It’s Austerity Britain, but not as we know it

By Simon Young

“And over toFalmouthharbour where two German girls and an Englishman are getting ready to cross theAtlanticin a sailing boat that only cost £200.”

The Pathe News presenter’s clipped RP commentary anchors the news clip perfectly. It’s austerityBritain, but not as we know it. In 1955 food rationing had only just ended; the Tories were back in power and the swinging sixties were still a long way off. With an average salary of £60 a month, for many,Britainwas a drizzly monochrome.

Jim Wharram however had some colourful dreams. Born in 1928 into a working classManchesterfamily, early wanderlust saw him hiking through the hills and moors of the Peak District. He yearned to explore the oceans, but sailing was still a pastime of the rich. Young men of Wharram’s background might aspire to join the Merchant Navy, not the local yacht club. Then came a visit toLondon’sScienceMuseumwhere he was transfixed by sketches of early Polynesian sailing vessels. They were essentially twin hulled rafts, lashed together with rope. Yet their inherent stability enabled the early Polynesians to explore and populate thePacific Oceanwhilst we were still capsising our coracles.

Wharram was inspired. Despite having no boat building experience and the fact that twin hulled boats were virtually unknown at the time, he set about building a modern day Polynesian catamaran. The enthusiasm of this charismatic northerner was clearly contagious and he was soon joined by two young German women, Ruth Merseburgar and Jutta Schultze-Rhonhof. Together they built the 23 foot ‘Tangaroa’ in a hayloft for a couple of hundred pounds. To Wharram she was an object of grace and beauty, his gateway to a different world. Less visionary onlookers described her as ‘two coffins lashed together.’

Transported to theEssexcoast on the back of a builder’s lorry, Tangaroa was launched in June 1954. Sea trials involved a Channel crossing toHolland, then through the canals toGermanyandFrance. InFalmouththe following year the trio encountered a mixture of enthusiasm from locals and sneers from the ‘proper’ yachtsmen, who dismissed their planned voyage to theCaribbeanas suicidal.  If they didn’t drown they would starve. Wharram describes the ship’s provisions for the journey in his book, ‘Two Girls Two Catamarans.’  “100 lbs wheat, 100 lbs oats, 70 lb block of pressed dates, soya beans, soya flour, lentils, peas, peanut butter, cheese and honey.”

In February 1957 Tangaroa became the first catamaran to cross theAtlantic. Unfortunately the yachting establishment denied her crew the recognition they deserved.  Arriving in Trinidad in a sea weary, worm infested and arguably weird looking boat; accompanied by two young German girls; one heavily pregnant; Wharram found himself blackballed at the whites-only Trinidad Yacht Club. Thankfully a warmer welcome awaited them at the ‘coloured’ Aquatic Club. Following the birth of Jutta’s baby the four lived there for two years whilst Wharram built a second, larger catamaran. Aboard the forty foot Rongo they went on to complete theAtlanticcircuit in 1960. But that, as they say, is another decade and another story.