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Credit: Stuart Pearce

Five classic superyachts brought back to life from the brink

3 December 2021


Sail Yacht
William Fife & Son ·  41.15 m ·  1928
Motor Yacht
Philip ·  37.28 m ·  1930

Not every owner relishes the prospect of a shiny new-build when they have the option to restore a beloved classic. Read on to discover some of the world’s most fascinating and valuable classic superyachts, which were brought back from the brink by their patient owners...

There is something intensely magical about the act of restoration: the feat of rescuing something that has fallen into a state of disrepair and returning it to its original condition. For owners, there is a process of falling completely for the yacht – something which compels them. British sailor Tracey Edwards recalls how restoring the yacht that became Maiden ceased to be purely about practicalities. “I fell in love with her,” she remembers simply. It is something to which many owners could relate.

British sailor Tracey Edwards at the helm of the restored sailing yacht Maiden.
Credit: The Maiden Factor / Amalia Infante

 The recovery of something that was once great is a venture infused with nostalgia and romance. Particularly, perhaps, when its heyday is recorded in writing or in photographs that survive. And while this could apply to lots of things, the very word “wreck” is strongly redolent of boats. 

A wreck that has been restored, of course, is no longer a wreck. But henceforth she will always have once been one – and this fact will remain an element in the boat’s story, a source of pride and interest for those who continue to sail her.


Atlantide at the Royal Huisman yard.
Credit: Huisfit

Built in 1930, Atlantide (as she is now known) is now in her 90s – a venerable old lady, sprightlier than most nonagenarians after judicious refits. She is a beautiful boat with an illustrious past.

Designed by Alfred Mylne, Atlantide served as a tender for a J Class America’s Cup challenger. Then, in 1940, she was one of the “Little Ships” that evacuated more than 330,000 Allied troops from the Dunkirk beaches, entitling her, unusually, to fly the St George’s Cross.

After a post-war refit, she spent 50 years in the Mediterranean and was given her current name in the 1980s. Then, shortly before 2000, she was bought by yachtsman and technologist Tom Perkins, who devoted time and money to the further refit that Atlantide desperately needed.

In 1940, Atlantide helped evacuate more than 330,000 Allied troops from the Dunkirk beaches.
Credit: Priska van der Meulen

Yacht designer Ken Freivokh remembers the project with great fondness, travelling to Malta with Perkins to view the boat. When he did so he was horrified. Her condition, he recalls, was “very, very poor, half-abandoned”. She was being used as a dive-boat, and an out-of-keeping superstructure had been put on top, destroying the boat’s elegant sheer line and making her look “very strange”.

What he could see immediately, however, was her underlying beauty and potential. But she needed a major restoration, and about 90 per cent of the plating along her spine had to be either restored or replaced. Freivokh contacted an aluminium worker who built an entirely new and more appropriate superstructure.

Atlantide With camouflage exterior in the Second World War.
Credit: Mersea Museum

Freivokh and his team were given exceptional input, the licence (and the money) to do whatever they felt necessary. In addition to the standard requirements of yacht renovation, they had extraordinary paintings and antiques at their disposal. They were able to commission further art deco artworks too – of a style that complemented the yacht and her era. The boat and her contents might have ended up, he reckons now, as “inch-for-inch the most extraordinary yacht afloat”: a big claim, but one that’s hard to deny.

After Perkins’ passing in June 2016, Atlantide was sent to Royal Huisman in the Netherlands by another owner and American technologist – Jim Clark, who also built J Class boat Hanuman as well as Hyperion. It is fair to say that, for all the ups and downs of her past, Atlantide’s future looks rosy, well beyond her centenary in 2030.

Western Flyer

The boat in 1940 at the time of John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez.
Credit: Martha Heasley Cox for Steinbeck Studies; San Jose State University

We might think 2021 a bad year, but in 1940, as Nazi Germany invaded Norway, the world truly “went to hell”, wrote the future Nobel-laureate John Steinbeck. Far from these hostilities, having published The Grapes of Wrath to both acclaim and notoriety the previous year, Steinbeck motored along the coast of Mexico and California, into the Gulf of California. There, as he had hoped, “the great world dropped away”.

In an out-of-season sardine-fishing “purse-seiner”, then named Western Flyer, he and a small crew examined and collected marine animals, negotiating “wrecks and wayward currents”. Though they marvelled at “the incredible beauty of the tide pools” and “the swarming species”, it was no idyll. Things seemed “to sting and pinch and bite” worse than in other places. The region was “fierce and hostile and sullen”. Written up as The Log from The Sea of Cortez, largely as a result of Steinbeck’s enduring fame, the venture has entered literary folklore – and attached added renown to the boat.

During the restoration process.
Credit: Melanya Nordstrom

During the decades since, the Western Flyer has – like all fishing boats – pursued catches (different species, caught often in quite different areas) as marine populations have shifted and declined: perch; king crab; salmon – far to the north or further south. The story of Western Flyer is the story of the Pacific west-coast fishery, and the story of humanity more broadly.

Rechristened Gemini, at times her ownership was hazy. Located by her unchanging call sign WB4044, she had come to resemble a ghost ship: paint peeling, mud-spattered, strangled by weed and timbers rotting. She has sunk at least twice, become completely unseaworthy, and all the time the price of restoration has grown.

The restoration of Western Flyer has involved the building of almost a completely new hull.
Credit: Time Lee

She is owned now by a marine geologist called John Gregg who is restoring her with the help of Tim Lee, a shipwright from the west coast. Whereas the wheelhouse, Lee remarks, could remain remarkably intact and original – around 90 per cent of it – the hull was in a shocking condition. The starboard side, in particular, he remembers, was “completely rotten”. “If the boat had rolled over” she would probably, he remarks, “not have been salvageable.”

