North of Scotland Island, a big red multi-hull attracts plenty of attention from passing vessels. Even the most seasoned sailors are seen scratching their heads as they try to figure out exactly what they are looking at. This is my boat, Gaiasdream. She is a proa, which is a traditional Pacific multi-hull design with one hull longer than the other. With a 71foot main hull and 44foot outrigger, Gaiasdream is the largest modern proa in the world.
The biggest difference between a proa and a modern yacht is that the former does not tack but “shunts”. Perhaps the easiest way to understand shunting is to think of a car. Imagine the car drives into a garage, headlights first. Then imagine that to continue its journey the car reverses out and carries on down the street taillights first, instead of turning around. Sounds simple so far. A bit like the Manly ferry, you may be thinking. But what of the mast and sails, which must now propel the boat in the opposite direction?
Among the features attracting the most attention is Gaiasdream’s 22metre wing-mast. As she shunts the mast pivots about a point 21metres above the deck, to which all the stays are attached, with the base moving along a 7.5metres track on the main hull. Sitting at an angle of 10degrees to the vertical, the giant spar presents an unusual sight to eyes more accustomed to masts being upright.
Having come to terms with the boat’s asymmetry and unusual rig, the next question is invariably why I would bother with a design that poses such daunting and unusual engineering challenges.
Ask any member of the small but avid community of modern proa builders about its advantages and they will wax lyrical about the speed and efficiency of this ancient design. Indeed, the first Europeans to reach the Pacific wrote with astonishment in their logs at the speed of the native craft. Compared even with modern sailboats, the proa is not only fast but also remarkably efficient in its use of materials. Add the enviable seakeeping qualities and it becomes clear there is life yet in the proa.
Gaiasdream is the fulfillment of my long-held dream to build a large, fast proa capable of efficiently transporting cargo around the Pacific without need of fossil fuels.
I have been building boats since I was 14. The idea for Gaiasdream came to me as he was sailing single-handed from the Netherlands to Australia in 1996, aboard a smaller proa that I had also built. In the winter of 2008, having just returned from the USA after overseeing the refit of British polar explorer Robert Swan’s 2041, a 68foot steel monohull and environmental education yacht, I decided it was time to build my dream proa.
The first challenge was finding an affordable and practical location for building such a large boat. After six weeks of driving up and down the east coast, I discovered a shed on the edge of the Kalang River in Urunga, near Coffs Harbour. By remarkable coincidence, two other proas had been built in the shed next door. I knew he had found the right location to build my new boat.
The first materials arrived in August 2008 and what had been a big empty shed soon became crowded with the beginnings of the “small” 44foot hull, followed by the 38foot crossbeams. After preparing eight frames for the 71foot main hull, I was joined by my outgoing parents for four months of sanding and fibreglassing from early morning till well beyond sundown.