In our third instalment of interviews with classic yacht captains, The Crew Report speak to Captain Max Cumming of 90m S/Y Athena* about keeping up with tradition.

Athena at the America's Cup in 2013

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

Captain Cumming: Yes, a classic sailing vessel has far more parts than the average modern vessel and crew need to learn the names of those parts quickly. We encourage the use of terms such as 'taff rail’, ‘poop deck’, ‘crow’s nest’,  ‘Portuguese bridge’ and ‘whisker stays’ and martingale’ on Athena. Luckily in the rigs you only need to learn the parts of one mast and then add the prefix of ‘fore’, 'main’ or 'mizzen' and you have named them all. We had a second officer who crossed to the dark side of motoryachts recently and he had struggled with the nomenclature of three masted gaff rigged schooner. So his farewell present included a ‘Guide to Parts of a Feadship’ - bow, stern and windows!

Another obvious one is different types of maintenance and style of handling the ship. Classics have a lot of running rigging and crews need to be very mindful of chafe and leads of the halyards, gant lines etc. Classics also have lot of varnish typically and the guys and girls become pretty dab hands with a badger after a season or two. In terms of ship handling, the windage factor can be huge and a lot of classics are not exactly over-powered.

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

Captain Cumming: Nothing beats heading ashore and looking back on your home and place of work and thinking ‘she’s beautiful’. But like many good-looking ladies they can be high maintenance. Seriously I think classic crews need a wider skill set - splicing, leather work, carpentry and wood finishing are all very useful to us where as they may not have such a need on a modern. Other aspects are much the same; safety when going aloft and heaps of cleaning!

"Nothing beats heading ashore and looking back on your home and place of work and thinking ‘she’s beautiful’."

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

Captain Cumming: I think so and it should be so. Every now and again you will get a young deckhand who has spent part of his free time knocking up a piece of fancy ropework. Some, but not all, get a sense of pride in learning traditional sail skills.

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

Captain Cumming: Athena is truely a 'modern classic’, if that is the term. We need to know all the latest technology like any yacht but try and keep up some of the best of the old school too. Small things like ringing out on the ship’s bell when the amount of anchor chain that has been paid out saves a radio call and can be heard easily above the din of the windlass gypsy.

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 Cumming: Traditional shaped vessels are typically a lot lower in volume than modern counterparts - less beam, long overhangs fore and aft and lower sheerlines can all contribute to less crew space and less storage. You can’t keep adding toys without something having to go and I do envy motoryachts sometimes with a massive lazarette holding fifteen crew mountain bikes, thirty kites and boards and four exercise machines. Some crew may see this as a reason not to work on a classic but I think they are missing the point.

There is some truth in the old saying; “When ships were wood and men were steel”.  We had a young guy complain that the blueberries in his yoghurt were not fresh - hardly the words of a roughty toughty old salt! But in general I find that the crew who choose to work on a classic (and are lucky enough to) are not only in it for the money but for the love of the vessel as well. They make great shipmates.

*Since the time of writing, Captain Cumming is no longer on board S/Y Athena

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