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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In terms of sheer sea miles, the distance covered by the yacht in its first 10 years is extraordinary. Bruynzeel thought nothing of sailing from Europe to Cape Town, to Buenos Aires then to the Caribbean, to the US and back to Europe in a single year, taking in half a dozen ocean races along the way.

In 1965/66, Stormvogel took part in the Transpac, followed by the Sydney Hobart and the China Sea Race, before heading back to California for the Big Boat series in San Francisco. In her first six years alone she sailed 200,000 miles, the equivalent of sailing around the world once a year.

By 1968, Bruynzeel had already moved on and built himself a new toy: the 53ft Van de Stadt-designed Stormy, featuring a strangely incongruous clipper bow. Stormy came 3rd overall in the inaugural Cape to Rio Race in 1971, and won both line honours and overall race victory in the 1973 edition of the same race. In 1980, aged 80, Bruynzeel died on board Stormy while cruising in the Mediterranean.

Second life

Meanwhile, Stormvogel went through two owners in the 1970s before being acquired by an Italian owner in 1982. It was a relationship that was to last right up to the present day.

Stormvogel featured in the movie Dead Calm by mistake. The producers were meant to use Bruynzeel’s other boat, Stormy, but had to cross Stormvogel to reach her and decided to use the bigger yacht instead

Stormvogel’s new owner soon put the boat through her paces, sailing across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, then across the Pacific to Australia (where she featured in the classic thriller movie Dead Calm) and Indonesia, arriving in Thailand in 1987.

For the next 20 years, Stormvogel barely left south-east Asia, cruising and doing charters between Thailand, Malaysia, Bali and Singapore and competing in local races, such as the King’s Cup, the China Sea Race and the Raja Muda Regatta.

New Zealand boatbuilder Graeme Henry skippered the boat throughout the 1990s. He started the process of restoration in 1991, replacing the mast step with a solid I-beam and getting rid of the non-original bowsprit. There were ongoing repairs to the hull, particularly on the starboard bow where she was hit by a whale in the 1970s, before Stormvogel finally returned to the Med in 2007.

She joined the Panerai classic yacht circuit for two seasons – winning class in 2008 – before heading across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. For a few years she alternated between Europe and the Caribbean, under the watchful eye of skipper Ian Hulleman, including winning class at the Antigua Classics in 2013.

Opening decklights let plenty of natural light flood down below – brightwork was finished to a high standard during restoration. Photo: Nic Compton

Showing her age

It was very nearly Stormvogel’s swansong. When taken out of the water at Finike on the southeast coast of Turkey in autumn 2014, the full extent of the yacht’s deterioration became apparent. Water had worked its way between the layers of planking, rotting wood and corroding fastenings, while electro-galvanic reaction between different metals had created its own toxic miasma.

Hulleman did most of the repairs single-handedly over a period of nearly three years, before the boat was moved to Metur Yachts in Bodrum for the final fitting out and refitting of systems. The emphasis was to keep the boat as original as possible, even to the extent of designing and 3D printing stainless steel replicas of the original cupboard latches.

Stormvogel’s grand saloon table, surrounded by traditional pipecots, swinging lamp, and more modern flatscreen TV. Photo: Nic Compton

By spring 2020 the work was complete and the boat was duly relaunched – straight into the middle of a pandemic. It would be another year before she could be sailed to Valencia, in Spain, and prepared for her return to ocean racing, with Graeme Henry as Fastnet Race skipper.

Back at the Fastnet start line last August, there was no way Stormvogel would be able to repeat her original winning performance against so many much younger boats – though she did manage to shave nearly two hours off her 1961 course time, finishing in 3 days, 19 hours and 2 minutes, despite sailing a longer course.

At 60 years young, she isn’t going to retire any time soon.

Sixty years old and still going strong. Photo: Nic Compton

Stormvogel specifications

LOA: 22.70m / 74ft 6in
LOD: 22.25m / 73ft 0in
LWL: 18.08m / 59ft 4in
Beam: 4.88m / 16ft 4in
Draft: 2.82m / 9ft 3in
Sail area: 245.5m2 / 2,589ft2
Designed displacement: 31.2 tonnes


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Source: Yachting World

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