A catamaran (from Tamil “to tie” and maram “wood, tree”) is a type of boat or ship consisting of two hulls joined by a frame. Catamarans can be sail or engine powered vessels that were inventions of the Paravas, a fishing community on the Southern Coast of Tamil Nadu, India.
Catamarans are a relatively recent design of boat for both leisure and sport sailing, although they have been used for millennia in Oceania, where Polynesian catamarans and outrigger canoes allowed seafaring Polynesians to settle the world’s most far-flung islands. Catamarans have been met by a degree of scepticism from some sailors accustomed to more traditional designs.
The history of catamarans begins with the English adventurer and buccaneer William Dampier, traveling around the world in the 1690s in search of business opportunities. He had found himself on the South Eastern coast of India, in Tamil Nadu, on the Bay of Bengal. He was the first to write in English about a kind of vessel he observed there. It was little more than a raft made of logs. “On the coast of Coromandel,” he wrote in 1697, “they call them Catamarans. These are but one log, or two, sometimes of a sort of light Wood … so small, that they carry but one man, whose legs and breech are always in the water.”
While the name came from Tamil, the modern catamaran came from the South Pacific. English visitors applied the Tamil name catamaran to the swift, stable sail and paddle boats made out of two widely separated logs and used by Polynesian natives to get from one island to another.
The design remained relatively unknown in the West for almost another 200 years, when an American, Nathanael Herreshoff, began to build catamaran boats of his own design. The speed and stability of these catamarans soon made them popular a pleasure craft, with their popularity really taking off in Europe, and was followed soon thereafter in America. Currently, most individually owned catamarans are built in France, South Africa, and Australia.
In the twentieth century, the catamaran inspired an even more popular sailboat. In 1947, surfing legend, Woodbridge “Woody” Brown and Alfred Kumalae designed and built the first modern ocean-going catamaran, Manu Kai, in Hawaii. Their young assistant was Rudy Choy, who later founded the design firm Choy/Seaman/Kumalae and became a fountainhead for the catamaran movement.
Later, in California, a maker of surfboards, Hobie Alter produced the 250-pound Hobie Cat 14, and two years later the larger and even more successful Hobie 16. That boat remains in production, with more than 100,000 made in the past three decades.