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Inside the refit restoring 59m classic superyacht Marala to her 1930s glory
It’s only halfway through, but the major refit of the classic 58.8-metre superyacht Marala has already uncovered a hidden gem. “We removed the carpet in the saloon and we found this beautiful old fir flooring,” says her captain, Chris Lawrence. “We’ve been told that the wood was 200 years old when the tree was cut down, and it’s been on board for 90 years.” With a beautiful patina, the timber is being split (to reduce weight and make it go further) and re-laid throughout the main deck and owner’s cabin. This is a project where the aim is to feel the original yacht, right down to the soles of your feet – because Marala is a very special boat.
Commissioned by car and aircraft manufacturer Montague Napier, who died before her 1931 launch by Camper & Nicholsons, Marala was bought by Charles Fairey, another aircraft-maker, who loaned her to the military for the Second World War. “She went to Gibraltar, where one of the depth charges she dropped disabled a German U-boat, which surrendered a day and a half later,” says Captain Lawrence. The U-boat captain said they hadn’t picked her up on their sonar because she was so quiet – a compliment that was unintentionally backhanded (Marala happened to have the same German MAN engines).
After the yacht was returned to civilian service, the owners who followed Fairey were rather more colourful than the British Navy. The American tobacco magnate RJ Reynolds owned her briefly while his own boat was being built, but particularly notable was the Chilean Arturo López-Willshaw. Known as the “guano king”, he had made his fortune selling bird droppings for fertiliser and explosives. He had, improbably, risen to the top of Parisian society and lived on board in a ménage à trois with his wife (who was also his cousin) and his gay lover. The last owner, before the current one, was Robert de Balkany and his wife, Princess Maria Gabriella of Savoy, daughter of Italy’s last king. Celebrity guests over the years ran from Salvador Dalí to Amelia Earhart and Princess Grace of Monaco. The current owner had long been a fan of classic yachts and had considered buying several before finding Marala lying in Greece and, says Captain Lawrence, “this one just stuck”.
When they took possession, she was “like a time capsule”, says Pendennis project manager Nick Kearton. The yacht was moved from Greece to Malta, where those silent engines were rebuilt, and then on to the UK for a major refit at Pendennis. Lawrence had realised that they needed “a very specific yard” to undertake this delicate operation and Pendennis has form, with the major refits – or rebuilds – of classics Malahne, Fair Lady and Haida. There was also something fitting about a British yard. “We liked the idea of bringing the boat back to the UK – back to her roots – and imbuing her with a British style,” says Lawrence.
While her last owner, de Balkany, had kept Marala for 52 years and during that time did very little to change her, the yacht had undergone two interior refits since her 1930s heyday – the most significant by flamboyant Parisian designer Georges Geffroy in the 1950s. So before Pendennis got to work, the 1950s interior was removed in Malta by the crew and a team of workers assembled by Captain Lawrence. “We managed to salvage quite a lot of historic items,” he says. “Some of the Georges Geffroy items were sold at Sotheby’s in Paris.”
With the interior removed and Pendennis given advance access to Marala for planning and budgeting, as soon as the yacht arrived in Cornwall the yard team could get to the meat of the project. They upgraded the riveted hull and, where possible, took the structure back to Charles Nicholson’s original design. “During her 1950s refit, the side fashion plates and an aft extension were added,” says Captain Lawrence. There are even traces of Marala’s war service. “We still have evidence of where the gun turret was positioned though the deck. In the lower crew mess deckhead the cover plate can still be seen. We still have the larger beam knees in place that were positioned fore and aft of the gun’s location.”
While the aft extension and remains of the gun stayed, the fashion plates went. “All of the solid bulwarks added mid-century were removed and are being replaced with open stanchions and rails as per launch condition,” says Kearton. On the technical side, the stacked ingot ballast was swapped out for lead poured into keel tanks to reduce the centre of gravity of the vessel. All of these changes have, says Kearton, “improved the stability dramatically”.
The systems on board also required attention. “They were changed and adjusted over the years, so it was a range of historical systems through the ages of yachting in the last half century or so,” says Kearton. “The first thing you noticed was that the black and grey systems running from the cabins were just hoses that weren’t fixed and secured, and you could see they’d leaked in places.”
They also found lead-sheathed cables and wooden cable trays. It all came out. In went brand new sewage treatment, fan coil units and watermakers – “everything that you would need to domestically serve a cabin”, says Kearton. And while the original engines have been kept, the power train is being replaced, “so the actual propulsion down through into the water is being upgraded”, he says.
The interior that will lie on top of this will be almost entirely new, but utterly in keeping with the original spirit of the yacht. Muza Lab, a young design studio based in Notting Hill, London, was engaged for the ambitious job. The team scoured the archives of the National Maritime Museum for the yacht’s original plans and referred to them at every stage of the design to ensure an authentic vision. While this was the studio’s first yacht, the team has a range of relevant experience in historical luxury hotels and residences, plus the Belmond Andean Explorer (the South American sister train to the Orient Express).
“For us, it’s about finding what’s unique; what makes each individual project special. Marala immediately fit that bill because it’s such an extraordinary vessel with so much history, so many stories to tell, so many layers, so many details. That’s the kind of thing we love to play with,” says Nathan Hutchins, founder of Muza Lab.
In terms of what they had to play with, cutting back the steel fashion plates on many of the decks will allow more light to flow inside for a brighter, airier feel, while down in the lower decks the atmosphere they will create is warm. “The client just said, ‘I want it to feel like it was original, I want it to completely capture the essence of the 1930s – I don’t want to erase the heritage of the vessel,’” says Hutchins.
To that end, while the overall design is distinctly 1930s, the guest cabins will contain references to various different periods (and owners) of the yacht’s storied past: for example, one cabin goes right back to the beginning, with waxed linen wall panels and a 1930s pattern in the carpet; another is inspired by the Palace of Savoy (in honour of Princess Maria Gabriella) with lavish Rubelli fabrics with a savoy blue trim. There will even be a cabin that references Marala’s military service, with graphic print upholstery in blue, purple and white.
There will also be plenty of 1930s touches throughout the yacht as a whole, from monochrome tiled floors to stepped high-gloss ceilings and timber panelling illuminated by art deco-style lighting. That influence steps up a gear in the upper deck owner’s cabin, which was inspired by the owner’s love of the famously stylish 1930s ocean liner SS Normandie. There are lacquered woods, brass, contemporary marquetry and a feature wall of peacock Chinoiserie wallpaper by de Gournay.
The main saloon, which sticks closely to the original design, will feature a working fireplace, as well as a good dose of what Muza Lab describes as “Gatsbyesque glamour”. The woodwork, it should be noted, will be done to the original Camper & Nicholsons design. Outside on deck, the watchword is versatility – particularly notable is the daybed that will open to reveal a copper spa pool. There’ll be plenty of informal banquet seating, and for evening an outdoor cinema and a cocktail bar disguised as a teak treasure chest. And for the exterior design? “It’s anthracite [charcoal grey] and white, with pops of savoy blue; and then the original funnel will be straw coloured,” says Hutchins. “So it’ll be a very clean, classic looking, crisp exterior.”
But all this is to look forward to. With completion expected in winter 2021, it’s not long until we’ll be able to see what other treasures the team has uncovered – and created – aboard this fascinating yacht.
This feature is taken from the June 2021 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.