TWO WOMEN, TWO CATAMARANS
Born in Manchester, his father, also called James, was a builder and his mother was Blanche Cook.
He was skilled with his hands and as a teenager loved the outdoors life – climbing, fell walking, swimming. But he loved to read too and spent hours in the library. There, he became fascinated by Polynesian culture.
Whilst at the local Technical College He was chair of a local Labour Party Youth Group, but as soon as he had taken his exams he set off on his travels. He later said, “I was saved from politics by my wanderlust.”
James enjoyed the company of women and on his travels had various affairs. An Austrian psychologist named Trudl, introduced him to new writers like Freud and Jung, and an American, Pat, who was 10 years older than him bought him a book that changed his life. It was called ‘Boat Building in Your Own Back Yard.”
When James returned to the UK he worked as a labourer, a trawler man and then in a boatyard, all of which gave him skills he would use later on.
Another book that inspired him was Eric de Bisschop’s ‘The Voyage of the Kaimiloa’. It led him to research native boats in the Pacific. He used libraries and museums to develop his knowledge.
Then he designed and began to build his own boat.
In the meantime, James had met Ruth Merseburger whilst he was walking in Wales and they became lovers. Simultaneously he met Jutta Schultze – Rohnhof whilst at a swimming pool and they too started an affair.
James’ boat was a 23 feet long double canoe catamaran. He called it ‘Tangaroa’ after the Polynesian God of the sea. It cost him £200 to build and it had no engine or no electronic navigational equipment.
On the 27th September 1955, he set off from Falmouth to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to Trinidad. Both Ruth and Jutta accompanied him.
Despite being ‘romantically involved’ with both women, he believed everything went well. “They were very happy to share ‘their man’. There was no jealousy.”
But the journey was not without mishap. Both James and Jutta were very seasick to begin with. What she didn’t know was that she was pregnant.
They encountered a terrible storm in the Bay of Biscay and shortly afterwards they were arrested by Franco’s Guardia Civil, who accused them of being spies.
Upon release they encountered former SS Officers who were fleeing to South America. Then they nearly capsized (but didn’t) and then they realised sea worms were eating their wooden hull.
But they made it to Trinidad in five weeks. It was the first catamaran to sail the Atlantic – and once they had done the journey others followed.
Jutta gave birth to a son named Hannes.
James then went to the USA to appear on a TV quiz show. It was called ‘To Tell the Truth’. In this episode, three men claimed to be Edmund Hillary, conqueror of Mount Everest. One of them was James, another was Hillary himself. The panel then chose who they thought was the real mountaineer. If they guessed correctly, he got the prize money, if they guessed wrongly the man that they chose got the money.
James convinced the panel he was Edmund Hillary and won the prize.
And he used it to buy a radio for his next voyage – back over the Atlantic to the UK.
He remained good friends with Hillary.
Nobody had ever believed the Polynesians had built boats robust enough for sea voyages. His research convinced him otherwise, so James returned to Trinidad and built a double canoe (multihull) in Polynesian style named ‘Rongo’. It had a 40-foot ‘V’ shaped hull and was built with the help of Bernard Moitessier.
He then took it to New York and sailed from the USA to Ireland in it. It was the first west-to-east Atlantic sailing in a catamaran.
In 1959 he married Jetta, but then she had a breakdown. Shortly afterwards she died, falling off a tower in Spain.
In 1964 James married Ruth – but continued to have relationships with other women.
His autobiography was published in 1969, entitled ‘Two Women, Two Catamarans’. It was a best seller.
In 1973 he met designer Hanneke Boon whilst holidaying in Wales and they became business partners – but also romantic partners. She had a son, Jamie, by him.
Hanneke and James set up a boat building business (with Ruth) at Restronguet Creek, near Falmouth in Cornwall and lived in nearby Devoran.
Between 1989 and 1992 they designed the flagship ‘Spirit of Gaia’, based on a study of Indo-Pacific canoe craft. It was 63 feet long and they used it to sail around the world, from England to Greece via the Pacific – a journey of 32,000 miles.
James was always regarded with suspicion by the sailing establishment. In 2007 an article in ‘Sail Magazine’ was entitled ‘Who is James Wharram? Philosopher or Crackpot?”
In 2008-09 he created the ‘Capita Voyage Expedition’. Two double canoes built in traditional Polynesian style sailed from the Philippines to the Solomon Islands, a journey of 4,000 miles. He was 80. It was regarded as a major breakthrough in ‘Experimental Marine Archaeology’ and showed a possible ethnic migration route (which had previously been believed to be impossible).
His wife Ruth died in 2013 aged 92, and his first son (with Jutta) changed his name to Jonathan.
James was regarded as an innovative boat designer. He created sailing craft that were anywhere between 14 feet to 63 feet. But he would not build boats for millionaires, believing boats should be cheap and available to all. Anyone can become a yachtsman was his mantra.
And because of this James never had any interest in sailing as a competitive sport. Instead, he believed, “The affinity with the sea and watercraft, is in the DNA of all of us.”
No Wharram has ever capsized!
He was finally recognised by the sailing community when the Royal Yacht Club gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2018. He was extremely touched by this.
The 2007 Sail Magazine article had concluded, “One thing is for sure – he is one of the Twentieth Century seafaring’s most iconic figures.”
He is now known as the ‘father of multihull sailing’ and estimated he had sold the plans of over 10,000 boats during his career.
But James developed Alzheimer’s and unable to continue with his passion he took his own life.
Hanneke said of him, “He could not face the prospect of further disintegration and made the very hard call to end it himself. It was with great courage that he lived his life and with great courage he decided it was time to finish.”
The Wharram company will continue without him.
RIP – Rebuilding Impressive Polynesian (boats)