Andy Schell bought a neglected ex-round the world racer, to turn into his ultimate offshore yacht. He explains the refit ad restoration process
“Wait, you bought that boat?!” That was 59º North’s bosun Adam Browne’s reaction when I showed him the Farr ‘Millennium’ 65 on the hard in Lymington, which we’d just closed a deal on. “The massive green one that looks a bit abandoned?”
Adam wasn’t referring to the paint job. Coated in algae and slime, Falken was green-hued, her tattered mainsail cover hanging limply from the boom, jack-lines from her last offshore passage still rigged to rusty shackles on deck, water nearly up to the floorboards down below. The boat was rotting.
That sailing yachts, particularly race boats, are often referred to as ‘thoroughbreds’ is an apt comparison. Race horses are living creatures and I like to think of sailboats as much the same. Falken began life with a promise by Bruce Farr to deliver a design that would be “faster on all points of sail than her peers,” as described in a 1998 Yachting World article.
Ten yachts were originally commissioned for the 1999 Millennium Round the World Race, an event designed to compete with the likes of the Clipper Race and BT Challenge, but on a boat that more closely resembled a Whitbread 60 in performance.
But economics and luck dealt a tough hand to the fledgling event. Only four boats took the start, and the race folded after just one edition. The fleet were used as sail-training boats for various organisations over the next 20 years. And then, like a racehorse past its prime, too old to compete yet too beloved to put down, the 65 originally christened Spirit of Diana was put out to pasture, left to live out her days on the hard. Until we came along.
I’d previously entertained thoughts of building a custom yacht for 59° North Sailing, our adventure sailing charter business. What sailor doesn’t dream of building their own boat one day? But besides the cost, which would have been substantial, something about building a brand new boat just didn’t sit well with me when there are so many great older boats lying in boatyards. Building a new boat would undermine one of my fundamental values – that of using what already exists.
Enter the Farr. She was a stripped out, purpose-built racing boat that just didn’t have the charm or ‘soul’ of the cruising boats I’d grown up on, and which we’d had in spades in our first boat Isbjörn, a classic S&S Swan 48. But despite this, and the Farr’s apparently abandoned state, I saw potential. The Farr deserved a chance at a new life.
I called legendary yacht designer Bob Perry, whom I’d gotten to know through interviewing him for my podcast On the Wind. Bob has a reputation as a curmudgeon, but I found him engaging. I happen to agree with most of his curmudgeonly opinions and respect the passion with which he defends those I don’t. He accepted the job with a level of gleeful enthusiasm that made it exceedingly fun to work together.
We asked Perry to rework the interior of this Bruce Farr-designed racing yacht into a fit-for-purpose commercial cruising layout to my annoyingly specific specifications. The Farr office happily provided Perry with the original 2D CAD drawings of the boat and consulted on structural items when necessary.
“Andy sent me a long list of requirements and pdfs of the existing layout,” he explained in an update about the project. “Knowing Andy’s experience I took the list seriously.” Perry initially had doubts that the complex list of requirements was possible, that there was too much existing structure in the yacht. But it was the complexity of the task which meant Perry was the right person for the job.
Our boats need to be more reliable than an airline’s fleet of planes, with systems simple enough to be maintained by our rotating cadre of skippers and mates during brief stints in port between trips. The equipment must be durable enough to withstand the abuse of 10-15,000 ocean miles every year, and yet the yacht must feel comfortable and ‘soulful’ enough to provide the type of experience we want to give our paying crew.
The fundamental philosophy behind Falken’s systems is simplicity and redundancy. Where possible I wanted to future-proof the boat too. This translated to an electrical system designed by former Vendée Globe sailor Bruce Schwab at Ocean Planet Energy in Maine, and consulted on by systems guru Nigel Calder.
Nigel, Bruce and I based the system around old-school, mechanical breaker panel switches coupled to the latest in lithium battery tech with a nearly 1,000Ah, 24V LifePO4 battery bank by Lithionics. Each of the three batteries that make up the overall system are themselves isolated banks — were one to fail, two would remain.
The boat would be entirely DC-based, including watermaker, fridges, freezer and all electrical components, meaning a genset would be unnecessary, freeing up space in the engine compartment for a manually-operated, Spectra Cape Horn watermaker. The giant Lithionics bank is charged at sea by a Watt & Sea 600 hydrogenerator, and at anchor by two enormous engine-mounted alternators cranking out 450A of power at 24V.
While most modern cruising boats are opting for induction cooking, we deliberately stuck with propane. In doing so this both de-coupled cooking from the electrical system (meaning we can still eat a hot meal even without any electricity should that system fail), and dramatically reduced electrical consumption. We can now go nearly a week between battery charges at anchor, and can operate continuously without charging at sea thanks to the hydro, so long as there’s enough wind to sail.
