Multihull Pioneers

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The Nonsuch was never much of a sailer, but still managed to survive a number of storms in the course of its Atlantic crossing

The Nonsuch was never much of a sailer, but still managed to survive a number of storms in the course of its Atlantic crossing

The story behind the evolution of today’s offshore multihulls is a colorful one, with more than its share of twists and turns. In this excerpt from his book Ocean Pioneers, renowned technical illustrator and marine artist Robbert Das looks at two of the modern multihull’s quirkier ancestors.

The first trimaran to cross the Atlantic Ocean was, in fact, a kind of rubber raft. When a strange contraption drifted into England’s Southampton harbor on July 25, 1868, hardly a soul believed that the three Americans on board had come from the other side of the Pond. But their two months of facial growth, as well as the barnacles on the raft’s three rubber floats, eventually convinced the authorities that it was indeed true.



Two interconnected steel-plate rudders

Staysail on the bowsprit

Two-man tent

Seven crossbeams

Connectors between platform and floats


  1. LOA 25ft 4in LWL 25ft 4in
  2. Beam 12ft 6in Draft 1ft 3in
  3. Displacement 9,500lb
  4. Sail Area 261ft2

John Mikes, George Miller and Jerry Mallene had sailed from New York on their 25ft 4in-long raft Nonsuch on a nonstop Atlantic crossing. This made them the first men in the world to sail from continent to continent on a raft with inflatable floats.

Their vessel consisted of three rubber floats supporting a system of beams and planks. There was also a tiny tent on deck, fixed between two masts. One no longer knows exactly how the floats and platform were held together, but ropes were thought to be used.

What we do know is that the crew had a small bellows in order to inflate a leaking float, and that there were two months of provisions stacked on deck. It was absolutely impossible for the raft to move in any direction other than along with the wind, and considering this, the crossing was certainly a gamble. The adventurers kept a kind of dead reckoning, assisted by positions given to them by passing ships.


During the crossing, the Nonsuch was hit by seven storms, which the tiny vessel managed to survive by means of a sea anchor without getting a single drop of water on deck. What is more, these weekly, westerly gales blew the Nonsuch in the right direction, even though sailing was out of the question.

We surmise that the crewmembers were able to belay the two rudders by means of a tackle, thereby achieving a stable course. In order to clearly display the construction, the illustration only shows a small portion of the deck load. In reality, there was hardly any room to move on deck, keeping in mind how much space is taken up by spare parts and two months of provisions to sustain three men. And of course, we must also subtract the tent’s surface.

Once the raft’s bold and auspicious voyage had been made, many adventurers were under the impression that crossing the Atlantic was, in fact, a piece of cake, so long as one had something that kept afloat and would not capsize. However, this optimistic misconception became fatal to a considerable number of yachtsmen. Some of these rash and badly prepared daredevils disappeared beyond the horizon without a trace.

The Nonsuch is regarded as a precursor of successful ocean rafts such as Alain Bombard’s L’Hérétique, Eric de Bisschop’s Kaimiloa and various rafts of the Kon-Tiki type. In any case, the Nonsuch was way ahead of its time, and even today we still come across rubber boats with circular pneumatic hulls like the ones on this raft.


Kaimiloa was a far cry from the lightweight speedsters of today

Kaimiloa was a far cry from the lightweight speedsters of today

French anthropologist Eric de Bisschop designed Kaimiloa—a 32ft 10in-long vessel, considered by many to be a floating coffin and one of a number of boats he created—to study the influence of ocean currents on the population migrations from East Asia to the many islands in the Pacific.

In China the enterprising scientist had befriended a businessman named Joseph Tatibouet, or “Tati,” who would go on to play an important part in Eric’s life. As a first step, Tati not only financed construction of the almost 62ft-long junk-rigged Fou Po, on behalf of scientific research into the Pacific’s so-called “cross currents,” he also joined Eric as its crew.

Unfortunately, the Fou Po went down after being stranded on the north coast of Taiwan, where the two adventurers had a new, smaller junk built, designed by de Bisschop. From February 1933 until October 1935, the Fou Po II roamed between the Pacific islands. But it was not a very seaworthy ship, and after a series of adventures, the two men found themselves suffering from exhaustion and malnutrition, mainly due to bad preparation and bad weather.


More dead than alive, Eric and Tati were eventually carried from their ship by inmates of the leper colony on the island of Molokai in the Hawaiian archipelago, and while being nursed, a storm during the night of the October 26, 1935 put an end to their second junk as the Fou Po II was smashed to bits. Together with the ship, all of Eric’s notes on his discoveries went down to the bottom of the sea.

Mentally and physically, the two men were now at the end of their tether. However, within the year, they had a third boat built under their supervision, the Kaimiloa. It was a strange catamaran, which they originally intended to sail via Indonesia and the Cape of Good Hope to Cannes in France. Nonetheless, within 11 months, they accomplished the 30,000-mile voyage from Honolulu to Tangiers in North Africa.

  1. Each hull had a small saloon
  2. A few rocks served as interior ballast
  3. Rudders could be raised
  4. Drinking-water barrel
  5. Compass
  6. Heavy anchor and hawser


LOA 32ft 10in LWL 21ft

Beam 19ft 6in Draft 3ft 4in

Displacement 18,400lb

Sail Area 310ft2

From what is known about the details of this peculiar boat, one may conclude that de Bisschop started out with two hulls—which were no problem at all to build—that he then joined by a construction of heavy beams and boards.

There was also, apparently, some sort of semi-flexible link with springs, though no one knows where these were located, or even if they existed at all. During her voyage, the Kaimiloa weighed no less than 18,400lb. So, it was something quite different from the ultralight cats of today.

Upon his arrival at Cannes, the French press celebrated Eric de Bisschop as a nautical hero. He had actually invented a reasonably seaworthy catamaran, though as a designer he was not in search of novel ways of shipbuilding. Instead, he was more inspired by the multihulled vessels of the Pacific, the boats that a thousand years earlier had carried people from the continent of Asia to the tropical archipelagos he so admired.

A widely celebrated technical illustrator, Robbert Das has created studies of dozens of the world’s most celebrated designs in the course of his decades-long career. For a complete copy of Ocean Pioneers, go

Ocean pioniers_ENG2007+tekst

MHS Summer 2015


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