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The Past is Multihull Present

Much is recognizable in this Fijian drua from the mid-1800s

Much is recognizable in this Fijian drua from the mid-1800s

Variety is the spice of life. That said, surrounded by the seemingly endless variety of boats now plying the world’s oceans, it can be easy to take them for granted. It can also be easy to forget that many different sailboat types look the way they do not just “because,” but because at some level every boat out there must follow the same laws of wind and waves—and functionality—if it is to be a success. For this same reason, many of those same trends and types we see in today’s multihulls are as old as sailing itself. Skimming my copy of Aak to Zumbra: A Dictionary of the World’s Watercraft, for instance, I soon come across the kulla of eastern India and Sri Lanka’s oruwa, both windborne outrigger canoes used for fishing. Though worlds apart from today’s lightweight fiberglass creations, they still share the same narrow hull forms found aboard modern beach cats. Same thing with the te-puke proa of the Solomon Islands which—at least as represented in “A to Z”—features a sheerline that is surprisingly similar to that of a Hobie Cat or Dick Newick tri. Then there’s the lakatoi of Papua New Guinea, constructed by lashing together anywhere from three to 14 separate dugouts. Although the general rule was apparently the more dugouts the better for sailing back to the Purari Delta with the northwest monsoon, for local use three dugouts worked just fine. Methinks I see a kind of rudimentary Corsair, Farrier F-boat or Neel trimaran here. Finally, there were the big oceangoing mulithulls of Polynesia, one of the many types of historic craft that inspired not just Newick (whose designs included a proa, no less) but also famed naval architect James Wharram (who was featured in the Winter 2018 issue of this magazine). While there are those who may think today’s more spacious cruising cats stray from some kind of ancient ideal of flat-out speed, nothing could be further from the truth: just look at the massive Fijian druas of old. Engravings by European explorers show wide decks and raised platforms amidships, both for elevating the crew on watch (ancient flybridge anyone?) and providing shelter from the weather. As a side note, these planked vessels (no logs were big enough to creates vessels so large) were also perfect for conning the shallow, reef-strewn waters of the Pacific islands they came from—in much the same way today’s cruising cats do so well in such charter grounds as the Bahamas and, well, Tahiti. A number of models and old engravings also show the boats equipped with surprisingly modern-looking wave-piercing bows. I sometimes wonder what one of those mariners of old would think if they could see one of today’s cruising cats or tris. (Or a Gunboat, or an H/H performance cruiser: Heavens!) I suspect they would not only immediately recognize the type, but would love to take it for a spin! 

In every multihull lies a bit of those same cats and tris that sailed in centuries past

In every multihull lies a bit of those same cats and tris that sailed in centuries past

Ed Note: Aak to Zumbra: A Dictionary of the World’s Watercraft was published by the Mariners’ Museum of Newport News, VA, in 2001 and is available on amazon.com

MHS Summer 2019

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