The sole survivor of the five yachts which formed the most spectacular racing class of the 1920s and did battle with King George V's Britannia in the Solent, is about to be relaunched in Italy after an impressive rebuild. David Glenn reports on the significance of the gaff-rigged cutter Lulworth.
When one considers the fate of Lulworth's fellow competitors in the heyday 0f 1920s Big Class racing, it is remarkable that this great gaff cutter exists today in any shape or form. Under a string of owners - the most successful being explorer, archaeologist and naturalist Herbert Weld and sewing machine magnate Sir Mortimer Singer- the 120ft Lulworth raced against King George V's legendary G. L. Watson-designed Britannia, F. T. B. Davis's Herreshoff schooner Westward, Sir Thomas Lipton's Fife Shamrock IV and Lord Waring's White Heather ll, both 23-Metre class yachts.
These magnificent vessels were all either scuttled on their owner's instructions Britannia and Westward were both sunk in the English Channel (1936 and 1947) -or, as one historian described Shamrock's demise, 'ruthlessly dismantled'.
Only Lulworth survived and her recent rebuild in Viareggio in Italy will open another potentially mouth watering chapter in a remarkably long and illustrious career.
Known as the Big Five, these yachts formed the core of the Big Class racing fleet which graced the fashionable south coast ports of England from 1924 (Westward joined the fray in '25) with Cowes and the royal patronage of King George V attracting the cream of European society.
It wasn't until the J Class emerged in the 1930s that the Big Class became competitively redundant. In fact, W. L. Stephensen, who started Woolworths in the UK and who bought White Heather from Lord Waring when the latter got into financial difficulties, soon scrapped the yacht when he decided to have the steel hulled J Class Velsheda built.
Although all gaff-rigged, the Big Five were very different yachts - Westward a schooner, Britannia designed in another century and all of them constantly being modified. But they enjoyed remarkably close racing, were initially well handicapped and their size, speed and awesome sail areas drew large crowds to the Cowes waterfront.
Only one to survive
Extraordinarily, the two scuttled yachts have already been recreated, Westward in the form of Eleonora, launched in 2001 and built by Ed Castelein in Holland and Britannia, launched in May this year in Archangel. Russia, for the Swedish businessman Sigurd Coates.
But Lulworth, launched as Terpsichore for Richard Lee in1920 and sold to Herbert Weld in 1924 following Lee's death, is the only one of the original Big Five to survive partly intact. According to her project manager Giuseppe Longo, 80-90 per cent of the deck fittings are original. 75 per cent of the accommodation panelling and furniture and 25kg of silver door furniture. These are remarkable statistics which few, if any, yachts of this historical significance can boast.
Lulworth was designed and built as a racing yacht, converted for cruising in the 1930s and
for many years served as a houseboat on the Hamble River having survived bombing while laid up in Gosport during WWII. She eventually found her way to Italy where she lay deteriorating while lawyers deliberated over a further sale following a failed restoration attempt. It took a Dutchman with an eye for historical significance and his Anglo Italian project manager to begin breathing life into her again.
There are other features of Lulworth's reincarnation which make her particularly noteworthy. Her current owner, Dutch property developer Johan van den Bruele, has not been tempted down the route of a modern, luxury interior which in recreations of old yachts so often badly affects 92 performance, to say nothing of aesthetic and historic acceptability.
Instead he has opted for an extremely true to original finish with the accommodation much the same as it was in the 1920s. Machinery has been kept to a minimum, the main engine is as small as the designers dare specify, there is no air conditioning, no TV, no audio system, no navigation area and only a 'plug-in' radar for legal requirements when on passage. They have chosen the modified 1926 sail plan for the rebuild with 11 tons of new hollow spruce spars, including a 65ft spinnaker pole, built by Harry Spencer in Cowes.
When one looks at the relative lightness of build, the scarcity of 'heavy' finish below decks and the size of her vast gaff cutter rig, one is tempted to predict that this yacht will be dynamite on the classic race course in the right hands. There's an air of expectancy about this project heralding one of the most remarkable rebuilds in modern times.
