YachtPals: Sailing Catamarans & Trimarans – History of Multihulls (part 1/2… author: Michael Kingdom-Hocking)

…just like to share two short, interesting essays written by the author Michael Kingdom-Hocking about the HISTORY OF MULTIHULLS.
Such historical reviews give me a good feeling about where we are today. It’s a more easy understanding about the boat constructions we see nowadays floating around as the modern contructions mostly are a following up (not in the sense of a revolution but as an evolution) on the basis our sailing ancestors created as pioneers. – Happy Sailing / Skip JayR

…with courtesy to Yachtpals

Boating and Sailing News (17th Jan 2014)

Sailing Catamarans + Trimarans – History of Multihulls (part 1 of 2)

History of Catamarans

As we saw in Sailing Boats Through the Ages, the big problem with sailing boats is that they operate on the boundary between air and water, using the water to support the weight and the wind (movement of the air relative to the water) to provide the motive power. It’s like trying to move a tall standard lamp by pushing the middle of it – instead of sliding, it will probably fall over.

To keep a sailing catamaran or trimaran right side up, two main techniques are used today: Hang a weight low down below the waterline, or build a very wide, shallow boat. The wide boat stays upright for the same reason that a properly-designed car doesn’t roll over when you go fast round a corner – the downward force of the boat’s weight still acts through the centre of gravity (the centre of the boat), but as you start to lift the windward side out of the water, the leeward side sinks, moving the upward, floating force to leeward and tending to right the boat.

catamaran historyThe simplest form of wide boat is a raft – a few logs or bundles of reeds fastened together. They aren’t usually built sleek enough to be pressed hard, but a derivative of the concept – the scow – is often fitted with twin leeboards instead of a centreboard. It is sailed to windward heeled, which gives it the drag of a narrow canoe hull and nearly doubles the leverage of its hiking crew.

The name we use for a boat with identical twin hulls – ‘catamaran’ – comes from the Tamil word ‘kattumaram’. Meaning ‘tied wood’. This was the name given to the paddled rafts seen by the English explorer William Dampier off the Malabar coast (south west India) in 1679, carrying just one man with his legs in the water.

Descendants of the vessels described by Dampier are still in use today. They have about four palm tree logs tied together in a shallow arc, which are usually untied and dried out between one use and the next.


The oldest sailing twin hulled craft appeared in the Pacific islands. Both have a main hull and a smaller one. The proa, found in the north western Pacific, has a buoyant secondary hull that is always carried to leeward. It is symmetrical end-for-end, and changes tacks by ‘shunting’ – changing ends for both the steering oar and the tack of the ‘crab claw’ sail. This is not an arrangement that could be adapted for 21st century match racing, but it’s fine for open water cruising. The design developed in the southern and western pacific uses the same sail and ‘shunting’ way of changing tack, but the smaller hull is carried to windward. Probably originating in Fiji, the drua is known in Tonga as a kalia, and in Samoa as an alia. Druas became much larger than proas – some were 100 feet long, capable of carrying two hundred people, livestock, or cargoes weighing several tons. A smaller version, with an unoccupied float instead of the windward hull, is called a kamakau or tamakau.

catamaran history

Although the proa is not a popular modern sailing boat form, the names of its components are commonly used to name the components of multihulls – ‘vaka’ for the main hull, ‘ama’ for a float, and ‘aka’ for an outrigger or bridge beam joining them.

The first catamarans in the western world appear to be the ones designed and built in Ireland by William Petty. His goal was to sail faster, in shallower waters, with less wind & crew than other vessels of the time.

He designed and constructed three twin-hulled craft between 1662 and 1664 and another in 1684, and his notes show that they handled well with smack rigs. The first two catamarans were a success, then his luck turned. The next one sank with all hands in a storm, and the last was a complete failure. Thus died an attempt to introduce catamarans as working boats.

catamaran amaryllis replica

Two centuries later, Nathanael Herreshoff took out the first US patent for a catamaran design and introduced it to the world of yachtsmen. The editorial “A Revolutionary Yacht.” The World, June 24, 1876, describing the Centennial Regatta held on June 22, 1876, off the New York Yacht Club’s Staten Island station, makes amusing reading. It is broken into sections covering each stage of the race, and the description of Amaryllis changes as she moves from being a curiosity buried in the lower end of the 32-strong fleet to outright and corrected time winner by 20 minutes over a course that took around three and a half hours. First, during the fluky weather after the start, she is called ‘the life-raft’. Then, as the wind rose to a level where the smaller boats were looking hard-pressed, she became ‘the cigar boat’ or ‘the catamaran’, working her way rapidly through the fleet in spite of ‘a crew of only two and no sand bags’ – and once, after several failed attempts to overtake to windward of a higher-pointing rival, successfully diving through to leeward.

One competitor protested, claiming that Amaryllis was neither a yacht nor a boat, but it was the general opinion that the protest came too late, and should have been made before the start. As the writer of the editorial remarked: Nobody protested against entering her for the race yesterday, for the reason probably that everybody expected to beat her, but everybody seems to have objected to being beaten by her. Next time we advise our yachtsmen to ponder the words of MILTON, And think twice ere they venture to “Sport with Amaryllis in the shade.”

americas cup catamaransHowever, catamarans were banned from racing against tradional yachts from that day on, and only became popular after World War II.

In the second part of this series (next week) we will discover the development of the modern multihull. From simple ocean going catamarans such as the Polynesian double canoe, to some of the most impressive multihulls on the planet, such as the record breaking trimaran Hydroptere and the foiling catamarans that impressed the world at the latest America’s Cup.

by Michael Kingdom-Hocking for YachtPals.com

Keep reading “Sailing Catamarans & Trimarans – History of Multihulls (part 2/2)” here.

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