Sonny was tied up at the end of the dock and she is a boat that immediately catches the attention. Long lissom lines are so easy on the eye that she can literally hold your gaze. Her sharp stern ends in a nonchalant little kick, and you can imagine even short aggressive seas finding it impossible to climb aboard and poop her while her lines leave just a few whiskers of wake.
I’d made a note to go for a closer look and when I do, I find Germán aboard and with some time to talk to CB about this special boat. “She sailed over here in 40 days, leaving the River Plate on 6 June,” he explains. “I could not sail over, some crew brought her but I plan to be here for this regatta and Cannes [Régates Royales] and then St Tropez [Les Voiles]. I am here with a crew from home and we are nine aboard for the regattas. Sonny was relaunched in 2011 so we have had two seasons sailing in our home waters before coming to the classics here. This is Sonny’s first time away from Argentine waters and there are now three Frers boats here this season – Vagabundo II is joined by the 1942 52ft (15.9m) Horizonte, another ketch based in Buenos Aires before coming to Europe. She was also sailed by my father… It’s the first time Germán Frers boats will be together at these regattas and both Vagabundo II and Horizonte are very fast yachts,” Germán says, gallantly playing down his chances with Sonny.
We get talking about the restoration – she is like a new boat now – and her history; she was always called Sonny, and her influence owes a nod to the drawings and legendary sea boats of Colin Archer…
“Sonny was designed by my father and she was also built by him and his business partner, a cousin who was Che Guevara’s father in a boatyard in Buenos Aires,” Germán explains with quite an impressive introduction concerning the Marxist revolutionary and Cuban exile from those tortured times in Argentina. “She was built for a man called Figueroa Alcorta, a real sailor who wanted a double-ender, and my father had already drawn several Colin Archer types, so he drew her canoe stern for him. She was built of South American timbers – cedro [a mahogany type], algarrobo frames and viraro bulwarks; she has an all new deck and coachroof.
“To save some money, Guevara used iron ballast for the keel so she was very tender at first. My father drew her lines for a lead keel, but he wasn’t there when the boat was being finished and they made her keel in iron. He was not happy with the boat and he took her back and changed the keel and after that she performed very well – he sailed her for two years in local offshore races.
“After the war there was a shortage of boats to use for fishing in that area and so people were converting boats to fish and Sonny was one of those converted with a much larger engine and a smaller rig.” It seems the boat was forgotten; in revolutionary Argentina times were tough, although the young Germán was designing yachts when he was still at school, drawing a 32ft (9.8m) yacht for offshore racing when he was just 16. She was the first glassfibre boat built in Argentina in 1957.
Within a few years, in 1965, his career took him to New York, at first designing in the Sparkman & Stephens office and then on his own before returning to Buenos Aires to take over his father’s design office in 1970. “I found 600 designs when I took over,” he says with pride. “And my father was 28 before he started sailing. Before that he’d raced cars and motorbikes – he even designed and built his own cars, and when he got into yacht design he followed Colin Archer designs.
“Most boats in Argentina at that time had been built in Europe but he created an industry that was already quite well developed after the war but went into decline with the Perón administration [from 1946 to 1955]. “He would be so happy to see us and the boat here, and this was one of the reasons I restored Sonny – although I seem to have a habit of restoring boats!
I have restored four or five of them now and I still have a Charles Nicholson 8-M from 1909, which is lying in Santo Stefano in Italy – she might be my last restoration!
“I particularly like working with artisans and I like maintaining and conserving things, especially anything from family ancestors to preserve family history. Sonny was restored by Alberto Szyjka of Astillero Naval Szyjka in San Fernando, in Buenos Aires. A friend found her in 2006 in Quilmes south of Buenos Aires. She was just a hull with no deck or stem. I did the lofting and made moulds from inside the boat to get control of her shape. I used my father’s drawings to rebuild her mast and other fittings. She had wrought iron floors throughout, which were mostly good – we re-galvanised them. We replaced with grown frames on 24in (61cm) centres, with two steamed frames between each one as she was done originally.”
Photos on Szyjka’s website (astilleroszyjka.com) show the work done to bring Sonny back to life. The approach was to recreate her as she was, but with some touches of modernity where it does not detract. So she has a ply sub-deck overlaid with teak, and a large wheel to relay every nuance of the rudder to the helm.
“We did a lot of work ourselves. We even cast our own bronze hinges,” Germán affirms as we sit in Sonny’s spartan saloon looking at her lines on the table – which incidentally lifts up to reveal her engine –a Yanmar 50hp, with a quarter-mounted propeller.
“We relaunched in 2011 and it’s an emotional thing to finally sail my father’s design. For years boats like this were abandoned as people went for more modern designs and materials like glassfibre, but now it’s coming back and I think that is because the sport has become so professional, but there is also something very warm and pleasant about a wooden boat. Wood is one of those materials that people just feel good about.