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Beauty on the Waves

Fairlie Yachts made its name restoring vintage sailing boats, in recent years bringing traditional skills to its modern creations

W illiam Fife was perhaps the greatest-ever British boatbuilder. Between 1880 and 1940 he created yachts that excelled in terms of performance, aesthetics and innovation, joining forces with tea magnate Sir Thomas Lipton to mount a British challenge for the America’s Cup. Even today, his creations are distinctive – matching sleek, elegance with shining timbers and glittering brasswork.

Fife’s legacy endures in particular in the work of Fairlie Yachts, a Southampton-based company that excels both in the restoration of original Fife creations and in the manufacture of vessels based on the designer’s original specifications.

Fairlie director Duncan Walker says: ‘Fife was one of four great yacht designers of the time, the others being Alfred Milne, Charles Nicholson and George Lennox Watson. His quality of build was the best of all of them in terms of the skill level involved. All four were highly competent naval architects, but only Fife really paid attention to the look of his yachts – he was an artist as well as a designer. Nicholson, for example, was a brilliant technician, but less interested in looks. If an ugly boat was best for the job, he didn’t mind building one.’

Walker believes Fife produced around 600 yachts during his career and that around 200 of these are still in existence today. ‘His boats were definitely built to last,’ he says.

Fairlie, which takes its name from the Scottish village where Fife was based, can trace its origins back to 1986 when Walker was approached by the Swiss industrialist, Albert Obrist. ‘He was a great collector of vintage Ferraris and he had decided he would also like to restore yachts.’

The boat Obrist had purchased was the 105ft Altair, originally built by Fife in 1931. The restoration took 18 months and to an extent set the standard for such projects. This was followed shortly after by a second boat, the 76ft Tuiga – now the flagship of the Yacht Club of Monaco.

‘Fife was one of four great yacht designers of the time. His quality of build was the best of all of them in terms of the skill level involved.’

In 1991 Walker bought up all Fife’s original plans, leaving him uniquely well-placed to restore any of the designer’s surviving yachts.

It is clearly a labour of love, but the amount of work involved is considerable and the job has to be approached with plenty of forethought and delicacy.

‘The most important thing when restoring one of these yachts is to have faith in the original designs. We’re dealing with the work of the cleverest people in the yacht-designing world. If they drew something on a plan then they did it for a reason.’

Walker has seen first hand the effects of going off-plan – he has restored yachts that were essentially splitting between keel and hull. Other issues concern the sheer age of the vessels and the materials with which they were originally made.

‘The biggest problem with all these restorations is the reaction between the iron fittings and the oak. The wood contains tannic acid and that gradually erodes the metal,’ he adds.

In-depth restorations such as these are painstaking and time-consuming, with a 90ft yacht taking as long as two and a half years to be transformed once again to ocean-going elegance.

Those sleek lines do come at a certain cost, however. As Walker points out: ‘Customer expectations have changed a lot in the past 100 years. Today many people want more berths on board than it’s feasible to fit into an original Fife yacht because they’re just not wide enough.’

‘A friend of mine has just got hold of a Fife boat that was built in 1892. It had been left in a shed in Scotland and forgotten.’

There is also the question of price – restoring a vintage sailing boat can end up costing considerably more than making a new one from scratch. This – combined with the fact that original Fife yachts rarely appear on the open market – led Walker to begin making modern versions of the boats – similar in aesthetics, but more modern in materials and technology.

‘As sailing boats our modern Spirit of Tradition yachts perform at far higher levels than the vintage ones,’ says Walker, ‘but the aesthetics are still very important – below the waterline there is modernity, but above the waterline the boats preserve the spirit of Fife’s design.’

These modern classics certainly have all the outward poise and grace of the originals, but it is still an exciting piece of news when one of the vintage boats is discovered – especially when it is believed to have been lost long ago.

Says Walker: ‘A friend of mine has just got hold of a Fife boat that was built in 1892. It had been left in a shed in Scotland and forgotten – I doubt it’s been sailed in at least a generation. It’s going to make a fantastic restoration project.’

Hopefully that boat will be ready in time for an event that brings together surviving Fife yachts, off the coast of their original home of Fairlie, every five years. The next Fife regatta is scheduled for 2018 – with more than 20 of the finest sailing yachts ever built on display. It should be worth the wait.

Words: DH

This article was originally published in Halcyon magazine in 2014

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