The Wall Street Journal
A Yacht Reborn
By Kate Ford
Isle of Wight, England
In 1979, Alexander Laird was a 19-year-old apprentice boat builder, when a letter arrived from his uncle Peter Saxby in Monaco. "I wonder whether you would be interested in the following proposition: we buy an old boat, you do it up."
Mr. Laird had learned enough about boats to recognize beauty in a dying hull in the mudflats on England's east coast. Her lead keel had been melted down for World War I bullets, her ribs and beams were rotten, but her exterior planking hinted at grace.
"I thought I'd have her sailing in three years," Mr. Laird, now 38, says with a laugh after finally relaunching the yacht this summer. The tiller under his hand curves off the deck, chafe protected with a cast bronze ring, before ending in an elaborate carving of a "monkey's fist" knot. There are a few lines around Mr. Laird's eyes; it's hard to recognize him in the photographs of a teenager in gum boots peering at a hull careened in a marsh.
It's even harder to recognize that dark hull in the gleaming white shape of Partridge as she glides through the Solent. Her sails reach for the wind, her topmast 64 feet off the deck. The 49-foot hull now stretches 71 feet across the bay with her bowsprit and boom overhang, her spars golden brown and catching the light. In every direction are testaments to Mr. Laird's craftsmanship: in the tapered deck planks, two inches wide at the centerline, narrowing to less than half that at bow and stern; in the bright green ironwork and the stitching on leather chafe covers; in the cast bronze belaying pins; and in the perfectly fitted chocks down below to hold the anchor windlass handles while she's underway. Gold leaf on her stern proclaims "Partridge 1885."
Even finding out the yacht's year of birth and original name required some detective work on Mr. Laird's part. He knew she had once been called Tanagra. "Harry 1885" carved under a deck beam gave a further clue. By poring through Lloyd's Lists, Mr. Laird was able to discover she had been launched as Partridge in 1885 at Camper and Nicholson's yard in nearby Gosport. He had a few hints of what she had looked like, but no photographs to go on, no line drawings but his own reconstructions.
Designed by J. Beavor Webb (who also drew the 1886 America's Cup Challenger, Galetea), Partridge took five months to build the first time around. She's a gentleman's yacht, for daysailing and racing, requiring a dozen crew to handle the sheets and runners. Mr. Laird used power tools and epoxies on the theory that the Camper and Nicholson shipwrights would certainly have used a chainsaw if they'd had one (the old adze marks are visible on some of the planks).
Mr. Laird built a shelter around Partridge in his parents' back garden, before immersing himself in a year-long wooden boat building program. A three-year degree in yacht design followed. Meanwhile, Partridge was drying out, her seams opening. The yacht, when rebuilt, had to be able to survive hard sailing, the sudden gale-force gusts that build up on the Solent on summer afternoons, the chop of wakes, the fast tacks of racing. She had to be able to handle a few mistakes by Mr. Laird and his friends, for even those who were professional sailors were dazed by the complexity of antique rigging, something closer to a Patrick O'Brian novel than the hydraulic backstays and roller furling of a modern yacht.
By the Portsmouth International Festival of the Sea in August, Mr. Laird had developed a strong team of friends and relatives to win the 40th Old Gaffers Association race across the Solent. His crew meet in the pub afterwards and talk of jackyard topsails and dead-eyes, speaking the language of their great-great-grandfathers' generation. They've worked out what to do with nearly a mile of tawny rope and bring the boat alive.
© Emma Ellis
The trophies on Mr. Laird's mantle and the hint of a smile on his face as Partridge accelerates in a breeze are well-deserved after half his lifetime's labor. His parents' driveway still shows traces of where Partridge roosted for six years -- a concrete plinth for her cradle and a now-grassed-over trench where he poured 10 tons of lead for her new keel.
As Mr. Laird and Partridge approach their 20th year together, he's reluctantly put her up for sale. He's slid into a new job -- those golden spars made a fine business card -- but the weekends find him with his hand on the tiller, listening to the whisper of water gliding over the hull.
© Kate Ford, The Wall Street Journal 1998
Visit Partridge's web site