Eilean’s new era: Panerai’s restored yacht

William Fife-made yacht Eilean
(Image credit: Panerai & Angelo Bonati)

Building anything within the restriction of major environmental considerations is tough. Building a yacht in the early 1800s was invariably tougher. But it wasn’t just technical know-how and perceptive engineering that earned the Clydeside yacht and boat designers William Fife & Sons their worldwide reputation. Rather, it was the almost impossible deft, linear aesthetic of the finished product that made the great Fife family the design geniuses of their 19th century heyday. 

To put it neatly, once you know what to look for, you’ll know a Fife-made yacht when you see one: they look as though a beautiful pencil sketch just leapt off the page onto the sea.

So, in 2006, when yachting enthusiast and CEO of Florentine watch manufacturer Panerai, Angelo Bonati, spotted a wreck of a yacht rotting in the mangroves of a harbour in Antigua, he knew its design credentials just by glancing at its silhouette. Bonati had rediscovered Eilean, a 1936 Fife-built ketch, and one of the finest examples of the boatbuilder’s canon.

In between times, the yacht had become etched in the minds of 1980s teenagers across the globe when Duran Duran filmed the video for their 1982 hit Rio on board, but subsequent owners could not afford its upkeep.

In 2007 Bonati arranged for Eilean to be shipped to Viareggio in Tuscany, to the boatyard of Francesco Del Carlo, where, under Bonati’s keen eye and the ownership of Officine Panerai, its full restoration began. Bonati’s understanding of intricate watchmaking processes meant that he knew that only an exceptional level of craftsmanship, skill and, above all, love, would bring Eilean back to life unscathed.

On 22 October 2009, as she was launched once again at Viareggio harbour, Eilean’s new era as a maritime legend began. She is now a regular on the international circuit at the Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge and can be seen every summer, gracing the oceans around Antigua, Naples, Cannes and Cowes, among other harbours. Each year, Panerai releases a new Regatta watch design to celebrate its proud association with vintage yacht racing: the Luminor 1950 Regatta Titanio is the current model.

But back to Eilean. Every bronze rivet, metal rib and deck beam has been painstakingly considered so that the yacht looks as beautiful now as she did in her 1930s heyday. But it’s not just attention to detail that makes Fife-class yachts so special. Throughout his life, William Fife III was asked many times what it was about the design of his family’s boats that made them so instantly recognisable and sought after.

‘If it looks right, it is right,’ is all he would say. Spoken like a true design great.

restored yacht in sea

Every bronze rivet, metal rib and deck beam has been painstakingly considered so that the yacht looks as beautiful now as she did in her 1930s heyday

(Image credit: Panerai, Angelo Bonati)

Yacht deck with couch

The restorers were also determined to preserve the original layout of the deck plans. The steel frames were replaced without affecting the shape of the hull and Eilean’s clean lines were kept intact

(Image credit: Panerai, Angelo Bonati)

barometer, hydrometer, thermometer and clock on yacht

Clockmakers and engineers played their part in the restoration: the layout and decoration of the original saloon was strictly adhered to. Panerai created yacht instruments – a barometer, hydrometer, thermometer and clock – for the saloon bulkhead

(Image credit: Panerai, Angelo Bonati)

photograph of Eilean

A photograph from the 1960s shows Eilean in her prime, before she was found rotting in the mangroves of a harbour in Antigua

(Image credit: Panerai, Angelo Bonati)

diagram of yacht

An original technical drawing diagrams the layout for the yacht

(Image credit: Panerai, Angelo Bonati)

Yacht Eilean docked in Genova

Eilean docked in Genova before her restoration

(Image credit: Panerai, Angelo Bonati)

Chinese-style dragon carving

William Fife's trademark Chinese-style dragons are re-carved into the hull of Eilean

(Image credit: Panerai, Angelo Bonati)

Caragh McKay is a contributing editor at Wallpaper* and was watches & jewellery director at the magazine between 2011 and 2019. Caragh’s current remit is cross-cultural and her recent stories include the curious tale of how Muhammad Ali met his poetic match in Robert Burns and how a Martin Scorsese Martin film revived a forgotten Osage art.