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.

Saturday, 16 June 2012


Juni is a masterwork of Swedish boat carpentry, her hull planked close-seam from a hard close-grained mahogany, no caulking, no splines and, I suspect no glue either. This has its problems in a little ship that’s forty years old and has obviously been through a few escapades.

Doing the repairs was rather nerve-wracking, as I am no cabinet-maker. There were some strategic decisions to be made, as I wanted to respect the skills with which the boat had been made while ending up with a seaworthy, useable vessel. That the construction was so fine ruled out some of the more robust approaches which would have guaranteed keeping the water out. Among other things I’ve had to fix some nasty splits in a few of her bottom planks, clinkering between some of the others and quite a few broken timbers, all as unobtrusively as possible.

As a result of this approach it was no surprise, just a bit upsetting, to find Juni weeping rather badly on being returned to her element after about ten years ashore, the last seven inside a shed.

This is where the surrinduppity (I’ve adopted the Brother’s spelling) comes in. If we were dealing with an old loch boat, her boat-skin planked in good Scottish larch, we’d just secure her with some stones and leave her sunk for a few days. With a close-planked hull of fine hardwood and a ballast keel this is not a good idea. The ideal would be a nice soft mud-berth, but Argyll isn’t Essex and the shores here are sharp and rocky.

Salvation was found literally round the corner from where we launched, at the Melfort Pier, a luxury holiday complex whose houses circle a calm private dock and whose owners love boats, or at least lovely little ones like Juni. Under one of the houses we found the ideal sick bay, a secluded berth just wide enough and with fixing points for the long diagonal warps that are necessary to cope with the rise and fall of the tide.

For the first couple of days I was pumping every six hours or so, but six days after launching things are getting better. I’m down to pumping every twelve hours and it will be interesting to see if and when there is any further improvement, or if she has to come out again for further treatment. That the hull is from a hard, close-grained timber is not helping, nor is the fact that she is now so well protected by all the paint I have put on, so I’m living in hope. 

Monday, 11 June 2012

Stroma is for sale (Correction, see below, was for sale)

I am posting this to let my friends know, in advance of formal marketing, that I have decided with huge regret to sell my beloved yacht Stroma, number four of the historic Scottish Islands Class, built in 1929 by McGruers to a design by Alfred Mylne. There is a full history of the class on my website,

Scottish Islanders are absolutely lovely boats, well behaved in virtually all normal conditions, fast and elegant. The compromise is the limited accommodation, which I have always considered a small price to pay for such a wonderful sailing experience.

Stroma was extensively rebuilt by me, with help from a few friends, and her spars, rigging and sails were all renewed before she was relaunched in 2003.

I decided not to instal an engine, so that would be for a new owner to decide.

I bought Stroma in 1976 when I was 28 years old and have had numerous adventures on her with my friends over the years. It’s only advancing age and the lack of regular sailing companions that are causing me to sell her.

Stroma is lying ashore at Kilmelford, in order that her topsides can be repainted, just to freshen her appearance as there are no cracks showing. I’m also doing a number of small jobs to ensure that she’s in fine condition for a new custodian.

Update Spring 2013

Stroma didn't sell, to my great relief as it would have broken my heart. I'm sharing her with Adam Way, talented master boat builder, who is keeping her at Crinan and will look after here there. He's one of the very few people to whom I'd entrust such an artifact and it's great that he's fallen in love with her.

Just about afloat at last

The last week has seen Juni out of her workshed and along to our friends’ slipway where she was returned to her element after about ten years ashore. Predictably a lot of water came in and I’ve been pumping her every few hours, but this morning’s session at 5.30am suggested the inflow is going down a little. The following pictures tell the story better than words.

blinking in the daylight
very tight fit on flatbed

nearly ready to go
tricky slip with dogleg
the launching team, combined age (minus wagon) just over 200

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water