Cambria Flies Again
year-long restoration in Southampton.
Story by NIGEL SHARP
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’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.
**TBS Note – There is a great photo gallery of her restoration on the Cambria website.