Saturday, 3 September 2011

Reflections on the Scottish Islanders

Setting out on Shona, image by Richard Pierce
It is unlikely that the current Scottish Islands Class owners will ever recapture the spirit of friendly competition and daring enjoyed by the original bunch, but at least in recent years there have been serious attempts to resurrect the Class and return the surviving boats to their original configuration.

Butterflies on the Clyde, image by Ian G Gilchrist

This process was started by Martyn Webster about twenty years ago when he brought Cara back from Wales and had her professionally restored. Having found a new owner for her he repeated the exercise with Isla and Bernera. During this period David Spy recovered Gigha from the shore at Kings Cross on Arran, where she had lain for many years, and restored her to perfection. My own boat Stroma was on loan to the Scottish Maritime Museum for a time, as she had become unseaworthy and I did not know what to do with her. By 1995 she had deteriorated further and it was clear that the Museum had no resources, so I started what was to become an eight year restoration. Then Paddy Shaw took on Canna and restored her, incredibly, over just one winter. In the meantime Martyn, having sold Isla and Bernera, commissioned a new yacht, Shona, from Richard Pierce, formerly of Windermere and now of Luing. As a result of all this there are now seven boats in Class and the Association has been reformed with a new constitution.

There is an enormous volume of material available to those who wish to undertake yacht restoration. The problem is that much of it is contradictory, being invariably written by persons in one of a number of camps and often with no actual experience of such projects. Some believe that old vessels have a soul that will be destroyed by restoration. They expect their boats to leak through decks and coachroofs, through the hull when at rest but especially if they ever sail in winds above the most gentle. Some will glue a new glass skin to an ill-prepared old hull, stiffen the interior with girders, fit a new, highly-stressed rig and take on the racing circuit. It is very difficult nowadays to find a traditional six metre yacht that has not had this treatment.

A third and very much smaller, but high profile, group believe that restoration must be done precisely in accordance with the original plans and specifications, using original materials and methods. The obvious problem with this approach is the cost involved. Less obvious are the difficulties in complying with modern safety requirements, requiring non-original engines, navigational and safety equipment and so on. Authenticity is fine for those who want and can afford to pay for it, but for most ordinary people it is not an option.

The obsession in much of the yachting press with this last group, typified by the extensive coverage of events in the Mediterranean, only encourages elitism and must frighten off many who would otherwise see the acquisition of a traditional yacht as a viable option.

When I started the restoration of Stroma I had no clear idea about how this should be done. I wanted only to do the best job possible within my means, which did not extend to employing specialist ship-wrights. On the one hand I have always  liked and respected traditional ways. It is reassuring to know that something works and with new methods you can never be sure. On the other hand I had seen yachts beautifully restored using traditional methods that after a couple of years had reverted to their previous condition. This was probably always so, because racing yachts were not built or adequately maintained to last indefinitely.   I think that the expense of maintenance was accepted as a fact of life by owners in former years.

It seemed to me that if the structure could be kept together better and water excluded properly the future costs would be kept down. I had built a few small boats using epoxy saturation techniques and they had held together pretty well. I read a great deal about the various methods and became even more confused.
Some of the literature suggested that it was a bad idea to have a rigid hull structure. On reflection however, the important consideration is to keep flexing within the elastic limit of all the materials and coatings used in the structure, and this vital consideration is well illustrated by the frequent failure along planking lines of the paint on traditionally constructed yachts.  Once the paint skin film breaks, water enters the planking, and a downward spiral of deterioration starts.

I became convinced that the main reason why owners would have William Fife build them a new racing-yacht every year was not just a search for a faster boat, but because a new yacht being stiffer would always beat an old one. When an old vessel with loose fastenings strikes a wave she shudders and slows as the energy dissipates through the structure. After two or three such waves she will have lost a proportion of her kinetic energy.  The stiffer vessel will punch her way through and maintain her speed.

The end result was that Stroma was restored using a mixture of old and new techniques. Woods such as mahogany and teak are too scarce to be used in quantity. Even if they could be sourced it seemed to me that I should have hang-ups about using them in great quantity. To give one example the original transom was hewn from a solid block of mahogany about four feet by eighteen inches and, to get the radius, about six inches thick. To replicate this went quite against my principles, let alone levels of skill. The new transom was laminated from marine plywood over a building jig.

I was lucky that friends gave me wood including an ancient mahogany log and some church pews from which by careful use I was able to make all the visible woodwork around and inside the boat without conscience problems.

I do not regret having sheathed the hull in epoxy/glass internally and externally. When Stroma was relaunched in September 2003 she floated perfectly, disproving at least the moaners who predicted she would be weighed down with all the glue and cloth I had added.  In fact I think the weight added is probably about equal to the weight of the water which she no longer absorbs. She no longer displays cracks between the planks but otherwise looks as she did before.

The project was to consume about five thousand hours of my time. Being spread over eight years the cost was easily affordable and of course I saved the cost of a social life during that period.

Stroma at Crinan, image by Clive Brown
The other restorations have been done in a much more traditional manner and have been entirely successful. Clearly there are various options which will work. There seem to have been no significant differences in boat speed on the occasions when the new and restored boats have met.

Shona, the new boat, is of monocoque woodstrip core epoxy glass construction, which can be quite light.  Because the yacht was required to demonstrate traditional sailing properties Richard Pierce kept the weight distribution as original by increasing the scantlings, which resulted in a massively strong hull. He has confirmed that she took 3400 professional man-hours to plan and build from scratch, excluding spars and rigging. The result is a beautiful powerful boat combining traditional looks and the lack of maintenance of a modern yacht.

The Islanders are now virtually the only surviving indigenous Scottish one design class. I hope that these recent developments show that they remain ideal for their intended purposes of round the buoys racing and occasional short cruises on the West coast. With two or three candidates for restoration still available as well as a set of drawings for new construction there are opportunities for anyone interested.

If  you want to find out more about the Scottish Islanders  please visit my dedicated blog,, where this post first appeared a year ago.

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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water