A New Era in Small-Boat Cruising?

Several periods of explosive activity have occurred in the long history of "cockleshell cruising." Three recent events with tiny trimarans could be added to this exclusive list.

Several periods of explosive activity have occurred in the long history of "cockleshell cruising." Three recent events are described near the end of this essay, to which the reader may wish to refer now, and perhaps return later for the sea saga below.

As sea sagas go, please consider what may have been the very earliest "eruption" in small-boat voyaging. It is recorded almost entirely in legend, but there is some strong anthropological evidence as well. It began over 3,000 years ago in response to heavy population pressures in South Asia, pressures that literally drove the coastal inhabitants of what we now call Viet Nam into the sea. It spawned the development of the seagoing outrigger canoes of ancient Austronesia. Many thousands of these craft, little changed over three millennia, are still in use today for local transport and fishing in the Pacific Islands. However, the real "camp-cruising" activity, that is, voyages of exploration and colonization, lasted only through the stone age of Oceania. Many well-planned, deep-sea, voyages, sometimes of thousands of miles, were made, this at about the same time that the Phoenicians were just beginning to feel their way down around the Horn of Africa, always within sight of land. These Polynesian and Micronesian voyagers discovered and colonized every habitable scrap of land in the tropical Pacific. Their vessels, small and large, were made entirely of vegetable fiber, and were quite likely the first real seafaring watercraft known to mankind. Today’s modern multihulls reiterate the three basic configurations, catamaran, trimaran and proa, given by the Ancients, and as such are probably the most traditional of modern yachts.

Several other bursts of small "cruising boat" activity have occurred over the ages, by such peoples as the Celts, the Inuit, the Carib, and the Vikings. Their spectrum of highly specialized workboats eventually led to vessels more like the ones we have today. The very motive of camp cruising, to escape population pressures and seek new horizons, has been only slightly changed by recent social circumstances. For example, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the camp-cruising craft are iconized by the capable canoe yawls of designer Albert Strange; such boats were earth-shakingly popular in Europe at that time.

Predicting such eruptions is tricky, but I’ve been right at least once about the renegade breakout of modern cruising multihulls. This phenomenon first vented steam in the late 19th century with the great catamaran conflict between Nathanael Herreshoff and the New York Yacht Club; Nat won the races but all parties lost the war. Then, in the mid 1940s there came Rudy Choy’s first catamaran and Victor Tchetchet’s first trimaran, seminal vessels they were, but popular they were not. Then, like everything else in the early 1960s, multihulls really started out gassing. Designs for backyard building by Arthur Piver (trimarans) and James Wharram (catamarans) enticed neophytes into building and sailing fairly sophisticated cockleshells that incorporated more than one cockle. That’s when I saw the writing on the mountainside, and got in on the owner-built action by designing the Searunner trimarans.

Front-yard builders soon began to produce multihulls, the anti-yachts of our time, and by the millennium, pressure from production-built multihulls was threatening to pop the top off of Mt. Monohull. It took fifty years for it to build up steam, and it didn’t happen in a single blast, but at last fall’s Annapolis Sailboat Show, there were 38 (count ’em, 38) production cruising cats and tris exhibited in the water. The display dominated the event, and despite the lack of bubble in today’s economic mud pool, and also despite the geyser-like price tags on contemporary cruising multis, sales were brisk. There seems little doubt that multihulls are on the "up side" of big-boat marketing today.

So, now I’m here to forecast yet another of these cosmic zits. It seems conditions are right for a separate eruption in the same region. The problems and costs of keeping a yacht afloat at dockside, and even the grief of contending with the big trailer-sailers, have sponsored the widespread availability of bare boat charter operations. For the cost of owning and really using a serious cruiser, one may fly to exotic destinations and charter. Those who might also aspire to have their own boats near home, many sailors are considering something they can man handle, on the beach, on a trailer, or even on a car top rack. Some who were thinking of buying a big yacht before 9/11 are now looking for more fun at less cost and obligation. I think this buildup is getting ready to blow.

Already there has been a minor avalanche of almost two thousand little plastic trimarans. They’re very different because the pilot sits down inside a central hull like it was a big kayak, and steer with foot pedals. But it’s not a big kayak.

News of this phenomenon was sparse at first, and confined to what these boats are not, rather than what they are. An early eyewitness called them "armchair sailboats," but emphasized that they are not about reading books. Some of those overwhelmed have said that this is "sailing from the seat of your pants;" they are not about boats for geriatrics, yet paraplegics can safely sail them. Many enthusiasts are senior men, yet a few are younger women. The latter have asserted that, "Armchair Sailing is not about always being totally preoccupied with operating the darn boat."

More recent reports tell us more about what these boats actually are. The "stable as a church" reports have been independently confirmed, and we know the pilot sits in what amounts to a padded armchair, down low inside the boat, always facing forward, with his or her head well below the boom. It is said that, "You can’t fall out," and, "You don’t even shift your weight around to keep from turning over." Because these craft are steered by foot pedals, "Both of your hands are free to repel boarders, to fix a sandwich or a cocktail, to take a picture, put on a parka, even pee discretely in a bottle or bedpan."

More vernacular statements attest that, "Armchair Sailing is about sitting back and digging the trip that the boat is taking you on." Another says, "It not only frees up your hands, it frees up your mind, too. So you can just sit there and go, really picking up on what’s going down." When asked what was going down where, the subject responded, "These things help you to pick up on your very own consciousness, anywhere in the whole wide world, and other large cities."

Of course, opinions expressed are not necessarily those of this publication or its affiliates, for the editors realize that choosing a boat involves a very personal, almost entirely subjective, decision-making process that can last a lifetime. The ocean seems to encourage us all to develop our own preferences. Right?

