The Eilean sailing during the Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge.
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How Officine Panerai rescued a storied 1930s vessel from disrepair

The life and rebirth of a classic sailing yacht.
Iñigo S. Roces | Nov 01 2018

Few experiences surpass the subtle exhilaration of sailing. On a vintage wooden boat, with the soothing creak of wood and rusty pulleys, and the thrust of the wind against the sail, one is imbued by an almost unconquerable confidence.

It was this fever that took over Angelo Bonati, CEO of Officine Panerai, a watchmaker that hardly needs an introduction. Captivated by yachts from his earliest childhood, particularly vintage yachts, Bonati introduced the Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge (PCYC) in Porto Santo Stefano, Italy in 2005. The prestigious regatta was a showcase of some of the last century’s finest classic yachts.

Views of the stern and bow of the Eilean before restoration began.
The Eilean’s hull during restoration, with some steel frames absent as they’re being restored.
The hull after restoration, without any accommodations installed yet.

In 2008, the Italian brand would participate in the very race it hosts, thanks to the rescue of Eilean, a storied vessel that began its sailing life in 1937. On that provenance alone, the boat was a shoo-in for the race, which allowed only yachts built of wood prior to 1950.

The Eilean was built in 1936 by Scottish boat builders, Fife of Fairlie. It was the same year the first Panerai watch prototype was created. Like Panerai, Fife had an enviable heritage. The boatyard produced some of the most beautiful and prestigious sailing yachts in the world, from the 19th century until it closed shortly after the end of the Second World War. Three generations of Fifes headed the boatyard and the last Fife, William III, was the most renowned member of the dynasty. With the trademark stylized dragon carved on the bow, the vessels had become well-known for their beauty, construction techniques, and finishing.

The floor plan of the Eilean’s cabins, as envisioned by William Fife III.

The Eilean, which means “little island” in Scottish, was one of them. The 22-meter yacht, which bore design number 822, was conceived by the then 80-year-old William Fife III, alongside his nephew Robert Balderton Fife. Owing to rising labor and material costs, the boat was meant to be a simple ocean cruiser not intended for regattas. It took on a Bermudan Ketch sail plan, frequently associated with cargo and fishing boats.

The Eilean had managed 22 Atlantic crossings, and frequently changed hands until it was acquired by the English architect John Shearer, a native of Kenya. Shearer transformed the boat into one of the most elegant charter vessels in the Caribbean. The yacht sailed on regular cruises around the islands and was even chartered in the ‘80s by the pop group Duran Duran to shoot the video of their song, “Rio.”

Teak deck boards are temporarily nailed to the marine plywood before joining with silicone mastic. Naturally, instrument gauges were provided by Panerai.

The boat managed another 14 Atlantic crossings after that, until it collided with a ferry off the Portuguese coast, breaking her mizzenmast. Shearer needed to undertake major repairs, but because he was limited financially, he opted to carry out everything himself.

Over the years, Eilean fell into disrepair. She sank partially due to a mooring bitt that broke, termites that ate her masts, and rust that overran her metal frames.

A boat, bearing the stylized dragon mark on its bow, is lowered into the water at the Fife boatyard.
John Shearer, the Eilean’s most enthusiastic owner and restorer, transformed the yacht into one of the most elegant charter vessels in the Caribbean, attracting the attention of pop group Duran Duran.

This is how Eilean appeared in May 2006 when a small team from Officine Panerai flew to the Caribbean to inspect the boat. Angelo Bonati, Managing Director of Officine Panerai, was there, accompanied by Florentine yachtsman Enrico “Chicco” Zaccagni, renowned consultant in the restoration of vintage boats; and Guido Del Carlo, one of the partners of Franceso del Carlo boatyard in Viareggio, Tuscany, founded in 1963 to specialize in the salvage of vintage wooden boats. The Eilean’s rich heritage as a Fifer was more than enough for Officine Panerai to purchase her and begin her tedious restoration.

In Viareggio, the boat was stripped of everything—the interiors, deckhouse, skylights, the old and battered teak deck, equipment, and engine. Decisions had to be made about what to preserve and what to replace. All of the superstructures made of teak were dismantled and restored before being returned. Both the masts and the bowsprit were reconstructed using American Douglas wood. Forty percent of the planking boards had to be discarded. New frames, also known as ribs, were molded to take on the curvature of the hull, and 5,000 bronze silicon screws, especially purchased in Germany, were used to fasten them to the planking sections.

1938: The Eilean sailing closehauled on the starboard tack.
A downwind sail, torn by a storm, is quickly hoisted on board by the crew.

After two long years, the refurbished Eilean set sail again in 2009. She represents Officine Panerai during classic yacht meetings six to seven months a year. The rest of the time she is transformed into a school ship, welcoming those who wish to learn the art of sailing onboard a classic yacht. With no furlers, hydraulic vangs, or electric winches, the sails are regulated by hand, using ropes and blocks just as it was done in bygone days. Everything on the Eilean is slower, heavier, and more arduous to do. Yet with each new batch learning age-old seamanship, time and its cruel effects are, for once, slowing down for the Eilean.