William Fife Jr., The “Great Genius”
A legend in his own lifetime William Fife Jr. (1857-1944), aka W.F. III, is one of the best known names in yachting history. He was defining figure at the pinnacle of his trade and whose yachts, a century later, still elicit the awe and admiration of sailors, boat-builders and aficionados alike. At the end of the 19th century when the traditional notion, that a boat of sleek beautiful lines would invariably be fast as well, was being dislodged by the new design and construction techniques employed by the new breed of “engineer designers”, the “artistic designer” William Fife III proved that “fast and bonnie” could still be a very successful union.
Acclaimed French skipper Eric Tabarly, owner of the well-known Fife-designed Pen Duick, on which he learnt to sail as a teen-ager and on which he lost his life sixty years later, wrote “The great designers of the period were Herreshoff, Watson, Nicholson, and William Fife Jr.. Amongst these, Fife has acquired a particular reputation thanks to the sheer artistry and balance of his designs. Furthermore, those of his designs which took shape in his [Fairlie] yard were of unmatched construction.”
Fife’s work focussed on sailing yachts, with an exquisite balance between form and function, aesthetics and performance. These were mostly racing vessels intended for the inshore regattas, though in his latter years he produced extraordinary offshore racers and fast ocean-going cruisers as well. He designed yachts of all sizes for all racing classes, including various one-designs and two America’s Cup challengers, Shamrock I and III. However, in the racing circuit Fife prevailed in the smaller 6, 8 and 12 metre classes. Fife’s success in the 6 metre class was such that rival designer C.E. Nicholson said that it should “be called the Fife class”.
Fife’s clientele included the highest echelons of society, within the United Kingdom and abroad; royalty, noblemen, and the business magnates emerging from the opulence of Victorian England vied for his vessels. Even today, the surviving Fife yachts that are sailing are largely a prerogative of the well-heeled; 15 metre Tuiga belongs to the Prince of Monaco.
A Fife yacht is a precious piece of history. “If a boat can be called a work of art, then surely the designs of Wm. Fife III qualify him as a grand master… heart-stoppingly elegant to look at… as exciting as any piece of installation art… undeniably precious in terms of rarity and value… These are the Ming vases of naval architecture”, according to the British magazine Classic Boat.
Throughout his life the prodigiously prolific Fife III designed over 800 hulls. At the top of his career at the turn of the century, he was designing 50 yachts a year, with about 20 being built at his Fairlie boatyard in Scotland and the others elsewhere in the U.K. as well as in Europe, the U.S., and as far as Australia, but always, invariably, beautiful creations characterized by unwavering attention to exquisite detail.
William Fife III was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1919 for his yard’s wartime contribution to the military effort as well as for his work as a designer, and was inducted in the America’s Cup Hall of Fame in 2004.
William Fife III was “a great genius, whose achievements will always occupy a leading place in the records of the yachting world”, writes May Fife McCallum, a Fife family descendant and foremost biographer of the Fifes.
The Early Years
Born in 1857, William Fife Jr. was the third generation of an illustrious Scottish boatbuilding family on the Firth of Clyde, on the western coast of Scotland. “Fast and bonnie” were how his grandfather, founder of the family boatyard in Fairlie in 1803, summed up his boatbuilding philosophy. But along with superb craftsmanship, “fast and bonnie” was a hallmark that also characterized of the boats signed off by his namesake son and grandson. The three Fifes span 140 significant years of yachting history, and each in his own lifetime was highly esteemed, to the extent of dubbed a “wizard” of boatbuilding, the latter’s boats “almost too beautiful to use”.
The first Fife had a reputation for making the fastest fishing smacks in western Scotland, his strength lay in his designs and craftsmanship; the second Fife shifted the yard’s focus to yachts and gave national resonance to the name through the loftier sailing circles of southern England; to the qualities inherited from his father, Fife II had added vision. William Fife III added great creativity and technological innovation to the Fife boatbuilding equation, establishing the name internationally with superb racing and cruising yachts. Of his son’s work at the end of the 19th century Fife II would comment: “I used to think I knew something of the form required for a boat but after seeing these I’m not so sure about it”. (Further info in the Dynasty article).
Times were changing rapidly when 14-year-old Fife III started his apprenticeship in 1871 in the family yard in Fairlie, on the Firth of Clyde in western Scotland, after having attended school at the Brisbane Academy in nearby Largs. This was a time when rule-of-thumb construction was becoming outdated, superseded by scientific design, mathematical equations and composite structures. He would get schooling from his father, and hands-on experience for the following five years at the Fairlie yard, which was still building wooden vessels, albeit very successful ones (Fife II’s famous Bloodhound was built in these years). A precocious talent – apples don’t fall far from the tree – the younger Fife helped his father design Clio and Camellia, 5t racing yachts, before the end of his apprenticeship.