We applied this logic across the entire boat. Take navigation; instead of a modern MFD chartplotter system that ties radar, AIS, charts, ship’s data etc into a single network, we de-coupled this too. A dedicated Furuno 1835 commercial-grade radar at the new Perry-designed navstation has its own screen and the ability to do full-on ARPA target tracking thanks to a satellite heading compass. A NMEA2000 network links to several 4.5in Furuno MFD displays below decks and at each helm. Electronic charts are displayed on one of three ship’s iPads running Time Zero nav software, and with a wireless NMEA2000 gateway, all data from the ship’s sensors can be displayed on any mobile device.
What we’ve created is a truly redundant Navionics suite. While we can indeed overlay AIS on the radar, for example, should one or the other fail, it won’t take the rest with it. Paper charts make up our primary passage charts while each iPad runs independently downloaded charting software in both raster and vector formats and can be updated in the local coffee shop before each passage.
The iPads also double as the ship’s computer for sat comms and weather forecasting. From their bunk, the skipper can log onto the NMEA network and see everything from wind and boat speed to engine gauges on their phones. Should the network fail completely, a GPS with its own antenna provides backup.
About midway through the refit we realised the need for a dedicated project manager working on the boat daily. I live in Sweden and was managing the refit from afar, travelling to Gosport about once every six weeks, but this wasn’t enough to stop the bottleneck of small decisions required daily by the Vortec team. We hired Adam Browne in June 2022 as ‘Ship’s Bosun,’ streamlining the communication between Vortec and 59° North, and giving me eyes on the ground. Adam works full-time for us now, and his role has since transitioned from refit project manager to ongoing maintenance manager and part-time mate at sea.
Made for sailing
When we first announced to our crew and online audience our plans to refit the Farr, several people were confused as to why we’d part ways with the warm craftsmanship of our previous ‘big boat’, the Swan 59 Icebear, in favour of the seemingly sterile fibreglass of the Farr. Even my dad, a lifetime sailor who’d been involved with our business since its inception in 2015, was worried that 59° North’s well-earned image of ‘adventure cruising’ would be negatively altered by us buying what clearly looked like a racing boat.
And yet therein lies the beauty. That Falken was designed as a racing boat on deck meant that she’d be fun and easy to sail. My taste in boats has evolved dramatically from my days as a kid sailing on my family’s distinctly cruisey ketches and my fascination with two-masted schooners, traditional tall ships and the like. While those boats remain wonderful to look at, they are often heavily compromised when it comes to actual sailing. A cruising boat design will always have to walk that line between ease of sail handling and creature comforts. Not so a racing boat. The Farr 65, being that she was designed for racing especially with an amateur crew, strikes a good balance between ease of sail handling, safety, comfort and durability of hardware.
Sail handling controls are where they should be; the cockpit is huge and filled with winches, 13 to be exact, and big ones at that. Lewmar 88 primaries are operated by a central grinding pedestal with 66s under the new dodger for halyards and reefing lines. The mainsheet attaches at the back of the boom and mainsail trim is controlled by a traveller that spans nearly the entire beam of the boat just forward of the twin helms. While the traveller and pedestal definitely get in the way at anchor — you’ve got to step around these to take a swim, for example — they are right where you want them at sea, and with an annual sailing schedule of 16-18 passages that’s where Falken will spend most of her time.
In short, on deck we didn’t change much at all. The winches were thoroughly serviced and re-mounted; two aft-mounted genoa tracks were removed since the new sail plan doesn’t include any overlapping headsails; all the hatches and portlights were removed and replaced with new; decks and coachroof got new non-skid paint; the cockpit got a heavy-duty canvas dodger at the companionway and the sole and seats were treated with closed-cell foam SeaDek non-skid. The central liferaft cradle was removed and in its place went the ‘bathtub’, an area near the transom with pressure hot water where crew have the luxury of an offshore shower courtesy of the watermaker.
Bob Perry’s patience with my ever-evolving design process paid off. The crux of the design challenge was the conflict between three elements — the need for a large but cosy communal space; a galley big enough to comfortably cook for 10-11 at sea on both tacks; and a walk-through to pass into the forward cabin. Bob drew every conceivable version of this but it wasn’t until the mock-up phase that we incorporated some ‘hanging’ cabinets to starboard.
Thanks to his attention to detail at the design phase, the interior fit-out went smoothly and the end result is in my mind an ideal cruising interior. Each crewmember who sails with us has their own dedicated space, with eight more-or-less equal sea bunks divided between the forward and aft parts of the boat. Each bunk has a reading light (with USB outlet for charging), a small canvas pocket for personal effects like headphones and glasses, a fan for the tropics and actual mattresses with real sheets and pillows. The lower fixed bunks have plywood leeboards in lieu of lee cloths for added comfort and security for sleeping when heeled, while the upper pipe bunks get cushions, a lee cloth, and the ability to adjust the angle when heeled via a block and tackle. Each crew has their own storage locker for clothing and gear too. That extra 6ft of LOA over Icebear allows for a separate dedicated sail locker in the forepeak.
