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In praise of the proa: yellow, odd and fast

When John Harris talks about purple cows he’s taking a detour to the French countryside, which is dotted by millions of indistinctive black-and-white bovines. What he’s really talking about is his yellow boat — not a submarine, like the one the Beatles sang about, although as a trained musician he’d dig that one, too.

The author learns the ins and outs of proa sailing on the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay.

He’s referring to his proa, a vessel with a long and a short hull — a multihull by all accounts but a weird one, sort of the crazy cousin of catamarans and trimarans destined to stand out like a purple cow in the pastures of France.

“It’s the best bang for the buck when speed is involved” — that’s how he characterizes it. In addition to dressing her up in garish Awlgrip, Harris christened this 31-footer Madness. It’s a purposefully chosen name that serves as a guide for uninitiated observers who are used to mass-produced fiberglass tubs, the nautical equivalent of black-and-white Holstein cattle, but somehow want to wrap their heads around this oddball of a boat.

Oddity No. 1: The axis of symmetry runs perpendicular to, not along, the centerline. That means there is no dedicated bow or stern. One can be the other and vice versa. Looking further, it is evident that such a proa is designed and built around the number two. There are two hulls with two ends that each have two functions; there are two rudders, which can be raised and lowered like daggerboards, and two jibs, one at each end. Of course, there are two passenger seats on the trampoline, two helm seats in the cockpit and two berths in the main hull.

Oddity No. 2: Tacking is different. Not surprisingly, it’s also a job for two because, instead of turning the boat, you stop, turn the rig and go in reverse, like a train in the yard. The dictionary suggests the term “shunting” for this procedure, but a true proa guy might be tempted to smack you if you call a tack a shunt. One of the so-called trunk rudders has to be hauled up while the other one is pushed down; one jib is doused while the other one goes up. Then you bring the main around, sheet in on the new tack and take off. The old lee is the new lee; the old windward is the new windward. Weird? Absolutely. Cool? You bet.

“Because the wind always comes from the same side, you can practically leave half the boat ashore,” quips Harris, who designed Madness. “The asymmetry means that you’re only building two-thirds of a trimaran, but the speed potential is the same or higher.” Keeping it simple makes it easier to build for amateurs, and that’s important to Harris, the chief executive of Annapolis, Md.-based Chesapeake Light Craft, a manufacturer of kit boats ( That’s right — if you want this proa, you’ll have to build it.

Born in the Pacific islands

John Harris, owner of Chesapeake Light Craft, designed the proa kit his company offers.

In a way, that’s fitting because proas have been do-it-yourself boats throughout their history, which goes back perhaps thousands of years. Peoples of the Pacific islands conceived of and developed them and used them for exploratory trips across vast stretches of ocean. This required a weatherly, light and stable craft capable of covering great distances with ease. And it had to be constructed from materials at hand on those islands. In their most rudimentary form, they consisted of a dugout that had an asymmetrical hull shape — a feature popularized by the Hobie cat in the 1970s — and an outrigger for balance, topped by a simple rig and a triangular sail that was woven from palm fronds. Tacking ability, in all likelihood, was very low on the spec list.

The upside of a proa’s concept is evident under sail. It skims across the water with nary a sound and hardly a wake, the windward ama just kissing the water. It’s easy to misjudge the speed, which quickly gets into double digits even in light air.

Aside from getting used to the tacking procedure, most of the rest is straightforward. All of the sheets and control lines are easily reachable from the cockpit, which is just outside the companionway of the main hull. The helmsman sits in it ensconced, as in a bathtub, facing the direction of travel with the tiller resting on the shoulder. The stick is mounted sideways to the rudder stock, so one has to pull to head up and push to fall off. That’s counterintuitive to a lifelong dinghy sailor, but it doesn’t take long to unlearn old habits because the boat rewards with quick acceleration and a smooth, quiet ride.

“Traditional proas are the most brilliant boats because the loads are small; therefore, the structures can be built lightly and still be strong,” says boatbuilder Russell Brown, who has owned four proas and cruised his current one, the 36-foot Jzerro, as far as New Zealand.

