Extraordinary boats: Stormvogel, the original Maxi yacht

Stormvogel is known as the ‘original’ Maxi, the first large, lightweight racing yacht of its type, and still racing competitively. Nic Compton looks at her history and rebirth

Last year’s Rolex Fastnet Race got off to a dramatic start, with over 30 knots of wind blasting through the fleet of 330 yachts lined up on the Solent. Not all the competitors were up to the rigours of such a full-on start, with 79 boats retiring in the first 24 hours. But one yacht truly in her element was the 74ft ketch Stormvogel. Despite being 60 years of age, the old warhorse not only took the near-gale conditions in her stride but finished a very respectable 6th in class and 7th in IRC overall.

It was an impressive performance by the yacht often described as ‘the first Maxi’, due to her radical lightweight construction, and marked a welcome return to northern Europe racing for the yacht after an absence of more than 30 years.

“We had a good strong wind at the start, which suited Stormvogel,” said skipper Graeme Henry. “We were pushing 100%, and didn’t take our foot off the pedal. It was a hard slog to start with, but she took the punishment and stood up to it. The fact she can finish up there with the modern boats shows what a remarkable boat she is.”

By the time he commissioned Stormvogel in 1959, Dutch wood merchant Cornelis ‘Kees’ Bruynzeel had already won the Fastnet Race: overall in 1937 on his traditionally-built Sparkman & Stephens yawl Zeearend and a class victory in 1952 on his plywood Van de Stadt sloop Zeervalk.

He had proven the suitability of plywood in building small and medium sized sailboats but, ever-ambitious, wanted to go a step further and build the biggest yacht allowed in ocean races: up to 70ft.

Stormvogel at the start of the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race. Photo: Rolex/Kurt Arrigo

A risky proposition

As the Van de Stadt office was apparently too busy to take on the commission, Bruynzeel asked Olin Stephens, but he was unwilling to risk his reputation on such an outlandish project. Instead, Bruynzeel approached a designer who was not afraid to take risks: Laurent Giles, who had drawn the radical Myth of Malham for John Illingworth.

Giles willingly took on the project. Somewhere along the line Illingworth was persuaded to sketch a design too. But when Bruynzeel showed the two designs to Van de Stadt he was unimpressed and agreed to draw preliminary sketches of his own design.

Faced with three different approaches, Bruynzeel had models made of all three designs and had them tank tested at Southampton University. The Van de Stadt design came out the best and was duly selected.

However, the method of construction, using a laminated skin on fore and aft stringers, was similar to that pioneered by Myth of Malham, so Laurent Giles was engaged to draw the construction plans. To complete the illustrious team, Illingworth agreed to design the yacht’s rig. Construction would be by Bruynzeel’s own company Lamtico, in Stellenbosch, South Africa, which had ample expertise in laminating timber – even if it lacked big boatbuilding experience.

Displaying an impressive full set of sails early in her racing career. Photo: Stormvogel Archive

The new design was built of four layers of Khaya mahogany: the inner and outer running fore and aft and the two middle layers in opposite diagonals. The planks were glued together with Resorcinol, which was the standard glue for laminating timber at that time.

Full length stringers complete with lightweight frames and bulkheads completed the aircraft-like hull construction. The deck and coamings were made of plywood and foam sandwich to produce a rigid, lightweight structure which was integral to the boat’s overall strength.

Stormvogel was built in just 10 months – a remarkable achievement working with such an improvised set-up. She was launched in April 1961 and, after brief sea trials, set off for England. Gordon Webb was the boat’s first skipper and he sailed her up to the UK with a crew of 13, including Bruynzeel. They completed the 7,660-mile voyage, via Saint Helena, Ascension Island and the Azores, in 51 days, averaging a very respectable 7.6 knots.

Launch day for Stormvogel at Cape Town in 1961. Photo: Stormvogel Archive

Fastnet 1961

Stormvogel’s navigator for the Fastnet Race was none other than Francis Chichester – not yet Sir Francis – fresh from winning the first OSTAR on Gipsy Moth III but yet to sail around the world on Gipsy Moth IV.

Stormvogel got off to a cracking start, leading the fleet out of the Solent, but was set back when her mainsail halyard broke and she was forced to pull into the lee of land to fit a new one. There followed a navigational disagreement between Bruynzeel and Chichester, in which Bruynzeel got his way but Chichester was ultimately proven right, costing them four hours of tacking across the Irish Sea.

Despite this, Stormvogel caught and overtook the rest of the fleet, being the first boat to round the Rock and, a day or so later, the first boat over the line in a time of 3 days, 20 hours and 58 minutes.

Her achievements won Bruynzeel both the Elizabeth McCaw Trophy (first around Fastnet Rock) and the Erivale Cup (first yacht home). Their final position was reduced to 6th on handicap, however, with another Dutch sailor, WNH Van Der Vorm, winning overall on a traditional S&S long-keeler, Zwerver II.

John Illingworth designed Stormvogel’s rig. Photo: Nic Compton

That first race set the pattern for the first 10 years of her career, as Stormvogel swept over the finish line first in race after race, only to be knocked back on handicap. It was the same story in the 1962 Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro Race, the 1963 Shaw Race, the 1964 Newport-Bermuda Race, the 1965 Sydney Hobart Race, the 1966 China Sea Race, the 1967 Transpac, and the Middle Sea Race in 1968 and 69 – to name a few.

But as Van de Stadt said: “Bruynzeel didn’t care much about the handicap, he just wanted to be the first to arrive and the final ranking didn’t matter to him.”

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