William Fife I,  1785-1865
Fairlie, Scotland, NB. UK

W
illiam Fife founded the most celebrated dynasty in yacht design and building -- one that spanned nearly 150 years of
yachting history.

Born in the days of yachting’s infancy, William Fife saw with piercing clarity the future which lay in the nascent sport. It is said he set the names of his ten children in a beloved book -- one on naval architecture -- rather than in the family bible. However he shared his dream, his son, William II, and grandson, William III, became honored and incomparable yacht designers, each in their own right.

Still, in 1800, hardly more than fifty yachts sailed British waters. The Fife yard, hard on the dun sandy beach of Fairlie on the Firth of Clyde’s eastern shore, built sturdy workboats for the deep waters and uncertain fogs off Scotland’s western hills. The craft of Fife’s hand and eye produced durable, well-found fishing boats with sweet and functional lines.

Fife built his first yacht, Comet, a six-ton cutter, when he was 22. ("Six-ton" is from the Thames Measurement Rule for small boats, an equation relating length and beam and instigating Fife’s signature long, lean hull.)

Five years later, his 50-ton yawl, Lamlash, slipped into the waters of the Firth to become the flagship of the Royal Northern Yacht Club. Long the largest yacht in the Clyde region, she launched a tradition of long-distance cruising in fine sailboats and voyaged from the Mediterranean to Tasmania and on to Hawaii in her later years.

Fife explored steam power, famously building Industry, a 66' cargo vessel and only the second commercially viable boat of her kind in Europe. She became the oldest actively working vessel in Europe. He never built another; his heart lived in sail.

F
ife designed in the old way, by hand, carving with a sculptor’s gift a block of wood into a yacht's half-model, from which the measures for his just-right hull could be taken, expanded and laid out upon the boatshop floor. But he also eagerly embraced the emerging science of naval architecture and experimented with multihulls. One of which, the 60' Ruby Queen sailed -- at her best -- at over 10 knots. Fife’s finest yacht, Gleam, a 30-ton cutter, was launched in 1832. She reigned in the Firth for years against all comers, virtually unbeatable.

Still building for a new sport offered only erratic rewards and Fife turned the yard’s practice of yacht design and build over to his first-born son, William II, in 1839. He was just 18. Fife himself returned to building the enduring workboats which had set him on his original course -- a course toward the glory of a classic yacht design dynasty that has never been equaled.

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