James Wharram obituary

Last modified on Fri 4 Feb 2022 11.40 EST

On 27 September 1955, James Wharram set sail from Falmouth in a 23½ft flat-bottomed double canoe (now called a catamaran) that he had built himself at a cost of £200, with no engine, and none of the electronic navigation equipment today’s sailors take for granted. His quest was to cross the Atlantic, in order to prove that such a vessel, the ancient craft of the Polynesians, was an oceanworthy one. The boat was called Tangaroa, after the Polynesian god of the sea.

With Wharram, who has died aged 93, were two German women, Jutta Schultze-Rhonhof and Ruth Merseburger, both of whom he was romantically involved with. “They were very happy to share ‘their man’,” he wrote. “There was no jealousy.”

Wharram’s book about this and subsequent voyages was titled Two Girls, Two Catamarans (1969) and it seemed like the ultimate hippy adventure, before hippies had even been invented. But the trip was far from plain sailing. There were storms in the Bay of Biscay; in Spain Franco’s Guardia Civil thought the travellers were spies; in Gran Canaria they encountered former SS officers escaping to South America; they nearly capsized twice crossing the Atlantic. Wharram and Shultze-Rhonhof were terribly seasick; she found out she was pregnant; and meanwhile Tangaroa’s wooden hulls were being eaten by shipworms. Somehow, after a gruelling five-week crossing, they reached Trinidad.

If anything, though, it was more like a beginning than an end. Schultze-Rhonhof gave birth to a son, Hannes. Wharram built a new, bigger catamaran, named Rongo, that they sailed to New York, arriving in 1959. There he found himself alongside Sir Edmund Hillary on a TV quiz show called To Tell the Truth; the audience had to guess which of the three contestants posing as the mountaineer was the real one. Hillary helped Wharram win, and with the prize money he was able to buy a radio for his next voyage, another Atlantic crossing, back to Britain later that year. Wharram was well on his way to a life of seafaring, boat design and boatbuilding.

He was born in Manchester, the only child of James, a builder, and his wife, Blanche (nee Cook). As a teenager Wharram enjoyed climbing and roaming the moors. And he read, spending hours in the city’s central library reading about boats, particularly about the ancient Polynesian boats. The Voyage of the Kaimiloa by Éric de Bisschop (1939), about sailing from Hawaii to France, became a lifelong love and inspiration. He also read George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, Bertrand Russell, William Morris, Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes; he became chairman of a Labour party youth group, but was saved from politics by his wanderlust.

Wharram left technical college to travel and work around Europe, where he discovered a new love: for women. Traudl, an Austrian psychologist, introduced him to Freud and Jung. Pat, an American 10 years his senior, gave him a book called Boat Building in Your Own Back Yard. Back in the UK, he worked as a labourer, on a trawler, in a boat yard. Walking in the Lake District, he met Merseburger, who would accompany him on that first transatlantic voyage on Tangaroa with Schultze-Rhonhof, whom he met at a swimming pool.

Wharram married Schultze-Rhonhof in 1959, but she had a breakdown, and died falling from a tower in Spain. Five years later, Wharram married Merseburger. They remained together until her death in 2013, joined in the late 60s by Hanneke Boon, who met Wharram when her family, holidaying in Wales, had helped him on another boat-building project. He and Hanneke had a son, Jamie.

There were other women coming and going, further catamarans, and further adventurous trips, then a business the three of them ran together from Cornwall, where they settled. Wharram designed catamarans based on Polynesian principles, and they sold the designs.

These are not boats for millionaire yachties, but for enthusiasts to make themselves and get to sea cheaply. And Wharram was not your typical yachtsman; it is perhaps not surprising the sailing establishment has sometimes viewed him with some suspicion. He was impossible to ignore, though, and slowly they came round to him. “Who is James Wharram?” asked the yachting writer Tom Cunliffe in Sail magazine in 2007. “Is he a philosopher, or a crackpot? A lifestyle guru or a libertine? Could he be a madman or might he be perhaps, unsettlingly sane? One thing is for sure: he is one of 20th-century seafaring’s most iconic figures.” In 2018 he won a lifetime achievement award from Classic Boat magazine.

In his last years Wharram lived with Alzheimer’s disease. “He struggled with his diminished existence,” wrote Boon, whom he married in 2018. “He could not face the prospect of further disintegration and made the very hard call to end it himself.” Wharram took his own life.

He is survived by Hanneke, Hannes (now known as Jonathan) and Jamie.

James Wharram, sailor and boat designer, born 15 May 1928; died 14 December 2021

Source: Read Full Article