Back to AntiguaNice Yachting Insider Newsletter

Wednesday 11th April 2012

Eilean sailing in 1938.

The beautiful 1936 Fife classic yacht, Eilean, will be returning to Antigua for Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta this month, after cmpletion of her restoration by Angelo Bonati of Panerai, sponsors of the Regatta and the Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge Series.  The following story was written by Simon Lewis and originally published in Mail Online -

'I remember the first sight of her. She was so much larger than any yacht we had sailed before, and my father had her taken to Majorca.

We spent idyllic weeks cruising through the Balearic islands, and the holiday was made all the lovelier to me because I had on board a beautiful girlfriend called Nicky. We lived on deck and slept under the stars. Eilean, the Mediterranean and love – a summer for a young man to remember always.’

Thus reminisces William Shawcross, co-author of 'Eilean:  A Classic Yacht', and the son of barrister and Labour politician Sir Hartley Shawcross: lead prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal and, more pertinently for this story, a keen sailor.

In 1964, the recently ennobled Baron Shawcross bought a 70ft Thirties ketch called Eilean. William was not to know that in a most remarkable history, his family’s episode with the yacht would be only a relatively brief one.

‘Sadly, my father decided to sell Eilean. Then, about ten years ago, my wife and I were invited by friends to English Harbour, Admiral Nelson’s  beautiful and strategic hidden port on the south of Antigua.

'Under the mangrove trees across the harbour I saw a beautifully elegant stern. I took a dinghy across the harbour, and there was Eilean.’

The sailor who’d bought Eilean had taken her to Antigua to serve as a charter, where she later became famous as the yacht in Duran Duran’s Rio video.

But soon afterwards she collided with a ferry, broke her mizzen mast and while waiting for repair sank at her mooring. She was pulled into a creek, tied to a mangrove tree and termites began eating her spars.

It was a sad end for a historic vessel. Eilean, a  56-ton auxiliary cruising ketch, was built in 1936 for Scottish steel merchants the Fulton brothers shortly before both were called up in the war. One, an artillery major, was killed in Tunisia and the other, a lieutenant- commander, was blown up by a U-boat in the Arctic.

The war also put an end to the boatyard that had built her. William Fife & Son had employed most of the able-bodied men in the small fishing village of Fairlie on the Firth of Clyde since 1812.

Fife yachts, with their trademark dragon painted at the bow, had been winning trophies since the time of Dickens. The Shamrock sailed by Sir Thomas Lipton in the 1898 America’s Cup was a Fife design.

During the Great War they built motor launches, wooden hulls for seaplanes and a mining launch for the Admiralty, as well as portable aeroplane hangars for use in Mesopotamia – earning the third William Fife an OBE.

Eilean was one of the last boats he designed before the Fairlie yard was requisitioned by the Admiralty for use in torpedo research. Fife died in 1944 aged 87 and the dynasty ended.
Eilean was 50 years old, had been through six owners and had sailed for around 150,000 nautical miles on the Channel, Mediterranean and Atlantic before being dragged up a creek in Antigua to die. Twenty years later still, when Shawcross saw her again, she was a wreck.

‘She was in an unhappy state,’ he says, ‘but she still retained her irresistibly classic Fife lines. The owner invited me on board. I was horrified by the state into which Eilean had fallen.

'Standing on her filthy decks and looking into her interior (all ripped out), I remembered those carefree youthful sailing days of 40 years before.

'I thought how wonderful it would be for me to try to buy Eilean and bring her back to her former glory. But it was an absurd dream and, sadly, I left Eilean rotting under the trees.’

A few years later, Shawcross was contacted by the CEO of Panerai watches, Angelo Bonati. He, too, had spotted Eilean mouldering in the mangroves, identified her as one of the last yachts built by William Fife and was taking her to Italy for restoration.

‘I was in Antigua for the 2006 Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge,’ says Bonati, ‘and during an interval between the regattas I happened to catch a glimpse of the hull of a splendid vintage sailing boat that had seen better days.

'I realised that this was a Fife, from the dragon on the bow. The vessel was in poor condition but it would be possible to restore her. By piecing together her history, I could be as faithful to the original as possible.’

Bonati took Eilean by cargo ship to a yard in Genoa, where she was X-rayed and laser-scanned; in spite of her age, the hull had not lost its symmetry. But her rigging and top rails were gone, the spars, masts, booms and bowsprit were beyond repair, her gunwales were broken and deck gear unusable.

Eilean restored to her original beauty by Angelo Bonati of Panerai.

The whole of the mahogany interior accommodation had been eaten by worms and was irretrievable, except for some of the saloon table.

Bonati’s restorers searched the archives at the Scottish Maritime Museum and found Eilean’s original 1936 specifications. Every part and all the materials were described in detail, down to knives, forks and even the chamois leathers the crew used for shining the brass.

They set to work pulling the ketch apart until all that was left was the bare steel hull. Some ribs had been damaged by rust.

Because pre-war iron differs from today’s, it was decided to replace Eilean’s 48 ribs one by one, rather than weld new and old together.

The teak planking was surprisingly intact: being oily, teak is one of the few species of wood into which shipworms cannot burrow – but rust from the steel ribs had penetrated and, on the side that had faced the sun for so many years, the seams were so wide you could see daylight through them. Those planks that could not be restored were replaced with new teak.
Two new spruce masts were supplied from Holland. New bronze drum winches were manufactured to the original specifications. The original plans for the accommodation were scrupulously followed, down to the headlining and floor mouldings.

Some equipment is modern: Panerai designed a barometer, hygrometer (for measuring humidity), thermometer and a clock for the saloon bulkhead. A ship’s clock in a teak box with a 52-hour run time was fitted in the cockpit.

The restored Eilean was blessed at the La Spezia navy base in the presence of William Fife’s grand-niece. Also present was the daughter of the original owner James Fulton, who had died with his brother in the war.

‘Seeing Eilean restored to her former glory is very moving,’ she said.

Eilean will return to Antigua in the spring for the Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge.
Her restorers say she’ll still be racing 70 years from now – nearly 150 years since she first set sail from a fishing village on the Firth of Clyde.

Click here for all News and Specials for AntiguaNice Yachting Insider Newsletter

connect with

FIND US ON: Facebook
WEBSITE: Click here

news and specials


Friday 16th February 2024
The Maiden has beaten Spirit of Helsinki to arrive second into Punta del Este in Uruguay in the Ocea...
Read More


Wednesday 14th February 2024
It’s a dramatic week on the waters, with the Nelson’s Cup series building up to the RORC Caribbe...
Read More


Monday 12th February 2024
Two teams are still heaving ho in the Atlantic Dash, both now over half-way across. ...
Read More


Monday 12th February 2024
Team Lighthouse Atlantic is preparing to row the Atlantic in the 2024 World’s Toughest Row with An...
Read More


Friday 9th February 2024
The Maiden Factor, with Antigua’s Junella King, has rounded the notorious Cape Horn in the Ocean G...
Read More

All News Stories and Specials

photo gallery
To view more photos of Antigua’s Yachting Insider Newsletter click here View Image Gallery
To view more photos of Antigua’s Yachting Insider Newsletter click here View Image Gallery