Obituary: James Wharram (Catamaran boatbuilder, Atlantic sailor) (93)

“Is he a philosopher, or a crackpot? A lifestyle guru or a libertine? Could he be a madman or might he be perhaps, unsettlingly sane? One thing is for sure: he is one of 20th-century seafaring’s most iconic figures.”

Photo: Aboard Annie with his first sea-going partner, Ruth Merseburger. Ruth and James lived and worked together until her death in 2013

21 February 2022 | James Porteous | Clipper Media

Of James Wharram’s life, wikipedia states: James Wharram (15 May 1928 – 14 December 2021) was a British multihull pioneer and designer of catamarans.

There are additional details of his life and times but the rendering is rather dispassionate.

As you will see below, Wharrman was many things, but lacking passion -in all things- was not part of his life.

Although probably unknown to most of us, his life appears to have been one worth exploring and remembering. James Porteous

James Wharram with one of his catamarans, which were based on Polynesian principles

James Wharram obituary

Catamaran boatbuilder, Atlantic sailor and adventurer with an unconventional family life

04 February 2022 | Sam Wollaston | The Guardian

On 27 September 1955, James Wharram set sail from Falmouth in a 23½ft flat-bottomed double canoe (now called a catamaran) that he had built himself at a cost of £200, with no engine, and none of the electronic navigation equipment today’s sailors take for granted.

His quest was to cross the Atlantic, in order to prove that such a vessel, the ancient craft of the Polynesians, was an oceanworthy one. The boat was called Tangaroa, after the Polynesian god of the sea.

With Wharram, who has died aged 93, were two German women, Jutta Schultze-Rhonhof and Ruth Merseburger, both of whom he was romantically involved with. “They were very happy to share ‘their man’,” he wrote. “There was no jealousy.”

Wharram’s book about this and subsequent voyages was titled Two Girls, Two Catamarans (1969) and it seemed like the ultimate hippy adventure, before hippies had even been invented.

But the trip was far from plain sailing. There were storms in the Bay of Biscay; in Spain Franco’s Guardia Civil thought the travellers were spies; in Gran Canaria they encountered former SS officers escaping to South America; they nearly capsized twice crossing the Atlantic. Wharram and Shultze-Rhonhof were terribly seasick; she found out she was pregnant; and meanwhile Tangaroa’s wooden hulls were being eaten by shipworms. Somehow, after a gruelling five-week crossing, they reached Trinidad.

Photo: Ruth Merseburger, later Ruth Wharram, was an early believer in James’s designs and theories and helped build his first multihull, Tangaroa. Courtesy: James Wharram Designs

If anything, though, it was more like a beginning than an end. Schultze-Rhonhof gave birth to a son, Hannes. Wharram built a new, bigger catamaran, named Rongo, that they sailed to New York, arriving in 1959.

There he found himself alongside Sir Edmund Hillary on a TV quiz show called To Tell the Truth; the audience had to guess which of the three contestants posing as the mountaineer was the real one. Hillary helped Wharram win, and with the prize money he was able to buy a radio for his next voyage, another Atlantic crossing, back to Britain later that year. Wharram was well on his way to a life of seafaring, boat design and boatbuilding.

Jutta Schultze-Rohnhof and Ruth Merseburger with James Wharram before they left Falmouth onboard Tangaroa. Courtesy: James Wharram Designs

He was born in Manchester, the only child of James, a builder, and his wife, Blanche (nee Cook). As a teenager Wharram enjoyed climbing and roaming the moors. And he read, spending hours in the city’s central library reading about boats, particularly about the ancient Polynesian boats.

The Voyage of the Kaimiloa by Éric de Bisschop (1939), about sailing from Hawaii to France, became a lifelong love and inspiration. He also read George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, Bertrand Russell, William Morris, Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes; he became chairman of a Labour party youth group, but was saved from politics by his wanderlust.

Wharram left technical college to travel and work around Europe, where he discovered a new love: for women. Traudl, an Austrian psychologist, introduced him to Freud and Jung. Pat, an American 10 years his senior, gave him a book called Boat Building in Your Own Back Yard.

Back in the UK, he worked as a labourer, on a trawler, in a boat yard. Walking in the Lake District, he met Merseburger, who would accompany him on that first transatlantic voyage on Tangaroa with Schultze-Rhonhof, whom he met at a swimming pool.

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

Wharram married Schultze-Rhonhof in 1959, but she had a breakdown, and died falling from a tower in Spain.

Five years later, Wharram married Merseburger. They remained together until her death in 2013, joined in the late 60s by Hanneke Boon, who met Wharram when her family, holidaying in Wales, had helped him on another boat-building project. He and Hanneke had a son, Jamie.

There were other women coming and going, further catamarans, and further adventurous trips, then a business the three of them ran together from Cornwall, where they settled. Wharram designed catamarans based on Polynesian principles, and they sold the designs.

These are not boats for millionaire yachties, but for enthusiasts to make themselves and get to sea cheaply. And Wharram was not your typical yachtsman; it is perhaps not surprising the sailing establishment has sometimes viewed him with some suspicion.

