Floating boats

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am


It was love at first sight, even though she was decades older than her predecessor and her age was beginning to show. Her graceful, flowing lines and impeccable pedigree won him over and convinced him she was worth months of his time and the many thousands of dollars it would take to make her pretty again.

Queequeg, a 46-foot cruising sloop built in 1972, was 'on the hard' in an Australian boatyard when Briton Graham Elliott first saw her. He'd just sailed from England to Australia aboard Loggerhead. Soon he'd sold Loggerhead, a modern-day cruising boat that resembled thousands of other yachts in the marina, and was sailing Queequeg to Thailand, where he planned to restore the boat to her former glory.

Elliott's attraction to Queequeg, and her subsequent restoration, is the kind of story that repeats itself year after year, in boatyards around the globe. Boat enthusiasts fall for classic yachts with a story to tell but in need of a thorough, often expensive overhaul. Sometimes the appeal is simply the price, with older boats selling for much less than new ones, but, in many instances, buyers dream the boat will take them back to the more elegant, romantic days of sailing, and give them bragging rights for having a yacht that stands out in any marina.

'I saw Queequeg in the boatyard and I immediately recognised her design as a Sparkman & Stephens,' recalled Elliott, as he stood on her deck in a boatyard in Phuket, Thailand. 'I'd raced against Sparkman & Stephens boats before and I knew how fast they were.'

Queequeg, named after a character in the novel Moby Dick, is one of four sister ships. One of her siblings, Love & War, won three Sydney-to-Hobart races (considered one of the most difficult boat races in the world) between 1973 and 2006. Her lines, with a long, fine bow and narrow stern, are typical of the great racing boats of the 1970s and set her apart from the ubiquitous wider, squatter modern cruising yachts.

Elliott spent more than four months living in a rented room above a go-go bar in Phuket's Chalong Bay, riding a rented moped to the boatyard every day to oversee Queequeg's refit. His girlfriend, who had sailed to Australia with him, had returned home, and he was impatient to set sail for England himself. However, as the work progressed, and the strength and quality of her build were revealed, he only became more passionate about the boat.

Queequeg's hull is made of Oregon Douglas fir, overlaid with fibreglass. Below deck, her solid hardwood cabinetry glows with a fresh coat of varnish.

'I like the wood and the warmth it gives her,' Elliott said. 'There is good value in this boat, regardless of her age.'

Elliott took Queequeg to Phuket's boatyards because he knew that, there, he could find skilled woodworkers, the likes of which are non-existent or extremely expensive to hire in Europe. He and a band of Thai workers stripped and refinished the interior, laid a new teak deck, replaced her electronics and added lead to her keel, to make her sail better. Elliott focused on keeping the boat as close to its original state as possible, by doing things such as repairing old hatches and winches rather than buying new ones.

Queequeg's makeover cost Elliott about HK$500,000, this on top of the price he paid for her in Australia, which was nearly a straight swap for the much newer, albeit smaller, Loggerhead.

'This is a unique yacht,' Elliott said. 'There are not many like her in the world, and I wanted to own and sail her.'

His dream has come true; he is now on his way home, having already sailed Queequeg west across the Indian Ocean to South Africa. Next, he'll cross the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil and, from there, sail north to England.

Elliott's passion is shared by others in the boatyards of Phuket. A walk through the Boat Lagoon yard reveals numerous classic yachts in varying states of rebirth. Wooden spars are stacked on the ground beside long, full keels the likes of which haven't been popular in more than 30 years. Each yacht is the heart of a dream, many of which centre on leaving the corporate rat race and setting sail for a life of simple pleasures in foreign waters.

Yachts require a massive amount of maintenance and care, and every day at sea adds to the time a vessel will need to be in the yard, being repaired, rewired, painted and polished.

Some of the dreams will come true, other yachts will never again see the high seas. Some owners seize the moment to bravely set sail as soon as their boat is seaworthy, even when there's more work to do and equipment to be bought. For others, the hours spent puttering about on their boat feeds their dream but also offers an excuse to delay their departure. Many of those working on their yachts know deep down that they'll never sail them. They're destined to remain ashore, planning, buying, scheming - but never weighing anchor.

That was Torben Kristensen's fear when he began a relationship with Authority. She was looking raggedy and neglected on her Hebe Haven mooring, in Sai Kung, the first time he saw her, and he knew it would be a long road to recovery.

'Her hull, engine and rig looked generally OK, but overall she looked pretty tired. Her interior was horrendous,' Kristensen says. 'But I had her surveyed and it showed she had good character.'

Authority was constructed in Hong Kong in 1977, one of four boats built to plans drawn by the renowned yacht designer Ed Dubois for the Admiral's Cup Championship. Dubois was 24 years old, and this was one of his first designs.

Kristensen wanted to race, and this wasn't his first attempt to restore an aged yacht. His previous project was one of those that never left the boatyard, so this time he decided on a different approach.

'With Authority, I could see that we could sail her right away, and do the work along the way,' he says. That meant the work had to be done in Hong Kong instead of in the boatyards of Thailand or the Philippines. On some weekends, tools were stuffed into cupboards to make room for the racing crew. Then, the following Monday, work would resume.