While some backbone timbers are original, it has been necessary to basically build a new hull. Time cannot be denied. But she – and the wider world – are lucky indeed that she has found people enthusiastic and committed enough to restore her, and to ensure that this piece of literary history can continue to “fly” along the western coast.

Shenandoah of Sark

Built in 1902, Shenandoah has been restored to her former glory.
Credit: Stuart Pearce

More than once the famous yacht Shenandoah of Sark has been pulled back from the brink. As others have observed, she has really lived. She has seen all sides of life and come, in the process, perilously close to extinction.

First built for an American financier in 1902, she was in Germany before the First World War and then confiscated by the British Navy. She was given the name Shenandoah after the war, then rechristened again, this time by an Italian prince – another boat to be called Atlantide. She spent the Second World War concealed in a Danish shipyard, her masts and one of her engines removed to make her unseaworthy (and less appealing to thieves). Her post-war history included an almost year-long zoological and oceanographic expedition along the African west coast, as well as time spent smuggling in Central America – her precise location is unknown. Seized by French customs in 1962, she was tied up and left to rot before being bought and restored by a French industrialist.

Since the restoration the yacht has been refitted with new mechanics for a comfortable and safe sailing experience.
Credit: Mcmullen & Wing

Working as a charter yacht, she was sold in 1986 to a Swiss businessman who ordered a complete restoration at New Zealand shipyard  McMullen & Wing. The majority of the riveted hull was replaced, and the result was impressive: in 1996 she won the ShowBoats International award for Best Classic Yacht Restoration.

Together the owner and the yard have lavished attention upon every detail: from polished teak or redwood planking, to art deco lights and a unique, detachable deck cockpit. Further attention since to her rig and her mechanics has ensured that this is one yacht in a very fine position to advance far into – and perhaps complete – her second century.


The classic yacht Vagrant in her heyday.
Credit: Reading Room 2020 / Alamy Stock Photo

Well past her centenary (having been built in 1913, on the eve of the First World War) Vagrant is one of the oldest yachts still afloat. There are a small number of older human beings living – but not many. And the comprehensively refitted Vagrant will almost certainly outlast them all. In 2017 she had a major refit – for almost two years – in Dutch restoration yard Royal Huisman. Her owner’s instructions were that “Vagrant should be ready to last for another one hundred years.” Well, who can say? It certainly isn’t impossible.

Back in the distant past, Vagrant’s designer, Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, dominated the America’s Cup between the late 19th century and the early 1930s. A boatbuilder, he was also a proficient sailor, placed in the National Sailing Hall of Fame, and helming in the America’s Cup at least once.

Vagrant was built for Harold Vanderbilt, of the famous dynasty. Herreshoff built boats for the financial big guns – William Randolph Hearst, John Pierpont (JP) Morgan, Jay Gould. Yachts, like houses, were (and are) a symbol of wealth and success, and Herreshoff’s were the finest.

The 1913-built Vagrant underwent a two-year refit at Royal Huisman in 2017. Much of her original teak interior has been retained to this day.
Credit: Matteo Meregalli

Now, under relatively new ownership, Vagrant – one of the most revered classic yachts afloat – is being restored to her former greatness. Her steel hull needed substantial work (sandblasting areas of corrosion left some plates too thin and in need of replacement). But her teak interior has justified the wood’s reputation as the best natural material for a marine environment: beautiful, hard, rich in protective oil, resistant to rot and little prone to warping.

Sure enough, when removed and examined, much of the wood in the cabins could be treated and reused, even after so long (with the redesign to accommodate things such as electric lighting, plugs, heating and air conditioning, which were absent from the original boat). This clear link with the past serves to emphasise that this is very much the same boat.

Other departures from the original – aluminium masts, for instance, with internal furling for the mainsail and fisherman’s sail – seem an update rather than any kind of insult to the original maker. She might still sail under her old name of Vagrant but she has, very clearly, a loving home.


Cambria was built by William Fife in 1928.
Credit: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Having been built in the late 1920s, the sailing yacht Cambria was assumed, like so many, to have been destroyed during the Second World War. In fact, she had fallen into complete oblivion: vanishing not only from the present, but also from the historical record. One authoritative book on the yachts of William Fife, the renowned Scottish boatbuilder responsible for Cambria, omitted her completely. Only subsequently has she been rediscovered in every sense – restored to history and restored in the present.

Cambria was built originally for a newspaper magnate – Sir William Berry – who rose from complete obscurity (having left school in South Wales at 13) to become owner of the largest media empire of the day: publisher of titles still active and well-known, like The Sunday Times, Financial Times and The Daily Telegraph. Berry’s publications happened to include Yachting World, giving him a route to its editor. 

Cambria has had several refits over her lifetime, including a major one in 2006 and another in 2015.
Credit: Mike Jones / Waterline Media

Soon after its construction, Cambria won an early race, then for a few years raced some 50 times a year. Her beauty was much admired, and fame seemed assured. (Berry asked his wife whether she might like a matching yacht, an offer she sadly declined.) Rules of the time hindered Cambria, however, and not long afterwards she changed hands. Her name was changed and she retreated, during the 1930s, into obscurity – and then into oblivion.

Her sketchy post-war history includes an ill-fated circumnavigation during the 1970s, before being bought, and mothballed, in Australia, until finally she was rediscovered near the Great Barrier Reef. Her basic structure, mahogany planking on a steel frame, remained intact and was remediable with careful repair work. Only in the 21st century did she return to British waters, after more than half a century. With a new mast, of spruce pine, and a thorough refit in Southampton in 2006 which saw Cambria stripped back and the boat’s stem reworked. There is no doubt now that Cambria does once again fulfil Fife’s basic requirement of a yacht – that she be both “fast and bonnie”.


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