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Tribute to Neil Fowler Designer of Arrow and Arafura Catamarans

The Following Article is a post from an interesting Multihull website Outrigmedia we thank them for permission to post on our site.


Neil Fowler was one of the founding members of The Darwin Sailing Club, established in 1963. Neil brought with him a Quickcat – a 16 ft Australian catamaran designed in 1957 by Lindsay Cunningham. It’s worth remembering that the first modern beach cat, the Shearwater, first appeared in the UK in 1956, so Quickcats were also among the very first. They had double-ended dory hulls connected by a rather complex wooden structure which supported the mast, a central centre-board, a hiking plank, and a small plywood bridge deck.
Neil had sold the Quickcat by the time I arrived in Darwin, and was designing and building his own catamarans: the 18ft Arafura and the 11 ft. Arafura Cadet. The Arafura and the Cadet were similar in concept: Both had dory hulls, a plywood bridge deck, and a central swing-up centerboard. Neil sold Cadets in kit form, and possibly also the Arafura as well. One of the Rum Jungle exploration team, geophysicist John Ashley, had built a Cadet, and I decided I wanted one too. So in the wet season, when field-work was over for the year, I bought a kit from Neil and set about assembling the boat.
Those were the days of Resorcinol glue and polyester resin, and although epoxy existed, it was not generally available. Unlike epoxy, resorcinol is not gap-filling, my carpentry was far from perfect, and so the boat leaked somewhat at the chines. It had a wooden mast, made of two halves which Neil hollowed out with his router and then glued together, and the rig comprised a main and a jib, with a total area of 75 square ft, or 7 square meters. It cost me a couple of hundred dollars to build, and was light enough for me to be able to load it onto the roof of the VW by myself. At some point the centerboard broke off, and as it didn´t seem to make much difference, I never got around to making another one.
Although I never raced, I had a lot of fun on Darwin Harbor with that boat, and it taught me the basics of sailing. I remember it being extremely well balanced, and I could steer hands-off by shifting my weight fore and aft. Darwin has big tides, and one day I left the boat rigged up on the beach, with an incoming tide, while I went home for something or other. When I came back, the tide was up and the boat gone. I persuaded someone to take me out in a power boat, and found the catamaran a couple of miles out, sailing quietly towards Indonesia.
Meanwhile, Neil was designing other catamarans, and the Arafura Arrow appeared in 1964. This was a 14 ft boat, which filled a gap between the little Cadet and the 18 ft Arafura. In 1965, he designed the Minx, also 14 ft, but different in concept to the Arrow: it had very buoyant V-bottomed hulls, and raised side-side decks, making the bridge deck a kind of rudimentary cockpit. It could probably carry three or even four people and was more of a cruising boat than the Arrow, which was designed for one or two. Neil organized evening classes where he showed people how to build Minxes, and I built a pair of hulls, but moved back to Sydney before I could finish the boat. (I sold them to a geologist friend, John Shields, who completed the boat and raced it).
Neil always seemed to have some new catamaran in progress in his garage, but the Arafura, Arafura Cadet, Arrow and Minx are the boats I knew at the time. He went on to design the Mosquito in 1966 after I had left. Mosquitos were among the first of the ‘second generation’ beach cats, with round-bottom developed ply hulls, twin dagger boards, aluminum cross beams, and a trampoline. Then came the Black Witch, which I believe was a scaled-up Mosquito, and the 20 ft Wirraway, which was a micro cruiser with a small cabin, commercially produced as the Red Baron.
After leaving Darwin, I returned to Sydney, hooked on catamaran sailing. I bought a 12 ft Kitty cat, which is a snub-nosed New Zealand boat with an alarming amount of sail for its size, including a spinnaker. According to one account, the designer had noticed that the rules governing 12 ft skiff racing had nothing to say about the number of hulls permitted, and the Kitty was supposed to blow these dinghies out of the water, although I can’t vouch for this story. It was certainly a handful at times, and was the only catamaran I ever raced. In fact, in a mixed fleet of various dinghies I found myself in the lead and might have won if I had known where the next mark was.
My next catamaran was a Solo 16, which I built in the early 1970s. I can’t for the life of me remember the designer´s name, except that he was from Adelaide, and the boat has disappeared without trace from internet sources. The Solo had Quickcat ancestry, with similar dory hulls but there the resemblance stopped: It had twin dagger boards instead of a central centerboard, and the heavy wooden structure connecting the hulls was replaced by aluminum beams and a trampoline. The mast was supported by twin forestays, so there was no headsail. It had a hiking plank, and was quite fast, especially single-handed. Hiking out on the plank it was easy to fly a hull, but the boat always felt under control and never looked like nose-diving. I had a few capsizes and breakages, but the boat was easy to right, even when fully inverted. The Solo seemed to me to be a much better boat than the Hobie 16, which had appeared in vast numbers by then. I sometimes wonder why the Solo never became more popular. Maybe it was eclipsed by the second generation of catamarans with stitch-and-glue construction and more sophisticated hull shapes.
I moved away from catamaran sailing for many years after the 1970s, although I owned several monohulls, and restored a classic 28 ft Laurent Giles yacht. But a few years ago, now living in Lima, I built a 14 ft Pixie beach cat, which is a Richard Woods design, and I still sail it. The current project, almost complete, is a Strike 16 trimaran, also by Richard Woods, and the next one will be a 10 ft trimaran designed by John Marples, which I hope can be used by disabled people. I will never be bored as long as I can build and sail these boats.
Neil was one of the pioneers of Australian catamaran development. In the 1960s, There were a few other catamarans around including Attungas and Yvonnes as well as the Quickcats, but Neil´s designs were the ones that caught on, first in Darwin and then throughout Australia, and hundreds were built. Cadets and Arrows, modernized in the 1970s with trampolines and aluminum beams, are still being built and raced in Australia today under the auspices of the National Arafura and Arrow Association, which has branches in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Mosquitos are still sailed in those states as well. Neil´s influence made Darwin one of the premier catamaran-sailing centers in Australia in the 1960s, through his designs, boat-building classes and encouragement. He died in 2006 aged 84.
I once posted on a popular catamaran forum asking if anyone had heard of Neil Fowler. No-one had. This seems a shame to me because Neil was one of the pioneers who influenced the early development of small catamarans in Australia along with the better-known names from England and the USA. I was lucky to be living in Darwin at the time when he was designing and building those boats fifty years ago. Everyone who sails a beach cat today owes something to those early designers and builders of the 1950s and 1960s.

