Having spent more than a decade in The City as a derivatives trader for Barclays, Mat Barker has seen quite a few crashes in his day. He had only joined up with the international banking behemoth when Black Monday rolled around in 1987 and was more seasoned when Black Wednesday hit in 1992. Maybe he smelled something sour in the air late in 1998, because he quit his job before the Dot-Com bubble burst and went off travelling.
The Sheffield-native, who grew up sailing on reservoirs, was trying to figure out what to do when he came across S/Y The Blue Peter. This beuatiful classic yacht had been neglected and altered from her original form, but when Barker came across her in Elba in 1999, he saw her potential.
Launched in 1930, The Blue Peter was designed by Alfred Mylne and built by W. King & Sons of Burnham-on-Crouch. She spent her first 20 years winning more than 50 races around the coast of England. After three successive Italian owners, Barker decided to restore her to her former glory, and spent three winters in shipyards. The yacht is now both work and passion for Barker, as he’s transformed her into a unique charter yacht for race-enthusiasts and romantics alike. The Blue Peter has not only won regattas in Ajaccio, Antibes, Barcelona and Cannes, but she was also the winner of “Most Authentic Restoration” at Saint-Tropez.
And while the financial collapse of 2008 nearly toppled him, it was a much more literal crash at a race in Antigua in April that has been his most challenging. As they approached the finish line for the race on 20 April, a chainplate on one of the shrouds popped loose and the mast came crashing down.
Luckily, no one was injured and they were towed in to Falmouth Harbour. The boat had to be sailed up to the BVIs where it could then get aboard a freighter headed for the Mediterranean. She spent the summer in the yard in Villefranche-sur-Mer where a new mast was built by Gilbert Pasqui.
Despite the rough luck – including the loss of income from charters and deposits he’s had to return – Barker remained surprisingly upbeat when he met up with OnboardOnline. He wants to return to the Caribbean this winter, and maybe even explore the regatta season in New England next summer.
The Blue Peter is now back on form, and she raced with the new mast on 8 August in the Silver Bollard Regatta in Mallorca. She took third place at the Illes Balears Classic a week later, and after racing well in the Corsica Classique she won overall in Sardinia.
OnboardOnline: After buying The Blue Peter in 1999, what kind of shape was she in?
Mat Barker: “She was not quite ready to sail around the world. So I spent three years restoring her. Well, I was restoring her during the winters and then sailing her in the summers, learning more about classic yachts and learning more about all the original plans for the boat so that we could restore her to as original as possible. Which, incidentally, is what we’re doing with the new mast, because the old mast was cut off and they lost about nine feet off the top of the mast sometime in the 70s because someone wanted to sail her shorthanded. So I’m putting that nine feet back... which is really exciting.
“And then at the end of the three-year restoration, I’d basically run out of money...So I either had to go and get a job or try to make some money out of the boat and I decided to try and make a charter boat out of her. Not in a typical charter boat fashion. I mean, I enjoy racing. And I felt there was a gap in the market because there’s a big classic regatta season over here – about 10 or 12 regattas. I figured that if I got at least 10 or 12 regattas filled, that was more than enough money to keep me in the boat and everything else going. Up until 2008, when the world ended and Lehman Brothers happened, it was all going very well.”
OO: Isn’t that kind of ironic, given that your journey started in the financial sector?
MB: “Yeah, well, it all comes full circle. It paid for it, and it nearly took it away as well. But we got through that, and last year there was a classic yacht trans-Atlantic race – a race specifically for classic yachts. Someone approached me about chartering the boat, to which I obviously said, 'Yes,' because it paid well and it was something I always wanted to do. It was the first time I’d ever sailed across the Atlantic and I thought if I ever do it, I want to do it on my own boat... And having done that, it seemed silly not to spend the winter in the Caribbean. So I did some sailing around the Grenadines and I did some racing around the BVIs and St. Barth’s and Antigua.”
OO: So how did the sailing in the Caribbean compare to the sailing in the Med?
MB: “Ah – it’s top-tier! Sailing in the Caribbean is what people dream about. 15-20-knot tradewinds up and down the islands. It’s pretty amazing all around these beautiful islands, but the racing is not as well organized as it is over here. We’ve had a big regatta season over here for a long time and everything is geared toward the regattas. But everything over there is just good fun - you don’t take anything too seriously. But it was great. I really enjoyed it and I’d quite like to go back.”
OO: Go back just to the Caribbean or other places as well?
MB: “Having done the Med for 10 or 12 years, it was a joy to be over in the Caribbean and to meet new people, see new places, race in new waters. I know the race in Barcelona – I know all the places I race in very well, but it’s nice to go and race in new places. So, I’d like to go and race in New England – there’s quite a big classics scene up there around Newport and Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. So that might be next summer, but we’ve got to get the boat back together first – get a new mast on her, get all that sorted out – and then think about heading out and sailing in new places.”
OO: So where did you go that got you so excited to return to the Caribbean?
MB: “We raced from Cascais in Portugal to Barbados. We spent Christmas and the New Year in Barbados and then we did a bit of work to the boat in Barbados. They have an 'Around-Barbados' race at the end of January that we were talked into staying for, which was brilliant. From there, we did a cruise to the Grenadines, which is just stunning. I mean, beautiful islands. Parts of the Tobago Cays are regularly visited, but some of the islands are just untouched.
“So we did that for a couple of weeks before going back up past Guadalupe and Antigua. Then we went up and raced in the BVIs – the BVI Spring Regatta, where we won a couple of races. Then we went down to St. Barth’s and, unfortunately, I raced on someone else’s boat for that one because I didn’t have a charter. But that’s one I will do again next year, because racing in St. Barth’s is just beautiful.
“After that, we went down to do the Antigua Classics, which is where we broke the mast.”
