I’m not sure quite why, but I started to wonder what makes a boat classic. This is perhaps a silly thing to do after so many years working in and around classic boats, but the specialist magazines seem to equate “classic” to either old or exclusive, which somehow doesn’t satisfy. I was also struck by how little seems to have changed since Classic Boat issue 1 appeared in 1987. Surely classic can’t mean static?
Classic as old
I think the most common version of classic is as the admiration of things old. There are indeed some genuine museum pieces which exemplify the skills, materials and outlook of their time, and it has been well argued that such pieces should be preserved rather than used until they wear out. So let’s set those aside, noting that in some cases they weren’t classic in the sense of being approved or typical. SS Great Britain is without doubt a ground-breaking ship, a brilliant piece of engineering; but is she a classic? I’m also going to set aside replica craft constructed expressly to find out more about the people, their boats and sometimes their voyages. I’m thinking here of craft like Kon-tiki, replica triremes or the Matthew.
No, the thing I have a problem with is the idea that old is always good and new is always bad. Apart from the fact that all generalisations are stupid, if you go down that route you end up with a number of undesirable outcomes. Why so?
Partly because there was rubbish in the old days just as there is good stuff now. Then as now there were good and bad designers, and within each designers’ output there were good and bad designs. Partly because the skills and outlook we bring to bear on using boats is different now from when the boat first appeared. But mostly because the best examples of their art have always embraced the latest technology available which would do the job.
In their day Fife’s yachts were the last word in modern racing machines. So were Mylne’s, Nicholson’s, Clark’s and so on. What we call classics now were at the leading edge of design in their time. The same goes for working craft built to the best and latest design even if the process of evolution was less formal.
So true classics are bang up to date. 100 years ago, new was good. Why is it not so today?
Am I the only person in the world who reads a report of a new pilot cutter or smack being built in the traditional way, and wonders why we can’t do better? In which other areas of manufacture do we make faithful reproductions of old artefacts and think them good? Reproduction furniture is considered a bit naff when there is so much of more modern design available. And those who deride “Tudorbethan” styles of domestic architecture for lack of imagination and taste are happy to applaud a faithful reproduction of a classic boat, even though both the house and the boat will almost certainly have incorporated many mod cons. And am I being unkind to think that old for old sake, traditional for traditional sake and wood for wood sake is like Canute’s attempts to hold back the tide? (Actually it is believed that he staged the attempt to demonstrate the limits of his power but I hate to let any facts disturb a good story.) The artificial stagnation we thus inflict on ourselves seems to me at odds with the qualities we admire in a classic boat.
Now even if I could, I wouldn’t legislate against people building a traditional boat in a traditional way. If that is what you want to do, fine. But I really do think that Westernman is a better boat than Dyarchy is a better boat than a Bristol Channel pilot cutter, because good designers have brought the essence of the design up to date. The overall design may still be admirable, but the details will almost always be out of date. For designs must be of their time, and will include implicit assumptions on the kind of equipment available, the relative cost of materials and labour, the techniques available and so on, which may simply not hold later. For example, the availability of boatbuilding quality timber in long lengths is much reduced by comparison with say 100 years ago, so the adhesives and techniques to make better use of shorter bits of inferior wood with which we must now work are important.
Anyway I can hardly be against building a version of an old design; my own boat is an updated copy of an 1890’s half-rater. When Nigel Waller had the Orwell One design “May” in his shed to be restored, he noticed what a fine hull shape she had, and took a copy. She has a deep-chested V form which pre-dates Uffa Fox’s 14s by some 40 years. The first glass and carbon hull made from that was “First of May” which after some tweaks to the keel and a reversion to the original gaff rig created a boat which while looking almost identical, is lighter, faster, easier to maintain and more versatile than the original. A planing gaffer, what would the designer think of that? Well he was a chap called H C Smith “a noted canoe sailor of the 1880’s” who then went on to design half-raters, one-design classes and then seaplanes. I hope I am right to think that a man like that would have thought my boat better than the original. And I bet he would have liked the carbon mast. We just have the advantage of a century of development of materials, and have here made use of some of it.
The issues are much less clear-cut when it come to a restoration project. Inevitably authenticity will in some areas conflict with modernisation, but I think this should be treated as a practical rather than a moral issue. For example a large yacht is restored, and to keep it “authentic” no winches are used, because that was how it was. Well that is the owner’s choice of course, and that is fine to exercise that choice. What I have a problem with is the idea that this makes the boat better in some way, when actually it clearly makes it more difficult to use. Had winches existed when the boat was first built, would they have been fitted? It is likely that on the same yacht natural fibres for rope and sails have been replaced by their improved successors, not to mention the waterproof clothing for the crew. Chances are they use a radio. Perhaps an engine, too.
