Dereliction, defects, collisions and storms are behind the demise of many beautiful classics built between 1885 and 1951. Trawling through the existing – and often incomplete – historical records makes for a fascinating study. By Bruno Cianci.

The first problem with research into missing yachts relates to the scarcity of archival material – partly because not all builders bothered to keep accurate records, and partly because paper documents are fragile.

Fire, for example, obliterated much of the Camper & Nicholsons archive in the early 20th During WWII the archive was further damaged by the Luftwaffe, resulting in the total loss of many of this glorious marque’s original plans.

Another problem is the reliability of existing information. Details are often captured haphazardly and an old boat’s provenance usually contains multiple changes – in name, owner, port of registry and even continent. Many simply ‘fall off the radar’.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to keep track of the large number of boats being kept in sheds, garages and fields, yachts (or their remains) that in some cases are known to different registers and associations – often waiting to be sold to the highest bidder for restoration.


The Herreshoff Registry, for example, is well organised and is able to precisely indicate the number of surviving boats built between 1883 and 1946 at the legendary Rhode Island shipyard. Of 1,101 boats built, between 400 and 450 are known and marked as ‘found’ – although the Register doesn’t specify their state of conservation.

Glasgow’s Mylne Yacht Design archive contains the projects of Alfred Mylne. From the more than 600 known and built according to the designs of this Scotsman and his nephew, Alfred Mylne II, about 180 survive.

Remaining in Scotland, the most pitiful percentage of surviving boats (relative to those built) is represented by William Fife III (1857-1944). Built mainly in the family shipyard in Fairlie, only 20-30% of this legendary designer’s vessels exist today.

The story changes with boats built after WWII. According to statistics provided by Barry van Geffen, custodian of the Laurent Giles Archive, only a dozen boats have disappeared (or been destroyed) out of 1,300 built. Most of Giles’ boats were built after WWII. The ‘predisposition to survival’ of these boats is arguably a function of the quality of construction.

Waterwitch 1911


Of course boats sink. Generally, it takes decades of neglect to sink a wooden boat. But if bad weather, structural failure, poor seafaring skill and perhaps bad luck are involved, those decades can become seconds. Every year a number of classic boats sink.

Over the past two years, among others, Berenice of London (1923) was wrecked (2018) in the south of France because of a Medicane; the German Elbe No.5 (1883) fell victim to the inexperience of her crew and was lost in June 2019; Iolaire (1905), another jewel, sank near Ibiza a month later.


A study of over 100 ‘vanished’ boats built between 1885 and 1951 revealed the following: a third ceased to exist because of material deterioration; collisions at sea and bad weather each accounted for 20%; followed by war (9%); fires, breakages and other causes (6% apiece). It must be said though that the causes are often confused and interlinked.


Over time wooden boats require the replacement of parts that are most in contact with water – the work is typically carried out on an annual or biennial basis. Contrary to popular belief, a steel/metal alloy hull does not always last longer than a wooden one. Corrosion is a killer.

An extreme example is the three-masted schooner Sea Call (1915). Her designer William Gardner (1859-1934) dared too much: in the throes of experimental delusion, he decided to have the hull built with a special vanadium and steel alloy. It proved to be one of the greatest fiascos in the history of boating. With the galvanic currents out of control, the schooner was scrapped a few months after the sea trials.

Material deterioration also includes boats destroyed because they’d already concluded their short but intense racing career. The vast majority of the America’s Cup boats built before WWII, for example, had a short life span because in most cases it was uneconomical to keep them in commission. Of the America’s Cup J Class yachts, only Shamrock V and Endeavour have survived.


In the study, one in five boats was lost due to bad weather. Sirius (formerly Dolphin) and the schooner Niña fall into this category and share a tragic fate. On 29 May 2013 Niña, a project of William S. Burgess (1878-1947), left Opua (New Zealand) for Newcastle (Australia), with seven sailors.


