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As an architect, I have carried out the restauration of numerous old buildings with all associated technical, artistic, cultural and general approach problems. I have studied and extensively discussed about the right attitude to adopt when taking care of an old architectural entity refurbishment.

In architecture, two are the main approaches to restoration. Faithful restoration is based on historical studies and refers to the concept of restoration identification. In this light, restoration performed over time without erasing the traces of the passage of time (patina) is, if artistically valuable, considered to be of interest. This view, very much in vogue until the ‘70s/’80s has aroused even harsh controversy about its main concept of preserving following restorations.

Conservative restoration is subject to more strict rules. Its basic principle is the conservation of the building organism and its original functions, with no partial or total change, while respecting its crucial typological, formal and structural elements.

This is my experience as far as “buildings” are concerned. As for boat restoration, I have no professional experience. I have already worked in the naval and marine field, but I have never been directly and fully responsible for a vintage yacht restoration.

However, from time to time, I have had the chance to go for a sailing on Coppelia, a splendid Dancing Ledge Class sloop built at R.A. Newman & Sons shipyard in Poole (UK) in 1951 on a project of the British John Tew. I also had the honour to boat this beautiful lady in the Millevele race in Genoa with the ship owner and his family two years ago.

On these occasions, I had a long talk with the ship owner – a very educated and experienced marine engineer – and I had the opportunity to dive deep into the details of Coppelia restoration project, which he managed himself. A long path made of passion, study, in-depth analyses and, above all, decisions.

This engineer, now a friend of mine, focused restoration on his decisions and this moves the attention back to the opening lines of this article and to the cultural approach to restoration.

In this regard, the restoration of a boat requires – in most cases – mainly a faithful approach that takes into account technical and technological innovations that have followed over the boat lifetime.

As invasive and out-of-place mechanical and electronic technology on a vintage yacht may be, the opportunities it offers can hardly be ignored (the same when considering the installation of a lift in an old building). It is much better, then, to approach the issue and solve it on tiptoes, gently and always showing respect for the original architectural layout of the boat involved.

I therefore welcome all navigation aids, be they electronical (radars, wind stations, GPS, plotters), concerning safety (compulsory, of course), dedicated to systems (such as waste water and grey water tanks, watermakers, generators) and mechanical (winch conversion). You also have to be aware that now the crew is reduced in number if compared to years ago, social relationships are totally different and the guests on board are much more numerous than crew members, if compared to the past. 

Careful study and in-depth analyses refer to a comprehensive knowledge of the boat, its history, architectural layout and the different materials it is made of. The original construction plans shall be compared with the present situation of the boat. Previous restoration shall be mapped. The relative motivations and effects must be investigated to point out how they have affected the boat as a whole, trim in navigation and roominess.

Since vintage yachts are mainly made of wood, a deep knowledge of the range of woods used and of laying and processing techniques concerning structure, planking, deck and space inside the boat is necessary. Same when talking about deck rigging and sail-making.

So, what are in broad outlines the steps required to restore a vintage yacht? We have already talked about the preliminary stage, i.e. the choice of the approach and the analysis of the boat historical and functional evolution. Once the boat is at the shipyard, operation steps are to be performed. These are carpentry works, by using special tools and techniques, identification and inspection of damaged and critical parts and finally an assessment of restoration works.

The next step includes deck rigging disassembly and setting up of work areas; paint stripping, during which critical areas are made visible. Carpentry work, hull grinding and repainting make up the bulk of structural works, followed by plant works and adjustment of engine settings or engine replacement, paint stripping and application of protective clear coating and rigging revision and re-assembly.

As you might guess it’s a long, complex and –sadly- expensive process involving extensive design and technical skills. But where can restoration be best performed?

Normally you are given more than one choice. You can apply to a small traditional craft shipyard, to a workboat builder or to a known and expensive pleasure boat repair shipyard. So the question is: is it better to apply to a repair shipyard or to a restoration shipyard?

They differ in many respects. The former can be involved in any aspect of classic boat repair. However, it may not know how to manage the construction techniques of the boat in question. On the other hand a restoration shipyard – there are very few in Italy – has a great historical and cultural knowledge of traditional boat construction.

A real restorer knows construction methods, material used, the technical peculiarities of hulls, rigging, sails, of pleasure boats of the past (all what we have talked about until now). A repairer does not need historical sensitivity and respect of tradition as he takes care of recent boats.

In Italy there are a few dozens of repair and construction shipyards while only few shipyards can take care of boat restoration and reconstruction. Among these are Carlini shipyard in Rimini (www.cantierecarlini.it), De Cesari shipyard in Cervia (www.cantierenavaledecesari.it), Valdettaro shipyard in Le Grazie (SP) (www.valdettaro.it), Sangermani shipyard in Lavagna (Ge) (www.cantierisangermani.it) and Imperia shipyards (www.cantieridiimperia.com).

On a positive note, all the shipyards above, mentioned as an example among the most renown ones, while others can be found on the Net, are leaders in Europe and worldwide together with equally famous British and French shipyards. All these companies provide a benchmark for excellence, advanced know-how and very specific skills.

When we think about that we realize that many different activities are scheduled and performed under the same factory hall. To start with, carpentry work i.e. wood, steel and light alloy constructions. Some works must be done on board, others in a workshop. Here, restorers have to deal with broken or missing parts or components that cannot be used anymore, with all the difficulties that are involved. Special skills are required to restore old materials or to weld steel, SS or light alloy components. Also mechanical skills are required to work on devices with mechanisms such as ballast fin, rudder, tanks, pipelines, valves, sea-cocks, toilets and mechanical systems. Joinery often plays a vital role in restoration. It deals with wooden interiors and laminates disassembly and relative reconstruction and alterations, as well as upholstery for interior finishing and upholstered items.

And don’t forget electrical and electronic plant engineering skills necessary for the circuits of the on-board electrical system, wiring and assembly of the new electrical control panels and control of on-board instrumentation, communication and entertainment electronics. Last but not least rigging is important to adjust, replace and reassembly all on-board nautical equipment, seal rigging, deck and below deck manoeuvres. Finally don’t forget to mention sailing to repair or replace sails and biminis.

It’s a long and complex process performed by high-skilled labour force worth being trained and keep up to date.

To all this, two further elements must be added: love and passion, the only drive able to boost an amateur to challenge such a complex and very expensive task to have a boat which – in most cases – will turn to be less comfortable, less performing and surely more delicate and fragile than a modern one.

And yet…. when by the quay or, even better, aboard one of these magnificent ladies everything disappears and, more important, everything becomes clear: yes, it’s worthwhile! Try just once and you will understand.

I had that chance.

Fair wind to everybody. See you at sea!

Renzo Crovo