Of course it is not true that old is bad, and new is good. But to think that classics just need to be old or old-fashioned is too constraining. Once restorable boats are restored, what then? If new is bad, that is the end of the story. Let’s try a different take on classic.
Classic as exclusive
Picture yourself in Antigua, Antibes, The Antilles, actually many places beginning with A. Well on second thoughts maybe not Aberystwyth. Anyway, cloudless blue skies, gleaming white hulls, crews perfectly co-ordinated both in colour scheme and movement, now that’s what I call classic yachting. Mind you, you have to be rich to do it, but when I win the lottery that would be just the thing.
And when I say rich, I mean rich. I heard an experienced project manager of classic boat restoration reckoned that with the best provenance of design and material, reasonable starting point in terms of condition, and sensible choices of technique and material (in sympathy with the original boat) that the best you could hope for would be a return of 50p in the £1. In other words you need to spend on restoration about twice what the craft is eventually worth in money terms. And that is the best outcome. There are many worse.
Like many mere mortals without vast resources, my jaw dropped when I heard that. But by just thinking of the money, I was missing the point. Now I’m sure there are indeed some true enthusiasts who do the restoration because they want to see a lovely boat live again (and thank goodness there are), and who don’t mind the expense because the boat is worth it to them. Some things are done despite the cost. Anyone care for a monetary analysis of having children? But a casual glance would suggest that in some cases this interpretation of classic is a lifestyle thing, and a number of books and magazines focus heavily on the, how shall I put this, aspirational elements of classic yachting.
Now this isn’t the place to go into a deep description of “conspicuous consumption” but a brief summary may be useful. The idea is that in any society the amount of self-esteem an individual can generate for themselves is highly dependent on the respect accorded to them by the group they live in: in effect their status amongst their peers. Now indicators of status vary with time and place – for Egyptians and Vikings a big burial mound, for Elizabethan English gentleman a tall hat, for Roman generals (and later emperors) a purple cape and so on. Nowadays, pyramids are out because of out of town planning restrictions, hats are so last century, and purple dye is available thanks to chemical firms rather than the essence of thousands of shellfish trampled by slaves (besides both shellfish and slaves are likely to be protected species). So a more modern way for us to get status is by the conspicuous consumption either of time or money. Squandering time is demonstrating that you don’t have to work for a living (the idle rich), spending lots of money is showing not just that you can afford the best, but also that you know what the best is. That last bit is called taste.
When taste applies to a particular style or design – lets say a particular brand of clothes – then initially if you wear that brand it is a mark of distinction. However once everyone else catches up with you, it is no longer exclusive, and you had better move on to the Next Big Thing to continue to display your status and taste. The definition of what is in and what is out is usually drawn from either the group just above you in the pecking order (you have to aspire upwards of course), or more usually in this age of communication, the media in one form or another. One way to extend the longevity of this cycle is to spend on something which is scarce. Please note that scarce is not the same as rare. Rare means that there aren’t many of a particular thing, scarce means that fewer items exist than people want to get their hands on. Landscapes by MacPhail may be rare, but they are certainly not scarce. Examples of scarce things might be membership of an exclusive golf club, enrolment on a particular university course or ownership of a limited production supercar.
Classic yachts fit this bill just fine. They are so expensive that your ability to pay is beyond question, and the general public is highly unlikely ever to catch up. And in this context the 50p in the £1 return is an attraction because waste is an inherent part of the conspicuous consumption of both time and money. Plus the supply of the “right” kind of yacht is inherently limited, the right kind being conveniently defined for you by the media coverage. And to top it off yachting has always had something of a cachet.
Am I merely jealous? Well of course! But the snag is that if classic yachting is pursued primarily to achieve status then it includes within it the seeds of its own dissatisfaction. Why? Firstly because the basis for achieving status in a group is relative, not absolute, and that means that the targets are constantly shifting upwards. In turn that often means that keeping ahead becomes more and more expensive. And when someone comes in with a real blinder (dare I whisper it Mariquita or Lulworth?) that has the effect either of spurring on a new frenzy, or of discouraging everyone else so much that they then start to look for something more sensible to spend their time and money on.
Secondly, it depends on a shared concept of the desirability of a particular activity or thing – in other words fashion. You can see fashions coming and going in short life cycles for things like restaurants or clubs. It happens too for longer life-cycle items like cars or cookers. Longer still for things like boats – but it is still a fashion thing, and at some time the protagonists will head off for the next big thing whatever that may be.
