After a remarkable restoration the great 1920s gaff cutter Lulworth is back on the race course. David Glenn joins her for Argentario Sailing Week...

According to Lulworth’s official historian – and restorations of this magnitude need a historian –
the last time the great 127ft gaff cutter met Cambria competitively was in 1930 on the Solent. By then Lulworth was owned by sewing machine magnate Sir Mortimer Singer and Cambria by press baron Lord Camrose, whose business portfolio at the time included Yachting World.

This year, 76 years later, during a summer weekend off Porto Santo Stephano in Italy, the two came together again for Argentario Sailing Week, part of the Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge, marking the return to racing of one of the most historically significant yachts afloat.

From racing yacht to comfortable cruiser, then as a mud-berthed houseboat on the Hamble, Lulworth’s story of survival and restoration must be unmatched. She eventually found her way to Italy, where she was spotted by a Dutchman and his Anglo Italian project manager, who decided to rebuild the yacht as close to original as possible.

Lulworth and Cambria sparred famously against King George V’s Britannia, Sir Thomas Lipton’s Shamrock IV, F. T. B. Davis’s Westward and Lord Waring’s White Heather II in the 1920s, but it was Lulworth that was counted among the Big Five. (Cambria, despite her speed and unmatched looks, was an upstart bermudan-rigged 23-metre class that came to spoil their fun in 1928.) As the only one of that exclusive fleet to survive, Lulworth unquestionably deserves a special place in yachting history.

That two yachts of such grace, power and beauty have survived for more than three-quarters of a century and are now in pristine condition is remarkable enough, but to be aboard Lulworth as her crew prepared for the race course for the first time since her reincarnation was a truly emotional moment. The air of expectancy as we slid from our berth required steely nerves of a largely inexperienced crew whose apprehension about handling what in the 1920s was considered an experimental race boat was stomach-churningly palpable.

It has been well recorded that Lulworth, designed by Herbert White and built by White Bros of Southampton in 1920, has been the subject of one of the most painstaking restorations ever undertaken. Masterminded by Lulworth’s new owner Johan van den Bruele and project manager Guiseppe Longo, they left no stone unturned in their quest for historical accuracy. An extraordinarily detailed record of the work will be maintained in a substantial book to be published shortly, and can be viewed on one of the most detailed websites we’ve ever seen relating to a single yacht (www.sylulworth.com).

Cream of the Med

Supersail World - Lulworth

But with the work complete, what sort of sailing yacht would we find lying stern-to at the quayside ready to do battle at the Argentario regatta? It’s an event that attracts the cream of the Mediterranean classic yacht fleet and among the 60 or so stunners lining the quayside lay the schooner Mariette of 1915, now in French hands, Croce del Sud, a 1931 three-masted topsail schooner owned by Maria Luisa Mentasti Granelli, and Cambria herself, owned by Dietrich Von Boetticher. All eyes, however, inevitably fell on Lulworth as she prepared to make her debut.

As you drive into the delightfully unspoilt Porto Santo Stephano in mid-June, the pastel-coloured waterfront buildings are virtually obliterated by a mass of freshly varnished wooden spars and Lulworth’s, at 172ft above the deck, towering 17 storeys above the quayside, is simply unmistakable. The burgee looks ‘normal’ from the deck but get next to it and it’s the size of a tablecloth. You can understand why her mastheadman – the crew detailed to be aloft for everything from wind spotting to breaking topsails out of their stops – was paid more than his compatriots at deck level; danger money, if you like.

Lulworth’s 88ft boom is a threatening-looking piece of timber which, as American skipper Gerald Read kept reminding guests, will ‘drop’ another 20cm once the main is hoisted, putting it at about chin level. Woe betide anyone who gets in the way. Together with the gaff and bowsprit, the Columbian pine spars weigh in at an astonishing 11 tons. How on earth will it all stay up?

Some observers had advised van den Bruele and Guiseppe Longo that Argentario was too early a regatta. But Lulworth seemed well prepared, unusually complete for the subject of a major restoration trying to hit a deadline. Now it was down to the crew to familiarise themselves with their charge. The light to moderate winds in the Bay of Argentario seemed a perfect opportunity to take the plunge.

‘Hoist the main’

Supersail World - Lulworth

Read and his crew of around 28 had the added responsibility of hosting a considerable number of guests, including your author, as well as naval architect Paul Spooner, who had worked on the Lulworth drawings, and her surveyor John Winterbottom, all of whom were watching every move with an eagle eye. It brought the total complement on day two to something nearing 50, although we lost count.

Once clear of the heaving dock where crowds stood six deep to see us off, the mood settled and eventually Read gave the command to ‘hoist the main’. There was something vaguely Russell Crowe-ish about Gerald Read (despite his reflective sunglasses) as his voice boomed urgently down the long sweeping deck. The crew’s broad-hooped uniforms added to a sense that we were re-enacting something from another era. Would it be bullybeef for lunch? Perhaps not, judging from the aroma wafting from the galley.

