Kelpie is one of the finest classic restorations of recent years. We sailed aboard the schooner, Mariette's 'racing tender', at the Pendennis Cup before she departed Cornwall for the classic Med circuit
Hundreds of boats were anchored off Falmouth’s Gylly beach. Thousands of people lined the shore. Onboard Kelpie of Falmouth, we were rafted alongside the 138ft Herreshoff schooner Mariette, the spreaders of which were decorated with crew vying for the highest viewpoint for the finale of the Pendennis Cup regatta.
The aerobatic exploits of the Red Arrows made for a fitting finish to a prestigious event, but one person was more emotional than any. Ken Wilkinson was teary eyed as he gazed lovingly down the quartersawn Burmese teak decks of Kelpie, every plank of which he had personally and painstakingly laid over the last 18 months.
Classic yacht restorations can be emotional joyrides. If anyone could have been excused that reflective moment of celebration it was Wilkinson, the shipwright charged by Mariette’s skipper Charlie Wroe with the restoration of her ‘racing tender,’ the 79ft gaff schooner now called Kelpie of Falmouth.
Kelpie was designed by Francis Sweisguth and built in Bristol, Maine in 1929. When she was found and bought in California in 2012 she had a Bermudian staysail schooner rig and was in need of restoration. She was sailed 9,000nm back to Cornwall for her restoration at Gweek Quay. 18 months later and we were sailing a Kelpie that looked as good as new, restored with a gaff schooner rig, and competing in the Pendennis Cup in May.
That final day of the Pendennis Cup had been a charmed occasion and one that fittingly capped Kelpie’s relaunch. Kelpie’s owner took the helm for the first time. An offshore breeze surprisingly materialised to ripple the glassy seas in time to squeeze in one last short race before the Red Arrows display. By placing second Kelpie had pipped Mariette and Adix to the schooner class overall. All aboard were elated.
Kelpie’s owner on the helm with his other schooner Mariette behind
It was a unique honour to sail Kelpie in her first event since her relaunch surrounded by the craftsmen that rebuilt her. My partner on jib top and kite trim for example was Ben ‘Basher’ Sellen, who had helped fare and paint Kelpie’s now gleaming topsides. His father Ian, sweating halyards at the main mast, fabricated the many detailed stainless steel fittings.
“Charlie [Wroe] found this unlikely place in Gweek with no phone signal and set about refurbishing her,” Kelpie’s owner told me. He has been the ‘custodian’ of Mariette for 10 years and the two schooners made a resplendent sight rafted together. “She [Kelpie] will be one of the best refurbished boats because the team did it as if they were doing it for themselves.”
Shipwright Ken Wilkinson with Kelpie skipper Charlie Wroe
Wroe was the driving force behind the rebirth of Kelpie. But the credit for one of the finest classic boat restorations I have seen in recent years must lie with head carpenter Wilkinson, a traditional shipwright originally from Portsmouth docks. The need to replace the whole of Kelpie’s aft end presented his biggest challenge. It was entirely rotten when she arrived from California at Gweek Quay. Wilkinson rebuilt her now beautiful counter stern by eye.
“I always think that if it looks right, it probably is right,” says Wilkinson. Kelpie’s transom is now 11 inches narrower each side. “She is the most symmetrical boat I have ever worked on.”
Kelpie’s new counter, seen from Mariette during the Red Arrows display at the Pendennis Cup
Kelpie has been restored to look good and race hard. Her sails and sheets are of a manageable size and modern gear including self-tailing winches and dyneema ropes are used where practicality makes sense. Kelpie departed her Cornish second home for the busy Mediterranean classic boat circuit this summer.
See the full report of the Pendennis Cup in Yachting World August, out now.
Emily Harris’ video on Kelpie at the Pendennis Cup, entitled”Racing Tender” is excellent:
See www.classicyacht.tv for more videos that fully document Kelpie’s restoration.
Opening picture by Emma Jones