OO: Right – the mast. So describe to me what happened…
MB: “Well, it was windy. We’d raced a couple of days – we’d had rain squalls and wind and we’d had everything thrown at us. But we were having a good time. You know, a rain squall out there isn’t the end of the world – it just cools you down a little bit.”
OO: And this was in April?
MB: “Yeah – April. On April the 20th. I know that because my birthday’s April the 22nd and I had an emotional rollercoaster for a few days.”
OO: Yeah, I would imagine...
MB: “Yeah, well, we’d had a challenge day where we raced against a boat called Vagabundo...But unfortunately we lost in the first round to Vagabundo - a boat half the size of ours, which we beat by half an hour on an hour-and-a-half course, but on ratings they beat us. But nevermind, we had a couple of good days of sailing. We had a really good first day, it was really windy - 25 or 28 knots. I think it touched 30 a couple of times. Then on the second day, we were got round the course, and I mean big seas, as it had been blowing for a few days. I popped my head down to see if we were on line for the finish and, as I put my head down, it went bang. And I thought, 'Oh, sh*t.' I popped my head up and I just saw the mast. Luckily, no one was hurt and luckily we were nearly at the finish. So we weren’t that far from Falmouth Harbour.”
OO: And what was it exactly?
MB: “One of the chainplates – it pulled it out. Clean pulled it out. Five three-quarter-inch bronze bolts, three of which had sheered and the other two had come out from one of the shrouds.”
OO: So what happened then?
MB: “Luckily, I had good guys on board. The crew was from a boat called Leonore, which wins a lot on the Med circuit. If you’re going to break the mast, you want to have good people on board! And for me, there’s no best-known strategy at this point. You basically check to make sure everyone’s okay, check what you have on board, stop it from bashing the side of the boat, cut the sails free and get everything under control.
"We got everything under control and then got towed back into Falmouth Harbour by the ABSAR [Antigua and Barbuda Search and Rescue] guys, who were brilliant. Please give a mention the ABSAR guys, who are fantastic...
“The top section of my mast is now a bench on the dock in Antigua. We left the bottom section so we could jury-rig something, because we had to get it back up to the BVIs so we could ship it back. So we jury-rigged my storm jib with the foot of it against the stump of the mast and the head at the back of the boat for stability.
“Anyway, we got up to the BVIs and I came home almost immediately to start getting everyone organized. Also to deal with the insurance companies and all that.”
OO: So you’re at least able to do some other work that you’d maybe been putting off a bit?
MB: “Yeah – exactly. When I first bought her in 1999, I took her to Viareggio for six months for work because she’d been neglected. I spent the next two winters in boatyards doing other work, making her more original, and lightening her up because they’d put a lot of stuff in her that they shouldn’t have, like generators, and I wanted to go out and race her. And since then, I haven’t done a major refit. But now, getting all the furniture out gives me the opportunity to get in there and really go to town on painting and just general housekeeping.”
OO: So the six-week timeframe – is that going to be enough to get everything complete?
MB: “You know, it’s going to be tight. But I’ve already said to the guys who are taking the interior out that when it goes back in, if we end up not having time, then let’s just put something in that is functional and works and then do it properly after October when we’re finished. Because I make my living off the boat and I’m not insured for loss of earnings, so I’ve already written off half my season.”
OO: That must be the toughest part…
MB: “Yeah, and I’ve also taken deposits off people that I’ve had to pay back. I had a charter in the Porquerolles two weeks ago which was all booked and paid-for. The owners of a boat called Halloween, which is gorgeous, heard about this and said they’d lend me the boat. The captain happens to be a good friend of mine and he suggested it to the owner. So I didn’t have to pay that one back.”
OO: How has the insurance been in terms of covering the damage so far?
MB: “Well, I’m insured through Pantaenius, and I’ve got to say, so far they’ve been as good as gold. I wrote them an email the day after and they emailed me back on a Sunday, which I was amazed by, saying not to worry. And before the boat had even arrived back, the mast had been started. They haven’t agreed to everything yet, but I think they will.”
OO: So how does this change your schedule for the next year or two?
MB: “I’ve got bookings in August and September that I’m desperate to fulfil because? if I don’t? I’ll upset regular customers and have to pay them back? which I’m not in a position to do, unfortunately. I’m still available for the regatta in Saint-Tropez, and I’m busy trying to sell the regattas that I still have available.
“Then I think I’ll go back to the Caribbean because, having missed half the season here, I need to earn some money! And having been there last year and done all the hard work, and met all the people and, having gotten known out there, I think it will be a lot easier this time. So I’ll go and do that and, like I said, I might head up to New England in the summer and race up there. Because not only am I bored of doing the same thing in the Med every year, I think a lot of my clients are too.”
OO: Tell me a little more about the charter operation you have set up on board. What you offer is pretty unique in that it’s very much geared toward racing…
MB: “When you hire the boat out, you hire me and my first mate. I remain as captain but, I’m quite happy to let other people drive the boat; I’m quite happy to let other people do anything on the boat so long as they’re competent. That’s what makes it fun. But I’ve got a regular set of guys who come out – several sets of guys who come out. They’ve all got nominated drivers and they drive and I’m just crew or tactician or whatever they want me to do. Some of it’s corporate, which is obviously less serious. But some of it is guys who come out and actually want to race, and are reasonable sailors. When I was racing in Antigua, we had an ex-America’s Cup helmsman – an Italian – and he was driving the boat. So we’ve had people with no experience right through to him. And they all have their unique challenges for me; either I'm teaching them to sail or trying to learn from these people. There’s still a lot I can learn – honestly. It’s really just good fun. You get to meet interesting people and you get to race against beautiful boats in beautiful places. There’s not a lot wrong with my life, really – at least, not in that respect.”