Your editor’s son, Barry, tells the extraordinary story of the famous racing yacht he almost came to grief on a few years ago –
The Immortal Velsheda William Lawrence Stephenson (1880–1963) started out as a humble freight clerk, but a chance meeting at Stoke on Trent railway station with the American millionaire Frank Winfield Woolworth was to change his life. Woolworth, struggling to export fine porcelain home was amazed at Stephenson’s ability to solve logistical nightmares and by-pass “red-tape”; his “can-do” attitude seemed more American (or Scottish!) than English. Several years later when Frank Woolworth set up the English offshoot (F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd) of his American retail empire he made Stephenson a director. Proving to be a dynamic leader Stephenson went on to become managing director and a major shareholder. By the 1920s he was one of Britain’s richest businessmen. But there was more to William Stephenson than just retailing; he developed a passion for competitive sailing and used his substantial wealth to pursue it to its natural limit. Eventually he would own an extraordinary yacht, the Velsheda, specially designed and custom built to his exacting specifications, that he would race, though regretably only for 3 seasons, with exceptional success. Before Velsheda he’d owned and raced “White Heather II”, a 23m “K-class”, with sail number K7, designed by William Fife and built in Scotland in 1907 for the industrialist/ yachtsman Myles Burton Kennedy, who owned her till his death in 1914. Stephenson had her converted in 1930 to the new J-class specification, greatly increasing the overall
Velsheda in 1999 – Note state of art rigging & equipment plus cockpits. (With permission and thanks © Anne T. Converse Photography, USA)
size, power, and performance, using a complicated formula to combine the three. In his endless quest for the ultimate, Stephenson asked Charles Nicholson to design him the racing machine of his dreams; she was to be the “Velsheda”; cleverly named in honour of his three daughters, Velma, Sheila, and Daphne, who as a result were never quite forgotten by history. Velsheda as she was in the 1980s Nicholson had recently – Note the traditional rigging; wooden designed his first boom & blocks, simple steering post J-Class, “Shamrock V” and no cockpits in those days. (Both for another millionaire photos reproduced with permission retailer, Sir Thomas and thanks © Beken of Cowes) Lipton, so it was
perhaps no surprise that Stephenson chose him. After Velsheda Nicholson went on to design two J-class yachts for the famous aviator and yachtsman, Sir Thomas Sopwith. All four of these yachts were built during the 1930s at the Camper and Nicholson yard in Gosport. Velsheda was to be one of the largest and sleekest pure sailing yachts of her day, yet still within the “J-class” rules so allowing her to legitimately challenge, and he hoped beat, any contender in the world. It’s not quite clear why he didn’t enter her in the America’s Cup itself, even though she was eminently suitable and indeed raced against – and often beat – most of the yachts that did. There may have been practical or logistical reasons for this. Some people speculate he worried about embarrassing his senior business associates on the other side of the Atlantic if he’d won. A more plausible explanation is that despite his own wealth he knew they had even more money to throw at it than he did and he preferred sporting competitions he could win, rather than financial ones he’d probably lose! Stephenson had White Heather II scrapped and the lead from her keel re-smelted for Velsheda. In 1933 his dream finally came true; Velsheda, sail number J-K7, was launched. He’d become the proud owner of arguably the world’s most advanced and spectacular sailing yacht; her gigantic laminated aluminium mast was easily the tallest in the world, very rare at any size in those days, together with around 10,000 square feet of sail made from terylene, then a revolutionary new material. Velsheda was an out-and-out racing machine, to be sailed only in ideal conditions. Below deck her accommodation was extremely basic with most of the space devoted instead to racing stores and equipment. Stephenson therefore also had a substantial and comfortable sea-going motor launch built, called “Bystander”, to provide support for his various racing campaigns as well as accommodation for himself and his guests.
Ronald de Waal also originally purchased By 1937 the world had changed the storm) in the more extensive “companion a classic-looking 33m motor yacht called dramatically and J-class racing was article” online at www.J-K7.com (“J-K7” of “Santa Maria”, built in 1963 by Feadship for abandoned. Velsheda, with her rigging and course being her sail number). Henry Ford II, which equipment removed, found herself in a mud By the early 1990s he had refitted and berth on the Hamble. Velsheda was once renamed “Bystander”. Nearly five decades later Terry Brabant again laid up and in Now in safe hands it seems However, he then purchased all that was left of her; by need of more than a inconceivable that the Velsheda replaced this at great then mainly just a dented metal hull. With little TLC, preferably expense in 2006 considerable initiative and daring, and to a from someone with very will ever again risk being lost at tight budget, he had her rebuilt, though still deep pockets. The first sea in a storm, and equally unlikely with a brand-new-old 42m “Bystander” to without an engine and depending completely person to attempt her that an unknown, unqualified become Velsheda’s on sail-power. She was re-launched in second rescue was a amateur like me could ever hope to latest faithful 1984 and for the next few years she Swiss resident, but he just stroll up to her in a harbour or accomplice. led an adventurous (some might say unfortunately found the Now in safe reckless and chaotic) life mainly around project too daunting and marina and be casually hired there hands it seems the shores of Britain, but sometimes also in far more expensive than and then to join her crew! inconceivable that the Mediterranean, and even Caribbean on anticipated. Eventually the Velsheda will ever occasion. as before, just her again risk being lost During this largely undocumented period bare hull remained. In at sea in a storm, and equally unlikely that of her history she was sailed by numerous this state she was purchased by Ronald de an unknown, unqualified amateur like me different skippers and crews and offered for Waal, who reputedly spent many millions could ever hope to just stroll up to her in a charters to a wide variety on her complete harbour or marina and be casually hired there of unrelated people. No no-expense-spared and then to join her crew! I do very much doubt the majority of them reconstruction, using I personally had the thrilling hope you enjoy reading the story of how I understood and loved her computer modelling, experience of sailing aboard came to sail her, together with some of my very much, but she was wind tunnels, and with her, as a very inexperienced various minor exploits both on the way out to not always as well looked Dykstra & Partners meet her and home again as my adventures after as she deserved; I Naval Architects as the and junior deckhand, for continued. personally had the thrilling primary contractor. She several days. However, I Expect to hear a great deal more about experience of sailing was once again rewas lucky to still be alive by Velsheda later this year; the yachting world aboard her, as a very launched to very great the end of the week! is buzzing as, in the build-up to the 2012 inexperienced and junior acclaim in November Olympics, a spectacular J-Class Regatta is deckhand, for several 1997. Amongst her being planned. Enthusiasts should follow links days. However, I was lucky newest vital statistics (which will be updated as more information to still be alive by the end of the week! and records in this, her third incarnation, she becomes available) on www.J-K7.com You’ll be able to read the full account of now has the world’s tallest one-piece carbon my often surprising adventures (including fibre mast.
At The Bus Station The old men sit on the benches And watch the girls go by; There is a glint that lasts a moment In every rheumy eye.
The old men sit on the benches With knarled hands that shake; They’d sooner Strip the Willow but Can hardly stay awake.
The old men sit on the benches And buses come and leave But they have journeyed backwards To a youth of make believe.
The old men sit on the benches And the sun is warm and kind. They’ve had their fun and know it And do not really mind.
The old men sit on the benches A comforting sort of rule That lets them tut tut at the rush Of kids let loose from school.
The old men sit on the benches I’ve seen them for thirty year. So now I sit in the group myself And my bus will soon appear.
The old men sit on the benches And round them the housewives talk “Aye, the ninety-nine’s coming” And “Thank goodness we dinny walk”.
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