Flight of the Dragons: a pilgrimage aboard a stunning classic yacht

Yachting World

Sailing a 120-year-old Fife rater, a stunning classic, from Plymouth to Largs was part voyage and part pilgrimage for Dan Houston

There came a moment when it felt right to speak to the water, here in the middle of the Bristol Channel. I could hear the tiredness in my voice, “Let us go Eric, let us go north with the others, be at peace.”

This is going to sound weird because I was addressing the ghost of Eric Tabarly, France’s legendary sailor, and a unifying national hero who helped make the sport so popular there. He drowned in these waters while taking his beloved 100-year-old Fife rater Pen Duick north to the first Fife regatta in June 1998.

Tabarly had been heading to Milford Haven too and the weather conditions had been about the same – Force 6, gusting higher, at night, the sea getting up and a bit confused, occasionally climbing aboard, rain, murk, generally uncomfy. He’d had the wind behind him though, and was knocked overboard by the swinging gaff as the crew dowsed the mains’l while sailing downwind.

They never got back to him; his body was found weeks later by a trawler. It was a tragedy for all sailing, as Tabarly was as involved in sailing classics as he was pushing the envelope for speed on the water.

I’m sailing on a sister vessel, Sibyl of Cumae, also a Fife 36 Linear Rater, built in 1902, four years after Pen Duick, and converted to a Bermudan cruiser-racing yacht in the 1930s. Seeing lightning and storm clouds north of us we’d reduced our sail earlier in the night, and are now under staysail, with three turns on the roller at that, and bouncing along at eight knots – if we come off the wind a point or so.

Sibyl of Cumae back in home Scottish waters. Photo: Den Phillips

And that’s it – we’re going to be all day closing the Welsh coast at this rate. It’s still about 60 miles away. We can’t point high enough into the north-north-easter. Sibyl is slamming noisily over the short, confused seas, and it’s begun to feel like we’re in a bit of a trap; hence the appeal to Tabarly.

Scanning the chart the most obvious place is Waterford, over on the Irish coast, with a three mile wide river entrance and the port of Dunmore East which is deep enough for our 2m draught in all tide states. It’s all of 100 miles away, but if we can average 8 knots then it’s a quicker destination, and the weather is forecast for more of the same.

With the decision taken the sailing becomes easier and as a treat a pod of dolphins come racing out of the murk, arcing out of wave crests, spending a few minutes with us.

The two of us on Sibyl’s 51ft deck are part of a new five-strong crew. We met three days ago in Plymouth and on this, our second night of sailing, I can see that we’re going to have to get slick at slab reefing. Sibyl goes over on her ear quite easily and, like many wooden boats, a little seawater finds its way down below, in this case onto Fin and his sleeping bag in the quarter berth under the port side of the cockpit.

Luckily Fin’s response to that was a disarming smile and a shrug of the shoulders.

The route from Plymouth to Largs

Even this early into the cruise we know a bit about each other’s character. Cornelius, in his late 60s, is our captain who knows the boat backwards having sailed her for the best part of a decade, including around Britain in 2018. Maya and Milo live aboard a more modern boat they recently acquired in Plymouth. In the next day or so Maya takes control of the galley, which is good because she’s Italian and her cooking is excellent; though we’ll still be allowed to help. Her partner, Milo, is a musician, and in the quieter moments the pair get out the guitar and sing folk songs, which will become a mellifluous soundtrack to our cruise north.

We’d already done some training together, with our first man overboard drill as we left Scilly earlier the day before. Fin’s camping mattress went overboard and Cornelius had helmed us back to it, spilling wind to slow down, before picking it up with the boat hook. Man overboard drills with a new crew, however impromptu, are always a good idea – they almost always instil confidence.

Fresh conditions as Sibyl heads for the Clyde. Photo: Dan Houston

We’d arrived in the Isles of Scilly after a 22-hour sail from Plymouth, enjoying the spectacular views of this western archipelago of the British Isles from St Mary’s.

We ate lunch ashore, harvesting fresh dill and a couple of lush leaves of aloe vera, putting the gel straight onto our wind- and sunburn for instant relief. We also refuelled at the north quay before motoring three miles north and spending the night anchored off the charming uninhabited islet of St Helens.

Arrival under sail

The chance to arrive at a Fife regatta under sail is so rare that I’d jumped at it with indecent haste when Sibyl’s owner and skipper Cornelius van Rijckevorsel had first invited me a few months earlier. Since 1998 there have only been five such regattas – which celebrate the fast and bonnie designs and builds of Wm Fife III of Fairlie, who, like his father and grandfather before him, built boats on the Ayrshire beach at the mouth of the River Clyde. Importantly, and unlike other classic yacht events, for a Fife regatta it’s the boat that qualifies for entry; she must be either designed or built by Fife.

Sibyl of Cumae is a Fife 36 Linear Rater, built on the Clyde in 1902. Photo: Dan Houston

Fife designs, partly for the quality of their build, partly for their exquisite lines, are often considered more like a work of art than an artefact by their loving owners. And so in 1998, and again in 2003, 2008 and 2013, Fife owners and crews have made a pilgrimage back to the place of their launch – or drawing board conception – for a week of racing in the beautiful waters of the lower Clyde.

