History repeating: How Malahne’s refit restored her 1930s splendour
by Marilyn Mower
The 1930s classic motor yacht Malahne was rendered almost unrecognisable by a 1980s refit; to restore her classic lines, the owner went right back to the beginning.
Some refits of classic yachts are transformations, some are rehabilitations and some are restorations, depending upon the owner’s views toward preserving historical context.
When it comes to 50 metre Malahne, built to represent yachting perfection in 1937, the term restoration doesn’t go nearly far enough. Before she could re-enter the pantheon of pre-war classic yachts, first she needed a structural exorcism to remove a controversial modernisation done in 1983.
As has been the case with a number of British yacht restorations, such as Blue Birdand Nahlin, Nicholas Edmiston, chairman of the eponymous firm, has been both broker and enabler of what are complex and costly rescues.
“I live in a Georgian building, I have been sailing since I was four. Yachts like Malahneare part of my life,” he says, his gruff voice and clipped accent hinting at a romanticism and veneration for days of manners and elegance.
“I watched the 1983 refit with tears in my eyes,” he recalls. “I kept hoping that owner would sell it while it was still afloat. I’m so happy and fortunate I was able to interest an owner who understood the yacht and who would put his trust in me and our vision to return the yacht to what it felt like in 1937.”
In 1937, Malahne was the jewel in her owner’s crown. William Lawrence Stephenson was a Yorkshire-born retailer who had been appointed by Frank Woolworth in 1909 to direct the British arm of FW Woolworth.
He led it to great success in the 1920s and ’30s, eventually taking the company public. Stephenson was a gregarious sort who took up yacht racing after buying a Fife-designed Big Class yacht named White Heather II, which had been converted to a J Class by Lord Waring in 1930.
Having caught the racing bug, Stephenson commissioned a new J from Charles Nicholson to race in the America’s Cup. White Heather II was scrapped and her lead melted for the keel of JK7, which he named Velsheda for his daughters Velma, Sheila and Daphne.
In her second season she won more than 40 races against the likes of Shamrock V and Endeavour. Next, to expand his yachting experience, he ordered an ocean-going motor yacht from Camper & Nicholsons, this time using the final letters of his daughters’ names to form Malahne.
This lovely lady cruised the Med in 1937 and ’38 and transported Stephenson back and forth to New York. With the outbreak of WWII, Stephenson offered her to the Admiralty, which was quickly accepted.
As a Channel patrol cruiser, she saw action in the evacuation at Dunkirk and later took part in torpedo target practice in Scotland.
Unlike most of her kin, Malahne survived the war years and bounced through a number of owners, even being refitted and re-classed to Lloyd’s in 1960 when the legendary film producer Sam Spiegel bought her for a unique purpose: to serve as his production office and hotel while filming Lawrence of Arabia in Jordan.
The late King Hussein became the first of a retinue of royalty to be entertained aboard by the colourful, quixotic Spiegel who owned Malahne for 23 years.
Hollywood stars and music moguls were such frequent guests as to almost be part of the décor, and that’s not counting 1973 when the murder mystery The Last of Sheila, starring Dyan Cannon, James Coburn, James Mason and Raquel Welch, was filmed aboard.
Spiegel and Malahne were such fixtures along the Côte d’Azur that the yacht graced the cover of Life magazine’s 9 July 1965 edition promoting a feature on “Riviera yachting”.
In her 2003 biography of Spiegel, fashion writer Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni wrote: “In many respects, Malahne became a never-ending Spiegel production. The boat was old-fashioned by today’s standards, but possessed a majestic charm. Stepping ontoMalahne was like stepping into another era.”
As Spiegel’s star eventually faded in Hollywood, so did the maintenance on the yacht; she fell out of class. In 1983 she passed into the hands of Saudi Sheikh Adel Al Mojil, who rendered her unrecognisable as Adel XII with a new bow, stern and superstructure.
Edmiston kept an eye on the boat throughout the subsequent years, and then in 2009 sensed his chance. He asked Dr William Collier of classic yacht experts GL Watson & Co to prepare a design proposal for a restored Malahne to make her a showpiece of the Golden Age of yachting.
“These [projects] are daunting at the beginning,” says Collier, “but having already prepared preliminary designs it was more a case of, ‘Here it is, here is what it can be and here’s a map of how to get there.’ Nick and I were well prepared.”
These drawings and a stack of photos of what she had been and could become were Edmiston’s proposal in 2012 to a potential owner who had chartered the smaller and older but elegantly restored Fair Lady.
“He immediately grasped the potential beauty of the yacht and the concept of bringing something back from the edge. He was interested in polishing a jewel not creating a replica,” says Jacqueline Lyne, director of Edmiston’s recently formed Yacht Management division, which co-directed the project with Collier.
It was to be a project to highlight “Made in Britain”, and thus Pendennis Shipyard in Falmouth, Cornwall (which had also restored Fair Lady) was the logical yard for the task along with BMT Nigel Gee for the engineering to make the yacht achieve LY2 standards for charter.
For the interior design, Edmiston suggested London-based Guy Oliver, who, as the designer for the Connaught hotel, Claridge’s and the state rooms at Number 10 Downing Street, knows his way around a period interior.
Malahne arrived at Pendennis from Tarragona, Spain, in September 2012. Pendennis had proposed to restore her in two parts: the only way.
“Part one was the job of taking the yacht apart so we could find out what we had,” says Pendennis’s joint managing director Mike Carr. “Part two was to rebuild Malahneout of it.”
