The story of Eilean
So it was that in 1937 a boat was launched into the sea from the Fife boatyard in Fairlie, a 22-metre yacht called Eilean, which in the Scottish means “little island”. The boat, design number 822, was conceived by the then eighty-year-old William Fife III, alongside his nephew Robert Balderton Fife who had only recently joined the family business. According to the Lloyds Register of 1938, both names appeared among the designers of the boat. Also specified in the Register, apart from the main dimensions, were the Bermudian ketch sail-plan, which remains unchanged up to the present day, the presence of a 4-cylinder paraffin engine and a sail set made by sail-makers Ratsey of the Isle of Wight.
Eilean, narrow at the waterline and with a mainsail located towards the rear, featured waterlines resulting from a study of J-Class boats, used in the Thirties to compete in the America's Cup. The boat's first owners were brothers James V. and Robert W. Fulton of Greenock, members of the Royal Gourock Yacht Club. The family were already owners of the ketch Belle Aventure, another Fife from 1929 originally with an auric sail-plan, converted to a Bermudian ketch in 1937, again following a Fife design. Belle Aventure is still sailing today and takes part in classic yacht meetings. It appears that the new vessel was used by the Fultons to cross the strait separating the residence in which they lived from their place of work. Not being regatta competitors, James and Robert did not take part in major yacht races, in contrast to Eilean's near twin, Latifa which, designed and launched by Fife in 1936, would distinguish herself by taking part in important regattas such as the Fastnet. Further proof, if proof was needed, of the validity of the type of hull and the design developed by William III.
As we can see from documents of the era, dated 22nd April 1936, Eilean was conceived as a simple boat, far from concepts related to luxury. In the pre-war period, in fact, both labour and material costs had risen greatly. The shipbuilding industry had suffered as a consequence, and to ensure some building orders, boatyards offered their customers less sumptuous fittings.
Destiny ordained that the two Fulton brothers would use the boat for only a couple of years, after which they left for war, fought and died. From that moment on and up to the late Seventies little is known about the destinations and journeys made by Eilean. The only certain record we have is a sterile list of former owners, to whom we can give merit for having carried ownership of the boat up to the present day. In 1951, the Lloyds Register recorded the owner of the ketch as Mr. P.H.N. Ulander of Busby, Lanarkshire, in 1952 it belonged to Jack Salem of Cheshire and in 1955 it was registered to Yacht Eilean Ltd owned by Colonel Frank Louis, who kept it until 1963.
In 1964, the owner was Lord Shawcross Q.C. and in 1968, it passed to Ernest and Richard Cuckson. Amongst the former owners it seems was an important member of the British Labour Party, who even used Eilean during the election campaign, as well as an American businessman whose daughter became famous with the nickname "daddy's got a million dollars". From 1976, the ketch ceases to appear in the records.
And so we arrive at Eilean's more recent history, which in the Seventies saw the boat based in the Caribbean, first at Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands, and later in Antigua. At that time, the boat had been acquired by the English architect John Shearer, a native of Kenya. John had sailed on Eilean as a boy, since an uncle of his had been her captain.
When he learned that the yacht had been put on sale, he did not hesitate to purchase her. The architect decided to make Eilean his residence, transforming her into one of the most elegant charter vessels in the Caribbean Sea. For more than twenty years, the boat was based at the English Harbour, an inlet on the Caribbean island of Antigua. From here, the yacht sailed on regular cruises between the islands with a maximum of six guests on board, assisted by two or three crew members. In 1982, images of Eilean travelled around the world. In that year the yacht was chartered by the famous pop group Duran Duran, captained by teen idol Simon Le Bon, to shoot the video for the song “Rio”, included on the album of the same name, one of the British band's best selling records.
During what can be described as one of the most thrilling periods in the yacht's history, Shearer made some 14 Atlantic crossings between the Caribbean and Europe, many of them single-handed. However, during one of these voyages, after leaving Scotland, Eilean collided with a ferry off the Portuguese coast, breaking the mizzenmast. John did not lose heart and, after recovering the fragments of the rigging onto deck, continued in his voyage. It was this event that made him realize just how much his beloved ketch was in need of major maintenance work. John, a man of extraordinary learning and ability, but with limited financial means, decided not to entrust the work to a boatyard, but rather to carry out everything himself.
Upon reaching the Caribbean he re-floated an old tugboat sunk off the island of Montserrat, brought it to the English Harbour at Antigua and moored it beside Eilean. The tugboat, equipped with welders, lathe and cutters, would become his new home as well as personal floating workshop. After dismantling the interiors of the ketch, the restoration work began. Since purchasing the steel for the frame would be too expensive, John decided to recycle the tug's fuel tanks, which were cut and shaped to create the new rib structure of the boat. With great skill, he also forged a large part of the rigging and deck equipment.
In 1993, the restoration work underway on the Eilean appeared in a French documentary called "Les dernieres pirates de la liberté" (the last pirates of freedom), which told the stories of remarkable individuals. John surely was one of them, due to the enterprise he had undertaken. Among the other people interviewed was the Florentine sailor Enrico 'Chicco' Zaccagni, who at that time was living on board the ketch Alzavola from 1924, sailing between the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas. Today Zaccagni, having abandoned the wandering life of a sailor because, as he himself admitted “no longer able to give up a life of human affection and ordinary, decadent, middle-class desires that I have dismissed for too long”, has become a successful consultant in the sector of classic yacht restoration. And it is thanks to the experience gained in the field, and after having overseen the revival of vintage boats such as the 23-metre Magda XIII from 1937, the Norwegian gentleman racer Kipawa, also from 1937 and the previously mentioned Alzavola, since sold to a new owner, that Zaccagni has been given the job of project manager of the restoration of Eilean.
Who can say if John Shearer too ever had doubts about the life he was leading. But the fact is the years passed by and the work seemed without end. That which was new yesterday fell once more prey to rust today. To this was added Eilean's partial sinking due to a mooring bitt breaking, a termite infestation that ate through the bowsprit, half of the mainmast and mizzenmast, but fortunately not the teak planking, which was saved thanks to the oiliness of this wood.
All circumstances that would have broken even the most passionate of idealists. On the contrary, John kept going and did what he could, but the man and his titanic dream to revive Eilean were abandoned to a lonely existence. The architect did everything in his power, and to make ends meet took temporary command of a number of boats, including the 24-metre yawl Mariella, also built in 1938 at the Fife boatyard, but to a design by Alfred Mylne.
In 2007 the boat would be definitively sold to the fine watch-making company Officine Panerai. For her a new life would begin, but above all that much desired revitalisation, unfortunately only dreamed of for over twenty years by architect-sailor John Shearer.