The owner of 38.4 metre schooner Puritan, Tomas de Vargas Machuca, tells BOAT about his love affair with classic sailing boats.
Many yacht owners claim to have a great passion for history and restoration, but few have rolled their sleeves up and delved into the past to quite the same extent as Tomas de Vargas Machuca. He’s a serial classic boat owner, and when we speak he’s fizzing with excitement, having finally completed a history book on his famous 38-metre schooner Puritan.
“It was months of painstaking decisions about which grade of paper we want; the print; the gold leaf; the pictures,” he gushes, explaining how he enlisted the chef of his former yacht, 26-metre Orianda, to work as a full-time researcher on the project for the past two years. Having trained originally as a researcher at university, she has since travelled everywhere from the Azores to California, tracking down the children of previous captains and crew, and setting the record straight. “They had tuck boxes’ worth of paraphernalia from the 1930s, 40s, 50s… bits of unseen video. It’s amazing!” he enthuses. And besides, he adds, “I needed to set the record straight.”
Puritan, however, is a yacht with a fairly well-documented history already. Built by the Electric Boat Company in Connecticut back in 1930 (completed in 1931), and designed by the legendary naval architect John Alden, she was owned by an Edward W Brown and then Harry Bauer, the president of Southern California Edison, after his death. She went on to carry western movie star Sterling Hayden on board, to serve active duty with the US Navy following the attack on Pearl Harbour, to act as a research vessel for the American Museum of Natural History on which a new mollusc was discovered and named Puritanina harribaueri in tribute… the list goes on.
So, what led Machuca to Puritan in the first place? He’d enjoyed some good adventures on Orianda, also a John Alden yacht from 1937, and also a schooner. He’d originally bought her with long-distance sailing in mind, inspired by “an amazing book I’d read,” The Mystery of Easter Island written by Katherine Routledge, who was a prominent member of the Royal Geographical Society. After many years of owning her, Machuca decided to accept guests on board, and she soon gathered a devoted crew of regular charterers. “[It got] to the point that whenever I wanted to go on board, there was always some paying guest there,” he says with a laugh. “So I thought, ‘Hang on a minute…’”
The hunt for a new yacht duly began, but, says Machuca, it soon became obvious that all roads led to Puritan. She met all his various criteria, not least because she has a very rare retractable centreboard that you can lift by using a grinder on deck. His other yachts were kept at a shipyard in Italy on the River Tiber, where you’ve only got a certain amount of draught, so this feature meant he’d be able to sail her right up there and have all his projects in one place – something that would prove particularly handy when it came to keeping tabs on various works and costs.
“She was always in Antibes,” he explains, “so every time you sailed into Antibes for other reasons, whether it was racing at the Voiles d’Antibes or whatnot, you saw this amazing schooner with people on board, in immaculate condition.” Cheekily, he says, he asked one of his advisors to enquire whether she was for sale. “Of course,” Machuca says with a smile, “everything is always for sale."
Not that buying Puritan was a straightforward affair. An old Italian family, the Ferruzzis, owned her, and were keen to make sure she ended up in safe hands for the foreseeable future. “I needed to really show my pedigree,” says Machuca, who also stems from an old Italian family with Spanish lineage himself, and asked mutual friends to engage with Arturo Ferruzzi and vouch for his knowledge and intentions. “I said, ‘Look, I’m playing open cards here. I know I should downplay my enthusiasm but I can’t lie… so what are you thinking?’ Arturo smiled and said, ‘You remind me of me when I was your age.’ Since then we have become great friends and he calls me every year for my birthday. Last year he gave me one of the original blocks from 1930 as a gift.”
After a lengthy pre-contract inspection (the yacht hadn’t been sailed for a couple of years and it was hard to examine the condition of the hull, which was covered in barnacles), Machuca signed the bill of sale. “I took the overnight ferry and got into Elba,” he recalls, “and the next day I said, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is really mine now.’”
Along with his captain, Machuca then began carrying out a series of works to the boat, partly because they wanted a commercial licence for her. They did restorations on the hull, centreboard, prop shaft, and heads; overhauled parts of the engine and main mast; replaced all the air-conditioning, pumps, and restored all of the galley, adding new topmasts, turnbuckles and hatches. Puritan is, he says, “probably in the best shape she’s been in since 1930”.
It sounds like he makes the most of such a beautiful boat, too. Machuca prefers the beginning of the sailing season, “when the ports are empty and it’s a bit like early dawn, when the day hasn’t started yet and the world is still resting from the evening before”. Often, this means early May in the Mediterranean, and then sometimes September/October time.
“We have a rule on board that if we have more than eight knots of wind we have to go sailing!” he says. “It’s a sailing boat. [If you don’t want to sail], go to a hotel and enjoy the pool – there are plenty of other activities.” Greece is a favourite trip because “you’re always guaranteed an evening breeze or a thermal wind that allows you to set the sails up”, he says. “Typically, we’ll wake up in the morning at varying times – depending on how long the chat on deck has been the night before, and how much rum has been consumed – and then we’ll wait for the breeze to come up and we’ll have two or three hours of sailing, a few gybes, a few tacks, get to speed, see what you can improve on the angle versus the previous day... and have fun.”
