From childhood memories to a brand new ketch designed to handle the 21st century, the owner of Saecwen has created a true modern classic, as Nic Compton finds out
“Look at that piece of oak behind you. I first met that tree when I was a kid, growing up in the New Forest. Ten years ago it blew over in a storm but I managed to buy a chunk of it through a forester friend. It’s a 400 or 500-year-old piece of oak – the same wood used to build Nelson’s navy – and now it’s the centrepiece of Saecwen. On the other side, the names of all the people who worked on the boat are carved.”
We are hunkered down in the saloon of Saecwen, the latest design by Nigel Irens launched at the Elephant Boatyard only a few days earlier, while the rain patters on the skylight above.
The boat’s owner, PR consultant Charles Watson, is telling me about the genesis of the boat. It is a very personal and at times emotional story, stretching back not only to his childhood but over three generations of his family.
The 50ft ketch might be a new launch from the drawing board of one of Britain’s most successful racing yacht designers, but even before her maiden sail Saecwen was already steeped in history.
When I turn around to look where Charles is pointing, I’m faced with a massive wooden post between the galley and the saloon. It’s the only piece of oak on the entire boat and it seems to not only carry the weight of the coachroof but to represent a bridge between past and present, new and old. It is, in so many ways, the heart of the vessel.
Saecwen: A family affair
Charles comes from a family of famous sailors, not least his uncle Mike McMullen, the single-handed sailor tragically lost at sea along with his boat Three Cheers in the 1976 OSTAR.
Mike’s father, and Charles’s grandfather, was Colin McMullen, a former Royal Navy captain known for his colourful escapades – including climbing the length of a towing hawser from one boat to another while under way.
When he retired from the navy in 1972, Colin bought the Saxon class Saecwen, a 35ft racer/cruiser designed by Alan Buchanan, which he sailed extensively on both sides of the Atlantic. One of his crew was the young David Barrie, who he taught to use a sextant, earning himself and the boat a prominent place in Barrie’s 2014 book Sextant.
Over three decades the boat was sailed by three generations of the family, with Colin, Charles’s parents, and Charles forming a syndicate.
There were adventures aplenty and Charles and his then wife Fiona were even awarded the Goldsmith Exploration Award by the RCC (of which his grandfather was a ‘sometimes commodore’) for their voyage to Venezuela while on honeymoon in 1989-90.
But, inevitably, as Charles’s career took off he had less and less time to look after the boat and, in the late 1990s, she was sold on. For the next 20 years, Charles travelled the world by plane rather than by boat.
The memories of the family’s beloved family yacht were deeply ingrained, however. By early 2019, Charles was ready to don his yellow anorak once again, and there was only one sort of boat he was interested in.
“Having been brought up on a wooden boat, I couldn’t see myself not owning a wooden boat – it’s an incurable illness which I was infected with,” he says. “But, having grown up with an old boat, I knew that you have to give more time commitment to keeping them alive than actually going sailing. The idea of building a new classic was really exciting, but I had no idea how to go about it.”
Luckily, one of Charles’s old friends was the celebrated maritime author Tom Cunliffe, who knew exactly how to have a new boat built. He recommended Charles contact Nigel Irens who, he assured him, was the man to design “something classic in concept but with a contemporary twist to it”.
A meeting was duly arranged, but when Charles handed Nigel a half-model of Saecwen and said he wanted the same thing but a bit bigger, the designer seemed initially reluctant, saying, “I don’t do replicas.” He agreed, however, to perhaps “be inspired” by the Buchanan design and, after sketching some initial ideas on the back of an envelope, went away to work up the design.
Charles’s brief was clear: he wanted a boat capable of going anywhere on the planet. “I’m conscious of what’s happening in the world,” he says. “The weather is a lot less predictable and more extreme. If you’re going out there bluewater cruising, you’ve got to be prepared to take whatever the weather throws at you.”
For that same reason, he wanted a ketch or yawl rig with twin foresails, to break the sail area into manageable chunks, rather than have to cope, possibly short-handed, with a vast mainsail and genoa.
When Nigel came back a few weeks later, he brought with him not plans and drawings, as Charles expected, but a model of the boat, about the size of a baby, carved out of balsa. Charles was immediately blown away by the new, fully-formed creation he held in his hands.
“It was a long keeled, sea-kindly, displacement boat, but you could tell it was clearly going to be fast just from the shape of the hull. I loved the feel of it: the way the transom came together had elements of working boats, with the high bulwarks and the lifting keel, there were many different genres in the design. I just looked at the model and thought, ‘Fantastic. Let’s do it!’”
Three yards were asked to quote for the job of building the new boat, but the Elephant Boatyard in Bursledon, where Charles’s family had always taken the original Saecwen for maintenance work, was the natural choice.
As well as a long history building custom racing yachts in the 1970s and ’80s, the yard has more recently developed a solid reputation for building one-off wooden classics, such as the new/old gaff cutters Ivy Green and Zinnia, designed by Ed Burnett.
Having specialised in wood epoxy construction since its development in the 1970s, the yard soon got into the swing, building the boat in the now standard form, with 22mm cedar strips overlaid with two diagonal layers of 6mm khaya mahogany and sheathed with E-glass and epoxy.
The main difference this time was that everything was built just that little bit more heavily than usual.
Unlike the yard’s historic racing clientele, Charles was after maximum strength rather than overall lightness, which meant heavier scantlings all round, including 35 75x75mm laminated mahogany frames. In the end, project manager Damian Byrne estimates the hull ended up 20% stronger than ABS standards.