Conditions worsened during the crossing, but owner David Dyche pressed on, perhaps reassured by his extensive sea experience and the schooner’s pedigree.

The last communication between the boat and the mainland took place on June 4, as the wind blew at 60 knots. Nothing more was heard.

And then Sirius disappeared in 2016 with her two crew members in the Gulf of Leon, not far from where the tragedy of Parsifal, a mahogany boat designed by Carlo Sciarrelli, occurred in 1995.

Another boat that wrecked during a storm was Trenchemer, designed by Olin Stephens. She sank in the waters off Rhodes with two victims, one her famous owner, Robert Somerset.

In 1974, in a remarkable coincidence, two boats of the same name became the protagonists of tragedy within a few days: Morning Cloud and Morning Cloud III, the latter owned by then British Prime Minister, Edward Heath.

The first was dragged into the open sea after being torn from her moorings; the second sank in more dramatic circumstances, and two of the seven crew lost their lives.


Serious collisions between racing yachts are rare, but they occur. The incident between Satanita and Valkyrie II, which occurred in Scottish waters on April 5, 1894, contributed to making the world of regattas safer, resulting in less exasperating and dangerous boats being built.

Panope 1928

Another famous collision, documented by a Beken of Cowes photograph, involved the cutter Lulworth (she’s still around) and the 12-metre I.R. Lucilla on August 6, 1930 in the Solent. The latter, a Camper & Nicholsons yacht, sank within seconds. Magda VII, of Johan Anker, was the victim of a collision with a tugboat. Alfred Mylne’s Panope and Marina, the Canadian ketch Dragoon, and the Swedish yacht Garm IV all sank following collisions or serious impact with the sea floor.

When a keel hits the ocean floor (or a submerged object) at speed the results usually aren’t helpful. Maid of Malham and Myth of Malham, two Laurent Giles racing boats, were lost in the open sea during transfers that severely tested their mechanical and constructional efficiency.


In war the first numbers that merit attention are those of the dead, missing and injured. Someone has tried to estimate the number of lost works of art, as well as that of destroyed historic buildings – nobody’s ever bothered to count the boats.

Among those with premature ends through war are two legendary schooners: Davida, a Camper & Nicholsons design and build, and Susanne by William Fife III. The second is famous for a photograph that helped make the Beken of Cowes brand internationally famous.


Davida (formerly Margherita), perhaps the fastest boat ever made by Charles E. Nicholson, was sunk by the Germans in the Gulf of La Spezia (Italy) to block the entrance to the port in 1943, a fate that involved who knows how many other boats.

An unspecified number of yachts also fell victim to the bombings that systematically hit port areas and shipyards, such as in Hamburg and Bremen, in wartime.


In January 2016, Cowes (Isle of Wight) was the scene of a fire in which over 30 boats were lost, including many classics. Among the victims were Alfred Mylne’s Fedoa of Bute (1927), Charles Sibbick’s gaff cutter Witch (1902) and various racing yachts built between the 1930s and 1950s.

Beach Street, early 1900s.

Kariat, an 1897 steam launch, and Vere (1905), a ‘Little Ship’ used to evacuate Dunkirk, were also lost to the flames. The Swedish yacht Singoalla was burned in 1923, while in storage in Travemünde (Germany). In the same period the Pabst Werft shipyard in Berlin, owned by Gustaf Estlander, caught fire with other boats. Stiarna, a 12-metre I.R. launched in 1937, also succumbed to incineration in 2000, although in this case the fire broke out on the boat itself while being towed.

Two yachts from the study disappeared after being scuttled – the royal yacht Britannia (1893) and the schooner Westward (1910), scuttled at the will of their respective owners.

Despite these losses, there are many ways to keep the memory of such ancient jewels alive. Through pictures – like those of the Bekens and the Rosenfelds – but also, for those who can afford it, there is always the possibility of building accurate replicas.

Construction plans are often available and in many cases they cost nothing.