5 thoughts on “Tribute to Neil Fowler Designer of Arrow and Arafura Catamarans


    My first venture in to sailing was on Leslie Dam Warwick after I had purchased a kit boat ( timber mast ) from a girl who had trouble handling it.
    After moving to Mackay and joining the local sailng club I purchased a few arrows over time incl one of the Flower Power boats.
    As interest grew & the fleet increased we built a jig that proved popular.
    By this time I was becoming competitive & started going away to regattas,
    State & National championships. No top places but great enjoyment.
    Many things come to memory .
    I actually protested Frank O’Rourke out of a race at Kepple Bay ( still friends ) & had a mast come down when a shackle broke out to sea at Keppel Bay.
    My last boat Slezi Su actually ended up on a post card promoting Keppel Bay.
    I enjoy reading the news on the web site & notice that Frank & Darryl Skinner are still at it.
    Now 83 it is time to remember the great times spent on a Arrow.

  • Gully says:

    Great story about a great sailor and Australian. My youth was spent in Arafura Cadets, Quickcats and later Tornados. So Thank you Neil Fowler & Charlie Cunningham. It’s a pity it was so long ago and before the internet not much of that history has been saved

  • Jono Bateman says:

    I certainly knew Neil Fowler. I was racing Arafura cadets in Darwin in the mid late 70s about the time we changed to alloy beams etc. I bought my AC from the club which was using it for training but was a bit of a handfull, so they bought a fleet of glass Sabots. The AC I bought was named Clive Laird, Im assuming after a club member who I dont recall meeting. (I was 13 at the time) Clive Laird carried sail number 1. Neil offered to buy the sail off me, but I declined as I wanted to keep the number. I renamed her Mala and went on to win the 1978 national in that boat. 47 years on, after years of Cobra racing, I’m just returning to racing Arrows on the Sunshine Coast Qld. The Arrow and Arafura sailing scene is stronger tham ever these days. A poor mans A class with more freedom. I call it. So Neil Fowler definetly got it right.

    • Trevor James says:

      Hi. I also grew up in Darwin and learned to sail and race on an Arafura Cadet my dad built was called Impala. He then went on to build and race an Arrow, it was called Springbok. i can not recall the sail numbers though.

      • Jono Bateman says:

        Hey Trevor My mate Brendon Dally sailed Impala at same time I sailed Mala (around 76 _ 78) Maybe he bought it off you?? We both travelled from Darwin to Lake Coitharaba for 77 /78 nationals with those boats. Cheers. Jono Bateman

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