Design & History

Golden Fleece is a classic S & S 41’, built in 1974 for Gordon Neil, then Commodore of the Royal Natal Yacht Club in Durban, South Africa. She was designed by Sparkman & Stephens of New York the previous year on the same lines as Marionette IV. The design is credited to Dutch born, US based designer Johan Valentijn of Sparkman &  Stephens, who also designed the US America’s Cup yacht Liberty. On the designer’s plan he comments; “This is one of our new boats building for the Admirals Cup competition in England and is essentially a development of Cervantes IV. She is also very similar to Ted Heath’s Morning Cloud now renamed Opposition. Construction is of three layers of diagonally laid cold moulded 6 mm marine ply with Douglas fir frames, mahogany beams and teak decks and is immensely strong.

She represented South Africa in the Admiral’s Cup in Cowes in 1975 and won Rothman’s Week in Cape Town the same year. Other ocean races in which she successfully competed include the 1974 Agulhas Race and the Vasco da Gama race from Mozambique to Durban. Thereafter followed the 1994 Mauritius – Durban race, 1997 Da Gama Durban – East London race, 2000 Cape Town to Rio race and many more.

When not cruising offshore Golden Fleece can now be seen mainly on the east and south coasts of England participating in regattas such as Mersea Week and Cowes Classic Week.

Durban, South Africa….The Project Begins

The current owner, Michael Wheeler, found Golden Fleece in a marina in Durban in September 1999. She was painted yellow and in a pretty sorry state. She had not been used for two or three years and was in need of some serious TLC….or a box of matches! However, he fell in love with her graceful, classic Sparkman & Stephens lines and her history and bought her, against the advice of the surveyor who said; “There are other boats here!” however, like most men who fall in love, he could not be deterred!

Some essential work was carried out in Durban and in November 1999 Michael sailed her to Cape Town over about five days with his son Jason and some South African friends. This was a challenging and rather unpleasant trip along a nasty part of the South African coast. Frequent coastal low pressure systems sweep up from the south bringing strong winds against the south flowing Aguhlas current. This creates squalls and very nasty seas and at times made it difficult to avoid the whales who were also heading south, (some of which seemed as big as the boat).

Cape Town to Rio

 

The original plan was to sail Golden Fleece directly back to England but in Cape Town Michael heard about the Cape Town to Rio race starting in January 2000 and decided to enter Golden Fleece. December was frantic with only three to four weeks to prepare for the race and more work to be done on the boat but by January 8th they were on the start line and looking forward to some exhilarating sailing across the South Atlantic in the South East Trades. Michael’s crew consisted of his son Jason, Peter Jacobs, Roger ‘Slim’ Doman and Tom Allard (both ex Merchant Navy Colleagues of Michael’s)….all Brits, ‘JP’ Snyman (S.A.) and a  young Dutchman called Steven Louwrier.

After a few days out from Cape Town the years of neglect began to show and water was entering Golden Fleece from both below and above the waterline! After five days all electrics and communications were lost and it was no longer possible to transmit a daily position or communicate with the outside world. The next comunication would be in Rio over three weeks later. The remainder of the race was completed with the benefit of a sextant, hand held GPS (and some batteries!) and a bucket to bale out the water!

The race was a mixture of exhilarating sailing in the SE Trades surfing down huge waves, being becalmed in the South Atlantic High (swimming in 5,000 metres) and then being knocked down by violent squalls in the middle of the night while flying the spinnaker….but the ‘Argonauts’ onboard Golden Fleece continued to sail, bale and pump their way across 3,640 miles of ocean in 28 days, still arriving before much of the rest of the fleet.

Problems in Rio

Upon arrival in Rio, Michael returned to the UK to attend to business and left Golden Fleece on a mooring in Rio in the care of the marina. However, it was not long before he received a call to say that his boat was in a terrible state, having broken away from her mooring. She was lying on her side on the shore half full of water and had almost sunk! To make matters worse, the boat had now been in Brazil longer than the permitted time for a visiting yacht and the services of a lawyer had to be engaged to prevent the Brazilian Customs authorities from seizing her.

A South African delivery skipper then heard of Michael’s ‘challenges’ and contacted him in the UK offering to raise the boat, clean her out, strip the engine, restore her to a seaworthy condition and sail her back to the UK. Since he was the ‘only game in town’ at the time his offer was accepted and an agreement was made.

Rio to Falmouth and West Mersea

This should have taken 7-8 weeks but stretched out to 14 months as many stops were made en-route, allegedly for repairs and maintenance, in Salvador, Recife, Fortaleza, Trinidad, St. Lucia, Antigua, Bermuda and the Azores and more money was called for by the delivery skipper each time.

Sometimes Michael did not hear from the skipper for 6-8 weeks and had no idea where the boat was. On one occasion he was called early one morning in England by the U.S. Coast Guard services to say that Golden Fleece’s EPIRB had been activated and he thought “Well, that’s it then – she’s gone!” but they eventually turned up in Bermuda and Michael flew there straight away to find out what had happened but the skipper claimed that he knew nothing about the emergency beacon being activated! Eventually a rather bedraggled ‘Golden Fleece’ arrived in Falmouth in August 2002 and after paying off the skipper and crew Michael sailed her back to West Mersea with Peter Jacobs.

Restoration

 



Once back in Mersea Michael took another close look at the boat and realised that she needed some serious work to restore her to her former glory. After talking to two or three boatyards she was shipped by road to the Elephant Boatyard in Bursledon, Hampshire in February 2004. This was to remain her home for the next five years under the watchful eye of Tom Richardson.

After completely drying her out she was then stripped down and burnt off to expose anything that might be concealing a problem. Soft wood and  timbers were removed where necessary, together with the entire deck. The interior was then completely stripped out and the engine removed. The original layout had been for racing, but Michael now wanted a fast cruising boat and Tom designed an interior layout accordingly.

During the next five years all the questionable wood was removed, a new sub deck was laid and the entire hull and deck were sheathed in epoxy. A new teak deck was then laid on top of the sub deck. New electrics, plumbing and a new Yanmar 54 h.p. engine was installed aft beneath the cockpit rather than amidships as previously. The new interior layout provides a spacious double cabin forward, head and shower, sofa berth to port in main cabin opposite a ‘U’ shaped sofa and dining table that converts to a double berth if required, a galley to port with fridge and cool box, large chart table and navigation station to port and two upper and lower pilot berths to starboard and lots of locker space. New sails were built by Gowen Ocean of West Mersea and finally the topsides were finished in Awlgrip flag blue. Re-launch day was on May 27th 2009 when a beautiful and graceful swan finally emerged from the bedraggled cygnet. ‘Golden Fleece’ flies the defaced Blue Ensign of the late Thames Nautical Training College H.M.S. ‘Worcester’.

Biography

  • Read Before the Wind….Bertie Read.
  • The Admiral’s Cup……….Bob Fisher.
  • Classic Boat Magazine (UK)….November 2009.
  • Molliette (West Mersea Yacht Club Annual Journal)….December 2009.
  • Sailing Magazine (USA)…………….January 2010.
  • Sailing for Southern Africa Magazine (SA)….April 2010.