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On board with celebrity sailing yacht owner Pete Townshend

Better known as The Who’s lead guitarist and principal songwriter, rock star and celebrity superyacht owner Pete Townshend has also had a life-long affair with sailing and owned almost as many boats as he has musical instruments. Caroline White joins him on the water...

“So Keith Moon, Oliver Reed and my friend Barney go out to my boat.” Tucked into the corner of the saloon on his 38.4 metre classic sailing yacht Gloria, Pete Townshend is reeling off a rock anecdote because I’m trawling for one. He has been charitable enough to dip into a 50-year cache of stories that begin in this format – replace Moon and Reed with Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton or any member of rock aristocracy – and toss me a tale of yacht-related debauchery. 

It is 1974; he is finishing filming his rock opera Tommy in Portsmouth and as evening falls Townshend and the gang ferry themselves out to his 11 metre Grand Banks motor yacht Mafuta for a cruise to Cowes. Before they leave, it becomes clear that the temporary captain has no idea what he’s doing and as he makes confused calls on a big old radio – which may have been turned off – Moon lets the dinghy adrift (“it’s the kind of thing Keith would do”). Reed, the hell-raising actor and Moon, the hell-raising drummer, Townshend and – presumably – Barney, address the situation by tucking into a stash of rum. 

“Olly Reed, much to my surprise, turned down the rum and got out a load of marijuana and started to smoke joints. I got through a bottle of rum on my own and I remember thinking it was the best feeling that I’d ever had on a boat.” Things get a bit hazy from here, but he adds, “At some point I think I had no clothes on.

“I woke up the next day and it was just me and my friend Barney. I asked what happened to everybody else. He said, ‘Well Keith and Olly swum ashore in the middle of the night.’ We were quite a long way out and it was really shit weather. They both could have drowned, but they didn’t,” he says. “They drowned later.” 

Townshend did not follow suit. In fact he’s given up alcohol, and having built a stellar career as songwriter and lead guitarist for one of Britain’s best-known bands – as well as a varied and imaginative solo career – becoming a celebrity sailor has become his addiction. In yacht mode, in a quiet Antiguan bay, he’s serene: a tall man with mild blue eyes behind blue-tinted sunglasses. It’s hard to reframe him as the arm-wheeling rock star who “invented” guitar smashing, wrote My Generation – the song Rolling Stone magazine aptly described as “his immortal fuck-off to the elders” – and bashed counterculture icon Abbie Hoffman with the head of his guitar on stage at Woodstock in 1969. The only traces of rock superstardom in this saloon are two diminutive Marshall speakers – he and bassist John Entwistle’s desire for a louder sound was the impetus behind the company’s first 100W amps – and perhaps the fact that he’s wearing sunglasses indoors. 

“As a sailor, I’m not as sociable as a lot of people,” he says. When Gloria is in the Mediterranean he has guests on board and some of them are Jerry Hall and U2. “But those relationships, although they’re business related, they are proper friendships.” And more often it’s family or less starry pals such as his accountant or his lawyer. It would be more accurate to say that boats have influenced his music than that his life as a rock star has affected his life on board. 

The beginning was a childhood experience on the Thames in west London. “When I was in the Sea Scouts, I had something which you can only really call a revelation on the river. I was on a motorboat with a bunch of other boys and I lost consciousness and started to hear this incredible music,” he says. Somehow the sound of water against the hull was transformed into an otherworldly orchestra. “I spent a lot of time as a composer trying to recreate that music I heard then – I’ve come close here and there, but never really cracked it properly.” 

With this description it’s easy to see water running through The Who’s back catalogue – for example in Baba O’Riley, where the electronic introduction is reminiscent of a babbling stream. But sailing is represented unambiguously in his work as well. “The whole of Quadrophenia is set on a river and at sea,” he says, and on that album in particular there’s I am the Sea, Drowned and I’ve Had Enough, which is “very much about being a sailor and life being like a journey that you fight sailing into the wind.

Love, Reign O’er Me, which is probably one of the best, if not the best, song I’ve ever written is about being on the ocean in the rain. It’s the closing song on Quadrophenia, the boy is either in the boat or on the rock, and you don’t really know what happens to him at the end of the story. But it’s raining and it’s about the vastness of the ocean and how small we feel. I think that’s something that every sailor knows.”

Townshend describes his relationship with the water, and the Thames in particular, as primal. He grew up by the river, has always chosen riverside homes in the capital and in 1976 he felt instinctively drawn to The Boathouse in Ranelagh Drive, Twickenham. He bought it, turned it into the centre of operations for his Eel Pie group of companies, as well as a spiritual centre, and then his mother visited and pointed out that – unknown to him – he had been born in the house next door. The location certainly touched something in him. “It had a balcony that overlooked the river, so it had that fizz of ozone that you get from tumbling water, which I do think genuinely inspires creativity.”

He has followed through on this belief: “I have a full-scale recording studio, on a Dutch barge, which I built in 1976. It’s very impressive; it was built by a guy called Eddie Veale, who built George Harrison’s studio.” The 33.5 metre barge, Grand Cru, is kept at St Katharine Docks in London and Townshend records there himself, as well as renting it to other musicians.

