Sixty years ago, in the autumn of 1959, Brit James Wharram and Germans Jutta Schultze-Rohnhof and Ruth Merseburger (pictured below) sailed into the Conwy river on Wharram’s self-designed catamaran Rongo. The trio had just made history, with the first west to east North Atlantic crossing in a multi-hull.
Wharram, Schultze-Rohnhof and Merseburger had already caught the attention of the sailing world in 1955, when they departed from Falmouth on the first British ocean-going catamaran, Tangaroa. The boat, just over seven-metres long, arrived in Trinidad in 1956. Tangaroa was inspired, just as the larger (11.6 metres) Rongo would be, by Polynesian double-canoe design. Wharram designed and built both boats himself after studying Eric de Bisschop’s book about building and sailing such craft in the 1930s.
Tangaroa prepares to leave Falmouth
In a letter to MySailing.com.au in 2015, Manchester-born Wharram said that the Tangaroa voyage gave him a greater understanding of ocean-going double-canoe boats, which he put into practice with the help of French sailing legend Bernard Moitessier in the design and construction of Rongo.
Wharram’s successes in the 1950s effectively launched his career as a catamaran designer, and his name remains instantly recognisable by self-build enthusiasts in the sailing community. Yet his personal life fed as much into the “Wharram legend” as his boat-building prowess.
Jutta and Ruth have both been described as “girlfriends” of Wharram; the cover of his 1969 book Two Girls Two Catamarans, illustrated with a photograph (below) of Jutta on the bow wearing only a hand-made safety line, certainly suggests a crossover in interests between Polynesia and polyamory.
Jutta, with whom Wharram fathered a son named Hannes, died in 1961. Wharram later married Ruth, with whom he continued to work closely even after he met Hanneke Boon, the Dutch woman who was to become his partner romantically and professionally. Ruth, described in her obituary as mother to Hannes and grandmother to Boon’s son Jamie, died at the age of 92, at home in Cornwall, in September 2013. Boon herself wrote the obituary, in which she said: “I first met Ruth in 1967 and have shared my life with James and her since 1973. She has been a great friend to me and close ally in all the work, travelling and sailing we have done together”.
Ruth on board Tangaroa (left) and Hanneke Boon (right)
By then, Wharram and Boon had designed and built a 19-metre catamaran called Spirit of Gaia (pictured, below), which they and Ruth sailed around the world for four years between 1994 and 1998. Ten years later they began the Lapita Voyage, taking two Polynesian-style double-canoes from the Philippines to the Solomon Islands to investigate possible early Pacific migration routes.
Wharram is now 91, and his designs remain popular today with do-it-yourself boat-builders. Some 10000 sets of his catamaran plans have been sold to date, and his company reaches out around the world from near the home he shares with Boon in Cornwall. Many who have bought plans, built and sailed their own catamarans have also published their stories on Wharram World, a blog dedicated to devotees of these designs.
If you’re seeking an original Christmas gift, building plans for Rongo are being republished by James Wharram Designs, in a special edition presentation set that also includes a picture album and a signed copy of Two Girls Two Catamarans. The set costs £225. Visit the official website for more details.