Gone is the blue-painted plywood cabin sole, in its place easy-to-maintain faux teak-and-holly, with a headliner in the main saloon and white SeaDek foam to provide insulation throughout the rest of the deckhead. Sapele wood trim, chosen for its superior sustainability compared to teak, abounds around all locker openings, door facades and fiddle rails. Where hull sides are exposed on the interior, teak from old interior trim was re-milled and ‘upcycled,’ used as slats to provide a warm feel and prevent condensation. Locker openings have canvas zippers instead of fragile doors which always break at sea.
Further aft, what used to be stowage lockers abaft the engine compartment are now dedicated wet lockers big enough for all crew to hang their foulies and store boots and gloves. Hot air via two Eberspächer forced-air heaters is piped into each wet locker, guaranteeing warm and dry gear for every watch change. Bob converted the starboard head into a roomy navstation, which is both the brain of the boat and my favourite spot at sea. The Farr’s original navstation aft in the staff quarters remains, but is mostly used as a writing desk and private space for the staff to be alone with their thoughts.
The central area of the boat is now a dedicated community space for briefings and meals before heading offshore, and houses our extensive ‘ship’s library’, filled with both technical and inspirational tomes past and present, with dedicated shelf space for the Tamaya sextant. We can seat 10 around the saloon table and, since all the crew have comfortable, dedicated sea berths and nobody needs sleep on the settees, it makes for a great spot to spend off-watch hours reading or playing cards.
To starboard is Perry’s pièce de résistance, the fore-and-aft galley. We’re cooking for 10-11 on Falken, so the galley is practically a small commercial kitchen, and looks the part with stainless countertops, enormous double sinks, and an oven/range by GN-Espace large enough to accommodate full-size gastronorm 1/1 trays. In fact, these modular trays, which come in a variety of sizes, materials and depths, are designed-in throughout the galley as clever storage solutions for everything from cutlery to pantry items, olive oil, hot sauce and water bottles.
Bob designed the galley countertops to be 2in higher than standard, knowing we’d often be cooking on a heel and needing the extra height to feel secure when leaned on for support. The galley is wide enough to walk through comfortably while passing by the cook, and yet crucially narrow enough to wedge yourself in on either tack for washing up or cooking at the stove. A drawer-style day fridge gives access for the entire crew to the essentials, while a large top-loading fridge and freezer aft provide storage for the bulk of the fresh provisions.
The first 3,000 miles
“Well, Falken is a fast boat,” I noted during our first international passage from the UK to Ireland in February. “I had the first watch and after four hours of double-digit surfing I tried to get some sleep. The whine of the Watt & Sea kinda provides a narration of our speed bursts. I woke up from a shallow sleep with one particularly high-pitched whine, followed by [relief mate] Alex hooting and hollering from the helm, Falken planing down a wave face and the water rushing by my bunk. 19.9 knots (!) registered as our max STW from tonight. Okay!”
As I write Falken is in port in warmer climes, having a short rest in Las Palmas while bosun Adam performs the first weeks of routine maintenance for the year. She’s already sailed four official trips, plus our staff sea trial, covering over 3,000 miles with 32 paying crew, and we’re less than three months past her christening in Gosport. Next, my wife Mia flies out to sail with skipper Chris Kobusch on what will be Falken’s first transatlantic under the 59° North flag, bound for Antigua.
Of course there are things I might have done differently during the refit process. The biggest one is location — part of the reason we chose to have the boat refit at Vortec in Gosport was due to the timeline, but ideally having the work done closer to home would have been far easier to manage. And we’re learning that this first full year is really an extended sea trial, what with all the small items that will inevitably pop up on Adam’s maintenance list. But my overarching feeling is ‘we really nailed it.’ She might not be as sexy as the Swan 48, or as classy as the 59, but the Farr 65 ticks all the boxes. There’s not a thing about the new design of the boat or the systems we chose that I’d change.
We set out to build a most practical boat for offshore sailing and in the process have returned Falken her thoroughbred ocean-going soul.
Falken restoration costs
Purchase price: £65,000
Rig refurb &new sails: £150,000
Parts & materials: £400,000
Labour, storage, crane, lift etc: £400,000
Total sailaway cost including refit & purchase: c £1,000,000
Year built: 1999
Number built: 5
Builder: Colvic Craft, UK
Designer: Bruce Farr
LOA: 19.8m 64ft 6in
LWL: 16.9m 55ft 5in
Beam: 5.2m 17ft 0in
Draught: 3.2m 10ft 2in
Displacement: 27,500kg 60,600lb
SA/Disp ratio: 21.4
Disp/length ratio: 166
Theoretical hull speed: 9.9 knots
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