Different Strokes: A profile of multihull designer Chris White

Chris White, when I first meet him, doesn’t seem like a guy who maybe, just maybe, is on the verge of revolutionizing multihull rig design. I’ve met a lot of yacht designers over the years, and I know that’s what many of them would be telling me right now, flat out, without any maybes. But not Chris.
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Chris White, when I meet him for the first time, certainly doesn’t seem like a guy who maybe, just maybe, is on the verge of revolutionizing multihull rig design. I’ve met a lot of yacht designers over the years, and I know that’s what many of them would be telling me right now, flat out, without any maybes. But not Chris. He smiles a Cheshire Cat smile, leads me down to his basement office—his dungeon, he calls it—and is happy to let me bring up the subject of the odd-looking boat on the front page of his website.

I am eager to learn. Take one look at a photo of Chris’s new rig planted on one of his new Atlantic 47 catamarans and you can see he’s on to something. “It’s not lost on people,” he tells me, smiling that enigmatic smile again. “They get it right away. I’ve described the rig to people at cocktail parties, and they say, ‘Wow! I’d love to get rid of my mainsail!’”

The inspiration for Chris’s breakthrough did not strike here in the dungeon, though his waterfront home in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, does enjoy a semi-inspirational view of the Slocum River and the salt marshes that crowd its upper reaches. Instead it came while he was out cruising on his own boat during all the free time he had available after business went south for a while during the depths of the Great Recession.

 White built his first boat in his parents' backyard

White built his first boat in his parents' backyard

“It really struck me that a big full-batten mainsail is just a big pain in the ass,” he explains. “It is difficult to hoist, putting it away is a pain, and it is difficult to reef, especially with the wind aft. There’s a mindset that you have to have a big full-roach main on a cat, but really there are lots of good reasons to get rid of it.”

Thus was born the MastFoil rig (competitors take note, several patents are pending): two large jibs on booms set fore-and-aft in front of twin masts encased in fully rotating airfoils…with trailing flaps no less. It is a concept that is both elegantly simple and fiendishly clever.

Chris has been a leading designer of performance cruising multihulls for many years, and to fully understand the genesis of his new rig, it helps to trace the trajectory of his career. The very first boats he sailed were monohull dinghies, but by age 14 he’d been captivated by multihulls, thanks to a family vacation to St. Croix that included a day trip on a 35-foot trimaran. While chatting with the owner, Chris learned that the boat had been homebuilt and sailed over from Europe on its own bottom. As he puts it: “That’s when the wheels started turning. This sounded like way too much fun.”

By age 16 he had found an ad promoting Jim Brown’s Searunner trimaran in the Whole Earth Catalogue. Eighteen months later he had a set of plans and had dropped out of college to build the boat, a 31-footer he named Shadowfax, in his parents’ backyard in Westbury, Long Island. By November 1975, at age 21, he had finished the boat, had two years of coastal cruising experience under his belt, and was ready to take off on an extended cruise of the Caribbean.

Another two years later, on returning from that voyage, Chris knew he needed a new boat: “Coming back from the West Indies, I was tired of getting my ass kicked in a little boat. I wanted something long and skinny and easy to drive.” And he knew he wanted to both design and build it himself.

This may sound precocious, but by now he was running with a pretty “fast” crowd. He was working for Jim Brown—himself a pioneer multihull designer—on a prototype build showcasing Brown’s new “constant camber” wood-epoxy construction technique. The work involved other early multihull luminaries, like Dick Newick, who built parts of the boat and helped assemble it, and Phil Weld, who financed the project. With connections like these, plus a few yacht-design correspondence courses, Chris felt he was more than ready to both conceive and create a boat of his own.

He sure didn’t pull any punches. The boat he built, Juniper, was a 52-foot wood-epoxy trimaran, 30 feet wide, with a ketch rig, and it quickly attracted favorable attention. A cover story in 1983 in Wooden Boat magazine brought him his first professional commissions to design some smaller boats. Soon afterward he landed a much bigger fish—a commission to draw a 50-foot catamaran—and his career as a designer was seriously underway.

A Cruiser First and Foremost

The process by which Chris conceived his first Atlantic catamaran, which over the years has proved to be his “bread-and-butter” design series, illustrates the common-sense cruiser’s perspective he brings to any design problem. Though he hadn’t spent too much time sailing cats at that point, he knew what he didn’t like about them. He didn’t like the awkward line runs and not being able to see over the house. Nor did he like having to move around the house to reach the mast.

“I thought of the midship cockpit on my old Searunner,” he explains. “And I thought, why not put the cockpit on a cat where it needs to be, right behind the mast?” The forward cockpits on Chris’s Atlantic cats, backed up by inside steering stations, are of course one of their most distinctive features and have since been copied by competitors.

