The Beauty of Old Boats

SLIDESHOW: The Wing Sing and Way Foong boats have both had the benefit of sumptious restorations.

Two Hong Kong boat owners on their vintage renovations.

For Charmaine Zeman, renovating the boat Way Foong was a journey of discovery, peeling back, layer by layer, 90 years of nautical history.

“When we started gutting the boat we uncovered beautiful old features,” says Zeman, who purchased the 1930s Hong Kong steam launch in 2006. “For example, all the brass fittings, even the portholes, had been painted white, probably to make less work for the crew in its former life,” she laughs. “When I lifted up the carpet on the stairs I found beautiful wooden floors underneath, which we polished and made a feature of.”

Zeman, based in Hong Kong, has a passion for refitting beautiful boats and has built two from scratch. “What I love about designing boats is that the possibilities are not unlimited. There’s a hull and you can’t go beyond it, and you have to utilise every square inch.” Usually, she says, her style is modern, but the Way Foong was her first historical project. It took her about six months from start to finish. “It was a challenge and very exciting.”

Before Zeman, the Way Foong belonged to HSBC bank for 80 years, originally used as a vessel to carry gold and silver bullion to and from ships moored in Victoria Harbour. It would occasionally burn out-of-circulation bank notes in its furnaces. For many Hong Kongers, it holds a special place in their memories. “Way Foong used to take senior HSBC staff and their families for outings. My friend John Bond, now chairman of HSBC, remembers going on it as a child. There is a diving board stored on the top deck that you can assemble; he remembers jumping off it!”

There was originally no galley on the boat, even though at 70ft, she is ideal for entertaining. Zeman, a passionate hostess, installed two fridges, a microwave, a two-burner electric hob and “a farmhouse-style sink” that she came across on Lockhart Road. The vintage tableware and crockery was sourced personally by Zeman from markets and she tracked down engraved crystal wine glasses through the purchaser for The China Club. Now, Way Foong makes for a very comfortable candle-lit cocktail or a dinner party with 14 guests and a crew of three.

Way Foong is being let out for charter through luxury yacht broker Northrop & Johnson. Anthony Rendall at Northrop & Johnson says he has seen an uptick in demand for chartering “luxury boats that are a bit different”. Rendall adds: “We’ve just added a new category to Asia’s booming charter market: elegant, classic yachts never chartered before, which make for an exclusive experience.”

It makes a lot of sense for the owners, too, he says. “With the costs of wooden yacht maintenance rocketing — as there is only a handful of qualified marine carpenters left in in Hong Kong — this charter proposition will help them pay their bills.” The price to charter one of these boats, moored in Aberdeen Marina, is HK$26,500 (US$3,400) per day, excluding catering.

Shannon Hellmann is a Canadian-Hong Kong businessman who shares a passion for old boats. Together with his brother he owns the Wing Sing, a three-masted Chinese sailing junk, also chartered by Northop & Johnson.

“Our dad was in the navy and we grew up living by a lake, so a love of the water is in our blood,” says Hellmann. “We used to have five boats but now we have two. We also used to live aboard a boat in Aberdeen Harbour in Hong Kong.”

It was during that time that Hellmann first laid eyes on Wing Sing, which was moored close by. “I got to know the owner and I found out he was selling it in 2009. We had a few beers and he agreed to let me buy it.”

Hellmann says: “She’s a bit different from anything else you will see in Hong Kong. The thing I liked about her was the standing room; you don’t have to crouch down. Some of the ceilings are 13ft high, and, for example, the shower feels like a regular shower in an apartment.”

He recalls that when the brothers first acquired the boat there was much to be done. “The mast had totally rotted through, you could slip a butter knife through it.” Hellmann and his brother researched where to buy tall ship masts and eventually sourced one in the UK. “But we erred on the side of caution and kept the mast a bit shorter than the original.” As well as the UK, the new and replacement parts came from 12 different countries, including lights from Maine; wood blocks from Poland; fittings from Seattle; and sails and wood from all over Asia.

At 53ft with three decks, and three en-suite cabins, the Wing Sing has plenty of room for entertaining and cruising. Three fully operational lugsails create quite an entrance. “We are proud of her; she gets a bit of attention.”

From when they bought her in 2012 it took them two years to complete the overhaul of the boat, with all the structural work and the addition of a freezer, dual generators, hot water, a Nespresso coffee machine and other mod cons so they could do overnight trips to remote islands. “We love to take the kids to Double Haven up in the New Territories, spend the night and wake up a bit off the beaten track.”

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