Listen to this article
Just back from Liverpool’s imposing waterfront stands the former headquarters of Martin’s Bank, whose Art Deco interior exudes the atmosphere of the interwar years. It now houses the offices of GL Watson, whose pedigree is without equal in the history of yachting.
The company sales ledger is a Who’s Who of 19th-century wealth creators and royal households. What was good for Edward VII was also good for Kaiser Wilhelm II in those heady days before the first world war, when the crowned heads of Europe were content to settle their differences in friendly competition on the water.
In the last quarter of the 19th century, George Lennox Watson was the designer of choice for powered yachts. His business was rivalled worldwide only by William Fife, also of the UK, and Nathanael Herreshoff in the US.
Like Fife, GL Watson was based on the Clyde in Glasgow in its heyday. Fife is no more — although it has left a legacy of its three generations of designers in a fleet of venerable classic yachts — but GL Watson survives, designing and restoring yachts after decamping some years ago to its current Liverpool base.
William Collier, the managing director says he has the dream job for someone who studied the history of yacht design and yacht building to PhD level. His interest in old boats was sparked in childhood, touring houseboats in the mud berths of East Anglia.
“It was surprising just how many important yachts had survived,” he says. He became involved with projects to restore Fife yachts, helping set up Hamble-based Fairlie Restorations: “I traced and repatriated lost Fifes, as well as undertaking research.”
He was still working for Camper & Nicholson when he embarked on finding the GL Watson-designed Nahlin. Built on the Clyde in 1930 for Lady Yule, one of the richest women in England at the time, the vessel represented the zenith of motor yacht design, before the Great Depression and the second world war put an end to the first generation of privately owned superyachts.
Lady Yule sailed Nahlin around the world in the 1930s, even chartering it to the future Edward VIII in 1936, who used it for a Mediterranean holiday with Wallis Simpson. But before the second world war, the yacht was sold to the King of Romania, and after the Communist takeover it disappeared from view.
“I had a news item from 1967 saying it was a floating restaurant on the Danube, so there was a good chance it still existed,” says Mr Collier. “I sent a telex to the shipping authority, making an offer, and they replied the boat was not for sale. This was the confirmation I’d been seeking that it still existed.”
The next year he went to Romania to see the Nahlin and began to put together a deal to buy it, but that went into abeyance after the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. Later, Nick Edmiston, chair of yacht broker Edmiston, found a client for the restoration.
It took another 10 years of negotiations and red tape until the yacht could be brought back to the UK and into a dry dock on the Mersey. The only company that possessed drawings of the Nahlin, crucial to its restoration, was GL Watson. “I had lunch with the managing director and found he wanted to sell the company, so I bought it,” says Mr Collier.
Demand for original drawings, even in the rarefied superyacht market, is limited to a handful of potential customers who want to restore a historic yacht. This means GL Watson focuses on big projects. It restored the Blue Bird, built for Sir Malcolm Campbell, which was sitting in a Dutch canal; today it belongs to Tara Getty, the oil heir.
GL Watson’s third big restoration, completed more recently at the Falmouth-based shipyard Pendennis, is that of the 50m yacht Malahne, a 1930s vessel that had been rendered almost unrecognisable beneath a crude 1980s refit. Like Blue Bird, the Malahne took part in the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk in 1940.
The success of GL Watson’s re-emergence in classic yacht restoration is central to the UK’s strengthening reputation for such work. Several UK yards have broadened their skills, working on its projects.
The next job will be another 1930s restoration. Mr Collier is also trying to save a 1920s yacht, Caritas, that is sitting in a San Francisco trailer park. “I’m hoping she’ll be saved,” he says.