Sailing with an Achilles' keel

September 22, 2000

Team Philips is notthe only twin-hulled catamaran to runinto problems.The first 17th-century 'double-bottom' was also a bummer. Stephen Pumfrey reports

As the futuristic catamaran Team Philips prepares for its relaunch tomorrow, there is a historical message for Tony Blair from the reign of Charles II: do not endorse it as an emblem of modern Britain just yet.

Pete Goss and his crew discovered off the Scilly Isles in March how dangerous it is to push nautical technology to the limit. They were lucky that the weakness in one hull, of a craft designed to withstand the most tempestuous seas, surfaced in moderate conditions within reach of a lifeboat. But as we wish Team Philips well for The Race, we should recall the spookily similar setbacks encountered by the inventor of the catamaran, Sir William Petty.

Born in 1623, Petty was a multi-talented genius who rose from being the son of a clothier to make his fortune under Oliver Cromwell. As surveyor-general of Ireland, Petty worked out a way of mapping all the brutally confiscated estates in a matter of months; in four years he had increased his wealth -fold. The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 was a political blow, but when Petty tried to apologise for serving Cromwell's Protectorate, the king interrupted him: "But, doctor, why have you left off your enquiries into the mechanics of shipping?" For, besides Petty's careers as cabin boy, anatomy lecturer, surveyor and pioneer of "political arithmetic", his great passion was boat design. His pride and joy was his invention, the "double-bottom", as he called his first catamaran. Petty told people that he designed catamarans "as opium to stupefy the sense of my sufferings". Those sufferings were his struggle to retain his lands and position under the new regime. He struggled well. He remained immensely rich, and his widow was made a baroness, but his double-bottom was ultimately a bummer.

Petty realised that a twin-hulled design would have the advantages that Team Philips is also exploiting, and more besides. Compared with a conventional ship of similar size, it would draw less water, go faster, be more stable, and carry a greater weight of cargo or cannon. Petty hawked the catamaran as a secret weapon in the world's first economic war, fought at sea between England and its maritime rival, the Dutch Republic.

After making some experimental models, Petty built three prototypes between 1662 and 1664: Invention I, Invention II and The Experiment. At first, Petty was backed enthusiastically by the gentlemen scientists of the newly founded Royal Society, of which Petty was a fellow, along with Robert Boyle, Sir Christopher Wren and Samuel Pepys.

Like Team Philips, initial results were encouraging. Invention I won the Royal Society prize for the fastest boat. Invention II, a double-decker of 30 tons, "won a wager of Pounds 50 in sailing between Dublin and Holyhead with the best ship or vessel the king has there".

But thereafter our hero was thwarted. The strikingly radical design provoked opposition and ridicule. Petty found it hard to raise crews from among incredulous and petrified seamen. In Dublin, old Royalists sought to scupper the Commonwealth upstart, and his enemies muttered that the ship "might hold in fair weather but never in a storm". Admiralty commissioner Pett pronounced it: "The most dangerous thing in the world." Even the king started "laughing at Sir Petty about his boat".

In the circumstances, it is amazing that in 1664 Charles II agreed to launch personally The Experiment on its maiden voyage to Portugal. The experiment failed, and the ship went down with all hands during a storm in the Bay of Biscay. Petty's excuse - that the storm also sunk several orthodox ships - did not hold water. The vicious satirists and balladeers of Restoration London took up petty Petty-bashing. One rhymed (with poetic licence) that Petty's ship was called "Castor and Pollux, because the hulls hung down like bollocks"!

Petty retired hurt, but not beaten. He completed his fourth and final catamaran, St Michael The Archangel, in Dublin in 1684. Pepys laid a heavy bet against Petty, and won handsomely as The Archangel failed miserably to fly through the waves. Petty finally abandoned what he had once described to his long-suffering wife as his "refreshment and relaxation" and died three years later.

So, was Petty's double-bottom a load of Pollux? In some ways, yes. Petty was too sure of himself and too much the amateur to solve the inherent design problems. Where Team Philips developed an unexpected weakness in the hull, Petty's boats had predictable weaknesses in the beams joining the hulls. In an age before iron ships and carbon fibre, Petty's wood did not stand up to the strain.

But Petty may also have been the victim of political sabotage. Why did Charles II withdraw his encouragement when the prototypes still promised so much? Perhaps it was the realisation that the catamaran's greatest advantage was also its Achilles' keel. Extraordinarily, by conventional standards, the double bottom reportedly drew only one foot of water. If the design had succeeded, heavily armed warships would have been able to sail in shallow waters. But what if the Dutch copied it? Charles II remarked that he "should be sorry it succeeded in great, for then the Hollanders would have as much an advantage of us as we do now of them. Because as ships are now built, they can have none so good as ours, but must draw more water than their Harbours will allow." Petty's scientific backers now advised Dublin "that the matter of navigation, being a state concern, was not proper to be managed by the Royal Society".

Petty's catamaran is thus an unusual case of a familiar story: British technological innovation left undeveloped by British government and industry. It is a delicious historical irony that Goss's title sponsor is Royal Philips Electronics - of the Netherlands. Perhaps a copy of Petty's Treatise of Naval Philosophy did find its way into enemy hands after all. If Team Philips has perfected its technology, Tony Blair could deploy it to promote the advantages of an integrated Europe.

Stephen Pumfrey is senior lecturer in the history of science, University of Lancaster.

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