catamarans 1662-2013

The new catamaran support for the upcoming America's Cup is attracting a string of talent here in France: Most notably last week, brothers Bruno & Loïck Peyron announced the backing of the Yacht Club de France for the creation of the Energy Team challenge, which is the second entry in this country. Some expect the ALL4ONE German/French joint-venture to announce shortly as well. All this will bring the city of Lorient in Brittany, France, even more emphasis in the multihull world. Battered by WW2 bombings, its submerged U-boat bunkers have since become the homeport for the World's fastest offshore racing yachts, such as Eric Tabarly's Pen Duicks in the 1960s-70s, and the trimarans Groupama and Banque Populaire today.

For inshore racing however, the catamaran remains the reference. It is important to note that development for racing boats with two hulls took place concurrently with the genesis of yachting. In 1664, when King Charles II was recorded to take great pleasure in sailing his Dutch bezan jagten, he witnessed the launch of Sir William Petty's third and last boat with two hulls, the 60ft Experiment. Petty's two previous catamarans, both aptly named Invention (1662), had raced with the King's fleet, most notably winning a £50 wager between Holyhead and Dublin, where the Invention finished 15 hours before the King's packet yacht. The larger Experiment was lost at sea, and though Charles II would own and race 27 Thames yachts and kicked off British interest in yachting, the catamaran was not further developed under his rule.

John Gilpin (Herreshoff, 1877)

The most important step forward was no earlier than 1876, when Captain Nathanael Herreshoff pitted his brand new 25ft catamaran Amaryllis in the Open Centennial Regatta, which was held to celebrate a hundred years of American Independence. Against a fleet of the time's most extreme sandbaggers in the Long Island Sound, Amaryllis displayed little canvas in comparison, and she was considered no threat at all in upwind performance. The design however was an intricate one: she featured independent hulls linked with flexible crossbeams to prevent pitchpoling. A gimbled cockpit car was fitted for the crewhand. The helmsman could either sit in the car as well or sit aft on the windward ama (flying hull). The mast rotated so as to draw as much wind as possible when running before the wind.

The regatta started in very light winds, and the Amaryllis managed to keep up with the sandbaggers until a puff of wind carried her over the fleet and all the way to the finishing line. She was disqualified immediately, but brought a small revolution: word abounded that the Atlantic Ocean could now be crossed in four days on such craft, and soon a multitude of catamaran designs were built to compete in their own class. In 1877 Herreshoff patented his work on new 32ft catamarans, for which we have this drawing, indicating twin rudders and daggerboards: This larger design was even faster and three units were built: the John Gilpin, the Teaser and the Tarantella, whose owner even challenged steam yachts to a wager. No wager was ever struck but incidentally she did overtake the Naragansett Bay steamer Richard Borden on one occasion. Eight Herreshoff catamarans were built until 1879, but their selling price of $750 could not shoulder the building cost, and the concept was soon stopped even though Captain Nat. kept one for his own leisure into the 1880s. Catamarans would build in increasing numbers but Herreshoff concentrated his business on building torpedo boats for the Navy and breaking speed records with steamyachts.

AC45 prototype (2011)
© Gilles Martin-Raget

The cornerstone in fast inshore catamarans being weight, the development of hydrocarbons was to provide all the solutions for the hull, and soon enough, sails. Fiberglass was first used in the British Prout/Shearwater catamarans in the 1950s, and soon the reinforced plastics that make up all of today's cruising boats were developed. Kevlar and later aeronautical-grade high-modulus carbonfiber derivatives were ported from other industries to be used in the construction of racing hulls. Lowell North, of America's Cup fame, who designed all his boats and all his sails, eventually set up his North Sails loft with a lamination process to preset curvature for better performance. It was in the 1970s Little America's Cup series that effort was made to develop wingmasts for C-Class catamarans. First made from balsacore, then later from hydrocarbons, wingmasts were in effect masts for setting sails, but their sections were not round but elongated lengthwise so as to effectively be part of the sail area. In 1974, the Australian Little America's Cup defender Miss Nylex C-Class used a 10m wingsail that consisted of a fabric set on a fixed balsacore/fiberglass wingmast on the leading edge and two mobile flaps atop each other on the trailing edge of the mast to adjust the camber at different heights. The effect made her extremely efficient in wind conditions above 10kt. She successfully defended the Cup and represented a new era in high speed sailing. Soon the wingsails were used in all sorts of record breaking craft. The 1988 America's Cup was defended with a 60ft catamaran with a 107ft wingsail, which demonstrated that the catamaran was superior in speed to a monohull of any size, her challenger being much larger.

Finally, in the 33rd America's Cup which was contested a year ago in Valencia between the Swiss catamaran defender Alinghi 5 and the Golden Gate Yacht Club's trimaran challenger USA 17, a conclusive demonstration was made of the performance and thrills that wings provide: the American boat boasted the World's largest wing at 223ft in height and was capable of reaching speeds in excess of three times that of the true wind. Despite the logistical problems that accompany such apparatus, the onlookers of the World's oldest trophy are eagerly awaiting the next match in 2013 which will adopt catamarans with 131ft wings as the new support. The projected speeds will increase as development is made, and we will assuredly witness new transformations in the near future for such craft.

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