Skip to main content

The cat-crazy men who got me sailing

The rain was relentless, splashing up my pants, pouring down my collar and making me shiver with cold. The state of the atmosphere was less than ideal for an urban bike safari in Vancouver, British Columbia, but the physical discomfort pedaling along False Creek was tuned out by memories of my youthful sailing adventures in a time that through the prism of age seems gentler, slower, less complicated.

The author's father, bitten by the catamaran bug, built Bob Harris' Sunburner 27 design for family cruising.

One of the most vivid images is that of my late father, an ER surgeon, in his impromptu boatyard in the verdant hills of southern Austria, decked out in scrubs, surgical mask and latex gloves, laying down glass mats in the hulls of the Sunburner 27 catamaran he was building for family cruising in the pristine islands of Croatia decades before they were overrun by mass tourism.

Dad had me do the grunt work, as well he should have. When I did get a trick at the helm, he was unimpressed with my hot-dogging ambitions that could be best described with the old saw, “What she can’t carry, she will drag.” On one especially harrowing ride, we narrowly escaped harm but not before I managed to shred the chute, which earned me a shameful trip up the mast to cut down the remnants tightly wrapped around the forestay.
Yes, there were plenty of memories flashing before my eyes as I knocked on the door of Bob Harris, the man who designed my father’s boat and thus inadvertently influenced the path I took.

Lifelong bout of cat fever
Harris, who is 89, welcomed me with a firm handshake into his cozy living room to talk cats with him. “The first catamaran I saw was from Hawaii. Man, this thing was fast,” he says. Like my father, Harris got his dose of cat Kool-Aid watching one slice through the water at high speed. It’s one of several links these two men share, men who were born only one year apart and at some point in their lives became sick with multihull fever.
For more than 30 years, Harris, a New England transplant, has been making his home in the Pacific Northwest. His hearing is not the best anymore, but assisted by Patricia, his third wife, whose voice he’s used to, he recalled his journey from Boscawen, N.H., where he grew up, to Cape Cod, New York, Taiwan and Vancouver; from his family’s Wianno Senior centerboard sloop to his last designs of oceangoing yachts; from his time as a rookie sailor to merchant mariner in World War II, to sailboat racer and yacht designer. His career trajectory might have been straightforward, but a straight line it was not.
Soon after Harris returned from the war, he joined the Crosby Yacht Building Company in Osterville, Mass., as an apprentice boatbuilder. “As soon as I got my first assignment it became painfully clear that I was better at drawing than at building boats,” he says.
He enrolled in a home-study course offered by the Westlawn School of Yacht Design and learned about the ideas of the German sailor Manfred Curry, who was far ahead of his time in developing hull and sail shapes. Having ideas, alas, is one thing, but putting them down on paper is quite another. Harris brushed up on drafting skills with Vere B. Crocket in Camden, Maine, where he learned to draw with duck and spline.
Returning to Cape Cod, he worked as a designer and draftsman at Crosby’s, but soon learned about a 40-foot cat in Hawaii built by Alfred Kumalai and Rudy Choy. “For me, the vision to design a boat that could beat anything out there under sail gave me a thrill that was irresistible,” he wrote in his book “Tracks on the Water: My Life in Yacht Design.” Harris soon noted, as my father did 20 years later, that yacht clubs and monohull owners often did their level best to exclude, ridicule and disparage multihulls.