But this is just one characterful facet in a lifetime of boat ownership. Townshend’s first purchase was a speedboat called Liz O in the mid-1960s that he bought with the early profits of his musical career, shared with his father and kept on the Thames. “I learned some pretty harsh lessons about the river,” he says. “It would do about eight or nine knots maximum and I found out that it’s okay going downriver with your girlfriend – we would take some beer and go to throw Champagne bottles at the Houses of Parliament – but to my horror when you turn round to go back, sometimes the river is going faster than that.”

Later, when Townshend lost his driving licence for drink driving, boating became a practical solution. “I lived right by the river, by Eel Pie Island (in Twickenham) and The Who’s studio then, in 1973, was in Battersea. So I used the boat to go to the studio every day; that was to record Quadrophenia.” Afterwards came other vessels – including Mafuta – which he kept outside his house. 

“Then a bit later I started to fret about the fact that I wasn’t really getting out to sea. So around ‘89 I did my Yachtmasters, bought a Fisher 46 motorsailer and it got me to sea on my own.” 

These first sailing adventures were in Cornwall, which is still his favourite cruising destination in the world. “I like the variety of the weather and the seriousness of the scenario,” he says. “It took me about four years to get a boat round The Lizard. I picked a very, very calm day, I got a speedboat and I went round. As I came back I was doing about 40 knots and suddenly the water went up and then down – the whole sea, like a sheet of glass – and in front of me was a huge rock. Even when it’s calm, The Lizard is really dangerous.”

Here Townshend worked his way through an eclectic collection – “my Cornwall boats”, he calls them. There was 14.3 metre motorboat Ahmednagar Queen, which he commissioned at the Bates & Son Marina in Chertsey and named after the ashram of guru Meher Baba, a “little Finnish boat” called Double T, a 13 metre Eastbay motorboat called True Love, an 11.6 metre Sabre open motorboat called 5.15 after a Who song, a Fisher sailing boat called Blue Merlin, a 19.8 metre called Ferrara and more. He entered the Falmouth Classics race in 1991 on his newly acquired 18.3 metre Laurent Giles sailing yacht Pazienza (meaning patience in Italian), won and “really got the bug for classic sailing”. He followed up with the first boat in Andre Hoek’s Truly Classic line, Truly Classic and Zephyr. The stars of his current fleet also reflect his classic passion: Eva, an eight metre Fife from 1906, which he keeps in France and uses for serious racing, and his largest boat, Gloria

Gloria was originally built for Mikael Krafft, founder of Star Clippers, who fell in love with and tried to buy the 1938 Mylne-designed schooner Panda before discovering she had deteriorated beyond repair. So he commissioned Pieter Beeldsnijder to design a modern representation of the boat, with Jongert and Lowland to build her. Launched in 1986, she fulfilled her brief: graceful exterior lines and classic interiors in high-gloss mahogany, but with a modern staysail schooner rig and powered furling – meaning she is comfortable at sea and requires only five crew to sail her, three at a push. 

Krafft eventually sold her, and two owners down the line English entrepreneur Peter de Savary bought and refitted her. Townshend, a good friend, took a look around when de Savary decided to sell some years later. “I went down into the engine room, I came back up and I said to my yacht manager Tim Dewhurst, ‘Don’t go downstairs. Don’t look in the engine room and don’t point at the bits of deck that need doing.’ I just knew that if I went into it too intently I wouldn’t buy her. She needed a lot of money spent on her. But I thought, well, I’ve got a lot of money and I love boats.” He shook hands with de Savary on the second day of the Newport Bucket and with her new owner in charge she came in second the same day (pipping the J Hanuman among others). 

Townshend has been good to her, arranging an extensive refit at Pendennis that ran from new decks to paint, rigging and more. Today, the boat is full of little delights, from a working fireplace to ornate woodwork saved from an older boat, and a dining table with superb marquetry beneath a skylight in the dining saloon. He uses her for short cruises and racing, in particular the Superyacht Challenge in Antigua, and has a clutch of cups below decks (this is his second favourite cruising location after Cornwall and he is a major supporter of the Antigua National Sailing Academy).

“I bought Gloria so that I could have adventures and that’s what I’ve done,” he says. “Now I feel a bit taunted by her. She’s in such great shape – we did the decks and everything is running really well. She’s the kind of yacht that you could go round the world in but I just haven’t got the time.” So with regret, after six years and a successful career as regatta-ready charter yachtGloria is for sale through Northrop & Johnson. He will probably continue to collect boats, but for the moment it’s back to business. 

“The Who’s career, which I thought was completely over, has had an incredible resurgence, we’re packing houses,” he says. “My inner artist is finding that really wonderful.” Townshend is touring with Roger Daltry until October, when The Who will join Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd for a special festival – Desert Trip – put together by the organisers of Coachella. Set in the Southern California desert, it seems almost cruel to take Townshend so far from the water, although it might be a safer environment for his fellow rock stars.

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