So here’s an almost entirely objective report on what’s already erupting in the smaller multihulls:

Recent technical advances in the rotational molding of polyethylene have rendered this material as different from the old Jerry Jug stuff as transistors are from vacuum tubes. Furthermore, "plastic," as we’ll call it hereafter, is now almost unimaginably durable. It is used for making such products as the scuff plates at ferryboat landings, the tanks on chemical trucks and, quite likely, the bumpers on your own car. Why not the hulls of small boats?

Hobie Catamarans now offers two nifty beach cats produced in plastic, and they should know what they’re doing. After all, in the 1960s they spearheaded the Beach Cat boom by producing, in fiberglass, the most popular class sailboats of all time. Now they’ve gone into rotomolding. Their plastic models are not intended to compete on the racecourse with their fiberglass counterparts, but they can give them a real run in the marketplace. Their "accessibility" expands the audience to buyers who can spend less, and are more interested in relaxing fun than in fierce competition. Escape Sailboats, makers of the ubiquitous yellow plastic dinghies, also offers a pleasing plastic beach cat.

Speaking subjectively again, it is your reporter’s personal opinion that small catamarans don’t quite qualify as cruisers, because squatting on a trampoline does not provide the sailor any protection from the elements while under way. Some cat models have clever tenting systems for spending the night aboard in harbor or on the beach. However, I contend that the prospect of long hauls in big water, under the usual beach cat’s towering mast and big sails, all while having no decent place to sit, makes beach cat cruising best suited to Olympian crews. Nevertheless, the three plastic catamarans mentioned so objectively above are prime examples of what’s happening today, technologically and economically, in small production sailboats. Just as it happened with wood, the reign of small fiberglass boats is now being challenged by the advent of plastic.

We now have more details of the avalanche of camp-cruising trimarans. Two models are now offered by an outfit called WindRider, which is the sailing division of Confluence Watersports, a large conglomerate that sometimes ships over a thousand kayaks and canoes per week, most of them plastic. Ten years ago, their CEO Andy Zimmerman suspected that some day the kayak craze was bound to peak out, so he decided to lead his Company into sailing for diversity. His vision was for a product line of trailerable, even car-toppable, trimarans that would become the sea kayaks of sailing. Today, kayaks are still going strong, but now so are WindRider Trimarans.

At least two of their four sailing models are camp-cruise capable. The original single-seat WindRider 16 has a six-year reputation for being the most nearly capsize proof small multihull. It is a veteran of extreme seafaring expeditions in icy waters, and is also popular in rental service. Rental operators say they can send out true beginners on windy days -- too windy to rent their beach cats -- and they can get back by themselves. Their uninitiated patrons include little kids, senior women and the physically challenged.

The new, tandem-cockpit WindRider 17, which is just now shipping to dealers, is designed to carry a family of four on day sails, and for expeditions has a full-performance, open-water payload of 700 pounds. Besides its twin trampolines for hiking out, lounging and tenting, it has up to five padded, hip hugging "armchairs" with adjustable backrests, plus a weatherproof and bug proof single bunk inside. Both models are now proven fully capable of camp-cruise excursions in the open sea. No doubt some masochistic wag will take off for Krakatoa in one of these thing.

Your reporter knows about these two vessels first hand. I designed them for WindRider, and I have sailed them on excursions in Newfoundland, Alaska, the Great Lakes, the Sea of Cortez, and the Florida Keys. And you know what? I’ve been quite surprised by the difference these little boats have made to me as a sailor. They have caused me to wonder why I’ve spent the last 50 years beating my head against big boats and big oceans. This is the most pleasurable, hassle-free, challenging and fulfilling, cruising I have known.

All right, I take your point; this whole "eruption notice" smacks of being a blatant sales pitch. So here’s the small print enlarged: I have no vested interest in the WindRider company, but I am trying to get the word out. And the word is that something else is happening here besides "boad bidness." Perhaps there is really nothing new under the sun, just re-combinations. But I believe "Armchair Sailing" amounts to a new kind of sailboat, one whose heritage combines those of the Inuit, the Austronesian, and the plastics engineer. The result is now expanding sailing into a whole new realm, a midregion peopled with many individuals who would not normally consider sailing for themselves.

Three Recent "Seismic" Events: The first event happened last February, when 17 WindRiders and 22 sailors, many of us senior men, participated in a whacked-out, week-long junket that took us from Miami all down through the Florida Keys. The occasion was called The First Annual WindRider Adventure Cruise. The second event is an upcoming article about that first cruise, soon to appear in an upcoming issue of Cruising World. To get a feeling for the fun, have a look. It's called: "The Great First Ever Never Again? Cool Codger's
Caper in the Keys."

The third event is the second annual running of the first. This year, in late February, we’re starting from Marathon and sailing down around Key West and back up to Marathon. The fleet will include several of the new WindRider 7’s. Other such semi-organized "capers" are in planning. [See websites below]

Because these events can be so instructive, so stimulating, and so chocked full with camaraderie, I suspect that a new, sub-cultural, camp-cruising movement will slowly emerge if not erupt. Of course, it will include all types of vessels, but so far, WindRider trimarans are the only real player in the affordable multihull camp-cruiser game. That’s only because they’re the only little trimarans in mass production today. Because the small trimaran offers such a safe, comfortable and user-friendly alternative to the beach cat, I foresee that WindRider’s inevitable competitors also will choose the double-outrigger configuration, and that technical development in the coming decade will be lively, if not explosive.

There’s more info at the WindRider factory website; www.windrider.com.

Editor’s Note: Jim Brown is a multihull pioneer and member of the Cruising World Hall Of Fame.