Please don’t get me wrong here. Whatever the motive, a good number of fine boats have been brought back to life. That in turn has re-kindled skills, some almost lost, which in turn benefits a community much wider than just the top end of classic yachts. The snag remains though that any activity pursued primarily for status will not thrive in the long term. If classic boats are to have a future, it will have to come from a different source.
Blimey. So far then “classic as exclusive” is a train whose gravy will run out at some stage, and “classic as old” is the province of people with beards and smocks who hanker after a bygone age. Neither version of classic makes for a dynamic future. What might?
Classic as enduring
A slight shift of emphasis brings us closer to what is in my view the nature of classic boats, and it is this.
Many of our material possessions have reasonably short life-cycles, either because they wear out, or because the incorporated technology becomes impossible to maintain, or because the style of the thing goes out of fashion. Have a think about the things you own – a biro may last a few weeks, you may change your hack car (I’m not talking about classics here!) every 3 years or so, the washing machine expires every few years and so on. When you are finished with them, you get a new one, and that is likely to incorporate improvements since the last model. Actually I’m not always sure about improvements, but don’t get me started on that. Generally speaking these things are regarded without any special affection – they are tools to be used and replaced. But look at how long people tend to own “classic” boats. Ownership is not infrequently measured in decades.
Why? Because classics endure. How come? Because a boat endures if it:
- Has the capability to meet the needs of successive owners
- Is reckoned attractive by successive owners.
- Has an owner or succession of owners who realise the limits of their ownership.
- Is well built and equipped.
This all sounds like a blinding flash of the bleeding obvious until you start to explore what these aspects imply.
Being capable over a period of time means that the design can cope with or accommodate factors and events which exist in the long term. This might include
- A hull form based on seaworthiness rather than rule-cheating hull shape. Look at craft which have survived from the last quarter of the nineteenth century. How many from the Thames Measurement rule (which produced plank on edge boats)? More or less none. How many from the metre rule? A fair number. Why? Because the Thames rule encouraged boats whose only merit was their rating under the rule. A century later, how many will survive from the 1970’s IOR driven style? Pick a decade, any decade.
- A balanced design of accommodation rather than an attempt to squeeze in as many berths as possible without consideration of where these people might stow their gear, how they might get dressed or how they might sleep when under way. How many boats today are designed to be a sort of marina-bound second home?
- The versatility to cope with a number of situations. It is unlikely that a classic design will be optimised for particular assumptions on place or weather or crew – again this could simply be a moderate form or rig
- The versatility to cope with the inevitably different requirements of successive owners, most not yet born – this could stem from ease of use or simplicity of equipment, or it may be a form or layout which allows for adaptation.
- The simplicity which avoids inbuilt technological obsolescence, and incidentally allows for ease of maintenance.
To be lastingly attractive the style must transcend the demands and timescales of fashion. Working boats and traditional craft certainly have this in their favour – their shape was developed over many years to cope with the demands made of them for speed or handling or load-carrying. (And as Chapelle pointed out, you therefore need to be careful with conversions of these craft into a yacht if those attributes conflict with your new purpose. Don’t expect a smack to have much freeboard aft for example.). Likewise it could be argued that yachts shaped to cope with the sea in all its forms will themselves end up with a timeless shape, because the sea itself and its demands are timeless. No need for transient fashion here. There will of course be an element of cultural perception and practice of the spoon-bow versus clipper bow versus plumb stem type, but we are a long way here from ideas of “this year’s model”. This is not the place to explore in any depth the easily found exceptions and significant flaws in “handsome is as handsome does”, “form follows function” and “what looks right is right”, but all of these phrases contain within them the idea that there is a purposeful rightness at the heart of worthwhile artefacts, including classic boats.
Next is the need for an owner (preferably a succession of owners) who recognise their role as stewards rather than owners, which brings with it responsibilities not just for preservation, but also upgrading. It is hard to be a sympathetic owner when technology and usage change so much over time, but that is part of the job. Inevitably opinions will vary. I have in my garage a 60 year old car which had been much improved by the previous owner. In my view many of the improvements weren’t, so I’m taking them out. But I’ll forgive him all the things I think are a nonsense for the fact that at the same time he really looked after the car and the structure is fine. That was a good owner, and my task is to be as good. I wonder if the next owner will approve of my modifications?
Finally, as for the quality of build, this is a useful but not necessarily vital condition. Useful in the sense that the better built something is, the more likely it is to survive despite rather than because of its owners, and also that owners down the line will not baulk too badly at the prospect of restoration if there are still some good original bits left. It must be said that many working boats, most racing boats and some naval craft were actually built in the expectation of a short and hard working life, and were sometimes crudely constructed of not very good materials in the first place. It is a testament to the skill and perseverance of their owners that any of these survive at all.
