Written by Rex Ennis
posted on December 13, 2017 12:28
The objective of this article is not a comprehensive history of catamarans. It is in fact an attempt to provide the history of one particular catamaran the “Primo”. While researching another article for this magazine I ran across an article in the “New York Herald” of 22nd of July 1882, the following: “Mr Fred Hughes has sold the catamaran Primo to parties who will use her about the Thousand Islands.” This piqued my curiosity, for the use of catamarans in the Thousand Islands in the late 1800s was not common.
A brief description of the origin of catamarans: The name we use for a boat with identical twin hulls – 'catamaran' – comes from the Tamil word 'kattumaram'. Meaning 'tied wood'. This was the name given to the paddled rafts seen by the English explorer William Dampier off the Malabar coast (south west India) in 1679, carrying just one man with his legs in the water. 
During the late 1800s the leading promoter of catamarans appears to have been Capt. Frederick Hughes of New York. Capt. Hughes had several catamarans built for him by Thomas Fearon of Yonkers, New York. Fearon operated under a license agreement with Herreshoff, the noted yacht builder of the time. Among Hughes’ catamarans were Amaryllis, Tarantella, Jessie, John Gilpin, Cyclone, Teaser, and Primo.
Hughes recognized the disadvantage of no cabin aboard his catamarans. Wishing to prove the versatility of the craft he contracted with Fearon for the installation of a light cabin aboard the 45-foot Jessie.
“The cabin is so lightly constructed that it will interfere but little with the speed of the boat, and, except in working to the windward, will be no detriment at all. The objective of this style of boat heretofore has been there was no shelter on board of them and by this plan this objection is overcome. The apartment is about 12 feet long by 9 feet in width, and of a height sufficient to permit the voyagers to sit up in it comfortably. The births on either side are so arranged as to form convenient lockers for the reception of stores and clothing, and to serve admirably for settees when not desired for sleeping quarters, while a portable table in the center is used at meal times, and an oil stove does duty as a galley range.”
In August 1884, Hughes demonstrated the speed of a catamaran at Pot Island, Connecticut.
Capt. Hughes says he has given up racing his catamarans against horses, chiefly on account of the prejudiced people have against having horses put through such a test. It will be remembered that last summer two races were contested between the catamaran Jessie and the horse Boston from New York to this place (pot island). The Jessie won the first and lost the second. Capt. Hughes made $800 on the first race and lost $500 on the second. The horses were not at all injured by the trial and are as well today as ever. 
Hughes advertised Primo for sale on 4 June 1882 in the “New York Herald” with the following description:
|The advent of the catamaran in the late 1800’s yacht racing did not please many yachtsmen. The catamaran proved to be substantially faster than the monohulled yachts of the time.
“Herreshoff entered Amaryllis in the annual Centennial Regatta at the New York Yacht Club in 1876, and won by a hefty margin. The cat was so much faster than traditional monohulls that catamarans were forever banned from racing in conventional yacht races. Herreshoff would build several more catamarans, but the “establishment” never came any closer to accepting them as legitimate sailing craft in his lifetime."2[
“It objected to these boats that they have not the accommodations below which a cabin yacht has, but it is most unfair to compare them in any respect to cabin yachts. They are open, and there to be compared with other open yachts, and an all respects they are superior to these. In regard to cost, it may be said that while the first cost is greater, the running expense is much less; and given to boats, one a single hold sand-bagger or, like the Mistake, for instance, and the other a Herreshoff catamaran of the same length, both to be raised continually, whenever the opportunity offers, and at the end of three seasons, if an accurate expense can account be kept of both, our word for it, the sand-bagger or will have caused the most. If not designed for racing, but simply for pleasure sailing, the superiority of the catamaran is so great that her extra cost is money well invested. For ordinary use, we think a 30-foot hull would be long enough, and a boat of this length not to cost $900 while a sand-bag boat of that length would cause nearly as much.]“3[
In Bristol, Rhode Island, at the Nathaniel Green Herrenshoff Museum there is a 1933 replica of the Amaryllis II hanging from the ceiling. ]4[
For sale-The catamaran Primo, 33 feet long, and the fastest afloat. Quote to be seen at Thompkins Bill, Staten Island, Wednesday.]7[
By 22 July 1882, the Primo was on its way to the Thousand Islands. Just exactly who bought Primo and her history in the Thousand islands cannot be easily determined. I contacted the Antique Boat Museum and they could find no information on the Primo. Additional phone calls were made to the Mystic Seaport Museum, the Royal Yacht Club, London, and the New York Yacht Club, none of which had any information on the Primo.
There is one indication that the Primo made it to the Thousand Islands. A rumor that Nicholson Kane, Commodore of the New York Yacht Club sailed the Primo in the area of Whisky Island in the summer of 1882. However, the story has not been able to be verified by this author.
]2[ Total Boat Show, webpage, 19 January 2017
]3[ Spirit of the Times, 20 October 1883, page 356
]4[ Total Boat Show, webpage, 19 January 2017
]5[ American Gentlemen's Newspaper, 1882, page 393
]6[ New Haven Daily Morning Journal and Courier, 2 August 1884
]7[ New York Herald, 4 June 1882
By Rexford M. Ennis
Rex Ennis has written over 30 articles for TI Life. His bio is recorded in Contributors, in December, 2008. Rex has published two important books on the Thousand Islands. The first, published in 2010, Toujours Jeune Always Young, the biography of Charles G. Emery was reviewed in the June 2010 issue. The second, Saints, Sinners and Sailors of the Gilded Age: A compendium of biographical sketches, centered on the Gilded Age, in the Thousand Islands, describes the biographies of every name appearing on an 1889 map, published by Frank H. Taylor, called: “Map of the Thousand Islands; Hotels, Parks and Cottages.” See the book review in our July 2011 issue; you will find the map described in the July 2010 issue, and in the August 2011 issue.
We paid tribute to Rex in September, 2017 in Rex Ennis, the Manton Family and a Small World.