A classic wooden yawl might not seem the obvious choice for offshore racing, But Nic Compton finds this classic yacht is up for it
There’s no shortage of stunning boats moored at Port Pendennis in Falmouth when I visit the marina in June, not least a couple of enormous, shiny superyachts being polished to death by their crews. But I haven’t come to see them.
The boat I’ve come to see is tucked away at the far end of the outer jetty. With her glowing varnish, immaculately scrubbed decks and period fittings, Amokura looks every bit the timeless classic she is: a precious piece of maritime heritage to be nurtured and preserved and treated with the utmost respect and reverence. She’s a concours d’elegance winner; the lead boat in any parade of sail.
Yet, as she motored out of the marina towards the open waters of the Carrick Roads, Amokura wasn’t heading towards yet another classic boat festival, to compare baggywrinkle tying techniques with other aficionados – far from it.
This 80-year-old classic was off to Ireland to race, tack for tack and gybe for gybe, against a fleet of modern racing yachts in the 270-mile Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Race. Not only that, but she was being sailed two-handed, by owner Paul Moxon and friend Steve Jones – not bad going for a 50ft wooden boat with no electric winches or other fancy gizmos.
And the D2D was just the qualifier en route to a bigger goal: this year’s Fastnet Race, in which Amokura was again competing in the two-handed division (sadly, she had to retire, facing a very windy forecast). It’s an unlikely development for this old wooden boat with no previous history of racing (she entered the 1959 Fastnet, but also retired) and might be expected to be resting on her laurels, just happy to have survived so long.
But her owner has clearly taken the old adage that ‘ships and sailors rot in port’ to heart and has ensured that both yacht and crew are race ready, regardless of age.
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Paul had relatively little yacht sailing experience when he bought Amokura in 2012. True, he spent more of his teens teaching dinghy sailing, first at Woolverstone Marina in Suffolk, then Mercury Marina on the Hamble and finally with the Island Cruising Club in Salcombe. He even bought a 21ft Pandora International centreboarder in his early 20s, and made a cross-Channel crossing on the Island Cruising Club’s schooner, Hoshi.
He did very little sailing, however, during his 20s and 30s, while he concentrated on his career (starting at PricewaterhouseCoopers and moving on to ABN AMRO) and having a family. When he finally decided to buy a boat as he approached his 40th year, he looked for something he could go long-distance cruising with his family.
“I had been on day charters in modern boats and didn’t like their tendency to broach in any sort of strong wind,” he says. “I wasn’t particularly looking for a classic boat, but I wanted a boat with the ability to go offshore and go places. That’s what pushed me towards the classics. When my wife and I saw Amokura, we liked her age and the heritage she embodied, and we figured: in for a penny, in for a pound.”
Paul had no intention of racing at that stage. He spent the first season cruising with the family around Palma, before bringing the boat back to the UK for some badly-needed restoration at Cockwells Boatyard in Falmouth – including new decks.
The lead keel was also dropped and rebedded and new garboard planks fitted in an effort to cure a persistent leak. He then sailed back to Palma, where Amokura was based for the next three years.
“The original plan had been to keep her in the UK,” he says. “But after our first year in the Med, we liked it and decided to keep her there after the refit.”
Back to original
As the job list grew, however, Paul decided to bring the yacht back to UK rather than face the “punishing heat” and equally punishing labour rates of refitting the boat in Palma.
Apart from anything, he had long harboured a desire to return Amokura to her original rig – or something approaching it – rather than the reduced rig with aluminium spars fitted in 1969.
“It was quite clear sailing in the Med that she was underpowered,” says Paul. “The rig looked stubby and not quite right, and she wouldn’t sail through any chop in anything less than ten knots.”
The boat was still leaking too, particularly when the rig was put under pressure. So, in late 2015, Paul sailed Amokura back across Biscay to Ashley Butler’s new yard in Penpol, just outside Falmouth.
Ashley made another attempt at curing the persistent leak that had eluded previous shipwrights, this time removing the old wooden keel and replacing it with a new one carved out of a single, two-tonne piece of iroko.
Meanwhile, Paul spent several months with naval architect Theo Rye (now sadly deceased) experimenting with different sail configurations.
“We were trying to find the right balance between what was original and what works now,” he says. “We tested the rudder balance at various points of sail, and superimposed practical tests on the theoretical.”
The result was a fractional yawl rig with wooden spars, no bowsprit and a large yankee (i.e. staysail), which resembles much more closely the rig shown in the iconic photos taken by Beken of Cowes in 1947 – although the new version sports white rather than tan sails. The spars were duly made by Butler & Co, while the sails were made by Peter Crockford at SailTech in Penryn.
