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Original Issue


Nobody denies that a lot of hulls make for more excitement than one. But do they make for safety?

Innovation in any form has always been met with distrust at sea. A traditionalist by training and temperament, the blue-water sailor, out of sight of land and dependent utterly on his vessel, has too much at stake to cast aside lightly the proved and the practical. Yet there is always within him the urge to sail faster and farther, with less effort and more comfort.

That urge in recent years has been gratified by a growing fleet of oceangoing sailboats that substitute two or even three hulls for the traditional single hull. Roomy, comfortable, often cheaper to build than ordinary craft, multihulled catamarans and trimarans can swoop down combers in the open sea at speeds of 20, 25 or even 30 knots—speeds unimagined in even the fastest 19th-century clipper ships. And speed is not all this new breed of seagoing cat has to offer, according to the owner of one, the 43-foot cruising catamaran Imi Loa. "Speed is just gravy compared to the cat's real advantages: its pleasantness," says Dr. Victor Stern. "You're drier, for one thing. Chores like cooking and navigating are a breeze since you're always working in a big airy cabin with lots of light and windows—not down below in some sort of dark hold. Then there's the fact that catamarans don't heel much; when you put your drink down it stays where you put it."

With all this going for the multihulls, it is not surprising that they have won over such previously dedicated monohull men as TV's Jim (Marshal Dillon) Arness, a longtime blue-water sailor. Arness' newest boat is a 58-foot catamaran named Seasmoke, designed and built for him by the Sparkman & Stephens of the catamaran fancy: Choy, Seaman and Kumalae, better known as C/S/K.

Rudy Choy, the senior member of the firm, has been an apostle of the double hull ever since he began sailing cats through Waikiki's surf at the end of World War II. A few weeks ago, relaxing as a guest aboard Seasmoke, he was still preaching the cat gospel with enthusiasm. Wearing her biggest genoa and a huge mainsail, and driven by a wispy breeze, Seasmoke was slipping along through the Pacific swells with no more suggestion of speed than a jet plane in flight. When another guest wondered at the knots they might be making, Choy gestured toward the dial of the seagoing speedometer. It read 14 knots—faster than any cup defender could be expected to move except in the briskest blow.

So why doesn't everyone sail the seas on multihulls? Because, say the diehard monohull men, they are just not seaworthy. Their odd construction makes them too flimsy to withstand the strains of rough weather; they are too tricky to handle; and they tend to capsize. Not so, say the multihull men.

Yet in 1964, during the first transpacific ocean race ever held exclusively for multihulls, this gloomy opinion seemed to be shared by the catamaraners themselves. The planned-for fleet of a dozen or more boats was narrowed to three before the race even began. Two of those three dropped out with fractured hulls within the first 48 hours of sailing, leaving Dr. Stern's reliable Imi Loa to finish the race alone.

Following the race, the cats came under heavy attack in boating magazines and newspapers. "We told you so," cried all the traditionalists who had urged the banning of multihulls from regular racing fleets. Catman Choy, who designed all three boats, admitted that his world seemed to have crumbled. "I wept after that race," he says. "I seriously gave thought to quitting and returning to the islands." Choy might have done so had he known that three years later, within the space of only a few months, three big C/S/K cats would capsize, albeit without the loss of any lives.

By that time, however, Designer Choy had learned to roll with adversity. Pointing out that monohulls, although reasonably safe from capsizing, had foundered at sea over the years from many other causes, Rudy insisted: "There's simply too much argument attempting to link capsizing—the Achilles' heel of catamarans—with overall safety at sea."

But if a tendency to tip is all that is wrong with catamarans, what about the other multihulls: the three-hulled trimarans? Most experts agree that a catamaran, which is essentially two separate boats linked by a winglike structure, should never be allowed to heel more than 15° from the horizontal. On the other hand, trimarans—i.e., vessels with a large central hull and two smaller hulls set out on either side—have a positive stability up to 60°. The reason for the difference is clear. The instant one of her hulls becomes completely airborne, the two-hulled catamaran becomes intrinsically unstable, like a man balancing on one leg. As a trimaran lifts one of her outlying hulls off the water, however, she must correspondingly drive the other one below the surface where its buoyancy works to reestablish an even keel.

