SY Merrymaid is a fine example of a classic yacht that has not been relegated to museum status. Rather, her owner is using her to embark on an enormous circumnavigation that includes a huge cruising itinerary in Asia
It was in April of 1904 when the 30-metre racing yacht Merrymaid was launched in Gosport, near Portsmouth, in the UK. Built by Camper and Nicholsons and designed by Charles Nicholson, Merrymaid was intended for inshore racing in the Solent. Her first owner, Thomas Hardcastle, must certainly have been impressed with the results, as she raced against such yachts as Meteor, Cariad and Lulworth – the champions of the day. Merrymaid went on to win the King’s Cup in 1904, in the presence of England’s King Edward VII, himself a keen yachtsman. Merrymaid was regarded as a yacht of considerable power with plenty of luxurious amenities added on, and she garnered plenty of press attention at her launch. Commentators at the time considered to be the best in a fast cruising class of the day. All very impressive, especially considering that construction of the then 106-tonne Merrymaid had begun on October 15, 1903, just seven months earlier.
The honour that Hardcastle and Nicholson won for themselves must have felt grand. But those early years were only the beginning of a journey that has lasted over a century. Hardcastle probably couldn’t imagine what her current owner would be doing with such a fine yacht. Or that she might one day sit at anchor in Hong Kong.With the Chek Lap Kok airport in the distance, and its constant flow of airliners whisking people about in 21st century style, we approached Merrymaid on her tender and I had the chance to enjoy those fantastic lines that were found on sailing yachts from before War War II. Those elegant lines have driven many a restoration project, as interest in the classics have grown with the rebirth of the J-Class, which began in earnest in the late 1980s.Like the three original J-Class yachts that were rebuilt, Merrymaid was discovered in less than glorious conditions, sitting in a mud berth in Essex, barely afloat and being used as houseboat. In 2001, a passionate owner acquired her with the aim of total restoration, but this gentleman passed away before the work could be completed. Merrymaid then went to auction and the slow process of rebuilding her continued until she wound up at the Southampton Yacht Services yard in 2006. It was during this time that Brazilian classic yacht specialist Pere Barrio Magem began work on the restoration. He remains with the yacht to this day, acting as the manager of the boat and first mate.Merrymaid’s restoration completed in 2008, her new Swiss owner began an ambitious circumnavigation of the world. Setting out from Mallorca and touring the far western Mediterranean, Merrymaid crossed the Atlantic and began a long tour down the coast of Brazil. The owner, who has retired and tends to be onboard for six-month stretches that include passages as well as cruising and on-shore sightseeing, has set himself the goal of not just circumnavigating, but also seeing as many port cities as possible.Pere, who met me at the Gold Coast Marina and gave me a tour of the yacht, explained that the original rigging had a bowsprit three metres longer, a boom four metres longer and a top mast that was several metres higher than what Merrymaid has now. For racing, it would have been impressive; for long passages and cruising, suicidal. According to Pere, Merrymaid has managed 14 knots in 15 knots of breeze. Given that she can still manage to match the speed of the wind on a good day, it’s interesting to imagine what Merrymaid must have been capable of with her original rig.During the restoration of Merrymaid, only the hull and frame were kept from the original. The centerline structure, keelson and stern required “extensive remedial work.” The interior was completely refitted. All of this was done with the aim of preserving the original look of Merrymaid. Walking around on deck, one finds wooden blocks that have been purpose-built for the yacht, as well as three-strand braided rope and brass fittings. Not all has been kept completely original – the self-tailing winches are stainless steel.The boat is equipped with a 260-horsepower Perkins diesel engine, along with the latest in Furano navigation technology. The nav station is actually at the deck level inside the saloon companionway. Here, one finds the beginnings of the mahogany wood that is used throughout the interior. This deck saloon is short and actually separates the owner’s cabin, which requires descending down a spiral staircase aft, and the main saloon, which is down a straightline staircase forward.
The owner’s suite aft is more like an office than a cabin, as there’s a large couch on the portside and bunk on the starboard side. A small desk and study are located here.In the main saloon, there are two couches separated by a teak table. Stowage spaces have been maximised. Books ranging from Lonely Planets to literary classics line the shelves. A mirror that looks vintage folds up to reveal a flatscreen TV, located just above the gas-burning fireplace. Forward of the saloon, there are the work areas of the boat, with the galley, mess, crew cabins, wet lockers and more stowage space.The yacht’s interior looks as close as she could be to what the original must have been like (sans TV). Couches are upholstered dark brown leather, with mahogany finishes and brass fittings. Even light switches are the old-fashioned sort.
On deck, the main relaxation area is the cockpit, which has comfy seating and a fine teak table that extends out for meals. The helm station is just aft, letting the captain, or whoever is skippering, socialise with those who are just relaxing. In a nod to modern safety concerns, a safe line and stanchions were added to the deck – an important consideration when the gunwhale can frequently be underwater when close-hauled.
Another interesting addition was the rebuild of Merrymaid’s original tender, Merrybaby. Both Merrymaid’s tenders are stowed on deck on either side of the mast. One is a small RIB with outboard but Merrybaby steals the show. With her own single gaff-rigged sail and plank-on-frame construction, she gets plenty of photos from guests.
Around the world in 80 months...
... or something like that. Merrymaid’s owner has embarked on an eight-year odyssey that takes in dozens of countries at a very leisurely pace. Leaving Mallorca in 2008, it was only in 2012 that her crew found themselves in Hong Kong. It has been nearly two years since the yacht left Australia, bound for Vladivostok and numerous other countries in between.During the latest six-month stretch of cruising, Merrymaid and owner ventured from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu, then on to the Philippines. From there it was past Taiwan, sheltering briefly from a storm, then through the Japanese isles, which Pere describes as excellent cruising. The owner’s comments on each destination (all of which are written in an online journal) are right-to-the-point. The Ryukyu Islands, which run from just east of Taiwan up to Japan’s main islands, were a particular treat. Tianjin comes in for a good rubbishing (“Dangerous harbour, corrupt & incompetent officials: AVOID”), while Korea’s Busan port gets high marks (“Riviera of East Asia, great beaches & hills with pines”).During the six-month journey through Southeast Asia to China, the owner had a Chinese language instructor from Shanghai brought on board with the crew to teach Mandarin Chinese every day. Pere described the young man as having never set foot aboard a boat in his entire life, and as providing instruction every afternoon despite rough conditions during passages. Nonetheless, the young man eventually came to love being onboard and even had a few turns at the helm.From Hong Kong, Merrymaid will journey down to Singapore and then on to Thailand for more refit work. In 2013, the yacht will begin again, heading out from Hong Kong once more in January and making its way to Hainan and then down the coast of Vietnam, checking out places such as Ha Long Bay (world heritage site), Sanya (“See the new Chinese Riviera”), Vung Tao, Cambodia and then on to Bangkok (“Lots of things to see, mostly naked”).From there, the journey for the rest of 2013 takes Merrymaid, her crew and owner back to Singapore to pass into the Straits of Malacca up to Phuket and then to Myanmar. Then, it’s a long tour to the Andaman Islands, a coastal tour of India, then to the Maldives. From there, Merrymaid is due to head south, giving the East African coast a wide berth, down to Reunion and Madagascar, finally leaving the Indian Ocean with a rounding of the Cape of Good Hope.Merrymaid’s owner is clearly a man keen to explore the world, and that fireplace will surely come in handy when the yacht hits the northern latitudes. The last stage of the tour, which is scheduled to end in 2016, takes the yacht through Canada’s Northwest Passage, to finally finish in Panama. Perhaps by that point, Merrymaid will be available for a new, equally adventurous owner.