A previously derelict Davidson 31 is a few months away from a complete and meticulous refurbishment – and the project is remarkable not so much for ‘what’ has been done to her, but for ‘how’.
Right from the start Tonnant was destined for an unusual life. Launched in 1974, she was crafted by Ponsonby boatbuilder Rod Holt for one of New Zealand’s most colourful mountaineers and polar explorers, Peter David Mulgrew.
Mulgrew was also a keen sailor despite being a double amputee – an inconvenience resulting from one of his extreme mountaineering expeditions. But his time with Tonnant was short – he sold her a few years later – and would never see her again.
He was the in-flight commentator on the ill-fated DC10 that crashed into Mount Erebus in 1979. His role on the flight was as a stand-in for his close friend Sir Edmund Hillary. Ten years later Mulgrew’s widow, June, married Hillary, who’d recently lost his first wife.
Ownership of the little sloop changed multiple times over the years, until she was acquired by Boris and Svetlana Penchev in 2012. The Bulgarian couple have been in New Zealand for nearly 17 years. And as Fate would have it, Tonnant – and her restoration – couldn’t have fallen into better hands.
Boris is a gifted, inventive craftsman and an accomplished boatbuilder – something that’s hard to believe given the environment in which he grew up. Despite its 400km coastline along the Black Sea, communist Bulgaria’s recreational boating infrastructure 50 years ago was non-existent.
“There were very few yachts and definitely no chandleries or marine stores. Anyone wanting to build a boat had to make everything from scratch – winches, sails, blocks, sheaves, turnbuckles – even copper nails. We bought rolls of copper wire and painstakingly manufactured thousands of nails, flattening heads, sharpening the ends and tempering them,” says Boris.
“We all had to do three years of national service and, fortunately for me, I was posted to a naval shipyard where I learnt to weld and operate lathes and milling machines. So, in a perverse way, Bulgaria
proved a valuable experience – we all became very resourceful.”
That resourcefulness has also served him well in his adopted country. The ability to fabricate boat fittings – mainly from discarded scrap – is a powerful theme running through Boris’ transformation of Tonnant – and it’s fascinating.
Tonnant – when Boris and Svetlana acquired her – was dying, though her construction of three-diagonal-kauri-skins-over-laminated-kauri-frames fortunately left her with a strong, sound hull.
“There had been a fire on board and though the damage had been repaired, she wore a grotesque make-up of squabs and an extravagant red carpet over a beautiful but neglected body. The teak deck had begun to ‘hunch’ and its sealant was desperate for reincarnation.
“She was riddled with corrosion – parts of the spars, stanchions, fittings – and she leaked like a sieve. Months after we began the restoration, we continued to find pockets of water in various nooks and crannies.”
Tonnant’s woes included a poorly-repaired 300mm x 50mm hole port amidships, a rotten portside bulwark, chain-plate bolts almost completely dissolved by galvanic corrosion, rotten cockpit coamings, tired hatches, useless handrails, cap rails and safety rails and a completely corroded gooseneck.
The winches were wobbly, the windlass unwired. Nonfunctioning electronics decorated the companionway. One of the genoa tracks was assembled from different sections. The lower
rudder support needed significant surgery. The sails could have passed for museum relics.
Given the shambles, why did they buy Tonnant?
“Well, to be a boatie one doesn’t have to be insane, but it helps,” he sighs. “When we discovered the boat’s history, her place in New Zealand’s boating legacy, the fact that every single deck fitting
was engraved with the original owner’s initials – P.D.M. – and that her kauri hull was light and strong, we decided she was worth a complete rebuild.”
Only one thing was certain – it wouldn’t be easy or quick.
“As Bulgarians, our strongest talent is destruction, so we removed every single fitting – from seacocks to masthead light. We demolished the entire, rotten cockpit and, internally, left only one, central bulkhead.
“We managed to get Tonnant’s original drawings from Laurie Davidson himself and discovered that she’s slightly different from his other 31s – she has a reverse stern and the rudder is unique.”
Transforming the hull began with scraping it to the original layer of Dynal cloth. A heavy re-fibre-glassing with West System epoxy followed. Sanded and faired, it enjoyed some 18 coats of Altex two-pot
paint, applied by Boris’ exotically-named friend, Blugin.
The strip-teak decking – in pretty good condition despite the bowing – was lifted in places, repaired and relaid and the seams routed and filled with Teakdecking System sealant.
Internally, the work proved far more demanding. “We scraped the entire interior hull down to bare wood. It was then treated with epoxy sealer, with all joints and corners coved to prevent any collection of moisture.” The saloon ceiling, previously covered in carpet tiles, received rich, strip-planking.
An inspection of the eight, 24mm keel bolts showed them to be Monel and in perfect condition, but a wide, 5mm stainless steel plate was added to arrest the depressions created by the nuts and washers. The rudder and skeg needed rebuilding.
Tonnant’s original powerplant was a marinised, petrol-fired Ford Cortina engine coupled to a two-blade folding prop. One of her owners had replaced this with a 35hp Yanmar diesel, but it too was tired and Boris elected to fit a new 30hp Yanmar. That required new purple-heart engine bearers. Numerous bulkheads were installed.
Much of the restoration process has been shaped by extra support and strengthening around key, load-bearing areas – chain plates, winch supports, cleats, bollards, stanchion bases, windlass – even the
mountings for the blocks and sheaves.
Many of the fittings – such as cleats and bollards – have been designed, fabricated and polished by Boris himself, with the stainless steel sourced from scrap metal dealers.
Take the bow fitting – with its anchor roller and forestay attachment. A much more attractive upgrade from its predecessor, it’s beefier and carries an additional attachment point for two inner forestays, giving Boris more options for reefing.
Particularly interesting are the grabrails along the coach roof. These stainless-steel rails are mounted in purpose-designed bases machined from an unusual material called Micarta – a kind of resin-infused
fabric/plastic, tough as nails. Boris swears by it. Interestingly, the coach roof grabrails and their mounting bases are mirrored by identical fittings mounted on the saloon ceiling. Both sets of grabrails
– inside and out – are secured by the same bolts.
Particularly impressive, too, is Boris’ attention to detail. Consider the scupper holes. Each has been lined with a copper ferrule, epoxied into place, to prevent water ingress into the kauri skins. Or
the stainless steel ‘protector’ around the throttle, to prevent it being accidently kicked into gear, and the one over the solar-powered extractor fan over the bathroom.
Tonnant’s original fractional rig has been refurbished, receiving a new, self-machined gooseneck and new stays and shrouds. Her rebuilt cockpit has been reconfigured to simplify short-handed sailing, and has been fitted with six, new Lewmar winches (he didn’t have to make these himself).
The tiller has been restored and equipped with fittings for an Aries wind vane autopilot and a tiller clutch which locks the tiller instantly. A heavily-insulated ice-box nestles in the cockpit sole. And
in a piece of precision engineering, Boris has manufactured and fitted a 40-litre holding tank into the locker behind the head.
Tonnant is scheduled for relaunching later this year. Based on what I’ve seen, I can confidently suggest that she is much, much better than new. Re-booting her and bringing her back to life has been a five-year labour of love punctuated with remarkable home-crafted solutions.
It will be good to have her back, her place secured in the country’s boating heritage.
Boris and Svetlana are both lecturers at Unitec – he in medical imaging, she in propulsion. He is also the commodore of the Mahurangi Cruising Club (he was previously the vice-commodore). Their three children are all competitive sailors.