Are trimarans then the ultimate answer to multihull safety at sea? Not by a long shot. During the last 21 months five ostensibly sturdy oceangoing trimarans have foundered at sea, drowning 12 sailors, and if a search that is now taking place off the coast of California proves fruitless, the grim figure may rise to 13.

The first of these tragedies became known in July 1966 when wreckage from the Hedley Nicol-designed trimaran Vagabond washed ashore near Sandy Cape on Australia's Queensland coast. No trace was ever found of Vagabond's crew, Robert Garnham, 38, and Bart Jacobsen, also 38, and hence there was no certainty about what happened to her. But an earlier setback provided some hint. Soon after her launching, Designer Nicol had stripped all excess weight from his kitelike craft and set out in a gale to discover just how fast she could sail. He found out. Vagabond went so fast she soon became more airplane than boat. Airborne, the big trimaran climbed skyward for an instant, described a drunken barrel roll and plunged seaward in a dive that, by all accounts, should have mashed her beyond redemption. Unfortunately for those she later drowned, it didn't.

Soon after Vagabond went down, Nicol himself became a trimaran victim. Bent on sailing from Australia to the U.S., he left Brisbane in August 1966 aboard the 35-footer Privateer. With him were Gus Baldwin and E. van Rommell. Their first stop was meant to be Tahiti but, except for a radio message sent 500 miles out of Brisbane, they were never heard from again. Privateer simply disappeared.

Scarcely two months later a pair of Sydney men, also bound for Tahiti, died when their homemade trimaran apparently disintegrated in a Pacific squall. The death toll rose higher in early 1967 when the trimaran Outlaw capsized in the Mediterranean, drowning still another sailor.

But of all the disasters involving trimarans—including several accidents in which crews were rescued off splintered boats—the one that really ignited critics of the class was the wreck of the home-built trimaran Bandersnatch in the Tasman Sea. This 33-footer had given those who sailed her plenty of warning. Designed by a 25-year-old electrical engineer named Lock Crowther, she was built to be the world's fastest ocean-racing boat, but not necessarily its sturdiest. Skirting the Australian coast during her maiden voyage in 1966, Bandersnatch slammed into a gale. While 55-knot winds tore at her superstructure, pounding seas found their way into at least one of her outboard hulls, dragging it down until she was heeled at a 45° angle. Bandersnatch became so unmanageable that Crewman David Henry said afterward, "I thought she was going right over."

Somehow she didn't and, after a night of bitter cold during which waves continually swept her decks, the trimaran's crew managed to coax their waterlogged craft into calmer waters. They stepped ashore unscathed, but those who took Bandersnatch to sea a year later were not so lucky. Four days after she had left Melbourne bound for Sydney a mass of wreckage that was all that was left of Bandersnatch was spotted by the freighter Korauie.

Four men died with Bandersnatch. One of them was Bruce Crowther, the younger brother of the man who designed her.

The abuse that engulfed Catamaran Designer Rudy Choy when his boats foundered was mild compared to that aimed at the trimaran crowd after Bandersnatch was lost. One angry voice belonged to Australian Naval Architect Warwick Hood, designer of the unsuccessful America's Cup challenger Dame Pattie. "At the risk of bringing down the wrath of the whole trimaran fraternity on my head," said Hood, "and also admitting that I've never designed a trimaran, I think that the trimaran requires a lot more developmental work done to it before it will become, if ever, a safe, successful seagoing vessel."

The vice-commodore of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, Stan Gibson, suggested that trimarans be forbidden to go to sea at all—a suggestion quickly echoed in cries to the Australian parliament that "there ought to be a law!" No law has yet been passed and, in arguments that followed the suggestion, many theories have been advanced to explain what happened to Bandersnatch. Most leading designers think she broke up because of poor float design that failed to provide sufficient buoyancy. Designer Crowther himself thinks his boat collided with a surfaced whale, and there is some evidence to support the belief. A dead whale was found sometime later wallowing near the wreckage with an enormous gash in its head.