By then Paul had teamed up with classic boat enthusiast Steve Jones, who himself owns a wooden Folkboat. Most of his long-distance sailing was done two-handed, with his wife and children joining the boat once they had arrived at their chosen cruising destination. The new rig was therefore geared for that kind of sailing.
“When we re-rigged the boat, we focused on making her easy to sail short-handed – or even single-handed with an autopilot. We’ve run all the lines to the bottom of the mast rather than run them back to the cockpit, which means they’re easier to pull because there’s less friction and there aren’t any lines on deck to trip you up.
“It also means you just have one place to go to adjust almost everything. Because she’s a heavy boat, the deck provides a stable platform and going forward to the mast even in foul weather is not as intensely dangerous and stressful as it would be on a lighter, more flighty boat.
“To hoist the main, for example, the halyard has a 2:1 purchase, to the top of the mast straight down to the deck, and because there aren’t any turning blocks, you have a straight pull. You use your weight to hoist the sail most of the way and put the halyard around the winch to sweat the last four or five feet.
“You only use the winch handle right at the very end, to tension the luff. We thought about how each job can be done short-handed for a Biscay crossing, so while one person is sleeping down below the other can reef the main single-handedly.”
Ashley Butler proved just the man to oversee the work; having himself sailed many miles short and single-handed, first on his restored Morecambe Bay prawner Ziska and then on an East Coast bawley he built himself (the 32ft Sally B), clocking up two Atlantic crossings in the process.
He therefore knows all about the demands of sailing traditional boats with small crews, though he says, “as it turns out the simplicity of working the rig has led to it being really practical to race Amokura short-handed.”
And so Amokura set off with her new rig in 2016 to join the party at the Brest and Douarnenez festivals, winning her class at Douarnenez through the simple expedient of being the only boat in that class.
Paul and family also took the boat to the Gulf du Morbihan, where her most famous owner, George Millar, cruised on the yacht in the early 1960s, an adventure described in his book Oyster River.
Paul even managed to trace the descendant of the same family who welcomed Millar all those years ago and swung from the same mooring Amokura had occupied then – even if the River Auray is now a long way from the verdant idyll Millar describes in his book, being as packed with moorings as the Hamble.
Back in the UK, Amokura attended the 2018 Sea Salts & Sail festival at Mousehole and took part in a light-hearted race around Mount’s Bay. But it was at the Hamble Classics that year that Paul really got a taste for competitive sailing. “It was the first time we’d done some proper racing, and I really enjoyed it. We got a good feel for it.”
Never a man to do things by halves, on the back of that success, Paul decided to enter Amokura in the 2019 Rolex Fastnet Race, simply “because it was there”. First, however, he had to get his ship in order.
“The racing has certainly upped the pressure,” he says. “We’re sailing the boat harder than before, which puts a strain on the hull, which means she leaks more. We replaced another plank last winter, which has helped, but to be honest at the moment I’m more focused on bilge pumps than leaks!”
Before she could compete in the Fastnet, however, Amokura had to comply with the RORC safety rules – which were clearly not written with an 80-year-old classic yacht in mind. Credit where credit’s due, the RORC proved open to the idea, and Paul found them generally “pragmatic”, “risk-focused” and “not box-ticking”.
“We had a sensible conversation with the RORC to work out what the regulations really meant and how we could sensibly comply. Amokura is essentially a very safe boat, but how do we reconcile that with a set of rules design to make modern boats safe to race?
“For example, the rules require you to carry an emergency tiller, but Amokura has wheel steering with old-fashioned gear linkage, so it’s not possible to fit an emergency tiller. Instead, we came up with a plan, if the steering fails, to use a sea anchor trailed over stern to alter course.”
Modern safety gear
In the end, the main modification was to alter the forehatch fittings to ensure it could be opened from both inside and outside, and it could be locked properly. Amokura also had to be fitted with modern safety gear, as evidenced by the rash of white plastic boxes, which have sprouted around her aft deck.
Other changes were made not for compliance but to upgrade the boat “from a cruising to a basic racing set-up”, including fitting new wind and speed sensors because, as Paul says, “if you haven’t got reliable sensors, you can’t work out an accurate wind angle. It’s a luxury we haven’t had before and has made a big difference.”
And then there was the small matter of a spinnaker. “I was warned off having a spinnaker, because people thought it might be a stretch too far for short-handed sailing. But I decided to try it anyway, and I’ve never looked back,” he says.