Studio Faggioni produced the lines drawings for the Lulworth restoration project.
Another engaging element to this story is that Herbert Weld's ancestors, who currently own and manage the Lulworth Estate in Dorset in the UK, are taking a keen interest in the cutter's rebuild and are talking with Johan van den Bruele about plans to bring the yacht to the UK. In the right weather and tide conditions they hope to anchor her in Lulworth Cove for a special celebration.
Looking at the chart, we reckon they'll just about make it! We were fortunate to travel to Viareggio in Italy to see Lulworth's restoration with James Weld, who currently manages the Dorset estate with his father Wilfrid. They and Herbert, who owned the yacht in the 1920S, are related to Joseph of Lulworth, Herbert's grandfather, a highly influential figure in yachting in the 1800s (see panel).
Lulworth was commissioned by Richard H. Lee, designed by Herbert White and built by White Bros of Southampton. The 186-ton yacht was reputedly constructed in just six weeks at a cost of ?24,000, which today would equate to something in excess of ?3 million! The method was mahogany planking on a steel framework and, although her hull was up to the task, it seemed that some of her fittings were wanting.
Terpsichore's first season was dogged by problems, including losing her topmast, the failure of her throat halyard and other gear damage, earning her the nom de guerre of Terpischore the Unlucky. Some observers felt that Terpsichore the Unfinished would have been more appropriate. But efforts to get the big cutter class moving was also hampered by rows over handicap rating and it took the best part of two years for the fleet to get into its stride.
By the time it did Terpsichore had changed hands following Lee's death, she had been modified and went on to become a force to be reckoned with, scoring 59 1sts out of 247 starts between 1921 and 1930.
Danger money At least 30 crew were required to hoist and handle sail, men overboard and injuries (occasionally fatal) were not uncommon in the fleet and wages aboard Lulworth in the 1920S were ?3 a week for seamen with a 'hand-back' of10 shillings (sop) for food.
The mast headman, bob stayman and lee runner man all earned an extra 5 shillings a week - danger money in other words. The Big Class regularly raced for prize money of between ?80 and ?100, and on special occasions much more.
Results show that 1925 was, in Herbert Weld's ownership, Lulworth's first really effective season on the race course. She not only won the coveted King's Cup but out of 27 starts she scored eight 1sts, 11 2nds and eight 3rds. Designer Charles E. Nicholson had called for hull surgery which involved cutting away a considerable amount of forefoot and a new rig was also stepped.
Together with Weld's insistence on proper preparation and his enthusiasm to race with the fashionable Big Class, the changes worked.
Sir Mortimer Singer bought the yacht at the end of the 1925 season and built on the success of that year, scoring 131sts in 29 starts in 1926. King George V, meanwhile, was not having such a high scoring time aboard Britannia. Subsequent changes in handicapping to equal things up and the introduction of the Universal Rule, which resulted in rigs being cut down in size, did no favours for Lulworth and while she performed adequately she never regained her 1925/26 prowess.
As yachting historian Occomore Sibbick records in his extraordinarily detailed description of her career (Lulworth Shared My Playground, published by the Minerva Press): 'Future prospects for Lu/worth were influenced by overreaction to her domination of the class by her handicappers'!
Liverpudlian banker Alexander Paton, who bought Lulworth from Singer, had the distinction of beating the new J Class Shamrock V (now restored and in Brazilian ownership), Lipton's latest America's Cup challenger, five times in 1930, but at the end of that season the cutter was retired as the Big Class finally collapsed, giving way to the Js, considered then to be cheaper to build, maintain and handle under sail. That might surprise current owners of J Class yachts.
Lulworth was eventually fitted out as a rather ugly-looking ketch in 1937 for world cruising but with war looming she was instead laid up at Camper & Nicholsons in Gosport, where she survived the war despite being damaged when the yard received a direct hit during a bombing raid.