A fifth regatta was planned for 2018, but complications prevented it happening that year and the next and then the pandemic bumped it forward to 2022. I’d managed to get to the other regattas, but never for more than three or four days and never under sail.

I almost thought I wouldn’t make it; I’d had Covid earlier in the year and then a long bout of shingles, which was still affecting my left eye. So I was post viral – the new reality for so many. But I also believe in the physical and mental restorative elements of the sea. After a while it feels like the salt drives illness and lassitude out of the body; a few days of constant movement and grinding big winches in the open air forces you to adapt – even at the end of your 50s.

Little wind so the motor had to lend a hand on the way to Dun Laoghaire. Photo: Dan Houston

Flight of the dragon

I sleep well in my narrow bunk in the forecabin and have a half-waking dream where Sibyl’s movement makes me feel like we’re flying, more than sailing. There’s a short, powerful surging sound as she crests a wave before the gentle hiss of her double-planked wooden hull through the water resumes. It’s regular on our fine reach, and it sounds (and feels) a bit like the beating wings of some massive bird. She rocks a few degrees over the swell which only adds to this sensation of flying, and I start to visualise a landscape scudding by beneath us.

Then I wake up properly and wonder if this is a feature of other Fife yachts. Did those boatbuilders somehow build an animalistic element into their long and lissom lines? Is this perhaps the reason most Fife yachts have a dragon head carved into their bow at the cove line? Am I actually in a turn-of-the-century dragon simulator, with such a sense of easy suspension to her hull that the sensation is one of flying above the seabed?

I need coffee, clearly.

Keeping lookout in a murky Irish Sea. Photo: Dan Houston

The rest of the day is straightforward with the wind falling off as we close the Irish coast in the late afternoon. But with the weather bad the following day we stay in Dunmore, catching up on maintenance; Milo and I take apart the sea toilet and replace parts with a kit Cornelius has bought.

It’s one of those jobs you need to shower after and the fishermen’s facilities are good here; the harbourmaster gives us a key. Fin puts his down sleeping bag in the tumble dryer after a wash, but without tennis balls to plump it, he uses a few of the ship’s lemons. It turns out they work fine, looking exactly the same afterwards until we cut them for a G&T and their pulped insides fall out.

Heading north again we motor to Dun Laoghaire, getting in at 0230 and deciding to wait there for our promised easterly breeze. It’s great to see the number of kids getting out sailing small boats with a good number of safety boats around. By 1100 we get our breeze and are able to sail through the North Channel into Scottish waters. We’re on a mooring in the pretty and protected Loch Ranza at the north end of Arran by 0900 of our eighth day aboard.

Drying out with Sibyl moored up at the Fife Regatta base at Largs Yacht Haven. Photo: Den Phillips

So far we haven’t seen another Fife boat – there was a gaff sail on the horizon heading north off the Irish coast, but we didn’t make contact. However, the next day, cleaned up and rested, we’re sailing the last 20 miles between the isles of Bute and Arran and the two Cumbraes on our way to register our arrival at the regatta base in Largs, when we see Marie Tabarly, Eric’s 38-year-old daughter at the helm of Pen Duick VI, sailing out towards us.

The two Moonbeams and Mariquita – the largest boats at the regatta – are behind her. Cornelius relays Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor through the deck speaker – a suitably rousing piece of music for Sibyl’s return.

Off to starboard we can see the beach where the Fifes built their famous yachts; a line of modern flats shows the place exactly, and we enter port just before 1100.

Sibyl was sailed from Plymouth to Largs to take part in the regatta.

Gathering of the clan

There is a sense of anticipation, and for Cornelius a little trepidation, he has to get Sibyl alongside under the watchful gaze of some seriously good wooden-boat sailors. I see Richard Le May, the skipper of one of the most glorious of these boats: The Lady Anne, a restored First International Rule 82ft 15-M from 1912, which the crew have sailed up from the Mediterranean. “Hello! You want a hand? I’ll get Toby to give you a push with the dinghy,” he says. And just like that Toby is alongside us in the Lady Anne’s rubber tender as we get to our berth and moor up without fuss.

This will define the spirit of the regatta, where 24 of the most beautiful yachts from 24-124ft long have gathered to celebrate Fife’s genius for enduring and endearing design. Most of the larger boats have come a long way to be here. Mariella, the 80ft (24.3m) 1938 Bermudan yawl, has come from Antigua. The smaller boats, and several of approximately our size, have come by road. So although in the next week we don’t do so well in the racing, we do get a lot of brownie points for arriving under sail.

The clan gathered in Largs

The Fifes certainly provide a bit of a spectacle in the various places we visit. The owner of The Lady Anne, Jaime Botin, once told a meeting: “You know we are a group of people, not quite right in our heads, that have gone to great expense of putting beautiful boats back into the sea so that people can see them again.”

A few days later I meet Marie Tabarly. As a young teenager she’d been brought to Largs in 1988 by her grieving mother to see her father’s boat, that had been sailed to Largs from Milford Haven by regatta organiser Alastair Houston.

“It’s a special moment for me,” Marie said, “we haven’t been back to Scotland since that time. I love Scotland and I always wanted to come back.”

Marie is skippering her father’s famous Pen Duick VI ketch, built for the 1973 Whitbread, and trialling crew to join her for the boat’s 50-year jubilee sailing in next year’s Ocean Globe Race. Her father Eric would be proud.


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