Whatever its cause, the Bandersnatch tragedy got many people thinking seriously about multihulls in general, and there is a growing belief among them that the trouble plaguing both catamarans and trimarans is not basically one of design at all, but one of attitude. It may lie not in those who build, but in those who sail, multihulls.

Rudy Choy, who has never tipped over one of his own boats, blames most cat wrecks on a disease he calls "the capsize syndrome." The chief symptom of this ailment is the tendency of hot-rod sailors to let their speeding boats heel so far that they begin to fly clear of the water. There are other symptoms as well, all of which add up to a kind of seagoing euphoria that some have called "the rapture of speed," an intoxication as dangerous as that which traps skin divers who go too deep.

Dr. Stern gives us one case history of speed rapture. Day sailing off Honolulu in his Imi Loa, he assigned a novice hand to tend the sheet controlling the huge mainsail. He gave strict orders to let it fly whenever a hard puff struck. An unexpected, weighty gust soon hit the cat, shouldering her well beyond the critical 15° angle of heel and driving her faster and faster through the swells of the Molokai Channel. Mesmerized by the orchestration of sight, sound and sensation that marks a big catamaran drumming through white-crested seas at more than 20 knots, the mainsheet hand crouched transfixed at his post, seemingly oblivious to the dangerously flying weather hull. Says Stern, "I yelled, 'Cut! Cut! Cut the main!' but he continued to stare at the water rushing by, hypnotized." At last the message got through. His trance suddenly broken, the man released the sheet with scant seconds to spare, and Imi Loa, relieved of the press of wind on her sails, whomped back down, level and safe.

Other perils unknown to the monohull sailor may afflict multihulls at sea and so make it difficult for even veteran blue-water men to cope with them. For instance, it may be that cats are in greater danger of capsize when racing across smooth water close to land than far offshore where the big waves roll. A case in point is Allez-Cat, which capsized belting down Newport's North Lido Channel, a stretch of water as smooth as a lake. A participant in the drama, the knowledgeable sailor and flyer, Jim Kilroy, speculates that wind, unobstructed by the peaks and valleys of waves, swept smoothly up beneath the catamaran's wing-shaped connecting bridge to apply lift strong enough to jack her up and over. At sea, where waves break the wind's smooth flow and bounce the boat, such lift would be lessened, or so Kilroy believes.

Says Choy, "Catamarans act entirely different from monohulls. They're a different animal. Monohulls are like piston-driven airplanes, cats like jets. You can't step out of a plane where you wiggle the stick and kick the rudder pedals and expect to fly a jet all of a sudden. It doesn't work."

Choy estimates that there are no more than 100 persons in this country really capable of handling big cats offshore. "Most of us are pretty rational people," he adds. "We're married, we've got children, jobs, you know. We don't have the death wish. All we're saying is we simply don't think catamarans are that goddamn dangerous."

Change the word "catamarans" to "trimarans" and this statement might well have been made by Arthur Piver, who has been Choy's counterpart in the triple-hulled world. Of the thousands of trimarans cruising the world's waters from Saigon to Singapore, Seattle to Sumatra, Cape Cod to Cowes, more than 70% stem from Piver's drawing board, and up to five weeks ago, as far as anyone knows, none of them had ever met with the sort of accident that demolished the Australian boats.

A veteran of many transatlantic trimaran crossings—one in a relatively tiny 30-footer—Piver had also crossed the Pacific and cruised the Caribbean. In all he sailed triple-hulled for roughly 35,000 miles, and he offered himself as living proof that trimarans don't kill. His record of safety was so good, in fact, that even he tended to distrust it in view of the law of averages. "It's too good. I just don't understand it," he said recently.

