“Classic Boat” Feature: Cambria Flies Again


The much-loved cutter is in fine fettle after a challenging,
year-long restoration in Southampton.

Article courtesy of Classic Boat Magazine

It was said in an entirely different context, but Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick” is curiously apt in the case of Cambria. Her captain, Chris Barkham, never raises his voice, regardless of provocation, and her spruce mast is one of the largest and most impressive wooden yacht spars in the world.

In typical style, they have just completed a truly remarkable, major refit at Southampton Yacht Services (SYS) in Southampton, and then quietly departed back for the Mediterranean with hardly any fuss. The work was the culmination of several years of thought and evaluation by Chris and his team. Few captains know their charge as well as he knows Cambria; and it was apparent during the last refit in 2008 that the time was coming for major work.

Cambria is composite, with steel frames and backbone all riveted together; it is an integrated form of construction that makes restoration work very challenging, and in some hands this might well have resulted in a multi-million-pound complete rebuild of the whole hull. With the support of a loyal owner, and despite the “expert” opinion often ranged against him, Chris’ approach was diametrically opposed to that; the guiding mantra throughout the work was to repair and retain original material wherever possible. The overwhelming success of the work owes much to this ethos, and to the intelligent and dedicated work of the team in interpreting and implementing it.

Chris’ loyal, long-serving crew and subcontractors worked alongside the skilled workforce of SYS, many of whom, such as lead shipwright Barry Argent, had forged close ties with the boat during previous works. It was a set-up that allowed a prodigious amount of work to be coordinated successfully in a tightly controlled program, and the result sets a new benchmark for how to approach major composite hull restoration work.

Cambria’s first refit at Southampton Yacht Services took place during the winter of 2008/2009. The work mainly involved engineering, and included a redesign of the engine room—which, incidentally, is forward of the saloon and accommodates a single engine driving the two sets of sterngear hydraulically—as well as rewiring throughout and a new navigation area.

About halfway through this work, when the inside of the hull had been exposed by the removal of various items of equipment, it became apparent that the composite hull structure—the steel framework and the timber planks—also needed some attention. There was no time to attend to this then, but when she was relaunched—with visible plank lines in her topsides reinforcing the need for further work— discussions regarding a return to the yard were already taking place.

So after her owner had enjoyed five years cruising and racing in the Mediterranean with family and friends, Cambria returned to Southampton in September 2014.

Cambria still had her original teak centerline components and teak garboards, but her mahogany planking had been replaced below the waterline, mainly with pitch pine, in the Canaries in the 1970s. In a subsequent refit in Australia in the late 1990s, after extensive rot was repaired in the bow, transom and deck, the whole of the outside of the hull was sheathed with glass and polyester resin. So one of the first jobs to do at SYS was to remove the glass. As soon as this was done, the mahogany planks were coated with Eposeal for fear of them drying out too quickly, but there were no such concerns with the pitch pine and teak. “The moisture content below the waterline at that time was between 20 per cent and off the scale,” SYS project manager Matthew Townsend said. “Although the scale only went up to 35 per cent.”

From the beginning, it was clear that a number of planks would have to be removed, mostly for access to the steel work, but it was not really appreciated just how many: in the end it was 36 new planks on port side (14 teak and 22 mahogany); 36 new planks on starboard (17 teak and 19 mahogany); a further 41 planks were taken off for repairs and re-edging. The removal of planks forward, along with the teak stem down to the waterline, allowed repairs to be carried out to corroded parts of the centerline steel structure. This consists of a 0.45″ (11mm) thick flat keel plate and ‘vertical’ side keel plates (although their changing angle matches that of the planking), which are connected by forged angle plates riveted to them.

The angled plates were found to be particularly corroded, and at some point link plates had been fitted between the bottom ends of the frames and the floors to compensate for this. These link plates were now removed, the flat keel plate was renewed down to the waterline, and the angled plates to a position just aft of the mast step, fabricated this time and welded to the neighboring components.


The other main part of the steel structure which needed major attention was the sheer strake: 19″ x 0.28″ (0.48m x 7mm) for two-thirds of the length of the boat, deeper in way of the mast and reducing at the ends of the boat. Deck leaks had caused its outer face to corrode to the extent that the top planks were being pushed outward. But there were complications in accessing it because the fastenings holding in place the bulwark and capping—which were in perfectly good condition and therefore not being removed—went down through the top plank. So this was cut out while the next two planks down were removed more carefully.

The steel sheer strake was then made good with needle guns and grinders, and just a few local repairs—rust being ten times the thickness of its original material, it had looked much worse than it was—before being epoxy coated. New top planks were then fitted in two laminations, with the inboard one being slid upward between the shear plate and the bulwark capping fastenings, before the outboard one was glued in place with epoxy. The next two planks were then refitted conventionally.

