There are only three of the original J Class fleet in existence today and the only wooden J, Shamrock V, is currently undergoing a bow-to-stern restoration at Saxon Wharf in Southampton. Katia Damborsky finds out how Shamrock V is preparing to rejoin the regatta circuit.
At some point between 1848 and 1931, Scottish yachtsman and tea magnate Sir Thomas Lipton said: “Never despair, keep pushing on”. Perhaps it was one of his five America’s Cup defeats that inspired these words, as he resolutely entered a string of wooden sailing yachts named Shamrock into the competition and graciously accepted the loss each time.
His fifth and final defeat was on board his largest Shamrock yet — a 36.5-metre wood- Bermudan-rigged sailing yacht, built in wood and steel and therefore known as a “composite” yacht at the time. She hit the water at Camper & Nicholsons’ Gosport shipyard in 1930 and in the 93 years since then, she has lived a good life — although the last few years have been a “sad little bit in her history,” admits Paul Spooner, the designer and naval architect leading an ambitious restoration project.
Work on the vessel began last year in Southampton, but before that she was laid up in the same spot as she is now with years of general wear and tear plus the effects of a turbulent race at the St Barths Bucket in 2017. “She was in trouble structurally,” says Spooner, and when she changed hands in 2022 the new owner decided to gut her and carry out extensive bone-deep repair work.
She is a shell of a yacht when I visit her, stripped down to the steel ribs with interior components ripped out, wrapped up and neatly labelled ready to be reinstalled. When she originally raced with Sir Lipton, she didn’t have a proper interior. In 1937 she was briefly owned by an Italian who named her Quadrifoglio (meaning cloverleaf in English; facist ruling at the time meant she couldn’t have a foreign name) and, in true Italian style, bequeathed her with some tasteful maple and mahogany.
Next to the interior components are shoulder-high stacks of teak wood planks, each of which is being painstakingly reconditioned and replaced by the team now that all the frames and supports have been refurbished. Camper & Nicholsons reinstalled the wood in 1970 after the original mahogany started to show its age. Most of her major refit and maintenance periods have been in the United Kingdom, where she was built. Her commissioning owner, Lipton, hailed from Glasgow but he had a strong Irish heritage, hence the name Shamrock and the deep emerald hull colour. Fittingly, his maxim “never despair, keep pushing on” bears striking similarity to the infinitely catchier “keep calm and carry on”, a tagline that appeared eight years after Lipton’s death and has since become a synonym of British culture.
In 2000, she popped into Pendennis’ Falmouth facility for a refit and maintenance works. Spooner and a couple of the 25 people working on the project now were involved in the refit back then, building the deckhouse, skylight and hatches. “Shamrock’s got to be the biggest wooden racing yacht in the world,” says Giles Brotherton, lead shipwright on the project today, who also worked on her when she was at Pendennis. “She’s got a lot of history to her. It’s nice to be a part of it.”
The next chapter of Shamrock V’s life will see her back on the regatta circuit (hopefully) by 2024. She’ll be a cruising yacht as well, enjoying the cove-studded coasts of the French Riviera, indolently idling in St Tropez alongside the owner’s other sailing yacht. The look will be much the same as when was originally launched, although the mast has been replaced with a painted aluminium one and the sailplan has been altered slightly.
Still, she will be recognisably the same Shamrock V, which splashed on 17 April, 1930. You can still find grainy footage from the launch ceremony which shows the Countess of Shaftesbury — who also attended the launches of now-lost Shamrock IV and Shamrock III — christen the yacht with a champagne bottle, alongside Lipton, who says: “I regard it as a great honour [to have] Lady Shaftesbury here today and ensure her presence will bring good luck for the new Shamrock.” In the presence of a crowd of people wearing shamrocks pinned to their lapels, the yacht rolls down the slipway and into the water, notably with at least twenty people standing around on the hull during what looks like a blustery day — health and safety be damned.
For Spooner, it is a relief that there are no major modifications being made. “The details get lost [during] modern changes, trying to do them in an authentic way,” he says. Spooner says the trend for restoration ebbs and flows, but his firm, Paul Spooner Design, has rarely been left twiddling its thumbs in the past thirty years.
“With these boats, you desperately need an owner who wants to do the right thing,” he says. Happily, Spooner feels like they have found one. Speaking previously to BOAT International, the owner calls himself a custodian of the vessel. “Shamrock is coming up to her centenary and we are preparing her for her next 100 years,” he says. “What has been striking is the depth and warmth of response to this refit. Everyone wants it to go well and for Shamrock to be back where she belongs”.Read More/Q&A: The owner of Shamrock V on restoring a J Class