SI Vault
Carleton Mitchell
June 06, 1960
After weathering gales on the high seas and verbal blasts ashore, catamarans are ready to take their rightful place in ocean racing
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June 06, 1960

The Cats Squelch The Catcalls

After weathering gales on the high seas and verbal blasts ashore, catamarans are ready to take their rightful place in ocean racing

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On Biscayne Bay in February of 1959, a bright-red 17-foot catamaran named Tigercat ran away from conventional single-hull craft in Yachting magazine's One-of-a-Kind Regatta. As a result of these races, the catamaran won acceptance (SI, March 9, 1959) as a legitimate racing design—at least on sheltered waters.

A few months later, across the continent and half an ocean away, another, larger catamaran, the 46-foot Aikane, outsailed the hottest boats in the Pacific when she finished the Los Angeles- Honolulu race 17 hours ahead of the scratch boat, Goodwill. Unlike Tigercat, however, Aikane won nothing beyond the antagonism of the sponsors of the Honolulu race, the Transpacific Yacht Club.

Aikane had not been invited to enter. In fact, she and all others like her had been invited to stay out. The circular announcing the official race conditions read: "Open to single-hulled yachts." When Aikane showed up at the starting line anyway, the Transpacific Yacht Club refused even courtesy participation in the race. She was forced to wait until all the other boats had crossed the line. Then she cast off and headed for Honolulu on her own time, to the consternation of Transpac officials, who obviously wanted the cat to go off and play in some other ocean.

The most outspoken critic was retiring Transpac Commodore Ira P. Fulmor. "Unsportsmanlike, that's what I call it," he said. "It's a free ocean so all we can do is appeal to their sense of sportsmanship. But that does no good."

Whether or not the curious charge of bad sportsmanship was justified, the participation of a catamaran in a major ocean race raised a host of questions. What about the inability of a catamaran to come back on its feet after a knockdown? What of the strength of a twin-hull structure being subjected to racking cross seas? What of the behavior of a cat in winds of gale force? And finally, granting seaworthiness, how could a system of rating be devised to handicap twin-hulled vessels of almost limitless speed potential against existing displacement craft whose maximum speed is perhaps nine knots? Or, if a formula could not be evolved, on what basis could they compete in ocean races?

As a participant in the 1959 Honolulu race, I heard all these arguments against catamarans. But I also knew that there was much to be said in their favor. Historically, the catamaran is the design indigenous to the Pacific. Therefore, on pedigree alone, the cats seemed to deserve consideration. Aikane's spectacular performance provided a more immediate rebuttal, i.e., that a big cat, well designed, can be a first-rate, seagoing vessel. However, the monohull advocates remained unimpressed. To settle the question in my own mind I would have to remain in Honolulu and actually sail aboard an ocean-going catamaran. I did so, and I found out a few things.

New thrill

Behind Diamond Head, when the trade winds are blowing fresh, there is a clear line between the wind and the lee. Inshore the Pacific swells lift lazily, but outside the seas of the Molokai Channel are steep and cresting. I was aboard the 34-foot catamaran Makani Kai with her designer, a transplanted New Yorker named Woody Brown. We had stepped onto Makani Kai dry shod from the beach, knifed out through cresting surf, and ghosted beyond the wind shadow of the mountains. In the lighter air and smoother water she felt like a conventional monohull vessel, except faster, but as we came into the offshore trade wind she simply took off. Her long and narrow hulls, built like two destroyers scaled down and joined together, drove effortlessly through the water. Less than half the weight of a monohull vessel of comparable size, she responded instantly to the slightest change in the direction of the apparent wind. Watching the water rush by, I estimated our speed as up to 20 knots, more than twice as fast as I had ever gone on a conventional vessel.

It was more than sailing: it was skiing, it was flying, with a glitter of spray fanning in a high arc from the leeward bow and a rooster-tail of tumbling water boiling up through the wake astern. At the tiller, Woody Brown cried aloud in pure exaltation. He had told me earlier, "You get drunk on it, when you ride the waves. It goes through you like electricity." And I felt it myself for the first time aboard a boat, a wonderful moment transcending any previous sailing experience.

For the moment, I forgot my technical questions to look in wonder at the man who had created Makani Kai. Woodbridge Parker Brown is almost completely Polynesian in outlook and even appearance. Burned deeply by the sun, he is slight and wiry, a body of whipcord encased in brown leather. Entering a room, he kicks off his sandals, and even in the center of the city of Honolulu is likely to wear only beachboy swimming trunks. In 1943 he married Rachel Kaua, a Hawaiian who can trace her lineage back to the royal family of antiquity; they have two children and live in a tiny house behind Diamond Head. His tastes are simple: he thinks and lives catamarans.

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