“The brief to Gavin Watson at Penrose Sails was to make a sail that was more forgiving to cope with short-handed sailing, so we’ve had to trade off some power for ease of handling. The shape is narrower at the shoulder, but it sets easily and you can just leave it and go off and make a cup of tea. If you don’t like the look of something, you can shield the spinnaker behind the main and snuff it down.”
Charging full speed ahead
It’s a credit to Paul’s sympathetic approach that he has managed to make the yacht ‘race ready’ without indulging in the shiny bling that blights so many other racing classics. If it wasn’t for all the safety gear attached to the guardrails aft, you’d never know.
Out on Falmouth Bay, the wind picks up to a brisk Force 5, and Amokura laps it up. With her 20 tons of displacement it takes a lot of wind to worry her, and in these conditions she just charges full speed ahead, several times achieving hull speed judging by the hollowed out wave amidship.
Her two-man crew give a bravura performance, holding on to full sail for the photos, despite the breezy conditions. Swooping and leaping over the waves, she really does look like the Pacific Ocean seabird after which she is named.
Amokura might be 80 years old, but she sails like a yacht in her prime. Paul’s ambitious campaign has breathed new life into her tired timbers and, whatever the results on the race circuit, has ensured she is in a fit state to sail for another 80 years.
LOA: 15.32m (50ft 3in)
LWL: 11.58m (38ft)
Beam: 3.66m (12ft)
Draught: 2.13m (7ft)
Displacement: 20 tonnes
Extracts from George Millar’s article for the 1954 Royal Cruising Club journal
“[Amokura] will eat up to windward with the best of them, which is the only true insurance policy afloat; further, with her yawl rig and reasonable length of keel she is a good one for self-steering both on and off the wind.
1 June 1954
On June 1st we took 18 shirts, 12 towels, and 14 linen sheets (I do not hold with sleeping in blankets) to the 24-hour laundry, which has an Italianate name, and that morning we entered the docks to fill our two 20-gallon tanks with gasoil.
The engine, burning only ½ gallon an hour, will give us 5 knots in a calm; so our range is about 400 miles under power. We also took paraffin (8 gallons), fresh water (125 gallons), distilled water, lubricating oil, linseed oil, and turpentine.
3 June 1954
All went well (especially Amokura) until 0930, when we were over the Kaiser-i-hind Bank, some 60 miles SW of Ushant, and the wind headed us. I experimented until she sailed herself closehauled, the boomed foresail sheeted in very hard, the mizzen rather free, the main trimmed for efficiency.
She needed one and a half spokes to hold her off, and thus she seemed to travel better than with my tired self fussing over her. That day, the next, and the intervening night, we touched the wheel no more, except when putting about.”
The many lives of Amokura
1939 – Designed by Fred Shepherd and built by AH Moody & Son, Swanwick, on the Hamble for Major (later Sir) Ernest Harston. She was named after the Maori word for the red-tailed tropicbird, a seabird native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Her original sail plans show a small staysail set on inner forestay, and later photos by Beken of Cowes show her setting a large yankee on the outer, fractionally rigged forestay. The hull was painted black.
1946 – Described as a “most marvellous ocean racer” by Uffa Fox, in a private letter to Fred Shepherd
1953 – Bought by Manchester builder EA Crosby.
1954 – Bought by George Millar, who was awarded a DSO and a Légion d’Honneur for his wartime exploits.
Millar sailed widely on Amokura, including trips to the Mediterranean, and wrote about her in his book ‘Oyster River’. Entered the 1959 Fastnet Race, but retired.
1960 – Bought by Horace Morgan, based at Corpach, near Fort William, Scotland
1969 – Bought by Richard Carr MBE, of Carr biscuits, a friend of George Millar who was in the same POW camp. Carr reduced her rig and fitted aluminium spars.
1979 – Under American ownership, sailed to the Caribbean, the East Coast of America and back to the Med. Hull painted white.
1981 – Described as “seaworthy family cruiser” in Cruising Under Sail by Eric Hiscock
1990 – Seized by Spanish authorities for drug smuggling and sold to Peter Guan, who kept her in Vilamoura, Spain
1996 – Bought by ‘serial classic boat enthusiast’ David Japp and restored at the International Boatbuilding Training College in Lowestoft.
2004 – Bought by Jane Scrinar & Anthony Harwood, based in the UK.
2006 – Bought by Peter & Gillian Phillips, and was based in Valencia, Spain, then Cogolin, France.
2012 – Bought by Paul Moxon. Redecked in 2013; rerigged with wooden spars in 2016; hull painted dark blue in 2019.
Article first published in the October 2019 issue of Yachting World.