Friday, 29 June 2012

Authenticity versus Modernity

People often say, with reference to their favourite designer (Watson, Mylne, Fife ...) if he'd only heard of carbon fibre he'd have used it. It's rather trite, like saying the Vikings would have used epoxy instead of moss to caulk their seams and the Picts would have been far happier with fibreglass coracles than skin ones. Readers of the Jack Aubrey stories will know that only under something like the post system, which placed senility at the top level within the Lords of the Admiralty, would one deliberately hold out against progress. Even they gave out in the end when it stared them in the face, or rather the stern, as happened when HMS Rattler won her tug of war against the Alecto in March 1843, finally demonstrating to even the most afflicted of their Lordships that propellers are better than paddles.

I had the chance to spend a weekend reflecting on the issues of mixing modern materials and old boats just after September Eleven at a conference in Monaco, attended by many from throughout Europe but virtually none from the States, for obvious reasons, apart from Olin Stephens, who had spent a good bit of that Summer in the Mediterranean.

We had found the invitation from the Principality a few months earlier behind the door of our retreat in a remote corner of Argyll, addressing me as the President of the Scottish Classic Yachts, an organisation that I had not heard of until then, but that I was pleased to establish immediately.

Anne and I will always remember the wonderful hospitality we enjoyed that weekend and the sights that we saw. We had not previously seen the sea being hoovered by floating vacuum cleaners to remove all traces of late night revelry, nor hills with lifts inside them to save the weary feet (how many Munros could visitors bag with such devices, were the Scottish Government only to fit them here). There were extreme contrasts of style and naffness, at one end the Clubhouse with its glittering crystal gantry and elegant, solicitous, tuxedo-clad bartender, at the other a harbour parade of Rivas chauffeured by dark-suited Italian industrialists, their, usually somewhat younger, ladies taking part in a "Princess Grace Look-alike Competition".

The conference had a serious purpose, however, to consider and vote on proposed  new racing rules for adoption by the CIM (Comite Internationale de la Mediterranee) introducing a "co-efficient of authenticity" in terms of which yachts would be handicapped for racing on the basis of the extent to which "inauthentic" materials had been used in construction or restoration. This followed a number of races in which the fifteen-metre The Lady Anne, with carbon fibre in her top-mast had trounced the Tuiga, the club yacht of the Yacht Club de Monaco. (The thought did occur that the latter's crack English crew disciplined by a certain Mr Goss had had something to do with vanquishing a slightly more laid-back local team.)

Simply stated, the new rules required a yacht that contained certain materials, whether or not critical to her speed (formica in the galley perhaps an example of the latter) to carry a penalty of a percentage of a varying amount dependent on significance.

In the course of the discussions, which I attended while Anne marvelled at the wonders of the harbour and its denizens, it seemed that there was a clear divide between the Northern Europeans and those from the Mediterranean. (Perhaps some of us felt that we wouldn't be invited back anyway.) Our Swedish friends pointed out that many old square-metre boats were maintained by youngsters who could not afford authenticity. I felt greatly in sympathy, as I was then in my sixth year of the restoration of Stroma, using the best materials I could afford. (I've already written about that project, here Reflections on the Scottish Islanders) Their and my mild reservations were supported by a charismatic senior yachtsman from Britanny, whose considerable personal wealth gave him the credibility in that company to point out forcefully that prohibiting the only materials that many enthusiasts could afford would render the sport ridiculously exclusive and kill it off in the longer term.

At the end of the weekend there was a delightful dinner in the clubhouse and the next morning we were driven back to the airport by one of the royal bodyguards in a Lincoln with tinted-glass windows. We were also informed that the measures had been duly passed.

A problem may have been resolved for those competing in races along the South of France but for the rest of us it remains. So far I've highlighted the question of money and for me affordability wins hands-down. A generation or so ago yachting was truly the sport of the super-rich and we must avoid going back there, or the sport will stifle itself with exclusivity. What are the other issues?

Authenticity has a number of facets. In its purest form perhaps it should be confined to museums, although the treatment of the Cutty Sark shows another way forward, preserving the artifact while enhancing the visitor experience with proper access by use of modern technology. At least one hopes so, but of course only time will tell.

Elsewhere these competing aims, conservation and visitor experience have conflicted disastrously. The old City of Adelaide, latterly Carrick, sat more or less happily afloat in Glasgow until after a few sinkings, from which she always recovered, and some complicated political intrigues, the details of which have never been disclosed to the tax-payer who ultimately paid for them, she found herself in the lower Clyde where, contrary to much professional advice, she suffered the fate of being hauled on a slipway to dry out for the first time since her launch in 1864. A dubious visitor magnet was created at the cost of the ship herself, which proceeded to destroy herself over the following years.

The lesson is that in pure conservation terms some things should be left where they are, perhaps even if that is on the bed of the sea in some cases.

People are very emotional about pedigree too and will value something that is demonstrably old even in the face of evidence that perhaps most of it isn't. It may be true that a hundred or so years ago a client presented William Fife III with a hatch picked up from the shore after a storm and simply said "please repair my yacht". More recently it's certainly true that after the Barnato Bentley known as "Old Number One" sold for £10 million the purchasers, a company financed by a Mr Kohji Nakauchi refused to pay for it on the grounds that the car had been rebuilt so many times it was no longer the original. The purchaser lost and the case report is a splendid piece of judicial writing by Mr Justice Otton, worth reading, here The Case of Old Bentley Number One

The sad thing in all this is that the value in the works of our great designers should be precisely in the designs that they produced, rather than the original manifestations thereof, but the marketplace says that it isn't. Until it does many of those fantastic designs will be destined to remain on the page rather than on the water.

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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water