Steeped in heritage and tradition, classic yachts can involve very different duties of care compared with a modern yacht and require a special work ethic from their crew. In our second instalment of interviews with classic yacht captains, TCR speaks to Captain Russell Potter of 54m S/Y Shenandoah of Sark about keeping up with tradition.

Captain Russell Potter on board Shenandoah

TCR: Are there differences between how a classic yacht and how a modern yacht should be run? 

Captain Potter:
If I were to single out differences in running a classic sail yacht I would say that you need to be more patient. Everything on a classic takes longer; maintenance, sail handling, manoeuvring, crew training etc. Additionally you can’t push a classic too hard otherwise it will break, so your schedule is much more dependent on the weather than a 90m motoryacht.

"If people want to stay traditional there is plenty of space in this industry for that and it should only be encouraged."

TCR: What are the differences between crew working on a classic yacht and a modern yacht?

Captain Potter:
The first thing that comes to mind is that classics are more delicate that other yachts. You have to be gently with them, I suppose treat them with the respect and courtesy that you would do to your elders. You can’t push them too hard and when things become uncomfortable it’s a sign to slow down. Putting excess tension on halyards to get slightly higher to the breeze is not a good way to push a classic with wooden masts for example.

I think the next point is that of maintenance. Not only are classics hugely maintenance intensive but you also have to (as far as practical) try and use traditional methods in order that the yacht remain authentic. Varnish is ongoing and relentless. I would estimate that annually over 7,500 hours are spent varnishing on Shenandoah and when one section is finished there is always a new section that needs attention. This of course has its drawbacks because no crewmember wants to spend all year varnishing! We have to try and break it up, sometimes get dayworkers in or outside contractor to do some work, nevertheless we have some great varnishes on board who often insist on brushing the topcoat.

Running a classic sailing yacht is also different in that all the crew need to know how to sail. Many motoryacht crew without any knowledge of sailing might be a little lost if they stepped foot on a three-masted gaff schooner and vice versa, it’s about knowing your yacht.

54m SY Shenandoah of Sark

TCR: Is there more of an expectation to keep up with traditional seamanship on 
board a classic yacht?

Captain Potter:
Seamanship is; the skill, techniques, or practice of handling a ship or boat at sea. In my opinion this does not change whether you are on a modern or a classic yacht. Seamanship is a set of skills dependent on the yacht, the conditions, the crew and dealing with your constraints in relation to the circumstances. Every yacht requires a different set of seamanship skills and learning your yacht is about becoming a good seaman.

If I were to choose a traditional method over a proven, more modern and safer method, I don’t believe that would be good seamanship. In my eyes seamanship is evolutionary with time and technology and I will always choose the safer option over the traditional one because, in the generation we live, reducing your risk is paramount.

The crew on board Shenandoah

TCR: Do you try and keep up with tradition on board Shenandoah?

Captain Potter: We have to because if we don’t the yacht would not look authentic. Of course we have modern technology but we hide this as discreetly as we can. Back in 2012 we did cross the Atlantic without any Hydraulics and used block-and-tackle to tension all the halyards. It worked and we managed to get back to Palma without any issues. Fortunately we did not need to drop an anchor as heaving it up would have been a little time consuming without a windlass! We could go back to doing everything fully manual but we’d have to employ another three crew.

TCR: With the superyacht industry growing and developing so much, do you think that it is getting increasingly difficult to continue with traditional yachting?

Captain Potter: Not at all. There will always be people with a sense of nostalgia that want to live life alternatively. It’s what makes a classic truly classic; when the crew enjoy doing it the old-fashioned way. If people want to stay traditional there is plenty of space in this industry for that and it should only be encouraged.

Read Captain Potter’s comments in full, and further opinions from classic yacht captains on ‘Keeping up with tradition’, in issue 70 of The Crew Report here.

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