After the deconstruction, evaluation of Malahne’s bones went frame by frame – a nearly six-month process of determining what to save, what to scrap and what would need to be refabricated to meet the modern codes.
“We went right to the last nail,” says Henk Wiekens, Carr’s fellow MD. “This is the most intense refit project we have ever done.”
Assessing integrity was one thing, but figuring out how to best use her volume for the new owners, crew and necessary machinery was quite another.
The original double-height engine room was one area mined for more guest space as was the original owner’s dining room on the lower deck – now the crew mess.
The yacht’s new main-deck dining room was originally occupied by engine exhaust trunking. The crew and galley areas are among the biggest physical changes to the original yacht.
In the 1930s there was a marked difference in the accommodations of officers and crew – they even had separate entrances from the deck. GL Watson & Co styled completely new crew quarters for 11, including two single officer’s cabins plus a captain’s cabin and a new galley reusing period Camper & Nicholsons joinery details.
The machinery for modern living such as air-conditioning and refrigerator compressors, fire suppression, electrical distribution panels, laundry and water-makers is squirrelled away in all sorts of places to make incredible use of the relatively narrow forward sections.
For Pendennis, the biggest concern was achieving modern stability criteria, which in the days before stabilisers was achieved by draught and weight. A lot of weight came off the hull, but lots would be going back in with all-new hull plate and safety features not imagined in 1937.
Fortunately, materials were available to Pendennis that were similarly not available to Camper & Nicholsons in 1937, such as the aluminium used for the bridge bulwark and superstructure, and composite for the replacement funnel, which hides the communication domes.
Even replacing the hull steel was a challenge when fitting old and new pieces together, because modern steel has less carbon, fewer inclusions and is easier to weld. The new plate was applied in the same staggered pattern as the original.
The rebuilding process took a further two years: one for structure and systems and one for the fit-out of interior and decks. The prime directive was to make Malahnelook as if she had always been this way, always lived in and loved.
“He’s (the owner) been in grand homes and Claridge’s, where I have worked as a designer for 20 years. I wanted to create for him what looked like the original space but would offer comfort and service impossible back in the day,” says Guy Oliver. The new spaces were configured for family use but with a nod to select charter.
One of Oliver’s big decisions was not without risk: he wanted everything hand-finished on site to avoid finishes that looked plastic. “You want a sense of brush stroke,” he says. “Luxury is about bespoke and unique and being made by people not machines.”
It was a decision that involved extra time and scheduling as well as careful preservation as each bit of joinery or furniture was completed.
The result of this work is magical: colours and a softness that make the yacht look like an authentic collection of desired, acquired objects rather than a design montage.
Soft chenilles and down-filled cushions in just the right mix of prints and solids, beautiful timber floors and rugs, valanced, pleated curtains and elegant nickel hardware create a smart deco-style environment that lives like modern comfort.
Meanwhile, GL Watson & Co was doing the same thing with exterior design. Replica deck hardware was researched and redesigned, the original John Roby portholes were recast to meet current code and other items were remade from original drawings in the extensive GL Watson & Co archive.
The original binnacle had been chucked in the 1983 modernisation and try as he might, Collier could not find another 1937 binnacle, but he did locate one from a 1934 Camper & Nicholsons motor yacht that makes him almost as happy.
For the interior joinery stylings by Ruiter Quality Interiors, Oliver studied the art deco-style house at Eltham Palace, which was built at the same time as Malahne and would have presented a similar design language.
It was a time when designers mixed exotic woods or unique cuts for interior interest. For example, the bookcase backgrounds are roto-cut Japanese tamo ash, while the master suite features sycamore veneers in a chevron pattern, European tiger oak defines the dining saloon and macassar ebony with bronze insets makes an eye-catching bar.
Electricians had to go back to basics to hook up the onboard telephone system as the phones are rotary dial. A pair of original 1950 wall phones are in the master suite and reconditioned 1930s desk phones are used through the rest of the accommodation.
While 122 of the overhead lights on board were custom designed by Oliver as yacht-sized adaptations of deco originals, a pair of Queen Mary reading lights with quaint 14 watt French bulbs, had to be accommodated.
This faithfulness to the past even impacted the fairing. The hull and superstructure are semi-faired, using lighter, flexible aluminium battens that follow the shape and existing contours of the hull.
The paint is also semi-shiny in an off-white typical of the time. The 70 per cent gloss on the Awlgrip paint took a great deal of sampling to get right. With stainless steel rigging too shiny to match the period, Pendennis found a supplier who would sell the stainless wire pre-finished and unpolished to mimic the galvanised steel of the 1930s.
Collier believes that the project’s success stems from the fact that Malahne was “right for the doing. Her original lines and her full-beam sections made her suitable to arranging the yacht for a modern family. Fifty metres is a really, really nice size. It gives you good guest accommodations, a good balance of decks to indoor spaces and you can get the yacht into virtually anywhere”.
Carr, meanwhile, is extremely proud of the standard of workmanship on board: “Over the past two and a half years the team worked incredibly hard to bring Malahne back to life. Seeing the final transformation from her 1980s form back to her original design, her launch marks a proud moment for everyone.
“Our tradespeople have applied quality, care, pride and passion to every aspect of the project. There have been unprecedented opportunities to showcase their restoration skills, whilst sympathetically integrating modern systems. Malahne now commands a special place in the Pendennis fleet.”