Throughout his career, Chris has always kept cruising, and this has always informed his work. He and his wife, Kate, lived aboard Juniper for a couple of years before moving ashore to start a family, and as soon as their boys, William and Robert, were big enough, they got them cruising, too. These days Chris and Kate sail a cat, an Atlantic 45 named Javelin, and now that their boys are grown they commute to the boat—it is currently based in Panama—on a regular basis.

The things Chris has learned while cruising don’t always comport with what passes for conventional wisdom in multihull design. Take ketch rigs, for example. Chris is probably the last designer left willing to put a split rig on a multihull, but to him it sometimes makes sense. With a split rig you lower a sailplan’s center of effort and can reduce a boat’s beam. “The concept of long skinny hulls and relatively narrow beam is a good one and hasn’t been explored as much as it deserves,” he says. “Most cats out there today are much beamier than they need to be given their weight.”

Likewise with daggerboards: “I spent the first 15 years of my career trying to convince people they need efficient foils. And now I’ve spent the last 10 years telling them the foils don’t need to be daggerboards. There’s this mindset now that a performance cruiser without daggerboards must be a disaster, but it’s really not true.”

Though Chris has put daggerboards in several boats he has designed for clients, as a cruiser he doesn’t like their vulnerability when grounding and prefers to have centerboards on his own boat. He’s also beginning to play with another idea. To complement the new MastFoil rig on his latest Atlantic 47 design, he has put on a pair of generous fixed keels, also with trailing flaps.

“The jury is out on the new keel’s performance,” he concedes. “We haven’t really had a chance to test it yet, but I’m convinced with the flaps it will do as well as a daggerboard.”

 White's Atlantic 55, Javelin, has centerboards instead of daggerboards

White's Atlantic 55, Javelin, has centerboards instead of daggerboards

Killing theMainsail: The Final Frontier

The MastFoil rig may well mark an important turning point in Chris’s career. He’s too humble to be crying from the rooftops yet, and too careful to make claims he can’t yet substantiate. But it says something that on the strength of early test sails aboard the first MastFoil-rigged Atlantic 47 prototype, which was only launched in November 2012, no fewer than five clients have already ordered boats with the new rig.

For starters, the rig’s basic structure is simple and rugged. At the center of each mast is a fixed carbon-fiber pole supported from the top by a pair of aft upper shrouds. Around the pole is fitted a foil-shaped sleeve, fabricated from foam with carbon skins, with a controllable flap on the back. Unlike a conventional pivoting wing-mast, a MastFoil can rotate through a full 360 degrees. It also carries no structural loads, and thanks to its flap, can do much more than just reduce drag—it can actually generate lift, on any angle of sail.

There are many advantages to having masts that are sails themselves. Chris, putting on that grin again, though still unwilling to discuss details of how he’d like to refine his idea going forward, is very willing to discuss how it may improve the lives of cruising sailors.

 The interior of a White-designed cat

The interior of a White-designed cat

Of course, the threshold issue is performance. Chris has never been interested in designing boats that don’t sail fast, and he’s hoping the MastFoil rig will work as well, or better, than a conventional one. He’s been pleased with what he’s seen sailing the prototype (without instruments, so far) and is encouraged by fluid-dynamic computer models showing that a MastFoil rig should be every bit as efficient as a conventional one going upwind.

“We haven’t run the downwind angles yet,” he explains. “But from what we’ve seen so far, we’re not losing anything, and going downwind I think we’ll be gaining something over a conventional rig.”

There should be some rather interesting incidental benefits as well. For example, Chris theorizes that a MastFoil rig may be very useful in close-quarters maneuvering. Sailing a small beach-cat with a MastFoil, he has already learned how easy it is to back and fill when parking under sail. He also thinks it may be possible to use the masts to move sideways off a dock by playing an engine and the foils against each other. At anchor, he estimates the lack of standing rigging and being able to weathercock the masts should reduce loads on ground tackle by about 25 percent.

More importantly, the masts should make great storm sails. Chris reckons that an Atlantic 47 with a MastFoil rig will do very well sailing under masts alone in winds above 30 knots. Since talking to him, I’ve been speculating about whether it might be possible to heave-to under the masts with a boat’s head canted well to windward in even stronger conditions.

It really is a bit mind-boggling. But the thing about Chris is he doesn’t seem boggled at all. Creating this new rig, and the new keels that go with it, has presented him with a glorious new puzzle to solve, and this really seems to be what pleases him most. That grin, I realize, isn’t meant to be mysterious. It’s the smile of a cruising sailor and of a yacht designer whose wheels are still turning, and who is still looking forward to having “way too much fun.” 

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