Sensing the need to expand his knowledge to the emerging technologies, at age 19 Fife III went to work for J.Fullerton & Co., small shipbuilders in Paisley, on the River Clyde on the outskirts of Glasgow. There he acquired knowledge of a newly developing technology, composite construction, by working on the construction of iron steamships for coastal waters. At Fullerton he gained skills which were to be fundamental to his future work of designing hulls with metal frames and wooden planking.
The First Success
His talent and dedication caught the attention of a well-known Clyde yachtsman with a penchant for boatbuilding, the Marquis of Ailsa, whom in 1883 appointed him manager of the Culzean Shipbuilding Company in Maiden, down the Ayrshire coast. The Marquis was already familiar with the Fifes and their work ethic, having purchased Bloodhound from Fife II nine years earlier. It was here that Fife III’s talent as designer and builder began to bear in earnest, and his position allowed him to mature as a businessman as well, daily managing the workforce and the books of the yard on the inside and dealing with a sophisticated exigent clientele on the outside. Though a reserved man focussed on his work and little prone to hobnobbing, Fife understood the importance of a social network.
The Culzean yard was capable of launching yachts up to 150ft in length, and it was there that Fife started consolidating his reputation as an innovative designer. In 1884 he produced his first plank-on-edge vessel, the highly successful 20t Clara, which with 63ft in length had a beam of only 9ft. It not only looked like a razor-blade but had that effect on the competition, winning 17 first place in 21 races. Fife’s work was beginning to be talked about across the Channel and the Ocean, where in the US Clara went on to garner another streak of flags and cups.
He would work for the Marquis until 1886, three years during which he also collaborated on projects in the Fairlie yard, about 25nm up to coast. His father’s activity had slowed down after the launch of Latona in 1875, and Fife III was increasingly more involved with his family business. Fife III would return to Fairlie, where he had become a partner in the business with his father the previous year, to stay.
Fairlie, New York and the Golden Dragon
The year after leaving Culzean with much public credibility, the 29-year-old Fife went to New York for the 1887 edition of the America’s Cup, accompanying fellow Scotsman G.L.Watson (with whom there would always be an amicable rivalry marked by mutual respect), the designer of the Scottish syndicate’s unsuccessful challenger, the all-metal cutter Thistle. In New York Fife would significantly expand his social network of friends and patrons. The following year Fife built Minerva for New Yorker Charles Tweed, impressing the Americans and consolidating his overseas reputation. Fife’s keen interest in the overseas race could have been heightened a few years earlier when Genesta, another challenger to the Cup, had been built in a Clyde shipyard not far from home for the previous edition of the America’s Cup.
1888 is a special year in Fife’s illustrious career, in which he would leave an indelible mark for posterity to admire; this is when his iconic golden dragon head started being carved on the bow of the boats that bore his signature. This extended as a cove line along the hull ending in a wheat sheaf at the stern. Why Fife chose the figure of the dragon to distinguish his boats is not known. Nevertheless it came into being with the phenomenally successful 20-rater cutter that Fife built and that the owner christened Dragon; another two sister vessels would be built, likewise called Dragon. (Further info in the Dragon article).
The last decade of the century is marked by the prodigious output of William III, who was designing up to 50 boats a year. Not all were exclusive designs; Fairlie, despite the fame of its owner, was a small shipyard where boats for local fishermen were built alongside medium-sized luxurious yachts for the affluent. Some hulls were improvements on previously built boats which had been slightly or substantially modified. It is fair to say that Fairlie produced a “new” hull every month, with a total output of 20 crafts per year. Surplus orders were outsourced, and larger yachts were built in shipyards with adequate infrastructure; Fairlie’s shallow shores precluded the launch of larger vessels. But Fife had the versatility and determination to make things work, and in 1895 designed a slip for vessels up to 130ft in length. In the same year he designed yachts to 10 different rules. (Further info in the Fairlie Boatyard article).
Fife III makes his foray into the America’s Cup at the end of the century, building Shamrock I for Sir Thomas Lipton for the 1899 competition, in which Nat Herreshoff’s Columbia prevailed. Sir Thomas would again refer to Fife for his 1903 challenger, Shamrock III. Alas, again Herreshoff’s boat, Reliance, would win. But Fife’s involvement with the America’s Cup was not limited to the two challengers he had designed. The relationship among the top British designers at the time was characterized by a healthy sense of collaboration when their boats weren’t competing against each other. Whereas accompanying Watson to New York in 1887 likely had a self-serving interest, Fife would collaborate with him for Shamrock II, which Sir Thomas had entrusted to Watson. When in 1920 Charles Nicholson was chosen to design Shamrock IV, Fife collaborated closely and accompanied Nicholson in the unsuccessful expedition to New York. (Further info in the America’s Cup article).