'On our first social race we had no floorboards, no galley, the electronics were non-existent, there were no lights, no radios,' Kristensen recalls. 'It was a mess, but we were sailing.'

Kristensen was shy about putting the boat's name on the hull at first, finding 'Authority' a bit too brash. But then, after several months of racing her and sailing her in Hong Kong waters, he decided the name was a suitable one and it was painted on her hull once again.

'Boats have their own personality,' Kristensen says. 'That's why she's a she, and I didn't rename her.'

Says Kristensen of his decision to buy Authority: 'She was cheap. Secondly, she's much more solid than a new boat. Thirdly, she has character and a pedigree that a plastic boat fresh out of the mould just doesn't have. She has this air of quality and nostalgia around her. It's worth it to keep something like that alive.'

Kristensen has spent more than double his original purchase price of HK$200,000 on bringing Authority back into competitive shape, even though he and his friends have done much of the work themselves. Having hired Hong Kong boatyards to work on the rig and interior, he has focused on giving Authority back her original racing performance rather than making cosmetic improvements. Even though she still has some rough corners, 'I'm not selling her', Kristensen says. 'I know that boat inside and out.

'At first, it was a money thing, because this is what I could afford at the time. But once I'd saved enough for something newer, I was attached to her and decided to keep her going rather than sell her off. Especially seeing how on the right day, she can give modern boats a real run for their money.'

Asia doesn't have many classic boats worthy of restoration compared with the world's big yachting markets. Although yachting is being embraced across Asia, it has until recently been a largely expatriate pastime - when expats returned home, they often took their boats with them, leaving few classics behind. Furthermore, Asian buyers are more likely to opt for a flashy new status symbol rather than investing in a craft that reflects a lifestyle or passion for the sea.

Some of Hong Kong's classic yachts once belonged to taipans and big trading companies. One such vessel is the Wayfoong, a 70-foot motor launch built for HSBC by Hongkong & Whampoa Dock, in 1930. She was designed to haul silver bullion to and from ships at anchor in Victoria Harbour. She was also used to ferry VIPs to and from Kai Tak Airport as well as to passenger ships at anchor in the harbour.

Entrepreneur Allan Zeman bought Wayfoong from the bank in 2007 and had Hong Kong boatyards restore her. Once the old paint was scraped off, her gleaming brass and wood came back to life.

'I never realised how beautiful a boat she really is. It's like buying an antique,' Zeman said when he bought her. 'She's a Hong Kong treasure, an heirloom.'

Asian boat restoration, while a nascent market compared with those of the United States and Europe, benefits from a supply of skilled woodworkers and relatively low demand from the owners of older yachts, resulting in favourable prices. The Philippines and Thailand are popular destinations for boats in need of a paint job or wood work, and many around-the-world cruisers from North America and Europe make room in their itinerary for several months of refit in Southeast Asia. Larger, more luxurious yachts, particularly motor yachts, tend to pull into Singapore if work needs to be done on engines and mechanical systems.

'She was in the yard in Phuket for about 11 months,' says Jim Rice, of Princess Anja, a 25-year-old Grand Banks (see sidebar for the company's history) trawler-style cruising yacht. 'The labour was much more affordable there than in other places, and the craftsmanship is pretty good.'

Rice, a Hong Kong-based American, had preferred sails to engines but as he and his wife aged they decided to switch to a motor yacht. A trawler, with its sea-kindly hull and classic lines, seemed like a good compromise. They found what they were looking for in Phuket.

'There's a certain aesthetic that an old crusty sailor wants, having been around boats for so long,' Rice says. 'This one has a classic Grand Banks hull. You can spot us from as far as your binoculars can see and know she's a Grand Banks, whereas many of the new hull shapes all look the same.'

Rice bought the yacht for Euro200,000 (HK$2.2 million) during the 2008 financial crisis and reckons his US$150,000 worth of restoration work was also favourably priced, due to a drop in business that year. Rice wasn't new to yacht restoration. He had rebuilt a 1940s yawl, which appeared on the cover of an international sailing magazine once she was completed. The experience had taught him the value of craftsmanship and original parts.

In Phuket, Rice added bow thrusters, which make parking easier, and upgraded Princess Anja's electronics and plumbing. He then took his new find, which he renamed Id, to Singapore, where Grand Banks is now based. The firm's chief engineer, Yung Pine Wong, had helped build many of the company's early yachts and he was able to tell Rice more about Princess Anja's history and technical specifications, to make it easier to restore her to her original state.

Despite the time and costs involved, there's always another dreamer ready to contemplate the seemingly endless sanding, varnishing and painting that goes into restoring a classic yacht, all with images of the open sea in mind. Welshman Mark Peters, a long-time Hong Kong resident preparing to emigrate to Halifax, on the east coast of Canada, has his own Old Man and the Sea fantasy.

'I'd like to look for an old Cape Islander, the type of boat they used to fish with on the East Coast,' Peters says, his eyes glazing over with the dream. 'Maybe I can get some work in a boatyard to learn the ropes and then restore the boat myself.'

Never mind that he knows nothing about boats, or the sea. It's the dream that counts.