If you love yachts, and I mean really love yachts, then you have to love classic yachts. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a motor yacht, a tender, or a sailing yacht; for sheer head-turning elegance there’s little to beat the classic lines of an old yacht.
Owning one, of course, is a different matter. All yachts are a money dump but, if you need to get rid of a suitcase full of tightly-packed readies in a hurry, then an old wooden yacht can probably do the job more efficiently than a shredder.
Better still, why not race them on line starts, when you need to have titanium nerves plus just a bit of sailing nous? There’s no better way to sort out the serious sailors from the weekend wanderers. Racing classic yachts is all about getting down and dirty.
That’s why I’ve been going along to the Panerai Classic Yachts regatta off Cowes for the past four years. It’s an odd event in some ways, a marriage between yacht owners with a passion for the old ways of sailing and a watch brand that relies for its heritage on the heroics of Italian naval divers in World War II.
The chunky Panerai watches were first used by Italian frogmen commandos, guiding manned torpedoes. Today the Panerai brand has developed a niche of its own, sponsoring classic yacht racing. The company has its own classic yacht, the Bermudan ketch, Eilean, built by William and Fife and Son, a Scottish shipyard that became a byword for quality in the construction of wooden leisure yachts.
“Preserving the connection with the sea means that Panerai needs to be linked to its heritage. The classic boat is something exclusive and very rare. The modern boat is an expression of technology. They don’t bring the real tradition of the sea,” says Angelo Bonati, Panerai's chief executive. Not a superyacht fan, then.
So every year the Panerai tent comes in to town and the watch people entertain the classic yacht owners over dinner at The Royal Yacht Squadron. It was the squadron that in 1851 hosted the original America’s Cup and whose officers had to break the news to Queen Victoria that the event had been won by the yacht, America. “Who came second?” she asked. “Your Majesty, there is no second,” was the crestfallen reply. She was not amused.
I watched one of the races this year with Barry Dunning, a former Olympic sailor who once served as bowman on Sir Edward Heath’s yacht, Morning Cloud II, when Heath was prime minister. “He was not the easiest of skippers,” says Dunning.
Heath’s old yacht, now renamed Opposition, is a regular at the Cowes event. I sailed against her a year or two back on Athena, an eight-metre-long racing yacht built in 1939 for Marcus Wallenberg Jr, part of the Swedish banking dynasty.
I remember it was an aggressive race start; they can be quite hairy in these classic events. A few years ago the historic Gypsy Moth IV that was sailed around the world by Sir Francis Chichester, had her original mizzen mast destroyed in a starting collision.
While the market for classic-styled boats remains energetic, a finite number of restorable hulks has led to a growing interest in replicas and classically-styled yachts, such as the Spirit yachts, built in Ipswich. It was a Spirit 54 that featured in the James Bond film Casino Royale.
The Spirits, with their spoon bows and tapered beams, are fast yachts, rigged with all the latest lines and sails, so they sail in a class of their own. As do the J-Class yachts that deserve a column of their own, so I’ll return to them another time. Suffice to say that just about all the J-Class yachts that were built, or for which lines plans exist, have been restored or reconstructed.
Sean McMillan, co-owner of Spirit Yachts says he doesn’t see his yachts as replicas or retro designs but yachts that are contemporary and beautiful. “I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive,” he says. “I want to build boats of the best possible performance, using modern technology, hydro-dynamics and engineering. I simply don’t accept that all modern boats have to be fat, white, ugly and plastic.”
He has a point. There are far too many boring white boats out there, although I think the 37-metre long Heesen yacht, Aurelia, with its bright blue paintwork, orange stripe and number 10 emblazoned on the side, does look a little too much like a racing car. You don’t often see the words “subtle” and “superyacht” used side-by-side, and, for sure, there’s nothing subtle about Aurelia’s paint job.
Not all classic yachts are made of wood. At the Cowes regatta I helped crew one of the early alloy yachts, Gulvain, a 1949 Laurent Giles sloop cutter built for ocean racing. The hull is made of Birmabright, an alloy of aluminium and magnesium. The current owner found it on EBAY of all places.
We jumped the line and had to circle back. While this is a big disappointment if your heart’s set on winning, it doesn’t really matter much in this racing, although I guess it means the owner can kiss goodbye to the prospect of winning a Panerai watch. The good bit about coming from behind is that there’s a chance to overtake slower yachts and that’s always a good source of crew motivation. We did pretty well in the end.
Classic yacht owners don’t fit a particular mould but they do seem to be wedded to their yachts. David Murrin, chief investment officer of the hedge fund, Emergent Asset Management and commodore of the British Classic Yacht Club, says he cannot imagine parting with his restored 1955 Bermudan sloop, Cetewayo.
“I was conceived on a wooden boat, brought up on one and bought a wooden boat before I bought a house. I truly love my classic boat,” he says. “It’s a real experience to be on and around her. My soul is there.” Heart, soul, passion – these are words that you hear a lot around classic yachts. And that’s what yachting should be all about – a love affair with your boat and with the sea.
Richard Donkin is a writer, journalist and photographer. He writes on yachting and the superyacht industry for the Financial Times and is the author of two books, The History of Work and The Future of Work.
In addition to his sailing blog 'Cardinal Points', Richard writes on fishing, travel, employment and life, all of which can be found on his website at RichardDonkin.com
*Thumbnail and last image supplied by Richard Donkin,
*Second image courtesy of Guido Contini/Panerai British Classic Week.