From the Chinese double-hulled junks as early as 2700 BC to the ancient Polynesians who used a variety of large double hulled sailing canoes to colonize the South Pacific more than 3,000 years ago, it’s clear that catamarans have been around for ages. The word catamaran itself comes from the Tamil region of Southern India, and is a combination of kattu “to tie” and maram for wood or tree.
Some of the first catamaran designs were brought back from Asia by British soldiers and then built in England. Most likely it was one of these designs that inspired early innovators in America. In 1820 John Cox Stevens, one of the founders of the New York Yacht Club, experimented with a small catamaran named Double Trouble. Unlike another Stevens racing boat, the schooner America—first winner of the eponymous America’s Cup international sailing trophy—it was a failure.
Nathanael Green Herreshoff, commonly known as “the Wizard of Bristol” is considered the most innovative sailboat designer of all time. He designed and built five winning America’s Cup boats, Vigilant, Defender, Columbia, Reliance and Resolute, and, was an excellent sailor in his own right. Other innovations from Herreshoff were the folding propeller, modern turnbuckle, fin and bulb keel, and the modern winch, all of which are still in use today.
But it was NG Herreshoff in 1875 who popularized catamarans when he designed and built his first, Amaryllis, and evolved the idea of connecting the hulls flexibly with ball and socket joints which allowed the connecting hulls to pitch freely. He was granted a patent entitled “Improvement in Construction of Sailing-Vessels” for this novel idea in 1877, featured in PatentWear’s Herreshoff Catamaran design. To quote Nathanael from his patent application: “An improvement to sailing vessels by which I can obtain great speed and safety and comfort.”
Herreshoff entered Amaryllis in the annual Centennial Regatta at the New York Yacht Club in 1876, and won by a hefty margin. The cat was so much faster than traditional monohulls that catamarans were forever banned from racing in conventional yacht races. Herreshoff would build several more catamarans, but the “establishment” never came any closer to accepting them as legitimate sailing craft in his lifetime.
Fast forward another 70 years to Hawaii in 1947 when the legendary big wave surfer and waterman Woody Brown designed the first truly modern (and light) seafaring catamaran. Woody had designed and built his own record-setting sail planes and spearheaded the development of the modern surfboard. Post WWII such materials as plywood, fiberglass, light metals, waterproof glues and synthetic fibers for sails and cordage became inexpensively available. Considered the Orville Wright of catamarans, Woody utilized modern wooden aircraft-type construction methods to build his first catamaran, Manu Kai.
Later, names like Rudy Choy, James Wharram, Arthur Piver, Dick Newick and Jim Brown became synonymous with the multihull revolution, and all contributed to further developments in construction techniques. Somehow, multi-hulls had become the preserve of eccentrics and mad inventors. But it was this small group of visionary surfers, sailors, and naval architects using these new materials and concepts that created boats the likes of which the world had never before seen.
With the advent of carbon fiber, epoxy and winged masts large ocean racing multihulls, catamarans and trimarans have been built with outstanding performance records. The Jules Verne Trophy, a prize for the fastest circumnavigation of the world by sail is now 45½ days with a record 24 hour run of over 908 miles at an average speed of 26.5 kts (30.4 mph)! Phileas Fogg where are you now?
Even the notoriously conservative America’s Cup has finally shelved the slow and ponderous 12-meter boats for state-of-the-art 72-ft wing-sail catamarans. Featuring boats that can accelerate to over 40 knots, the America’s Cup of 2013 was essentially guaranteed to be an exciting spectacle. Hang on! [Update: Oracle Team USA has won and retained the America’s Cup 2013 in an historical comeback effort against Emirates Team New Zealand, in San Francisco on September 25th, 2013.]