Multihulls earning overdue recognition
Posted on 10 March 2011
Written by Dieter Loibner
These once-ridiculed vessels will be featured in the 2013 America's Cup and that pleases one pioneer
It was an indolent afternoon on New Year's Eve when the Twitterati breathlessly reported that San Francisco indeed will host the next America's Cup, the first one conceived for multihulls. How fitting, I thought, for Jim Brown to hear this. I just had finished his delightful memoir "Among the Multihulls: Volume One" that describes his journey from schooner boy to trimaran evangelist.
In it, Brown revisits the crazy days of early multihull mania when these boats were openly ridiculed by the yachting establishment. Wanting one meant building one yourself. Hence the often crude appearance of those contraptions, whose owner/builders relished the role of nautical outcasts as they (often) sailed rings around the lead mines.
Since my father was partial to multihulls and built one in someone else's backyard 40 years ago, I am genetically predisposed and curious. So I called up Brown, who represents the generation of multihull pioneers that includes James Wharram, Arthur Piver, Dick Newick and the Prout Brothers.
The ride of a lifetime
Multihulls, meaning proas, catamarans and trimarans, had been crisscrossing the vast expanses of the Pacific long before Leif Ericson landed in the New World. But in the modern days, Brown writes in his memoir, "multihulls were the anti-yachts, flying in the face of tradition whereas their forbearers stemmed from the oldest tradition of all: survival."
And survival is what was on Brown's mind when he joined Piver on a 16-foot Frolic for Mr. Toad's Wild Ride under the Golden Gate. As a schooner alumnus, Brown didn't like the looks of the craft and he didn't think the boat could handle the choppy waves that looked like "little Matterhorns," as he recalls. "I really thought I was going to end up blowing bubbles."
Then Piver showed him how a 16-foot trimaran can surf the stern wake of an incoming freighter. It must have been quite a spectacle because the ship's cook forgot to ditch the potato peels over the side and ran to get his mates. At that moment, something inside Brown clicked and stayed until this day.
That was around 1957 and years before the bombastic Piver, who boldly predicted that trimarans could cover 1,000 miles per day under sail, was lost at sea. (For the record: In 2009 the French trimaran Banque Populaire 5 covered 908.2 nautical miles in 24 hours.)
Brown eventually was going to hang out his own shingle as a trimaran designer. But before he did, he married and took his pregnant wife Jo Anna and a friend on a trip down the California coast to the Gulf of Mexico in Juana, a Piver Nugget trimaran he built from scratch. It was an abject lesson in seamanship and didn't last long. They nearly lost the boat after leaving it at anchor unattended and later barely escaped a hurricane that was bearing down on them. But once safely back in California, and after the birth of his older son Steve, Brown started to develop his own designs. Selling plans and ministering his clients' projects produced a little income and a lot of stories as he moved the family from Sausalito to Big Sur and later to Davenport, north of Santa Cruz.
Money was tight, as it is wont to be in such a venture, but somehow he managed to keep the lights on, feed his growing family that now included Russell, the younger son, and hammer away at his own 31-footer called Scrimshaw. At the time, America was reeling from Vietnam, Watergate, the OPEC-induced oil crisis and the effects of the Cold War. Just as today, there was a lot of uncertainty, which led independent spirits to build boats, cash out and shove off. "When the shit hits the fan, I'll be able to move, take my family, food and music, and we'll be able to get around without the need for much fuel and we'll be able to avoid the geopolitical hotspots," is how Brown recalls the thinking. And those who wouldn't go bought boats to indulge in the illusion of being able to go. Some day ... maybe ... or not.
Frugality and minimalism
Brown seized the opportunity and cast off in a now-or-never moment to take the family on a multiyear cruise down the West Coast and through the Panama Canal to Central America. Not to click off miles, but to experience foreign lands, cultures and people - "Frugality and minimalism were part of us and we purposely stayed away from big and fancy. The boys had to learn how to make do with a Third World urgency."
Brown steadfastly refused to compromise this philosophy and it had a profound impact on his sons, teenagers then, who grew up sailing and become master boatbuilders in their own right.
Does he feel vindicated by the multihulls' success so many years after their proponents were laughed out of club bars?
"The original attraction was identity. I don't think that's true anymore. We have lost exclusivity, because the boats now are widely accepted," he says. "That's OK, because that's what we wanted. Except that it took 50 years, not five like we'd hoped."
Despite his failing eyesight, Brown loves to clamber on the big cats that are jammed into the multihull lagoon at the Annapolis Sailboat Show. "In an economy that has the entire boating industry seriously depressed, the multihull is the only growth area," he observes, noting how tricked-out and complex the boats now are. "The emphasis seems to have moved from vehicle to domicile. But if that's what the market sustains, that's fine by me."
Then he adds an interesting point: "The yachting industry has to respond to the separation of rich and poor. The rich can go out and buy a great, big multihull and do whatever they want. I don't think it makes them happy, though. The less-moneyed patrons [meanwhile] look at trailerable boats."
Brown also is partial to kit and DIY boats, even as he deplores the loss of the post-World War II generation's salubrious can-do attitude and the "can't-do mindset" of the digital generation that expects to be entertained. Undeterred, he keeps working on new ideas, which are influenced by what the traveler saw when he circled the globe to sample different cultures. He's proud of his "flat-spar swing-wing crossbeam" that he claims is inspired by the East African Ungalawa double-outrigger canoes. Brown's longtime collaborator John Marples (www.searunner.com) incorporated this simple system into the Seaclipper designs. How this pans out is shown in a grainy YouTube video that is narrated by Brown and can be accessed on his website (www.outrig.org) or on Joe Farinaccio's site (www.smalltrimarans.com). Some might consider a plywood trimaran a crude cousin of the high-tech wares built by the likes of Farrier, Corsair or Quorning. But, Brown argues, with wood from the lumberyard, "yacht hardware" from The Home Depot, recycled Hobie 16 sails and a Walmart dome tent for $19, a determined do-it-yourselfer can go for a lot less and a lot sooner than those who need a pile of cash for a yachtier implement.
Sticking with three hulls
Brown, who's in the cocktail hour of his life now and lives in Virginia near the southern tip of the Chesapeake, doesn't sail his beloved Scrimshaw much anymore. Too big and dangerous, he says, considering that he can't see well.
He still owns five kayaks and a couple of the pre-production Windrider prototypes to putter on the tidal rivers nearby. These simple and swift trimarans neatly bookend the sailing life of James Brown, who got his start on a schooner in the Caribbean, but changed for good once he drank the trimaran Kool-Aid under the Golden Gate Bridge more than 50 years ago.
He ends our conversation by paraphrasing his mentor, Arthur Piver, who was the catalyst for Brown's life among the multihulls and the primary cheerleader for these boats when tenacity, ingenuity and $600 for materials were enough to get seaborne. "Piver used to say, 'For the price of an ordinary car, the world can be your oyster, too.' "
Thinking ahead to the America's Cup in 2013, which will be sailed in high-tech multihulls on the same waters where Piver and Brown had such a rollicking good time back in 1957, the price of an ordinary car today amounts to little more than chump change if calculated in boating dollars.
This article originally appeared in the Home Waters Sections of the March 2011 issue.