William Fife

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For those of a similar name, see William Fife (disambiguation).
William Fife, Jr.
William Fife Portrait.jpg
Fife in 1903
Born (1857-06-15)June 15, 1857
Fairlie, Scotland
Died August 11, 1944(1944-08-11) (aged 87)
Fairlie, Scotland
Other names William Fife, Jr.
Moonbeam III (1903) pictured in 2008
Shamrock III (1903) launched in Dumbarton
Reliance (Herreshoff) & Shamrock III (Fife) in the 1903 America's Cup races
Youla, a 26-foot cutter designed by William Fife, was built by Reuben Harlow in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada

William Fife, Jr. (also known as William Fife III) OBE (15 June 1857 – 11 August 1944) was the third generation of a family of Scottish yacht designers and builders.[1]


Fife was born in Fairlie, North Ayrshire on the Firth of Clyde.[1] His father William Fife, Sr. (1821–1902) and grandfather William Fyfe (1785–1865) had also been designers and boat builders in Fairlie. The family business operated from a shipyard 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, Jr. 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 Kennedy’s new 23mR, White Heather II.

Fife died on August 11, 1944 at the age of 87 in Fairlie, North Ayrshire.[1] He never married or had children. He was 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.


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

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:


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:

  • cruiser handicap rater Nan (1897)
  • 36-rater Pen Duick (formerly Yum, 1898)
  • 21-rater Mignon (1898), sisterships Pierette and Yvette (1899)[2]
  • cruiser handicap raters Moonbeam III (1903) and Moonbeam IV (1920)
  • 15mRs Mariska (1908), Hispania (1909), Tuiga (1909) and The Lady Anne (1912)
  • 12mR Cintra (the oldest 12mR in existence, launched 1909)
  • 8mR "Lucky Girl" (launched 1909)
  • 19mR Mariquita (1911)
  • ketchs Sumurun (1914), Adventuress (1924) and Belle Aventure (1929) on the Eastern Seaboard
  • handicap rater Hallowe'en (1926)
  • 23mR Cambria (1928)
  • 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.

Selected historic yachts[edit]

  • Torch (15-ton cutter, William Fife, Sr. design, 1864)
  • Kilmeney (30-ton cutter, William Fife, Sr. design, 1864)
  • Fiona (80-ton cutter dubbed the Fawn of Fairlie, William Fife, Sr. design, 1865)
  • Neptune (50-ton cutter, later a yawl, William Fife, Sr. design, 1875)
  • Erycina (96-ton cutter, later a yawl, William Fife, Sr. design, 1882)
  • Ulidia (10-tonner, William Fife, Jr. design, 1883)
  • Thalia (40-rater, William Fife, Jr. design, 1891)
  • Calluna (first-class rater, William Fife, Jr. design, 1893)
  • Pen Duick (36-rater, William Fife, Jr. design, 1898)

Selected Yachts for Irish owners[edit]

  • Achilla (3 ton lugger) William Fife, Jr. 1889.
  • Corsair (16 ton cutter) William Fife, Sr. 1859.
  • Darthula (9 ton) William Fife, Jr. 1898.
  • Elva (5 ton lugger) William Fife, Jr. 1894.
  • Gew Gaw (2 ton) William Fife, Jr. 1891.
  • Lilac (6 ton cutter / yawl) William Fife, Jr. 1879.
  • Nansheen (3 ton) William Fife, Jr. 1892.
  • Nepenthe (9 ton) William Fife, Jr. 1898.
  • Vill-u-An (6 ton lugger) William Fife, Jr. 1896.
  • Whisper (6 ton) William Fife, Jr.



  1. ^ a b c "William Fife, 88, Yacht Designer. Creator of Racing Shamrocks for Lipton Dies. Drew Up Plans for Clyde Cutters". New York Times. August 12, 1944. Retrieved 2015-09-01. William Fife of Fairlie, Ayrshire, who designed many racing yachts, including several of the famous Shamrocks for the late Sir Thomas Lipton, died today at the age of 88. ... 
  2. ^ William Collier and part-owner Bob Fisher both suspect that the Mignon, whose lines closely resemble that of the America's Cup challenger Shamrock I served as a performance testbed for the larger yacht.
  3. ^ Lloyds Register of Ships 1899

Further reading[edit]

  • Franco Pace (1998-09-30). William Fife: Master of the Classic Yacht. Adlard Coles Nautical. ISBN 978-0-7136-5030-3. 
  • May Fife McCallum (2002-09-29). Fast and Bonnie - A History of William Fife & Son Yachtbuilders. John Donald Publishers Ltd. ISBN 978-0-85976-566-4. 

External links[edit]