The other big difference was the lifting keel – one of the key elements of Irens’s cruising boat philosophy is shallow draught, to allow greater access to inshore waters. The boat already has a substantial 7,500kg lead keel, however, so the bronze centreboard tucked neatly away in a slot in the keel without impinging on the accommodation at all.
Indeed, the only evidence of the centerboard once the boat was in the water would be a pulley system at the base of the mast leading back to a dedicated winch in the cockpit – Charles was adamant he didn’t want any complicated hydraulics on his boat.
The hull was turned over in December 2019 – a video on the yard’s Facebook page shows two cranes spinning the 15m structure around in the air as if it was the original model – but progress on fitting out the hull was soon brought to a grinding halt by the arrival of Covid-19 and the first national lockdown.
Overnight the workforce went down from 15 to zero, then back up to six, as a small team was allowed to start work again in a socially distanced way.
Creating a wooden boat brought unique conundrums: supplies of the masks they usually used for dusty work dried up and when they were available again had quadrupled in price. To add to their woes, Brexit threw their supply chain into disarray, with chandlery from Italy being particularly badly affected.
Yard manager Matt Richardson estimates the combined effects of the pandemic and Brexit added about six months to the build time.
By summer 2020, work was back in full swing and much of the skilled joiner work was in progress. Rather than churn out endless drawings of each and every part, Charles relied on the boatyard to create something beautiful.
“The craftsmen and shipwrights at the Elephant brought the next dimension of creativity to the project,” he recalls. “So I was able to say: ‘I want a table, I don’t want it to fold up. It’s got to be a permanent feature; it’s got to take Tom Cunliffe being thrown across the cabin and not collapse. I want to be able to sit a seagoing passage crew around it without having to open it, but then be able to sit 10 people around it when I’ve got friends on board.’
“Then a friend of mine who goes hunting for trees came up with this amazing cedar of Lebanon that has this extraordinary grain, so I gave that to Pete [Taylor, the lead shipwright on the project], and he made this beautiful table.”
Evidence of this artisanal approach can be seen throughout the boat, from the simple black Perspex hatches, with flush locks operated from the outside by winch handles, to the wooden compass binnacle with inlaid compass motif, and the dorade boxes with their complex angled dovetail joins on each corner.
Even the stainless steel stanchions were bead-blasted and passivated (a chemical process which removes the shine and protects the metal from corrosion) to give them a more classic look – somewhere between galvanized steel and titanium.
The boat was finally launched in May 2021 and, of course, named Saecwen – the name being Anglo Saxon for ‘sea queen’.
When I joined her in Lymington two weeks later, she had just completed her sea trials and Charles seemed delighted with Saecwen’s latest incarnation.
“There’s always this big debate in boat design,” he said, as we sheltered in the boat’s cosy saloon. “You’ve got performance in one corner, comfort in another corner, aesthetics in another corner, and seakindliness in the other corner.
“What usually happens is that aesthetics is chucked out by comfort, or performance is at odds with seakindliness. The genius of what Nigel has designed is that it covers everything. Sure, if this was a Beneteau 50 there’d be cabins and en suites everywhere – but I think this is perfectly comfortable. It’s a big enough space and has everything you could possibly want.”
Indeed, while the beam of Saecwen is a mere 12ft 6in (3.8m), compared to about 15ft 6in (4.8m) on a 50ft Beneteau, the interior feels anything but cramped.
The saloon is well proportioned, with ample headroom and seating for 10. The fit-out is a classic mix of white painted tongue-and-groove bulkheads, with varnished wooden trim. And in one corner sits a perfect little wood-burning stove.
There are many small personal touches, such as custom-made tiles around the stove depicting every sea bird in the British Isles (courtesy of local potter Jules Carpenter), and hand-turned wooden plates, bowls and mugs – several made from the same chunk of cedar as the table.
There are separate sleeping spaces for at least four crew (the ideal number for extended passagemaking), with a double quarter berth aft, a pilot berth in the saloon, a mini cabin opposite the heads and double berth in the foc’sle – all with their own storage areas and USB ports.
On deck, there is a mix of modern and traditional, with black ball-bearing Harken blocks sitting next to a handsome collection of winches from the Classic Winch Company and a very traditional-looking gallows from Daveys.
There are no sail tracks, but instead the angle of the jib sheet can be adjusted with barber hauls – low friction eyes attached to Dyneema lashings – located at strategic points on the bulwarks.
The tender is a nesting dinghy and when not in use, the two halves of it sit stacked and lashed on the foredeck. To assemble the boat, the aft section is wedged against the guard rails and the bow lowered onto it with the help of a halyard. In just a few minutes, you have a 10ft tender, complete with centerboard and a rig.
During sea trials, both Nigel and Charles have been surprised how well Saecwen has performed in light airs, given that she came out a bit heavier than expected, getting up to 7.5 knots in 10 knots of wind.
“I am genuinely astounded by her sailing performance,” Charles said, on the phone from Cornwall. “What she loves to do is sail with all four sails up, which she carries well into a Force 5. We only reef when it goes over 20 knots.
“Saecwen’s record so far is sailing off the Lizard when she clocked up 13.5 knots in 20 knots of wind, with the wind forward of the beam – which isn’t what you expect from a 23-ton traditionally-styled wooden boat. I’m beginning to conclude this Nigel Irens fellow is really very clever!”
Charles may not have got his old Saecwen back, but what he’s got is something better: a new Saecwen more befitting his needs and the current state of the world.
I suspect this boat will have a life every bit as interesting as her predecessor’s and, in time, she too might become a family heirloom.
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