Winter reading on the William Fife Dynasty

21 years ago, in 1998, it was a seminal year for the memory for the family of shipwrights and designers from the coastal village of Fairlie. Not only was the first Fife Regatta, it was also the year two important books were published charting both the history and the beauty.

May Fife McCallum wrote Fast and Bonnie, which charts the history of her own family and the boats which were designed by the three generations on the Clyde. Researching the legacy required many years work and it’s publishing coincided with the enthusiasm of owners restoring these Fife Designed yachts.

The book is still popular and frequently referred to. Copies are occasionally available, however Birlinn books plan to republish the book this year to coincide with the fifth Fife Regatta, so look out.

We recently asked May to share her memories of the first regatta in 1998 as the fleet came back to the Fairlie.

“First of all, I was delighted to see two old “friends” from the past. Madrigal and Solway Maid had been, for many years after the war, moored in Fairlie Bay. To me they were the only elegant boats there among a collection of converted lifeboats, tubby cabin cruisers, a Pleiad and a Loch Long. One of my highlights as a young teenager was to be allowed to wash down the brightwork on Madrigal with a chamois! Years later they disappeared after their owners passed away.”
Moonbeam III was so much bigger, she reminded me of the last race of “Big” boats I saw just before war broke out.  There had been no big yachts on the Clyde since then.  Vadura, Mariella and Griselda were the biggest and soon there was only Mariella.” 

The regatta had attracted international visitors back to the Clyde and May notes, “I was amazed that Magda IV had sailed all the way from Sweden. Unfortunately, the event was overshadowed by the untimely loss of Eric Tabarly on his way to the regatta. He had long been one of my heroes.”
“It was a small gathering, but the enthusiasm of the participants proved that there is a bond between Fife owners. The next regatta bore this out as the numbers attending more than doubled. As a souvenir of the first regatta the owners’ wives were presented with a pendant with the Fife golden dragon on a silver background.”

The historic legacy of the fleet of Fife Yachts was further secured much further south as Italian photographer, Franco Pace, worked with Classic Boat to create a beautifully crafted photographic book William Fife: Master of the Classic Yacht in 1998.

Two Scots, William Collier and Iain McAllister, assisted in the production of the book with Eric Tabarly crafting the introduction. Of course, Franco Pace travelled to Scotland for the first Fife Regatta and his images remain an iconic reminder of the revival and passion for the Clyde built yachts overseas.

Franco shared his thoughts on this initial involvement, which continues to motivate and pay tribute to the owners who have enabled this second life for many of these creations.

“I became passionate about photography when I realized that the camera allows you to communicate with the universal language of images, to transmit and share emotions, like that of painting or music.”

“In a city like Trieste the atmosphere of the sea and sailing is present everywhere and always had surrounded and fascinated me. At that point, the choice to focus my photographic attention in that direction was almost obligatory. The regattas involved me in a swirling mill around the world photographing every sail I encountered.”

“In the early 1980s, the first gatherings of vintage boats appeared in the Mediterranean. I followed this phenomenon from the beginning with attention and enthusiasm: these hulls contained the aesthetics of the lines, the charm of tradition and a great content of knowledge and craftsmanship handed down through countless generations.”

“The classic rallies quickly enjoyed great success and every year several of these events were present in the calendar of the sailing season. All this movement has contributed a lot to the search and recovery of old hulls that had been in a state of neglect for many years, and also to the revival of arts, crafts and a seafaring culture that would otherwise have been

“For me the most important result was to do something I liked a lot and at the same time to collect a considerable archive of images of the boats, under sail, their interiors, the construction details and the deck equipment.”

“Thinking about how to use and disseminate this material, I decided to produce books on the most famous yacht designers. My first volume was “William Fife, vintage masterpieces” in 1996. It could not be otherwise: looking through the archive they were the ones I had the most images of, it seemed clear to me that they were the most elegant and photogenic.”

“At that time, I met Alastair Houston who looked out with curiosity on the nautical world in the Mediterranean. He showed me his drawings and I liked them, I thought he had talent and I encouraged him to continue. A few years later he announced that he was organising a William Fife Regatta at the fjord of Clyde in Scotland.”

“Of course, I could not miss and it was magnificent to see all these small and large yachts return to their place of origin, kept in perfect condition, with their crews expert in manoeuvres even in the most demanding situations.”

“This year, in the first 2 weeks of June, The Fife Regatta returns with its fifth edition and brings its magical atmosphere and elegant silhouettes of the Fife hulls back to the Clyde Fjord.”

“The last time I had the pleasure of photographing them was in 2008. Several years have passed and this regatta continues to be one of the recurring topics, every time my friends, sailors here, at the various Yacht Clubs in Trieste, they ask me to tell them my stories about the most special sailing events I have seen all over the world! I always gladly satisfy them
because for me it is a pleasure to recall the atmosphere and colours of the Scottish landscape, the skill of the crews and then the evenings and parties at each stage of the regattas, that bring together owners and crews of all yachts together ashore.”

“Now I no longer travel frantically from one race to another as in the past, but on special occasions I like to go out to sea to photograph and feel the sensations that I know well. The Fife Regatta is definitely a special occasion, June is approaching and my desire to return to Scotland again is growing!”

The anticipation of the return of the Fife Regatta certainly evokes memories of the previous events and times past. While the beauty of the boats has travelled the entire globe and continues to promote the craftsmanship of Scotland, it is the setting of their home waters that provides the added attraction.