A Restorer Reminisces
by Duncan Walker – Feb. 2021
I first worked on a Fife yacht in 1985, I spent a delightful summer on Belle Aventure in Italy and Croatia. One of our charter guests was a 49 year old Swiss gentleman, a collector and restorer of Ferraris, Albert Obrist. He was at that time considering the purchase of the 108ft schooner Altair which had been in the same ownership for nearly forty years. He invited Belle’s skipper Paul Goss to restore the yacht for him, I came with Paul. We spent an exciting 19 months at Southampton Yacht Services in Shamrock Quay, Southampton. This refit was a combined yard/crew refit carried out before AutoCAD, with just a fax machine, well before mobile phones and desktop computers came into common use.
Altair was then around 55 years old and working on her was a significant learning experience. She was so well built, the best materials used (mostly) and exquisite craftsmanship. Although built to Lloyds 100A1 she wasn’t built to last forever. Many yachts built like Altair (oak frames and metal floors) end up with severe electrolytic reaction between oak frames and galvanised floor fastenings. Whilst the planking and ‘yellow metal’ fastenings remained in fair condition, the frames rotted from the inside to the outside as the galvanising broke down and the rusty steel reacted with the tannins in the oak frames.
My experiences with Altair and Mr. Obrist’s desire to set up his own yard lead, in 1989, to the purchase of Tuiga and the formation of Fairlie Restorations. From 1990 to 2016 I was privileged to lead a great team of craftsmen in restoring 16 yachts, mainly Fife, from 8m LOD to 28m LOD, as well as another stint on Altair, 20 years after the first. On taking Altair back to Fairlie in 1991 for her sixtieth birthday celebrations we took the last Fife yard manager, Archie MacMillan (then 93 years young), out for a few sails. Three months later he sold us the Archive of Fife’s drawings in all containing plans of around 600 yachts, which were stored in his garden shed.
With this experience, and of course learning through early mistakes along the way I can share a few points to watch.
The most important thing I learnt from these 30 or so years was to have faith in the designer’s original designs and intentions. His drawings are beautifully drawn and so accurately drawn that it is possible to pick out incredible detail. The best examples of this are that twice I been involved in fixing substantial structural issues caused by restorers/surveyors not understanding Fife’s design and attempting short cuts. In both cases the result was that the wood and ballast keels gradually parted company with the frames; for obvious reasons the yachts shall remain nameless.
These yachts were built without the use of modern sealants and glue, the planks being bedded on to wood frames with thickened varnish, and onto metal frames allegedly with an insulating layer of felt, although I have never seen any evidence of this. Whilst I am a firm believer of using modern sealants for bedding planks to frames, fittings to decks etc. I am not a fan of the ‘epoxy glue solves everything’ school of thought, but that’s a discussion for another day. The use of stainless steel (whether 316 grade or not) for structural fastenings in wet timber, where oxygen cannot reach should be discouraged, the material will start pitting within 5 years.
Before starting any work involving removal and replacement of planking or centreline replacement work it is critical that the yacht is properly shored up with the correct shear and any twist is taken out of the hull. I would recommend that the steel angle brackets are bolted to the ‘corners’ of the yacht and steel steels shores welded to the brackets and then welded to steel plates bolted to the floor.
If the ballast keel is to be removed, then one way to keep the hull safely supported is to wrap a steel angle around the outside of the hull in the and bolt through frames/Bilge stringer. Steel shores can then be attached and secured to the workshop floor. I have found it is far too easy to lift or move a yacht whilst shoring off new planks or using wedges etc.
Another major challenge facing restorers that I have found, is dealing with the consequences of electrolysis; the effect of combining different metals and their effect on timber. Take the example of strap floors, originally made forged iron/steel fastened to planks/frames with copper rivets. We replicated these in 1994 on one of our six 8M restorations, this worked well until one owner, around 5 years ago neglected her and let her bilge water build up to very high levels. The copper rivets are great, the straps floors fine, but the mahogany planking around the fastening very soft, in hindsight perhaps fitting insulating washers would have helped. Last year took out the old floors, bead blasted and filled/ faired them and used them as patterns to cast bronze ones.
In 1986 we replaced Altair’s steel web floors as original and used galvanised bolts to attach the web floors to the frames, these all had to be replaced in 2005, just before they started affecting the frame timber (again).
In summary I can only offer my experiences –
Have faith in the original methods of construction.
Don’t use stainless steel fastenings under water, they need oxygen around them, which they won’t get buried in a 125mm thick timber underwater.
Isolate bronze fastening from steel to minimise electrolysis.
Beware of epoxy glue for structural joints.