But if Piver's enthusiasm for his new kind of sailing was too great to be dampened by mere mathematical odds, it was also too frank to discount the sense of risk that gave it added zest. A former monohull man who learned to love the sea in his family's 85-foot schooner, Piver became a multihull convert aboard a 16-foot catamaran in San Francisco Bay and never looked back.

"It was like night and day," he said. "It was a revelation, you know. I'd always been enchanted by the grace and beauty of sailing and its occasional peacefulness, but for thrills and excitement I'd leaned toward skiing and surfing. But with big multihulls, you've got all that combined."

A helpless convert himself, Piver went to work with missionary zeal converting others. He established a trimaran company at Mill Valley, Calif. that offered a variety of kits for home construction as well as finished boats.

Piver's do-it-yourselfers employed everything from hotel rooms to the decks of freighters as boatyards. One man built a 40-footer atop an African mountain peak, lugged it to the coast, then sailed to New Zealand with a family that included his 93-year-old mother.

Not too far from Piver's own home, a trimaran named Blue Bird lies at Kappas' Yacht Harbor, the Haight-Ashbury of San Francisco's waterfront. She is waiting for what her three-man crew believes will be an idyllic trip to Mexico, then, perhaps, one around the world. Her crew of hirsute dissenters has one advantage over some converts. They are learning to sail in a tiny dinghy. "I'm looking forward to my first storm at sea but not looking forward to it, you know," says Martin Idler White, 22, who bought the trimaran with an inheritance. He describes his forthcoming voyage as a "totally groovy thing," adding that he's already a better man for conquering fear instilled when, as a little boy, a big wave frightened him.

Whether any such psychedelic reasoning was at the back of Arthur Piver's mind on March 17 when he took off alone from San Francisco bound for San Diego in another home-built trimaran may never be known. His stated purpose as he began the 500-mile passage was to run up some solo time at sea so that he could qualify for the forthcoming single-handed race from England to Newport, R.I. (only sailors with 500 miles of single-handing to their credit will be admitted), and he took only enough provisions along to last at most a fortnight.

When Piver was still unheard from two weeks after his departure, the Coast Guard instituted an official all-out search of the coastal waters. It was maintained for three days, but it produced no sign of the missing sailor. Even though the official search is over, there are still many, including Mrs. Arthur Piver, who believe he may yet turn up, dismasted perhaps and still afloat or cast ashore on some lonely beach, to confound that law of averages.

If he does not, there is certain to be a great deal more tongue-clicking and head-shaking among members of the yachting establishment. Arthur Piver would not be impressed.

"We don't argue with these people," he once said. "When you argue with them you find you're arguing with fear, and that's impossible." Piver's point was that the average sailor is just naturally afraid of sail, because he is conditioned by the limitations of conventional boats. "Moreover," he said, "anyone you confront with something he doesn't understand will be offended, because you affront his self-esteem. The easiest way to insult a sailor is to make his boat look bad and, you know, when these trimarans get going they make all ordinary boats look silly."

What effect Piver's disappearance may have on the prejudice that exists against multihulls—particularly against trimarans—throughout the yachting world cannot be predicted. There is no question that this prejudice is already real. Many marinas refuse to provide berths for multihulls (they claim, with some justice, that the beamy craft are too wide for their slips). Many prominent sail-makers refuse to cut sails for trimarans (they don't want their names connected with them). Many yacht clubs arbitrarily turn down membership applications from multihull owners.

Of vast importance to the multihull cause right now is the fact that Eric Tabarly, France's famed ocean racer and a highly respected member of the monohull establishment, has chosen to join their ranks. Tabarly, winner of the last single-handed race across the Atlantic as well as many other ocean races, has just ordered a rakish, aluminum trimaran for this summer's rerun of the one-man transatlantic haul.

If Tabarly does well in this event, it may diminish the anxiety resulting from Piver's seeming loss. On the other hand, if Tabarly's trimaran comes unstuck under the command of this famed and well-tested ocean sailor, the multihulls' future may truly be imperiled.