For more than 40 years Lulworth lay in a Hamble mudberth at Crableck 94 Marine where she became home to Mr and Mrs Richard Clement Lucas. When Richard died, his wife Renee remained living aboard until 1989. As Lulworth slowly rotted, concrete was used to stabilise and waterproof the hull, but crucially the Lucases maintained Lulworth's interior panelling, furniture and deck gear, which still exist today.
Wreck of a yacht
As the classic yacht restoration movement gathered momentum in the 1990S, Lulworth was spotted by an Italian who had her shipped to the Beconcini yard in La Spezia, Italy. Dutch naval architect Gerry Dijkstra was commissioned to configure the yacht with a new rig, Harry Spencer built the spars and the future began to look bright for Lulworth. But this restoration attempt failed and it wasn't until Giuseppe Longo was in Beconcini looking at a yacht called Patience that her recovery resumed.
"I saw this wreck of a yacht in another corner of the yard but I liked her lines and said to the boss he ought to have a look," Longo told Yachting World. He had cut his teeth on another project for Johan van den Bruele, the complete restoration of the Henri de Vooght-designed, de Vries-built ketch Iduna. When this comfortable 110footer was launched in 1939 she was the biggest yacht the famous Dutch partnership (eventually Feadship) had built and Johan van den Bruele was quick to spot the yacht's historical significance.
Giuseppe Longo put together a team of builders and set up Cantieri Darsena in Viareggio.
lt took them three years to rebuild Iduna and they completed the task to a very high standard in 2001.
When van den Bruele realised what Lulworth represented, he decided to use the same team led by the talented Longo who, although born in Bristol in the UK to an Italian hairdresser, had returned to Italy to play rugby for Pisa and then settled in the country. His contacts and understanding of the Italian yachting industry have been invaluable in the Lulworth project.
Guiseppe Longo could hardly believe his luck when he started uncovering containers and crates full of original fittings for Lulworth. Beconcini had painstakingly catalogued every item and as word got around, people in possession of other 'memorabilia' came forward.
The original rudder was still being used as a footbridge on the Hamble, the silver door furniture was shipped from England and the Spencer rig, which had been built for the failed Italian project, was bought back from the Swede Sigurd Coates who had acquired it for his Russian Britannia project.
Harry Spencer was even able to sell back the yacht's original wheel with the Terpsichore nameplate in place on the rim.
Darsena of Viareggio
Cantieri Darsena's premises in Viareggio comprise a distinctly unimpressive makeshift tent. One can just about discern Lulworth's shape among the scaffolding poles, rickety walkways and other plastic 'sub-tents'. But once you stand on the vast expanse of deck and then go below, you quickly realise something very special is happening in these unlikely surroundings.
An amazing 25 per cent of the yacht's extensive steel work - she is a composite build, teak planking on a large steel framework - is intact, although all the planking was replaced and the decks will be laid teak rather than the original lightweight yellow pine favoured by racing yachts in the 1920s.
The 2in thick hull planks were wrapped in wet rags and then heated over an open fire to enable them to be bent over the metal frames, a technique employed when she was first constructed. The hull is splined and 9.500 nickel aluminium bolts hold the planking to the frames. Anew rudder has been built, a newly cast 80-ton lead keel is held in place with 29 bronze bolts and boxes and boxes of fittings have been unwrapped, sent away for restorative work, returned, repacked and now await final fitting.
The initial plan was to fit twin engines for manoeuvrability but in the interests of simplicity and lightness a single engine has been installed. There's a single generator, 1.5 tons of batteries in the bilge and a watermaker. Eight guests can be accommodated and 12 crew have the forward area consisting largely of pi picots in an open-plan arrangement.
When this yacht is launched in September she will spend the winter working up and training crew for a full Mediterranean regatta season in 2006. We hope to be there to see her progress and, if the plans with the Weld family come to fruition, see her anchored in Lulworth Cove which represents such an important part of this remarkable yacht's past.
We wonder whether she will ever tangle with the current batch of Js? Properly rated, she could give them a run for their money.
«« Torna Elenco Articoli