P.M.’s Adventures in a Small Trimaran

A Man and His Boat: 25 Years of Small-Boat Cruising in the NW

The boat in the title is a 21’/6.5m trimaran, VAQUERO, which evolved from the 19′ schooner VAKEA. It was built from a rough sketch in 1981 in 20 weeks, and first featured in Multihulls magazine the next year. I sailed the boat hard every summer for the next decade.

picture of Peter Marsh on his catamaran

2012: Peter Marsh sailing solo on his 21′ boat on a gusty fall day off Astoria.

  • 1981-The San Juans and Puget Sound.
  • 1982-Olympia to Glacier Bay, Ak. and back.
  • 1983-Columbia River and halfway down the Oregon coast.
  • 1984-Oregon coast to the California border.
  • 1985-Around Vancouver Island from Olympia.
  • 1986-Lake Superior, N.Channel of Lake Huron, Lake Michigan.
  • 1987-Down the Columbia River from Lewiston, Idaho.
  • 1988-Olympia to Glacier Bay, Ak. back via Sitka, Hydaburg.
  • 1989-Up the Columbia River to Lewiston, Idaho.

It’s this boat that got me started on my writing career:
1986 – Crossing Lake Superior in a 21′ Trimaran (Sailing)
1989 – Discovering the Columbia-Snake Waterway (Sea)
Tales from the Inland Passage: sailing to Alaska and back in the 1980s

During these years we sailed over 10,000 nautical miles together. ( Cruising Yarns From Alaska’s Inland Passage) After this, I started my career as a nautical writer and ironically left boat on the Columbia River for the next 26 years.

  • 1990-Won class in Astoria Race Week
  • 1991-98 Moored the boat in Portland, Cathlamet and Astoria
  • 1999-Sailed 10 n.m. in one hour from Astoria Bridge to Ilwaco CG station.
  • 2001-Vaquero daysailed the Lower Columbia, finally achieved a 10-knot average for 5 n.miles.
  • 2002-Crossed the bar (both directions)to sail up to Willapa Bay, and later in the year to round Buoy 1.
  • 2003-Cruised the lower river between Cape Disappointment and Cathlamet.
  • 2004-After a late start, went sailing 25 times from Astoria for a total of around 350 miles.
  • Vakea/Vaquero: Design and Construction

    Vakea was conceived and built in 20 weeks in 1981. Since then it has endured a near-annual ritual of re-design and re-building. However, note that it is always ready to earn its keep by the time summer arrives!
    A cautionary note: re-building is really not fun, it is a labor-intensive gut-wrenching process that begins with some aspect of the design that I feel is lacking in some way. Once I have dreamed up a solution I believe could “improve” the boat in some vague way and have convinced myself that it might work– the dye is cast.
    So I begin by destroying some perfectly good construction work then spend the rest of the winter figuring out how to replace it. You could term this strange obsession “the art of de-construction” but naming it doesn’t help me. Consider that in the 80s I cut the main hull bow off and lengthened the boat by 2′, enlarged the cabin top twice, re-built the cockpit seats, and lengthened the amas from 12 to 16′.
    But in the 90s I cut off the beautiful 8′ X 4′ cabin top, gutted the hull from the transom to the mast, then narrowed the hull with transom diminishing from 4′ to 2.5′ This left me with a boat 30% faster but with a miserably small cabin and dacron seats that you can’t use without wearing rainpants……
    In 1997, I was given a carbon wing mast from a Freedom 25 and re-assembled it into a slender 30′ spar, and hoisted more sail than ever before. In 2000 I abandoned the plywood box beams for standard mast sections. In 2004, I added a mini-keel. And in 2005 I admitted I hadn’t spent more than two consecutive nights on board since 1991 because the cabin was so cramped. When I decided to split the aft cross arm and enlarging companionway I realized I had the option of finally curing the pathetically short beam spacing by going to the French X-beam approach…………
    This is only possible because the small center-cockpit trimaran is particularly easy to change. It is also an unforgiving type for cruising–unless you actually intend to daysail in the tropics. Is there light at the end of the tunnel? I doubt it….
    In 2005, I launched the X-boat with my fifth set of cross beams, sixth ama attachment method, fourth rig, third board arrangement etc. etc. Finally with all the bows in line, and real transoms on my amas, I felt I had leapfrogged the 80s and 90s and arrived at a 21st century layout! Serious sea trials on the lower Columbia found no weakness in the system. For the record, only a small bottom section forward of the mast remains unchanged.


    I grew up in Greenwich, close to the Cutty Sark and Royal Observatory, but had no direct connection with the sea or ships. At the age of 16, I failed the official eyesight test, so lost any chance of becoming a professional mariner. Just as well, because I later found I am permanently prone to seasickness!

    I fared better with small boats. I learned to sail through the Youth Hostels Association at the time when a small group of Englishmen were inventing the sport of singlehanded ocean racing. In 1964,I hitch-hiked to Plymouth to watch the start of the second Singlehanded Trans-Atlantic Race. That experience changed my life forever.

    I bumped into one of the competitors, Derek Kelsall, and made a connection with him which later led me to drop all pretense of living a conventional life. You could say I ran away to sea. Although I didn’t get further than Brittany, France, the die was cast.

    I began my boatbuilding education in England with Derek in 1965, working on the first multihull to win an open, ocean race–the 40′ foam/fiberglass Toria in the first Round Britain Race. Derek Kelsall now specialzes in simple, panel methods for home building catamarans.

    I thought myself sufficiently competent to buy an old, 11′ dinghy and sail it up and down the East Coast Rivers in 1966.I was persuaded to further my education by studying to become a PE teacher–a reasonable option at the time, but one that wasn’t fated to last.

    Sailing the seven seas was never far from my thoughts. While in college in London, I became a regular at the meetings of the Amateur Yacht Research Society in the late 60s. After hearing James Wharram speak, I did a short stint with the Polynesian Catamaran fan club, and spent a summer converting a Wharram’s only trimaran venture into a 30′ catamaran and sailing around NW Wales.

    My final year, I managed a full season of racing in East Anglia with the Brooke family on their 36′ yacht Matambu. We also cruised to Denmark, the Baltic Sea and back. (One of my shipmates, Alan Brooke, is now managing director of Oyster Yachts.) After a year teaching PE in South London I was ready to “drop out” again.

    I found a building site and attempted to combine my experience and the various theories of multihull design into one boat, with limited success. The 36′ catamaran I launched a year later took me and two companions to Holland in the fall and back in the spring.

    When the opportunity arrived, I parked that boat all summer to join Major H.W. (Bill) Tilman on one of his many voyages to the Arctic. I was seasick much of the way, although I managed to do my share of the work. I had to quit in Iceland. However, he made some typically witty observations about my lack of sealegs in one of his books–Ice With Everything.

    Consequently, I’ve stayed close to shore since then, but still managed to accumulate a lot of mileage daysailing. Maybe small boat cruising isn’t such a let down after all!
    P.S. Tilman and Wharram are both men with a larger than life reputation. In reality, things weren’t quite as romantic or functional as you might expect.

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