Can they capsize? Yes, Brown says, any multihull can capsize, but after more than 20,000 proa miles and some knockdowns, he says he has never been in serious trouble. “The more they heel, the more stability they produce with the [cabin] pod in the water,” he says. “They kind of lay over on their side, which gives you a chance to release the sheets and sort yourself out.”

Brown also is adamant about giving credit to naval architect Dick Newick, who brought proas to the attention of a larger audience. His 40-footer, Cheers, shocked the world in 1968 when it took third place in the Singlehanded Transatlantic Race. Cheers was painted bright yellow, which inspired Harris to choose a similar color for Madness. But unlike Brown’s and Harris’ boats, which are so-called Pacific proas that fly a shorter and lighter ama to windward, Cheers is an Atlantic proa with an ama that’s as long as the main hull and positioned to leeward. “I felt that the heavy hull with all accommodations should be to windward, for ballast and crew safety,” Newick says.

Although academic circles debate the virtues of these two styles, Newick abandoned proa design in the 1970s for lack of commercial prospects and because “people are not rational thinkers but cling to the status quo.”

If you want a party boat, go with a catamaran, he says. If you want speed, pick a trimaran. “If you want to experiment, go with a proa.”

Whatever you do, Newick suggests, don’t call proas a newfangled concept. “They have been around forever, and the ‘savages’ used them to sail rings around Magellan,” he laughs. “He found them doing 20 knots when he would have crapped in his pants at 8.”

He believes proas need more development to take advantage of the latest high-tech building methods and materials, but no one seems willing to throw money at it.

Built for speed, not space

Indeed, the consumer market has been reluctant to embrace proas, in part because they are different but probably more so for the limited interior space in a long and slender hull. On Madness, the main hull has one adult-size bunk in each end, a small galley in the center with some storage, and a portable bathroom stowed under one of the berths. But she’s meant for daysailing and weekend cruising, so the fascination is about miles per hour, not the number of bunks.

But let’s forget performance for a moment. This yellow vessel stands out for other reasons, too. It’ll give proas more visibility, and it might help convince ambitious DIYers that kit boats are not limited to kayaks and rowboats. “Thus far, proas have suffered from a bad rep because many of them were poorly conceived and built,” Harris says. “With Madness, I wanted to scratch my own itch and find out how far we can take this concept, how much of a yacht we can make it.”

On the design, he consulted with Brown and drew inspiration from Newick. But ultimately, he wanted Gucci. Hence the splashy color, the sleek black carbon stick and the spiffy square-top main. Madness is built from 6mm okoumé plywood that’s precision-cut on a CNC router. The patterns are stitched and glued together and glassed inside and out, just as any kit kayak or dory. The decking of the cabin top is made of milled cedar strips, and the crossbeams are reinforced with carbon fiber. All in all, the light displacement of this proa is about 1,400 pounds.

Prices range from $4,500 for the base kit to about $12,000, which includes epoxy, mats and trimmings. A Cadillac version, like Madness, with a square-top main and carbon mast (both not sourced by CLC) can run the tab up to nearly $20,000. And what about labor? To be on the safe side, amateurs should budget about 1,500 hours of build time and be comfortable with the stitch-and-glue building method. “It’s a huge commitment to build such a boat,” Harris notes. “It is not for everyone, but we are very honest about that.”

Besides being a fun vehicle, Madness, in her yellowness, is also a good talking piece that gives Harris an excuse to lecture about small-craft design, the proa concept and the virtues of getting your hands dirty building your own. The way things were shaping up, she’ll soon have company. Three more kits were sold, and one boat was already nearing completion. When that comes to pass, Madness still might own the distinction of being a purple cow, but she won’t be the only one anymore.


LOA: 30 feet, 8 inches

LWL: 29 feet, 3 inches

BEAM: 20 feet

DRAFT (boards up/down): 17 inches/42.5 inches

 DISPLACEMENT: 1,400 pounds (light)

 SAIL AREA (cruising/racing): 294/364 square feet

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

November 2012 issue