“Because we took the boat apart more than it had been for many years,” explained Matthew, “we exposed parts of the boat no one had seen for a long time. The crew members have done an amazing job looking after the steel work everywhere they could get to and a lot of it was in remarkably good condition. But we had a final list of steel repairs which ran into 200 items or more, from a single weld to the whole of the stem. We did some repairs and renewals to the chainplates as well, partly because they had corroded, partly because they weren’t brilliantly put in. We had three or four welders on site for nearly seven months to get it all done.”


Cambria is no longer in Lloyd’s class, but all the new steel used was Lloyd’ Grade A, coated with Intershield 300. “Sticks like the proverbial,” said Matthew. There was a fear that the stem might distort during the time it was off the boat, so templates were taken as soon as it was removed. In fact it was stable enough to be refitted as it was.

Of all the planks that were removed, 70 per cent were repaired and refitted while the rest (about the same number above and below the waterline) were replaced. The original teak garboards remained. The new topside planking is African mahogany, whereas the original was probably from Honduras or Brazil, in lengths of up to 9 meters (29.5 feet); and the new underwater planks are all teak, up to about 6 meters (19.7 feet), made from boards which the captain had sourced two years earlier (with a view of using them to renew the deck). A total of 6,240 new stainless steel bolts were used to fasten the planks to the framework, with Tufnol washers isolating the stainless steel washers and nuts from the steel.

The seams were caulked with boat cotton, before mahogany and teak splines were epoxied in. “We don’t know if she was splined originally,” said Matthew, “but we had to make sure the hull was as strong and rigid as we could to minimize movement before we put the new glass cloth on the outside of the hull. It is a crossover of traditional and modern techniques really.” After fairing and sanding, the hull was glassed by Centreline Marine with four layers of 600gm cloth laid up and down the hull—the first and fourth with a diagonal weave, the middle ones 0/90—and coated with Ampreg 21 epoxy resin.

Although it proved impossible to get the moisture content of the remaining pitch pine planks below the manufacturer’s official recommendation, an off-the-record assurance that the product was flexible in terms of its usage put the project team’s minds at rest. The hull was then faired by Superyacht Solutions with a maximum thickness of just ¼” of filler. “That was in the bow where there were two hollow sections,” explained Matthew, “probably caused by frame distortion which had been there for a long time.”

Towards the end of the project, various different processes were carried out concurrently along the length of the boat: at one stage SYS’s shipwrights were completing planking work at the stern, forward of them were the laminators, who were themselves being chased by a team of painters applying preliminary coats, while up at the bow the fairing had begun. “There wasn’t much point in waiting for all the woodwork to be finished before starting any laminating, so when we had half the boat ready, they started,” said Matthew. “And they only once caught up with the shipwrights.”

Perhaps the most important work on the deck was fixing the leaks which had caused the shear plate corrosion. Also, the bowsprit was removed for the first time since the boat was in Australia. To do this, the capping rail had to be cut and removed along with an area of decking that covered the bowsprit heel fitting, but these were refitted in a way that will allow easier removal in future. The cockpit deck was re-laid to match the rest of the deck (it was previously fore and aft but is now swept), and adjustments were made to the seat and backrest angles for increased comfort. All the brightwork was taken back to bare wood and recoated by the crew—the deckhouses were moved to an adjacent workshop for this—and the rich, dark red mahogany color has now been brought back.

Below decks, the only new work was the reconfiguring of the crew area forward (to designs by CB’s Theo Rye) to give more storage and better seating, and to allow easier access to the inside of the hull for future maintenance. Other than that, all the joinery (mostly original) which was removed to allow for the hull repairs was simply reinstated, in accordance with the declared priorities. Indeed it is a great testament to the project team’s determination in the respect that, when Cambria sailed away from Southampton in November, she still had so much of her original structure intact including the complete centerline, the rudder, the vast majority of her steel framework, and much of her planking.

“The refit project was a massive undertaking, as all of them are, however it was made possible by the passion those involved have for classic yachts, in particular Cambria. She manages to get under the skin of all those who come into contact with her. This is obvious with her aesthetic appeal but her soul and character attract like-minded people who genuinely enjoy their work on board. We have been working with past friends at Southampton Yacht Services, but also a completely new team of welders, shipwrights and joiners who also have found themselves brought under her spell. This is part of Cambria’s ethos—it’s the team of skilled tradesmen and women on the job that we need to thank. Cambria’s refit was an amazing experience.”Chris Barkham, Cambria’s skipper
Cambria’s History – by Theo Rye
Cambria’s latest refit at SYS, under the eye of her long-serving captain Chris Barkham, is a significant milestone in her story. She is one of a dwindling number of large classics that has never had a comprehensive, keel-up restoration in the modern fashion, which often involves total reconstruction and very little if anything original left on board. Cambria has had her fair share of owners and refits, but they have been sympathetic and respectful to her past, and this latest work fits in perfectly.