But the defeats in America’s Cup were but a brief sag in Fife’s accomplishments, which after 1890 are nothing short of phenomenal. These are the years in which composite technology – which at the time meant using various metals for a boat’s structure, namely steel for the frame – is becoming the standard for high-performance yachts, allowing for hulls shapes beyond the reach of wooden boats. In the last decade of the century Fife started incorporating the new developments in his designs, and upgraded the infrastructure of the Fairlie yard introducing machinery for the task, as well as mechanization to cope with the increasing demand for his yachts. Yet Fife’s approach to boatbuilding, that of an “artist designer”, remained instinctive. It is reported that before putting anything on paper, he would build a model of what he had in mind and toy with it until it made sense to him. Only then would the draughtsmen come into play.
When fellow scotsman G.L. Watson died prematurely in 1904, Fife was reputed the finest yacht designer in Great Britain, though Charles Nicholson was providing stiff competition, often prevailing in the larger classes. The two dominated regattas in Europe while Herreshoff in the U.S. reigned the America’s Cup for two decades with five consecutive victories. The difference between Fife and the younger Nicholson was that the latter belonged to the new generation of designers who sacrificed esthetics to performance, whereas for Fife, true to the family tradition, a boat has to be “fast” and “bonnie”. In a Fife vessel the two concepts were genetically intertwined. A hallmark of the Fifes’ success, it didn’t always work, the most remarkable occurrence being the 120ft schooner Waterwitch, built in 1911. The owner was so disenchanted by its performance that he had it scrapped and commissioned Nicholson for a replacement.
The years leading up to WWI were characterized by Fife’s focus on the metre classes. Fife focus lay in racing yachts, he was therefore well aware and conscious of the various rules in place, in Britain, in Europe, and in the U.S. as well. He was an advocate for changes leading to some sort of uniformity. His outstanding reputation as designer and builder, as well as his standing in the international racing circuit and presence at all important yaching events in Britain came to bear upon the introduction of the International Rules in 1907. Consequently he was instrumental in developing the 6, 8 and 12 metre classes, in which his boats were highly successful.
Though for most of his career Fife concentrated on racing yachts, he began producing some cruising yachts, of the same unmatched quality, alongside the International Rule racers of his latter years, spanning the two decades between the World Wars. Unbound by the strict rules of inshore racing for his ocean racers, and only by those he himself imposed on the design of the cruisers, he produced some his most beautiful work, like the schooners Adventuress (1924), Belle Aventure (1929) and Altair (1931), the ketches Sumurun (1914) and Eilean (1937), and the canoe-stern yawl Latifa (1936), a fine interpretation of an ocean racer which Fife produced when he was 78 years old and which won the 1947 Fastnet in her class, with second place in the two previous editions. Dr. William Collier writes “Perceived by some as anachronistic, these yachts were considered by many to represent some of the greatest refinements of the auxiliary cruising yacht ever achieved.”
Over 160 of Fife III’s boat are documented to have survived, with some speculation that there could be up to 200. They can be found in all sizes and conditions, the best known ones being among the centerpieces of classic boat shows and regattas, “masterpieces of thoughtful design and perfect workmanship”. These include the cruisers Moonbeam III (1903) and Moonbeam IV (1920); the only surviving 19mR, Mariquita (1911); the 15mR’s Mariska (1908), Hispania (built for the King Alfonso XIII of Spain in 1909), Tuiga (1909, currently owned by owned by the Prince of Monaco), and The Lady Anne (1912); the oldest 12mR still sailing, Cintra (1909); and Eric Tabarly’s gaff-rigged sloop Pen Duick (1898), among others. And some smaller ones, such as the 27ft gaff-rigged sloop Mignon (1898, said to be a 1:5 scale version of Shamrock I built for testing purposes), being lovingly restored, to the painstaking brink of a rebuild, to give her back her original splendor with no digression from tradition. This is an approach that has characterized the most significant Fife yacht restorations in recent times. A Fife yacht, for an owner appreciative of its intrinsic value, is a high-maintenance love affair.
Other than the stints in nearby Paisley and Culzean in his youth, the reserved Fife spent all his life in Fairlie, where he bought a mansion close to the family yard. A workaholic with little time for anything else, though he would not shy from a courteous presence at social gatherings, he would travel only for the sake of his work. He never married, and not having any children of his own, he tried to ensure a future for his name and yard by bringing in his nephew, Robert Balderston, training him and making him a partner in the last two decades of the company. However, the glorious days would end with the start of WWII and the death of William Fife III in 1944.