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Donkin on Sailing

August 2010 - Panerai Classic Yacht regatta, Cowes  

Navigating the pontoons in front of Cowes yacht haven, among the gleaming brass-work and varnished mahogany of a fleet of classic yachts is like stepping back to a time when wood, hemp and oakum calking ensured that boats were the maritime equivalent of the labours of Sisyphus.

"It's a dangerous pastime," says Dan Houston, editor of Classic Boat magazine. "People have lost everything when a project has run away with them. I have known of men spending years restoring an old yacht, then dying of a heart attack when it's gone in to the water. The strain can become too much."

But for all its financial perils, there is something about a classic yacht that excites passions among sailors unlike anything that can be delivered by a fusion of plastic and composites in the modern production yacht.

Boarding one of the 52 boats competing in the week-long series of races during the   British Classic Yacht Club Panerai Cowes Regatta off the Isle of Wight , it's difficult to disagree with the club's commodore, David Murrin, when he says: "A wooden boat has a soul. There is no doubt about it in my mind. It has a soul and a character and an individuality."

We're racing Murrin's restored, Laurent Giles-designed 50ft Bermudan sloop, Cetewayo, launched in 1957 on the River Clyde and first owned by Sir Henry Spurrier, a former managing director of Leyland Motors.

Murrin, chief information officer and co-founder of Emergent Asset Management, a hedge fund management business, discovered the boat in the late 1980s, abandoned high on Pembroke Dock in poor condition. He was a 26-year-old when he embarked on what he describes as a lifetime relationship, not only restoring the boat to her former racing prowess, but improving her performance through constant adjustments.

"If you're going to buy a classic boat, my view - and I'm quite rare in this respect - is that you should choose one that will last you for life, that will repay the work and the money you are going to put into it," he says. "People who buy a boat and sell it a few years later are missing the point. If you do that you never get your money and usage and pleasure back.

"It's very important to think long term in your ownership, about what you will like and what you will want from the boat. You need to be aware of that process and explore it thoroughly before you go and do it."

Before the race I had imagined the start would be a gentlemanly affair. In fact it's keenly contested, but without all the shouting, chaos and brinkmanship that often characterises race starts among contemporary yachts. We seem well placed but it's difficult to tell when all the entrants have different handicaps.

There are a few idiosyncrasies about this boat. The furling jib is forward of the forestay so needs to be furled and unfurled on each tack but the boat seems to keep its momentum through the tack. Murrin has worked on the minutiae of the set up, finding the most efficient rating within the parameters of the handicapping system.

"Very few people really understand their boats," he says. "I'm a physicist by training so I understand variables." He found, for example, that taking 20 centimetres off the foot of the mainsail did not materially disturb upwind performance, but it did allow a larger spinnaker that made a big improvement to downwind speeds.

Today, however, will be a test not only of design but also of tactics and sailing skill. It's day five of the regatta and the crew have gelled during the earlier races, learning the ways of the boat. All the spinnaker hoists go smoothly but in light airs it's a lot to ask of a 17-ton boat to beat rivals that are sometimes half its weight.

Earlier in the week Murrin was able to take advantage of a poor position behind the fleet, sailing around his fellow competitors to win when he noticed they had entered a wind hole. It's difficult to judge our performance throughout much of this race but near the end it's clear that taking a track down the middle of the fleet is paying off and we come second in our class, what Murrin calls "a truly remarkable performance" given the light conditions.

Classic yacht owners seem to vary between those who want to race and those who simply enjoy the occasion when like-minded owners can share their interest. The British Classic Yacht Club was formed nine years ago to bring together enthusiasts and allow them to race their yachts that are often one-designs, not belonging to a recognised class of boats.

"For nine years we've had a fleet of classic yachts that race. Now we have a fleet of racing boats that are classic yachts. These boats were designed to race, so why not race them properly? I've been a strong advocate of that policy," says Murrin.

When the racing's finished, there's a discernable level of bonhomie among the crews. One of the boats, Kelpie, built in 1904, returns to its mooring accompanied by a lone bagpiper in the top shrouds. The 19 metre gaff cutter, Mariquita, the biggest yacht in the regatta, meanwhile comes alongside the quay with her crew smartly decked out in whites and matching caps. This boat, built in 1911, has handsome lines, gleaming varnished woodwork and masses of sail, yet up to 1990 she was laid up in Suffolk , her masts and keel chopped away so she could be used as a houseboat.

Today these classics of sail are enjoying a new lease of life among owners and crews devoted to their upkeep. But would-be owners are warned that restoring a wooden boat is a long term labour of love. "You need a massive sense of humour and you really need to over budget way beyond anything you would ever imagine if you're going to buy a boat that needs complete renovation," says Murrin who admits that there were times when he felt the pressures of his rebuild.

  "It's brutal, even when you know what you're doing. People used to look at me and say: 'You're bloody mad David,' and to tell you the truth it was a nightmare for two decades, but now I find the upkeep relatively stable. The worst is when you do the inside of the boat and nothing really looks any different. Now it's all about the fine tuning and things you didn't get a chance to do earlier. I get a huge kick out of that."


The criteria for membership includes hull material of wood, steel or iron and a design date of 1970 or before.


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