He was impossible to ignore, though, and slowly they came round to him. “Who is James Wharram?” asked the yachting writer Tom Cunliffe in Sail magazine in 2007. “Is he a philosopher, or a crackpot? A lifestyle guru or a libertine? Could he be a madman or might he be perhaps, unsettlingly sane? One thing is for sure: he is one of 20th-century seafaring’s most iconic figures.” In 2018 he won a lifetime achievement award from Classic Boat magazine.

In his last years Wharram lived with Alzheimer’s disease. “He struggled with his diminished existence,” wrote Boon, whom he married in 2018. “He could not face the prospect of further disintegration and made the very hard call to end it himself.” Wharram took his own life.

He is survived by Hanneke, Hannes (now known as Jonathan) and Jamie.

 James Wharram, sailor and boat designer, born 15 May 1928; died 14 December 2021.


Are you interested in boating? Check out this wonderful site, Pontooners, which I found whilst doing my research!

Boating can be a great way to spend more time outdoors with loved ones, friends, and even your dog! Whether you live close to a dock or further away in the country, anybody can enjoy the ocean breeze or tranquil lifestyle that a boat enables.

James Wharram Designs Website

James Wharram, architect, one of my mentors for his concept of habitat optimization, the flexi space. If you also want to know more about the mini bioclimatic habitat.

James Wharram dedicated his life to to proving the Polynesian double canoe was an ocean worthy craft. Credit: James Wharram Designs

James Wharram: Eight bells for the multihull pioneer

07 Janurary 2022 | Katy Stickland | Yachting Monthly

James Wharram, considered by many as the father of modern multihull cruising, has died, aged 93.

The free-spirited sailor and designer specialised in double-canoe style sailing catamarans, inspired by the Polynesian double canoe.

Born in Manchester in 1928, Wharram designed his first offshore cruising catamaran, Tangaroa in 1953 having read about Frenchman Éric de Bisschop’s 1937-1939 voyage from Hawaii to France in his double canoe.

Determined to prove the seagoing qualities of the double canoe, Wharram, accompanied by Ruth Merseburger, who later became Ruth Wharram, and Jutta Schultze-Rohnhof, sailed his 23ft 6 inch multihull from Falmouth across the Atlantic to Trinidad in 1956.

Wharram wrote about crossing the Bay of Biscay in Tangaroa for Yachting Monthly in 1956, going into details about the catamaran’s performance, easy motion and stability. This was in direct contrast to the then held opinion that a motion of a catamaran would be worse than on a keel yacht.

Three years later, having built the 40ft Rongo on a beach in Trinidad with the help of French sailor Bernard Moistessier, Wharram, Ruth and Jutta sailed to New York before crossing the North Atlantic – the first ever North Atlantic West-to-East crossing by multihull.

Onboard Rongo in the Atlantic with his son Hannes. Courtesy: James Wharram Designs

James Wharram started designing for self-builders in 1965.

Along with his partners Ruth Wharram and Hanneke Boon, he created distinctive V-hull double-ended catamarans, from 13ft to over 60ft, selling more than 10,000 sets of plans.

Wharram believed in a ‘less is more’ approach to boat building, and all of his boats are of simple construction, aimed at amateur boat builders, including the Tiki 21, Cooking Fat, which became the smallest catamaran to sail around the world when skippered by Rory McDougall from 1991-1997.

In May 1992, Wharram launched the 63ft Pahi, Spirit of Gaia, from his home on Restronguet Creek in Cornwall, sailing 32,000 miles around the world from England to Greece via the Pacific.

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

In 2008, Wharram’s career came full circle, when 50 years after his pioneering voyages, he sailed 4,000 miles on one of two 38ft double canoes along the island chains of the Philippines, Indonesia, New Guinea and the Solomons.

Known as the Lapita Voyage, the canoes were based on an ancient Polynesian canoe hull-form, and were powered by sail alone, using traditional Polynesian crab claw sails and steering paddles.

Paying tribute to her life partner, Hanneke Boon wrote: ‘James was a trailblazer, a fighter with great determination and vision. From a young age he followed his passions – to roam the hills – for fair politics – for intelligent women – to sail the seas – to prove the Polynesian double canoe an ocean worthy craft – to become a Man of the Sea.

With his life partners, Ruth Wharram, who died in 2013 aged 92 and Hanneke Boon. Courtesy: James Wharram Designs

‘These passions made him into a pioneer of catamaran sailing and a world-renowned designer of unique double-canoe catamarans that now sail the oceans.

‘He designed for people who wanted to break out of mundane lives, gave them boats they could build at an affordable cost and gave them the opportunity to become People of the Sea like himself.’

In the last few years of Wharram’s life he developed Alzheimer’s. He died on 14 December.

‘He could not face the prospect of further disintegration and made the very hard call to end it himself. It was with great courage that he lived his life and with great courage he decided it was the time to finish,’ wrote Hanneke

‘In this moment of great loss we should all remember the good and glorious times of a life fulfilled. This is not the end, I, we, all the Wharram World will keep his work alive.’

James Wharram 1928-2021

In June 2016 I had the great pleasure of meeting James Wharram and Hanneke Boon for the first time, at their home and design base in SW England. James needs no introduction, widely regarded as one of the fathers of the modern catamaran.


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