South Pacific Tradition

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Catamarans have been around for at least three millennia. The traditional cats consisted of a double hull of logs connected by a rigid deck or platform. Westerners first learned of cats from an English adventurer in India, who wrote about them in the 1690s. The word "catamaran" is Tamil, and these vessels have long been associated with the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India; cats have been recorded there since the fifth century CE. The cats that we know today more closely resemble those developed by Polynesian people, who spread across Oceania on large ocean-going catamarans from their origins in Asia or New Guinea about 3,000 years ago.

The vessels built by these intrepid colonizers were 50-60 ft long, each with a deck of crossbeams that was lashed to the two hulls, and supported perhaps 25 people (more, for the largest vessels), plus provisions. The Polynesians spread eastward to the Solomon Islands, on to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, and then to the Cook, Society, and Marquesas groups of islands. From these pinpoints of land in the South Pacific the Polynesians radiated out to New Zealand, Easter Island, and Hawaii, ending their long journeys in about 1000 CE. We have a good idea what these ancient catamarans looked like: see figure 1.1. There is still some disagreement among historians as to whether the Polynesians knew where they were going. Did they navigate to known destinations, or were the island groups they settled hit upon by accident? Whichever, it is clear that the Polynesian sailors and navigators knew how to cross open ocean in open vessels. They were capable of traveling from Tahiti to Hawaii, a distance of 2,000 miles. They navigated by stars and by birds.* Their

*Also by cloud formations, by currents, and (so Hawaiian local tradition has it) by observing the night-time glow of erupting volcanoes.

Ancient Catamaran Boats
Figure 1.1. Model of a Hawaiian catamaran of 500 CE. Note the steering oars and unusual sails. Thanks to Steve Priske for providing this image.

vessels had sails made of matting and a steering paddle, and could sail well across wind and downwind. It is also likely that the Polynesian catamaran could make its way a little to windward.

The catamarans that Westerners discovered on the Indian coast and in the South Pacific were highly evolved ocean-going craft. In the 1870s they inspired Nathanael Herreshoff, a well-known and talented American naval architect and engineer who later went on to design a string of early America's Cup-winning boats. Herreshoff built cats that made people sit up and take notice, and so started the modern adaptation of these sleek vessels as pleasure craft. Catamarans and monohull yachts may nowadays occupy adjacent berths in marinas all over the world, but it is interesting that these two types of modern pleasure craft have such different lineages. We will see later why catamarans and yachts perform so differently.

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