieve what many thought impossible. The curly-haired eccentric became something of a celebrity, and following his great Atlantic adventure, James published his first book, Two girls, Two Catamarans. The years that followed were Wharram’s golden age, with plans released to suit every budget and every dream. Soon there were Wharram designs all over the world, connected by a powerful community spirit.
Drawing a Wharram
My own journey to this remote corner of Cornwall began decades before. After 15 years of travelling the world, inventing and reinventing my life, including many years living in the Pacific islands, I felt the need to capture these experiences by creating the boat of my dreams.
While living in Tuamotu, I was involved in several incredible projects to build traditional sailing canoes under the directive of talented local Tahitian boatbuilder, Alexandre Genton (now chief of operations at Blue Composite shipyard in Tahiti). At first we launched small single-seat sailing canoes with two outrigger floats. These are the simplest way to sail: a sheet in one hand, a paddle in the other, which you plunge over the side of the canoe into the water, and it makes a perfect rudder. Then we built a larger version, Va’a Motu, for a hotel in Bora Bora, of splendid stripped kauri planking. Finally, we worked with the local population to build an ambitious 30ft Va’a Motu with a single ama, on the atoll of Fakarava in the Tuamotu archipelago.
Curiously, after many experimental trials at building and sailing canoes, my imagined ideal yacht turned out to be something very close to a Wharram design, which I learned as soon as I shared my first cautious sketches with friends. I realised I had to meet James Wharram.
In October 2021, I dialled the number of JW Designs. A woman answered; James’ long-term life and business partner Hanneke Boon. I tell her my ideas to build from one of their plans: the Islander 39.
We began an email exchange and when I asked her what James thought of this model, in November 2021, less than a month before he died, she replied: “James is enthusiastic about your project. He’s now 93 years old and nearing the end of his life.
“He has been looking at the Islander 39 design for several years and often says, ‘I wish I had one myself.’ It’s the only Wharram design that has never been built, so your project is a wish come true for him.”
On 14 December 2021, James Wharram passed away. Out of respect for the bereavement, and due to Covid-related travel restrictions, we decided to postpone our meeting. Some months later on a beautiful spring afternoon, I landed in Plymouth with my friend and artist Benjamin Flao, himself the owner of a Wharram-designed Tiki 28, and headed for Devoran near Truro in Cornwall, the stronghold of the Wharram family.
Hanneke welcomes us into her office. It is a beautiful wooden cabin, warm and bright, overlooking the changing lights of Cornwall. The place looks like a museum telling the story of a life of travel and passion through yacht models, photographs and unusual objects. James is there, you can feel it. A glance at the shelves of the library shows an impressive array of rare and precious books, mostly dealing with navigation and shipbuilding in Oceania, and demonstrates the seriousness with which Wharram and Boon studied the history and technicality of ‘double canoes’.
“I’d like our boats to be called double canoes and not catamarans, which I think is a mistake,” Hanneke explains. The word catamaran, originally pronounced ‘catamaron’, comes from the Tamil dialect of katta ‘to bind’ and maram ‘wood’, as they were actually one-man rafts used to work on the outer hull of ships. The English pirate and adventurer William Dampier, in the 1690s, was the first to describe a two-hulled vessel as a catamaran, but although catamarans might be the commonly accepted word nowadays, it’s actually a mistake.
Hanneke unfolds the Islander 39 plan on her drawing board. Like all Wharram plans for half a century, it has been marked with her signature. Despite this unique pencil stroke, she has remained in the shadow of Wharram’s mythology for 50 years. Since 1970, Boon has drawn the majority of the construction plans by hand. They’re works of art and the best way to imagine yourself aboard a Wharram. Without her, JW Designs would not be what it is.
Originally from the Netherlands, Boon grew up in a family of sailing enthusiasts. By the age of 14 she was already building small canoes and at the age of 20 she joined the Wharram team and quickly became his co-designer. They criss-crossed the Atlantic twice in quick succession aboard Tehini, the crab claw-rigged double canoe on which James and several women lived for 10 years. Since then, Hanneke has escaped from her office whenever she can to sail thousands of miles on all the seas of the world, always using a double canoe.
Those radical vessels included the Spirit of Gaia, also built on site, through a sliding door next to Hanneke’s office. It was aboard this 63ft Pahi, Wharram’s flagship, that the Wharrams sailed around the world from 1994 to 1998. James described Spirit of Gaia as “a beautifully shaped woman he was in love with”.
In Wharram’s wake
James and Hanneke’s home is a former veterinary surgery. The furnishings are basic, with only the essentials, but the doors close by themselves, thanks to an ingenious system of weights, ropes and pulleys. Benjamin and I offer to shop and cook, and in the living room, we put the dishes down and eat on the floor, like on the deck of a Wharram.
Jamie, James and Hanneke’s son, joins us for the meal with his partner Liz. “James has remained the icon of the business, but it’s really Hanneke who has been doing the job for the last 10 years. She is JW Designs,” confides Liz.
Jamie is at first more subdued, but talking to him you soon discover a true character. Given the world he grew up in, it’s surprising to learn that sailing is not really his thing: “I get bored quickly at sea and I’m sick most of the time! I prefer to be underwater. Above the line is not my thing.
“I do like the calmness of the ocean though, that parenthesis effect, detached from our hectic lives on land. In fact, I think the best thing about sailing is remembering long voyages, not making them,” Jamie jokes.
But he is keen to preserve Wharram’s legacy and the couple are thinking ahead to when Hanneke can no longer hold the fort. “As long as Hanneke is alive, the business will be run in her own way. But it’s certain that something will be put in place to enable people to continue to acquire the building plans, at the very least, this service will remain guaranteed.”
Back in the office next door, Nicki John answers clients and sends plans around the world. She’s only been with JWD for a couple of years, but that’s long enough for her to fall in love with the company’s story.
“One of the things I loved about James was that he came in every day. He’d knock on the door and jokingly ask, ‘Do you have time for some gossip?’ And then he’d tell me all sorts of stories. His travels, the women he had shared his life with, it was fascinating. When he was 18, he hitchhiked to Europe, smuggling coffee on the black market to finance his adventures. James’ story is just phenomenal.
“One day James came in, took out a plan, unfolded it as he sat down, and said, ‘Aren’t they beautiful?’ James was deeply convinced of Hanneke’s talent. He never stopped admiring her,” Nicki says fondly.
The community Wharram fosters is unique. Nicki shows us a photo that defines the ‘Wharram spirit’, of the hull of a Wharram being lifted out of the second floor window of a home in England. With no shed to build their Wharram design, they decided to use their living room as a boatyard. “This picture shows that if you really want to build a Wharram, you can do it anywhere,” says Nicki, “During Covid, we sold a lot more plans. Confined, people dreamed of freedom and took time to figure out how they wanted to live their lives.”
Now it’s Hanneke’s turn to shine as the head of JWD. In contrast to the technologically-led path that sailing often follows, James and Hanneke’s ‘low tech’ approach drives those who follow it to reconnect with past knowledge, practices, and philosophical approaches to our relationship with the world and the way we live in it.
Their love of minimalism is also at odds with many trends in modern yachting, but it brings its own luxury. The joy of not having too much of anything allows you to make room for the essentials, and for the beauty that surrounds you.
My dream of building Wharram’s unfulfilled plan, the Islander 39, remains. I’m in no hurry. Like the libertarian vision of James Wharram, it endures.
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