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.