Cambria’s early life was taken up wrestling with the vagaries of a YRA determined to keep the King’s yacht Britannia and the other gaffers competitive against the Bermudan newcomers; launched for the 1928 season, there are no fewer than five sail plans drawn by Fife for Cambria before 1932.

Contrary to popular belief, she was and is not a 23-Meter; that class existed only under the 1st International Rule that had lapsed during World War I. Under the 2nd version of the rule from 1921, the largest class rated simply “above 20 meters”, but there was an elite group of “Big Class” boats that rated between 23 and 26 meters, including two original 23-Meter cutters Shamrock (rated at 23.8m) and White Heather (24.2m), Britannia (25.8m), Lulworth (25.8m) and Westward (25.7m), which Cambria initially joined (rated 23.2m).

The YRA imposed restrictions on Bermudan rig, but revised them frequently; the first major change to a taller mast for only Cambria’s second season meant a major additional keel weight was added. In the form of a shoe underneath the original keel, it had the effect of burying the ends of all the keel bolts (some emerged in 2015, during the refit, and inspected, proved to still be in excellent condition). Also, with no specific rule to follow, Fife had to build Cambria to Lloyd’s Register’s heavier than ordinary scantlings (to +18A1 class) rather than the racing ones; that gave her a margin of strength that helped her survive the relatively few and brief periods of neglect she has suffered, even after she lapsed from Class. The J-Class eclipsed the Big Class in the early 1930s; marks on her original lines plan show that Cambria was at least considered for conversion to rate under the Universal Rule, but she was somewhat smaller than even the early Js and it was never done; her destiny was as an elegant cruising yacht. Apart from an addition of an engine in 1934, and the adjustment to her ballast keel to compensate, changes were relatively few. Cambria led a comparatively sheltered life, mostly in the Med, under a slightly smaller but still imposing cutter rig.

When I first saw her in 1995, she was alongside in Brisbane, Australia, having a layer of GRP laid over her original yellow pine deck, in preparation for a new teak deck. I could see that some of her hatches were original, but some had been remade and the interior was similar; a mix of original detail and later alterations, but all done with care and respect for Fife’s work. The most obvious change was her rig; the first drawing of a ketch rig for her was by Fife in 1932, and Fife’s successor Archie MacMillan drew a proposal in 1949, but it was not until the 1970s that she was converted.

The hull was in reasonable order, with signs of work having been done in the not too distant past; welded in reinforcement alongside her riveted original structure, and some fairly new planks as well. The suspicion was that the work was fairly modern, but recent research has shed light on what had been done. In the mid-1970s, her American owner was attempting a trans-Atlantic when she was dismasted. Limping into Gran Canaria, she received a prolonged refit at Astilleros Canarios (Astican) that went on until at least 1979. The master shipwright on site was Pedro Santana, who died in 2012, leaving a few sketches and notes of his careful work; Harry Spencer, the rigger and spar maker, and Ratsey & Lapthorn added their talents, too.

After the Astican work, she got as far as Australia, then languished for several years in Townsville, before being bought by Iain Murray, Denis O’Neil and John David. The Brisbane refit was quite radical, and led by Ian Wright of Norman Wright & Sons; refastened and GRP sheathed, and with additional steel reinforcing in way of the masts and chainplates, her ketch rig was retained, but her main mast extended in carbon fiber. She was set up as a daysailer for the owners, plus just two crew.

In practice, she was strong enough for David (by then the sole owner) to ask his skipper Peter Mandin to ship her up to the UK for the 2001 America’s Cup Jubilee regatta; in the build-up, Harry Spencer again stepped up and helped execute her rapid conversion back to cutter rig.

In a week full of remarkable sights, that of Cambria in full flight on the Solent after a 70-year absence was for many the highlight. Sold once more, she returned to the Med to cruise and race. A new mast, replacing the one with the carbon extension, was built ten years ago at La Ciotat with Classic Works; Harry Spencer, aged 79, was involved again, advising the crew as they built what is one of the largest wooden masts of modern times from Alaskan spruce supplied by Touchwood BV.

It is typical of Cambria that her boom today is a section from her old mizzen mast; it is in keeping with her whole life, retaining where possible and renewing with care where necessary, and this latest refit is all of a piece with that aspect of her life. It is perhaps easier for beautiful yachts to find caring owners and loyal crew, but even allowing for this Cambria has been blessed, most especially in her recent past. She surely looks as good now as she ever has, and as she prepares to return to the Med there are many friends and admirers around the globe looking forward to the next chapter of the story of this remarkable yacht.

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