Revisiting Project Cheers

Dieter Loibner | Professional BoatBuilder Magazine

Project Cheers tells the story of an unusual, simple, and seaworthy multihull that surprised in the OSTAR 1968.

At this time 55 years ago, 1968 was about to enter the annals of history, including the bloody war in Vietnam and the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, but also astounding technological milestones like Apollo 8, the first manned space craft to orbit the moon, and the maiden flight of the first Boeing 747 jumbo jet. Also in that second category was the third running of the Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race (OSTAR) ending with a surprise third-place finish of the proa Cheers, a strange-looking multihull that was nimble, light, simple yet seaworthy, and swift in the tradition of Polynesian voyaging canoes.

The project was a genuinely American effort, a bootstrap campaign that broke with traditions and common wisdom and helped define the future role of multihulls in ocean racing, if not for proas, then certainly for catamarans and trimarans, which went on to dominate the genre. (The 56/17m proa Crossbow set a world speed record with 26.3 knots in 1972.)

Project Cheers tells the story of the boat and of renowned multihull designer Dick Newick, living on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, at the time; Tom Follett, a resourceful and tenacious yacht-delivery skipper; and Jim Morris, a former banker in Denver, Colorado, who helped organize and bankroll this venture starting with a proposed initial budget of $10,000 (approximately $88,000 today).

Sail and deck plan show the craft’s simplicity

Newick once explained his fondness for craft that are inspired by the history and culture of Pacific islands: “People always ask me where the ideas came from. I don’t know. I think in a previous life I was a Polynesian canoe builder.” He conceived Cheers as an Atlantic proa with narrow, low-volume asymmetrical hulls, both 40 (12.2 m) long, with the windward ama containing spartan accommodations for the skipper and his gear. In that sense, Cheers differed from Pacific proas, which feature a smaller ama to windward. The boat, displacing less than 3,000 lbs (1.3 t), was built by a gifted craftsman in St. Croix named Wallford Galloway in wood/epoxy from three layers of diagonally laid up mahogany veneer with 12mm (0.47) mahogany plywood bulkheads and crossbeams (akas) made of laminated Sitka spruce.

The Royal Western Yacht club in the U.K., which runs the OSTAR, originally refused to accept Cheers, doubting the seaworthiness of such a fragile-looking craft that might capsize and does not turn the bow through the wind in a tack as conventional boats do but simply “goes in reverse.” Newick and his associates solved these challenges with ingenuity and dispatch, without supercomputers, artificial intelligence, 3D modeling, or an army of engineers. Everything happened in real time because it had to. The prototype was the product. And what a product it was.

Details, views, and measurements.

One French editor called it a “perfect design, ahead of its time, futuristic, avant-garde, minimalistic.” If reduced any further, there’d be no boat left. If anything is added, it’ll turn into something different. Newick’s genius was manifest in his ability to adapt and alter the concept of Polynesian craft proven for centuries in their transoceanic voyages, while infusing Cheers with solutions that hadn’t been tried in ocean racing. “Dick Newick’s contributions to the development of multihull design can’t be overstated,” The New York Times quoted David Gerr’s praise for Newick’s induction into the North American Boat Designers Hall of Fame in 2008. “Not only would multihulls look different today without Dick’s innovations, but his designs paved the way for the universally acknowledged offshore-capable speedsters they are.”

Courtesy Ashlyn Brown

Copies of this poster signed by Cheers’ designer, Dick Newick, are also available.

After launching Cheers from the beach in December of 1967, there was hardly any time to test and work out kinks before Follett went on a shakedown trip in the Caribbean that ended with a capsize off Guadeloupe and hitching a ride on a freighter with Cheers because he could not right the boat—a near-disaster that could have ended the adventure right then and there. But some adjustments were made, and on March 31, 1968, Follett, unfazed by the mishap, left St. Croix for Plymouth, U.K., hoping that a singlehanded delivery across the Big Pond might convince race organizers of the seaworthiness of boat and skipper. Aside from weathering gales and heating his spartan quarters with two kerosene lamps “to keep ice from forming inside the cabin,” he used only 2 gal (7.6 l) of water and two bottles of whiskey (“when the weather turned cool”) on this month-long crossing. The record shows that somehow and against long odds, it all worked out. Follett skippered Cheers to a sensational third place with an elapsed time of 27 days and 13 minutes, finishing in Newport, Rhode Island, behind much larger boats before sailing the little proa back to St. Croix whence she came, thus completing a 10,000-mile loop with two Atlantic crossings.

There is much more to this fascinating story as told by the three protagonists in a second and revised paperback edition of Project Cheers, reissued in 2016 by Russell and Ashlyn Brown of Port Townsend Watercraft, which also offers prints of the Cheers poster by artist Bruce Alderson. The book packs a triple punch: singlehanded ocean racing adventure, organizing a successful campaign on a limited budget, and details of multihull design and wood/epoxy construction.

Brown, himself a multihull proponent and meticulous practitioner of wood/epoxy construction, crossed the Pacific on the 36 (11m) Jzerro, a proa he designed and built. In 2022 American solo sailor Ryan Finn singlehanded Jzerro from New York to San Francisco around Cape Horn, making it the smallest sailing craft to undertake this 14,000-mile voyage successfully.

Meanwhile, Cheers became the first multihull to be declared a historical monument in France, where she was restored and relaunched, documented by an 18-minute video with English subtitles: https://vimeo.com/110463323.

Project Cheers, paperback, 185 pp, English, $12.95 plus shipping and tax; posters $30 (unsigned), $45 (signed), plus shipping and tax. https://Cheersdicknewick.com/2016/02/02/the-book/.

—D.L.