William Fife

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File:William Fife Portrait.jpg
William Fife III in 1903

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

File:Shamrock I & Shamrock II.jpg
Shamrock I (Fife, 1899) & Shamrock II (Watson, 1901)
File:Shamrock III.jpg
Launching Shamrock III (1903) at Dumbarton, Scotland
File:Reliance & Shamrock III.jpg
Reliance (Herreshoff) & Shamrock III (Fife) in the 1903 America's Cup races.

Fife was born in the small village of Fairlie on the Firth of Clyde. His father William Fife II (1821-1902) and grandfather William Fife I (1785-1865) 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.

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.

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 metre boats, designing and building several successful 15-Metre and 19-Metre yachts in the years leading up to the Great War. Between 1907 and 1913, William Fife III designed eight of the twenty 15mR yachts ever built, but his first 15mR 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 Myles Burton Kennedy’s new 23mR, White Heather II.

French yachtsman Éric Tabarly, two time winner of the OSTAR and owner of the Fife design Pen Duick wrote:

the great designers of the period were Herreshoff, George Lennox Watson, Charles E. 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 wrote of Fife's 1920s work:

[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 Susanne (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.

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, most notably:

  • the cruiser handicap rater Nan (1897)
  • the 36-rater Pen Duick (formerly Yum, 1898)
  • the cruiser handicap raters Moonbeam III (1903) and Moonbeam IV (1920)
  • the 15mRs Mariska (1908), Tuiga (1909) and The Lady Anne (1912)
  • the 12mR Cintra (the oldest 12mR in existence, launched 1909)
  • the 19mR Mariquita (1911)
  • the ketchs Sumurun (1914), Adventuress (1924) and Belle Aventure (1929) on the Eastern Seaboard
  • the handicap rater Hallowe'en (1926)
  • the 23mR Cambria (1928)
  • the gaff-rigged schooner Altair (1931)

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 issue. 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.


  • Franco Pace (1998-09-30). William Fife: Master of the Classic Yacht. Adlard Coles Nautical. ISBN 9780713650303. 
  • May Fife McCallum (2002-09-29). Fast and Bonnie - A History of William Fife & Son Yachtbuilders. John Donald Publishers Ltd. ISBN 9780859765664. 

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