Hoisting the main does take time – about 20 minutes. There’s a complex metal boom crutch to stow, topping lifts to take up, at least three people apiece for the throat and peak halyards and a constant eye watching the reef pendant tackle, the outhaul tackle and the two sets of massive runners, each one of which needs a team of four to handle once you’ve taken into account tricing lines, hooks and long runner falls. Much of the work is by hand, the final effort to get things block to block helped by powered drum winches.

A solitary staysail was set for pre-start manoeuvring in Race 1 which, thankfully, was blessed with light airs. The learning curve was still steep.

I began to lose track of things when the Italian afterguard started taking control of the pre-start. Massimiliano and Davide, I later discovered, were top dinghy sailors shipped aboard with a couple of mates to do tactics and there was no doubt they knew where they wanted to put Lulworth.

Our competition was effectively the William Fife-designed and built Cambria, which danced around us with a reef in the main (were they taking this seriously, we wondered?), and Mariette, the beautiful Herreshoff schooner, always a handful on a reach but a yacht we should hammer upwind as her schooner rig would be no match for the gigantic gaff cutter.

We were all rated using a Comité International de la Mediterranée (CIM) handicap. At -4 we had a big rating advantage over Cambria (-51) but, at 120 tons, she was lighter than us by 60 tons and by comparison she flew. Mariette, because she was designed as a cruising yacht rather than an out and out racing machine had a whopping 59 seconds per mile advantage over us and an even greater margin over Cambria.

But it was line honours we were really after and, as the gun went, we found ourselves in an excellent position with a fairly small, light-weather reacher breaking out on cue. Mariette and Cambria started to sail away from us. There was no doubt that we were short of sail. We needed the big clubyard topsail up, a bigger spinnaker and other sails one remembers seeing in some of those marvellous Beken pictures.

But van den Bruele was smiling broadly and all was well. “We must take this a step at a time,” he told me, crucially aware that safety and enjoyment were the main objectives – in that order. When the main overpowered a trimmer on one occasion and the sheet smoked through the big wooden blocks at an untouchable speed, you could see what he meant.

Two things were noticeable. With her heavily cutaway forefoot Lulworth goes through a tack with remarkable alacrity. The other is that the crew were finding it pretty hard going in these conditions and one wonders how things will pan out when it starts blowing, conditions which Lulworth likes.

We ran gently for 25 miles to the turning mark and faced the long haul home. The conditions were uncharacteristically fluky and we suddenly found ourselves on a reasonable starboard tack fetch, heading straight for the line with Cambria and Mariette well down to leeward trying, we believed, to avoid the area of lee downwind of the Argentario peninsula. But we managed to carry the breeze within sniffing distance of the line before falling into the hole. Mariette managed to extricate herself and get home 1st, but Cambria was nowhere to be seen and we managed a 2nd on elapsed and corrected.

The jubilation over the fact that we made it home more or less unscathed for the first time in 76 years over a 33-mile course, was slightly muted as the big reacher suffered what looked like irreparable damage when it backed and impaled itself on the unprotected end of Lulworth’s enormous port spreader. As the crew continued to try to hand the sail, the sound of rending nylon no doubt had the Euro signs spinning before Guiseppe Longo’s eyes.

That evening the wine flowed as 60 blazered guests enjoyed a buffet dinner aboard Lulworth, entertained by a band installed on the deck of Iduna, Johan van den Bruele’s other yacht, a de Vries Lentsch classic motor sailer, used as mothership.

76-year slumber

Supersail World - Lulworth

The course for Race 2 was similar and on the long fetch back from the turning mark Lulworth seemed to awaken from her 76-year slumber. As the south-easterly picked up and the speed reached double figures, the water was suddenly rushing by, Read’s face was split by a grin and there was a real hint of what Lulworth might be able to achieve when the wind gets up, some serious sail area is set and the crew have honed their skills.

A fantastic reach carried us almost to the finish and, although Cambria was ahead, she could not save her time on us. Mariette, however, bringing up the rear this time, pipped us all for a well-deserved win.

We were not aboard for Race 3, choosing instead to watch Lulworth from a RIB. It was a day best forgotten from a competitive view point of view, but to see her sailing, even in second gear as it were, is a sight alone worth travelling to Italy for.

After Argentario Lulworth was heading for La Spezia, then on to Imperia for the classic regatta and  west along the Riviera to complete the season in St Tropez. Somewhere during that programme there will undoubtedly be an opportunity to see Lulworth performing at her very best in flat water with the breeze at 20 knots and a mighty bone in her unmistakable teeth.