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SUPERYACHT #505
May 2004

Article selected from our quarterly magazine dedicated to the largest and most luxurious boats with information, interviews, technical articles, images and yachting news


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Article by
Angelo Colombo

Photos by Luca Sonnino Sorisio


ORION: A CENTURY, A LEGEND

It was 1910 when the Camper & Nicholson boatyard launched "Sulvana" in Gosport (UK), a schooner destined to make history. At that time yachting was in its infancy, but the class and elegance of this lovely schooner made it stand out immediately. Built for the Spanish Royal family, it was later bought by Colonel Courteney C.E. Morgan, registered at the port of Portsmouth and obviously sailed under the British flag. Subsequently "Sulvana" was transferred to Brest and sold to another owner, who in turn resold it until it was transferred to Argentina, where remained for a long while.

 

In 1930 the schooner was once again property of a Spanish owner, who brought it to the Mediterranean, so after five names ranging from "Pais de France", through "Le Matin", "Diane" and "Vira", the schooner was finally christened "Orion". But one of the most important moments in the history of "Orion" is definitely the year 1967, when without masts and with its deck seriously damaged following an incident off Cap Creos during a close-hauled passage in difficult weather conditions, it was transferred to the port of La Spezia. This circumstance forced the architect responsible for restoring "Orion's" efficiency to redesign the sails, transforming it from a schooner with fore-and- aft rigging into one with staysails, but all this happened years before the arrival in La Spezia. The main deck was also badly damaged, and for this reason was redesigned by the architect Faggioni and then rebuilt by local labour. The new rigging included shorter masts saved by the gaff of the master spanker. Because of the important work carried out on "Orion", the interiors were also returned to their ancient splendour thanks to the passion and dedication of those involved. Suffice to think that for years the interiors had been neglected and even carelessly painted, covering up details that deserved to be highlighted and appreciated in their original state. After no less than five names and twelve owners, "Orion" is today a cult object for lovers of vintage boats, even though it has many times run the risk of ending up in the cold demolition docks and spent no fewer than four years laid up in the Le Grazie port in the province of La Spezia. It was precisely during this period that the splendid schooner was attacked by time and neglect, everything on board deteriorated or disappeared, but luckily, as in the best of fairy stories someone fell in love with this image of beauty; two brothers to be precise, who without fighting over this boat did everything they could to give her the love she so badly needed and place her back on her throne as queen of the seas, following the original plans. Naturally the work involved the whole hull structure, upper works and systems, which were obviously updated and modernised to meet modern safety canons. Thanks to the outstanding historic value and technical characteristics, "Orion" has taken part in the most important regattas dedicated to vintage maxi-yachts, like for example the Veteran Boat Rally in which it duelled with another queen, "Mariette", engaged in battles similar to those enjoyed during the America's Cup. Streamlined, elegant and highly polished, it has always stood out thanks to a capacity for decisive sailing even with light winds, her unfurled sails making the most of even the lightest breeze. "Orion's" deck displays modern electronics and electric winches, but they are the only elements that do not tell of a past that quite rightly can be defined as stormy and brimful of stories of the seas and sailors.

Since the schooner left the launching slipway in the Gosport in England with the name "Sulvana" on the transom, it has experienced moments of splendour and abandon, finally returned to its former glory and earning the nickname of "pearl of the Mediterranean". Another fundamental moment in the history of "Orion" was the work it underwent in 1998-99, when the original schooner fore-and-aft rigging was reinstated. To give our readers a better version of the adventures and characteristics of "Orion" we contacted Captain Renzo Castagna, who skippered the schooner until 2003, when "Orion" was bought by a Swiss-German owner.

Captain, can you give us a brief summary of your story on board "Orion" and your impressions of this beautiful boat?

Like all the men who have worked on board "Orion" during its long history, I feel nostalgia and affection for this boat that are difficult to put into words. I can tell you that all those that worked on her were struck by this boat, no ordinary boat, not simply a vintage boat, but one with special appeal. Her present owner has understood this and wants to restore her to exactly how she was in the beginning. Years ago the original drawings were obtained in England and the rigging was restored, because they realised that the rigging introduced during restoration in the seventies was decidedly less efficient than the original. In particular it compromised her manoeuvrability, tacking was not as easy, above all with a light wind, and for this reason we participated in meets but not in the more difficult regattas. The previous rigging had a shorter bowsprit and was a mixture of fore- and-aft and Latin rigging. This was fine for strong winds but made everything more difficult when manoeuvring with a light wind. She needed canvas up high, only in this way could she become more competitive. Over recent years, instead of only taking part in show regattas, "Orion" has participated in far more competitive regattas, in which she duelled for example with "Mariette", with many of the crew that had previously been on "Orion" on the latter boat. This situation always created great rivalry - healthy sporting rivalry. Both "Mariette" and "Orion" belonged to Italian owners and this fact increased competition too. Since last year "Orion" has been the property of a Swiss-German owner, who has taken her to a boatyard near Marseilles specially set up to renovate this schooner. Her current owner has decided to completely rebuild her based on original documentation, in the past he completed restored the famous "Rolly Go", he is a lover of this kind of work and does it very well. Even if it must be considered that in 2002 the boat was awarded a prize during a meet in Montecarlo, by old Mr. Nicholson, who said: "This is my boat, the boat my father built, I recognise her as she is now". I am sure that her current owner will manage to restore her to the splendour of 1910, the day she was launched. "Orion" is a boat that manages to cast a spell on you, those who have crewed on her talk about her always, because her seaworthiness and sailing virtues are really difficult to find elsewhere. She sails well and above all has no fear, neither from a structure nor from a waterline point of view, in fact a fully developed sea is her ideal environment. This is also due to her weight, was substantially increased after restoration with the installation of previously inexistent systems and special systems such as the steel tanks, but nevertheless it is still a very competitive boat. Even the deck plan is unique; for example the crew has the whole of the forward quarters at their disposal while the remaining three quarters of the boat are dedicated to the owner and his guests. The interiors are spacious and divided up well, large rooms where the crew does not interfere with the owner's privacy.

Captain Castagna talked to us about "Orion" with lively enthusiasm, the enthusiasm that means a lot with men of the sea, but as he himself says is difficult to explain. Those who have had the pleasure of sailing on board a ship or a yacht capable of evoking love and strong emotions know only too well how much nostalgia there is in the memory, above all if that ship has been laid up, abandoned in a corner of a port and forgotten by those who still yearn for life at sea. Luckily "Orion's" story has a happy ending and soon she will sail the Mediterranean once again, ready to welcome and other sailors and make them fall in love with her.