You might think that Puritan is more than enough yacht for one man, but Machuca also owns a whole fleet of smaller Edwardian racers built to the 10 Metre International Rule – some still under renovation. There’s Astarte (1907, designed by Swedish naval architect C O Liljegren); Linth II (1908, designed and constructed by Max Oertz); Marga (1910, also by Liljegren); Tonino (1911, designed by William Fife III and commissioned by the King of Spain); and Moana (1914, formerly known as Fantasia and designed by Anker & Jensen).
Machuca is fascinated by the way that the different naval architects interpreted the rule, and what this means for how the yachts perform on the water. “We think that the William Fife [designed yacht] will probably be the best performing boat, simply because we know that Fife has never done a slow boat,” he observes. “But if you take Fantasia, the Johan Anker, that would be really interesting, because that’s got the longest waterlines – and, of course, any naval architect will tell you the longer the waterline, the faster the boat.” Ultimately, he believes, some boats will perform better than the others depending on the weather conditions, but there’s an immense satisfaction in putting each one to the test and finding out – that is, once they’re all fit to be sailed.
Marga was Machuca’s first yacht to be finished, and the project won an award for best restoration. “We used authentic craftsmanship – so we basically backtracked and asked what would they have done in 1910 when she was launched? And that’s the technique that we did,” he explains, going on to say that the team cast all the bronze work and carried out all the corking and fastenings in accordance with the customs of the time. Incredibly, she went on to come second in a race in Saint-Tropez, although Machuca stresses it took him years to put the right crew together for her. One crew member, Umberto Molineris, is also a member of the Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli syndicate that races in America’s Cup campaigns.
It’s clear from going into detail both about Puritan and his other projects that Machuca carries out each renovation with painstaking attention to detail and with no expense spared. “Classic yachting is not about being penny wise and pound foolish,” he notes. “Sometimes when you’re doing one thing, it makes sense to do something else at the same time.”
Does it ever feel like a burden, I ask, restoring classic yachts with no short cuts? “It’s more of a privilege,” he replies. The process allows him to support the likes of master carpenters and sail makers whose work, he believes, is often under-appreciated. Likewise, he finds contemporary work often inferior to the way things used to be done. “There’s a lot of humility in owning classic boats because it’s always very difficult to think that you can outsmart the geniuses who built them in the first place,” he smiles. “So often I’ve seen that everything done in a certain period was absolutely of a quality that is very difficult to find today, and any additions that were done in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were actually the weak link in the boat.”
His only burden, he explains, is that of the Ferruzzis before him. “To make sure that whenever it is my time to let go of Puritan, she goes to someone who follows in the responsibility of being eighth in line of a generation of owners who’ve loved or maintained her.”
For such a diehard enthusiast, perhaps it’s noteworthy that Machuca didn’t grow up in a sailing family. He came to yachting as a young adult via his girlfriend at the time, whose family owned a classic yacht and soon invited him on board every summer.“I became very good friends with the captain and the crew, almost dismissing the fellow guests on board because I was having more fun with the crew than I was with other guests,” he recalls.
Instead, it was cars that were a defining feature of his childhood, and continue on as his day job today. Machuca is chairman of HERO-ERA, an events company that hosts a series of historic car rallying events around the world, while Orianda and Puritan are available to charter via his other venture, The Classic Yacht Experience.
“My father – who I adore very much – taught me how to drive on his lap when I couldn’t even get to the pedals,” he says with a laugh, recalling moments that they’d wash his father’s cars (mostly Lancias) together. When we speak, he’s gearing up to take part in HERO-ERA’s flagship event, the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge. He’ll be driving alongside Ben Cussons, the chairman of the Royal Automobile Club, in a 1914 American LaFrance – a chain-driven former fire truck with a nine-litre four-cylinder engine.
“It’s pretty miserable when you’re out there,” he laughs, “but really it’s no different to sailing in really rough weather across the Atlantic – you get to the end of the day and you’re absolutely shattered.” There is, however, a difference in restoring classic cars and classic yachts, he points out. With mass-produced cars, it’s easy to find supporting documentation, whereas yachts are one-offs, meaning there’s often a bit of detective work involved in tracking down similar examples from the same designer and same time period, and trying to interpret what the spirit of the boat might have been.
For an events business, the pandemic has, of course, been a challenging period. HERO-ERA managed to complete its New Zealand rally which finished just as the pandemic really took hold around the world, “three weeks before that it was an epidemic,” he recalls. “We’ve had to work five times as hard [during this period] because you’re protecting your staff, the people who work for you,” he says, but he believes that we’ll all come out of the experience “stronger than we were before, certainly intellectually, because this has been a groundbreaking year for humanity to rethink things… and a good time for people to look at their priorities.”
Perhaps it was this thinking that prompted him to embark on his latest restoration project – not a yacht, or a car, but a 15th-century Grade II country house in Oxfordshire. The conservation officers are “a little bit bemused that we’re not trying to cut corners”, he laughs. “We were like, ‘Oh, great, this is the original beam? Fantastic.’ And they’re like, ‘You mean you don’t want to take it away and put a Jacuzzi in there?’” His hope is that, as well as his home, it’ll become “a great hub where people come with their classic cars to have good cigars, and talk classic boats as well”. Which brings us to the multi-million-dollar question: which would he rather have, cars or boats? “If I could I’d buy them and restore them all!” he says with a laugh. “What’s money for if you don’t use it for things that you feel passionate about?”
This feature is taken from the September 2021 issue of BOAT International Life Under Sail. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.shop now