Named after one of the galaxy’s brightest stars, Altair has long been considered the benchmark in restored pre-war classic sailing yachts. Stepping on board this ultimate 40m vintage craft, which kicked off the classic yacht revival, one can’t help but be captivated by her majestic elegance and originality.
One of only three sailing boats nestled among the enormous motor yachts alongside Cannes’ Palais des Festival, she's ‘an incredible boat’ according to Captain Stephane Benfield, who has been in charge since 2006.
As the crew try to hold back the hands of time on her deck, varnishing to maintain the immaculate teak decking, Stephane explains: ‘We want her to shine like a gem’.
That shouldn’t be too difficult. A masterpiece of design, Altair was commissioned by Captain Guy H MacCaw in 1929 as an anxiety free round the world cruiser (his original letter to designer and boat builder William Fife III hangs in Stephane’s cabin). She was completed in 1931 in Fairlie, Scotland and was one of Fife’s last yachts but never made it beyond France under MacCaw’s ownership.
He sold her to Liberal MP Viscount Runciman, who in turn sold her to Sir William Verdon-Smith before she was bought by the Admiralty to play a role in the Second World War. Following careful stewardship throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s in the hands of Spanish owners, she was bought by Southampton Yacht Services, who worked with Swiss Ferrari restorer Albert Obrist, evolving into Fairlie Restorations, to pioneer Altair’s painstaking two year restoration.
Stephane became part of Altair’s story, joining as first mate when the current owner, US filmmaker and commercials director Joe Pytka, bought her in 2005. ‘We went to the Caribbean and by the following February, they offered me the job of captain’, recalls Stephane. ‘I was 30 and had spent 10 years specialising on gaff rig classic boats, working for some legendary captains, so I was really lucky, I’d learnt a lot.’
‘But it was a baptism of fire as we embarked on a breathtaking regatta schedule on both sides of the Atlantic. I had an incredible crew and together we had an awesome season. Our feet didn’t touch the ground for the first two years.’
Hailing from Poole, Dorset, Stephane began his career on boats walking the docks and getting his first ride on Amazon, an S&S73. ‘I came to Antibes, cut my hair and worked as hard as I could with every opportunity that was handed to me. I was really lucky, I worked for some amazing captains who took time to teach me and I try to do the same with my crew now. I’m not sure the industry is quite so open to the guys looking to start working on boats now.’
Following a massive refit in 2007, Altair was looking as close to the day she first set sail as possible. Even today, her French polished walnut interior gleams and her panelling, furniture and bathroom fittings are all original. ‘The interior of Altair has hardly changed since 1931, nor has the deck,’ explains Stephane. ‘All the systems below the floor that you don’t see, like the air conditioning, fridges, freezers, batteries and tank are new, so the boat has evolved into the 21st century. Aesthetically, we try to keep it as original as possible. The bunks are comfy, the toilets work, everything has been upgraded to today’s standards but it still looks and feels authentic.’
Classic boats are a labour of love. The maintenance is slow and extreme, sailing them is labour intensive and the regatta season is a massive financial commitment but the rewards outweigh it all. ‘We need 26 race crew for each regatta and they all need flights, accommodation, meals and uniforms,’ explains Stephane. ‘We sail the boat well, especially in heavy winds. We’ve been very successful on the regatta circuit, which is all down to the quality of the race crew who have supported Altair. She really is something special and I find anyone who has raced on her stays loyal and a little bit in love with her.’
Stephane has a close working relationship with Altair’s owner, who starts his summer season each year with Cannes Film Festival and Cannes Lions.
‘Joe is an inspiring man. He has shown total commitment to Altair, even though she is his first boat. He seems to understand just how much TLC she needs to stay the way that she is. I think he has real class and I respect him enormously. It’s ironic that Altair was commissioned in 1931 to do a round the world cruise and she still hasn’t done it in her 83 years. I know Joe would really like to see that day, so we talk about it often.’
For now, Altair’s busy summer season will take her across the Mediterranean and will include a selection of classic regattas, including Cannes & St Tropez. ‘I’ve been really lucky, many captains spend so much of the year away from home but the Altair schedule has allowed me to spend winters with my family, who moved down to Cannes to be with me. Not every captain has it so good and I am deeply grateful; I was even at the birth of both my kids!
Stephane is naturally very proud of Altair’s heritage and loves welcoming old hands back on board. ‘Meeting the guys who worked on the boat in the 1940s and seeing them in tears to be back on board is very moving,’ he adds. ‘And having the grandson and granddaughter of MacCaw on board and seeing their family photos of everyone on board with Guy at the wheel is pretty special too… it’s being part of this incredible history that makes you fall in love with the boat.’
With yachting slowly becoming greener and more eco-friendly, Stephane applauds the strict controls that are in place. ‘Here in Cannes, you get a €10,000 fine if you put black water into the port or you haven't got the right set up on the boat. The products we use on deck have to be durable in the sun and salt and sadly they are pretty toxic but we try where possible to keep the chemicals to a minimum. Everything we use on the interior is organic and as clean from toxins as possible. If you have swum in the Med in August, you don’t need much convincing that we have a responsibility to take care of our oceans and our planet as well as the boat itself.’
The advantages of being Captain of a SY over a MY
We’re a totally different breed, and I guess this is open to personal opinion, but I think the thrill of riding the ocean under sail, without the noise of an engine or generator, is one of the greatest privileges anyone could wish for. It really is man and nature working together to make the boat move and I’ll never tire of that feeling.
His most treasured possession
The letter commissioning the boat, written by Guy MacCaw to William Fife on Valentine’s Day, 1930 is very special. It starts ‘Dear Mr Fife, I’m sending your firm the definite order for the boat for my 44th birthday.’ I also treasure the family photos from Guy MacCaw’s archives showing him with his family on the boat.
The biggest headache in sailing currently is…
Finding a berth can be tricky sometimes, but really, how can I talk about any headaches? I feel like the luckiest man alive to work with this beautiful boat, doing what I love with such great people around me and working in this thriving industry. It’s a pretty amazing life.
*Images used with permission