So thinking this way about classic boats leads to some useful conclusions:
- They are artefacts which are very much the opposite of simply utilitarian tools. As the bulk of marine industry heads off in the direction of becoming a proper industry by consolidation, rationalisation, organisation and most other –ations, the chances of them producing anything classic diminish.
- We escape the old is good trap, because it allows for the inclusion of boats which are old – they have simply had more owners than newer boats – by respecting the boat without merely venerating the oldness. Looked at this way, enduring is not just a static past, but a continuation through the present into the future, thanks to the current owner.
- We also get away from arguments about what is a classic today; because the answer is that it is what survives until tomorrow. This may sound like a circular argument, but I do think that only time will tell. I may think a particular class or type of boat is just appalling, even though there is a very keen and enthusiastic group of owners. In time maybe my view will prevail, maybe theirs – and who am I to judge? In the same breath we get away from the idea (or ideology) that new is bad.
- It includes the contribution of those who buy their way into the classic (in this case often old) boat kick, because while some of those owners may indeed head off for the next big thing when they get fed up with boats, they will have left behind a larger pool of boats – and very importantly, a wider pool of skills - than existed before for which many thanks. And some may have been inspired to create a modern classic.
- The size of the boat, the material it is made from, the rig it carries, all these don’t matter at all, except that these and other attributes must meet the needs of the owner.
- It has lots to say about the owners and their attitude to ownership, and the skills they bring to bear on the task of ownership. Now sometimes I feel that people take this continuity of ownership too far, and persist in the ownership of a family boat despite the fact that it is really not well suited to their current needs. “Oh it’s what he would have wanted” is not often a recipe for happiness. To avoid any confusion in my own case, I used to think that an instruction in my will to chainsaw the boat would be helpful. I now think that to be a mistake – better to advise inheritors to be completely relaxed about whether they want to continue ownership, and if they don’t then merely to find the best owner they can. And for items which inspire affection the idea that you would like it to go to a “good home” is often as important as a part of the transaction as the price.
- It acknowledges – or at least allows for – the fact that luck plays a part in the selection of boats which come to be classic. It will always be the case that there will be boats that don’t deserve their owners (let he who is without sin in this regard cast the first stone), and a string of bad ones will wreck the best boat. Against this I offer two observations. Firstly that the stuff which comes to us from antiquity is often a matter of luck, and secondly that the chances of a good owner next time are enhanced by the boat’s capability quality and prettiness. In other words good boats are lucky.
So classic boats have long-term attributes in terms of functional and aesthetic design. That tends to a balanced design which in turn leads to versatility. They use the latest technology available at the time of build, whether that technology is in the process of design or manufacture, or in the product itself. And tomorrow’s classic boats are the best of today’s (modern) boats.
In that case the place to find future classic boats is as likely to be the pages of Yachting World as in the specialist “classic” press. It seems to me that if there is to be any future for boats of lasting worth – in other words beyond the forced nostalgia of the old brigade, and the temporary attentions of the status seekers – then it will be in the intelligent application of new technologies and techniques to some very old problems. All geared to creating boats of sufficient worth to be called classic. We need to look to the designers.
A few working within the classic area seem to get the idea – Nigel Irens with the Roxanne and Romilly designs is a good example of modern materials married to a lasting style and his latest schooner is nothing short of spectacular; Roger Dongray and Andrew Wolstenholme have between them probably been responsible for more gaffers in the last 25 years than anyone else. And Iain Oughtred – despite no formal qualifications or training – has brought the idea of small practical craft up to date by the enthusiastic use of modern materials (or old materials used in a modern way). Some idea of the intelligence and sensitivity of his approach can be gleaned from the enthusiastic reception his Faering has had in Norway, where of course the type originated.
Other designers are unencumbered by tradition, simply seeking to create boats as good as they know how. For example Gerry Dijkstra’s Maltese Falcon is deeply impressive as a piece of innovative engineering which has been compared, rightly in my view, with the SS Great Britain. Some of these will be seen as evolutionary oddities, others will endure to become future classics. But you usually have to look at the specialist areas of the industry for the good boats. As for the mainstream industry, which has self avowedly been trying to stop being a cottage industry, the move toward a mass market approach, with production methods rationalised and products whose appeal lives hardly longer than a mayfly, means that little of lasting value is being produced. I blame it on all those business schools.
For most people involved in boating this will never matter; their boats the same as any possession, there to be used with the minimum of personal involvement. In terms of ownership a boat is a waterborne car. For a few though, the attraction of a lasting relationship with a boat worth having a relationship with will prevail. What is needed is skilled stewardship and continual fresh thinking to keep classic boats going in future.