Modesty and honesty
Harris never spent much time in the spotlight, partly because he’s a modest man who acknowledges personal shortcomings and partly because he stubbornly stuck to multihulls early in his career, which limited his opportunities. Yet he also worked on famous monohulls while with Sparkman & Stephens in the 1950s, including the rigs of the America’s Cup yacht Columbia, Sayula — a predecessor to the Swan 65 — and Irving Johnson’s schooner Yankee, among others. But he never lost sight of cats and trimarans, his true love.
In 1952, he launched a private project, Naramatac (read that backward), a 25-foot cat with asymmetrical hulls, which later would become the trademark of Hobie catamarans. Harris tried to perfect the concept but admitted that he “didn’t have the background to conceive the kind of boat of which Hobie Alter later would build thousands.” In 1959, a 17-foot beach cat he did for a Condé Nast editor won the One of a Kind Regatta and went into production as the Tiger Cat with Pearson in Rhode Island. Around that time, Harris says, he offered to organize a multihull division at S&S but was rebuffed by principal Olin Stephens, who argued it could diminish the firm’s reputation for monohull designs.
Seeing multihulls in the America’s Cup, once a domain of S&S 12 Meter yachts, vindicates Harris, but this development was a long way off then, so he joined the Grumman Aircraft Corp., where he helped develop hydrofoil vessels for the military. When his catamaran ideas were not entertained, he went to work for Bob Derecktor in Mamaroneck, N.Y., which wasn’t a good fit either, as Derecktor wanted monohulls that were optimized for handicap rules. Harris turned down a chance with the design office of Phil Rhodes in 1960 because he felt he didn’t have the right qualifications and that Rhodes didn’t “get” multihulls.
In 1962, he joined marine engineer Frank McClear in Manhattan, who was not exactly enthusiastic about multis either, but tolerated them as long as they brought in business. McClear, a member of the New York Yacht Club, also taught Harris important business skills, including rules about proper attire, which forbid wearing white tennis socks with a dark suit and tie. Harris wouldn’t give up on that quirk and simply wore black dress socks over them, as the occasion demanded.
Trying to establish himself as a multihull designer was an uphill battle in the United States, so Harris looked to the United Kingdom, where the Amateur Yacht Research Society and Multihull International magazine published and discussed his work. Incidentally, my father religiously read Multihull International, where he found out about the Sunburner, a catamaran Harris designed in 1972. By then he’d left McClear and started his own practice with Bill Heacock, a graduate of the California Maritime Institute, whom he’d met through his dentist.

Of lines and lineage
Back home, dealing with the estate after my dad’s passing, I found a bulging brown manila envelope with the original plans Dad had purchased to build his dream machine. They’re moldy and smelly, but they still show the impeccable draftsmanship and neat italicized handwriting of Bob Harris: Design No. 300, 24’ WL Catamaran, Harris & Heacock, 199 W. Shore Road, Great Neck, NY 11024. It’s the exact handwriting on the plans of a 50-foot power cat Harris fetched from upstairs. “This work took approximately three months to complete,” he notes with pride. “I was happy to use computers when they came along, but you still had to be able to hand-draw the concept.”
The Sunburner was a 27-foot 6-inch weekend racer/cruiser designed on speculation. Several were built by amateurs in British Columbia and, as far as it is known, only one in Austria’s “Sound of Music” country. The vessel could be disassembled and trailered, so a 14-foot, 2-inch beam didn’t matter. It was the quintessential weekender, decidedly uncomplicated and true to its performance bent. Sailing in the Adriatic summers, a piece of canvas strung over the boom doubled as Bimini and cockpit tent.
Accommodations were split, with two berths and galley to starboard, two more berths, lavatory and head to port. It had a rotating aluminum mast, centerboards in both hulls, kick-up rudders and a full-batten main. We used a 15-hp outboard on a lifting bracket as an auxiliary engine. That’s atavistic by today’s standards, but it was plenty good for us and followed Harris’ design intent.
“Today, more attention is being paid to electronics and systems while people try to beat multihull speeds on monohulls,” he says, pointing out that lightweight carbon composite construction and complex technology might be fast and expensive but not always reliable. To Harris that’s nonsense, especially for cruisers who “don’t want stuff to go wrong.”

Bumping against the limits
Harris remembers stuff that went wrong on the trimaran Eclipse, one of his designs, which was leading the Bermuda Race but pulled up lame with a busted weld in an aluminum cross beam. In a funny coincidence, a guy by the name of Weld was the skipper of the trimaran Trumpeter in the 1970 double-handed Round Britain Race, with Harris as crew. His first name was Phil, and he was to become one of America’s top ocean racers. They finished second overall, but Harris thought he wasn’t up to snuff. “I think he was schooling me for the design of his next trimaran by having me as crew … [but my] performance before, during and after the race would prove to be not up to Phil’s expectations of the person to design his ultimate Trans-Atlantic racer,” he wrote in his memoir. It was another example for Harris’ honesty, which would have impressed father.
As I bid my farewell, I had to console myself that this brief encounter only scratched the surface of the knowledge held by the man who helped shape my dad’s and my own sailing choices. He saw me to the door and asked to lift my folding bike. “That’s light, young man,” he laughed as he hefted my 25-pound ride. “I still bike almost every day. You can’t be bothered by a little rain.”
Not bad for someone who is pushing 90.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.