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William Fife

William Fife III OBE (1857-1944), also known as William Fife Jr., was the third generation of a family of Scottish yacht designers and builders.

Fife was born in the small village of Fairlie on the Firth of Clyde. His father and grandfather (both also named William and often referred to as Fife I and Fife II) had also been designers and boatbuilders in Fairlie. The family business operated from a yard on the beach in the village. Fife began building yachts in 1890 and soon surpassed the achievements of his father and grandfather and became known as one of the premier yacht designers of the day.

Shamrock I (Fife, 1899) & Shamrock II (Watson, 1901) As the third generation of a venerable Scottish boat building family, William Fife inherited a rich legacy but was quick to establish his own reputation as one of the top designers in the yachting world. Often dominating his chief competitors, Fife was a master of his trade who received commissions from European royalty and from clients as far away as Australia. Following on the heels of the success of his design Dragon (1888?), Fife adopted a stylized Chinese dragon as his trademark. Thereafter, those yachts that took shape on the shingle at Fairlie were known throughout the yachting world by this distinctive scrollwork.

Launching SHAMROCK III (1903) at Dunbarton, Scotland Fife designed two America's Cup yachts for grocery and tea magnate Sir Thomas Lipton who challenged for the cup a total of five times. The Fife-designed challenger Shamrock I (1899) lost to Columbia (Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, 1899) and Shamrock III (1903) lost to Reliance. After the establishment of the first International Rule in 1906, Fife became a prolific designer of meter boats, designing and building several very successful 15mR and 19mR yachts in the years leading up to the Great War. William Fife III designed a total of nine magnificent 15-Metre yachts between 1907 and 1913, which was around half the total number ever built. However, his very first 15-Metre named SHIMNA was not built at his famous Fairlie boatyard, but by Alexander Robertson and Sons Ltd (Yachtbuilders), because all Fife’s principal yacht builders were needed to work on Mr Myles B Kennedy’s new 23-Metre, WHITE HEATHER II.

Éric Tabarly, the famous French sailor, two time winner of the OSTAR and owner of the Fife design PEN DUICK (formerly Yum, 1898), writing on the designs produced by Fife during the first few decades of the century noted that: "the great designers of the period were Herreshoff, George Lennox Watson, Nicholson and William Fife. Amongst these, Fife has acquired a particular reputation thanks to the sheer artistry and balance of his designs. Furthermore, those of his designs which took shape in his yard were of unmatched construction."

While Fife established a leading reputation on the yacht racing circuit, his work also included a number of fine cruising vessels. Dr. William Collier of Fairlie Restorations in Hamble, UK, writing on Fife's work in the 1920s, noted that during this period, ”[Fife] designed and built not only smaller Metre boats but also a series of fine cruisers. This combination typified the inter-war era of the Fairlie yard. Like the schooner ALTAIR (1931), many of the cruisers echo his turn of the century designs such as Cicely (1902) or Suzanne (1906); similarly there were few fundamental differences in his ketch designs spanning this era. Perceived by some as anachronistic, these yachts were considered by many to represent some of the greatest refinements of the auxiliary cruising yacht ever achieved.” Id.

Reliance & Shamrock III (1903)The Fife yard also had a reputation for the extremely high quality of the craftsmanship of the yachts built at the yard. Today, it is thought that there are somewhat less than 100 Fife designs still in existence. Of these, there are around fifty still sailing. Of the larger vessels, the schooner Altair (1931) and the keel cutters CAMBRIA (1928), HALLOWE'N (1926), THE LADY ANNE (1912), MOONBEAN OF FIFE (1903), MOONBEAN IV (1920), MARIQUITA(1911) and TUIGA (1909) grace the classic yacht circuit in Europe. In North America, the ketchs ADVENTURESS (1924), BELLE AVENTURE (1929) and SUMURUN (1914) are located in New England waters.

Fife once said that the secret of a great yacht was that it should be both "fast and bonnie".

Fife was awarded an OBE for his work. In 2004, he was inducted into the America's Cup Hall of Fame.

Fife died in 1944, never having married and without an heir. He is buried in Largs. The yard was continued for some years after his death by his nephew, but never achieved the renown known under Fife's ownership.