Franz Hartstein readily admits that if he had known how much money and time he would eventually be spending on restoring a classic cutter boat built in 1953, he would not have done it.

But it was love at first sight when he laid eyes on the boat in Port Klang seven years ago, despite it being in a poor, deteriorated condition.

Specifically, it was the shape of the boat that captured his heart.

The retired German gentleman had gone to the Royal Selangor Yacht Club (RSYC) to look for people to go sailing with, when he saw the boat.

“And I had been looking at classic boats on the Internet just the night before. It looked so similar to what I had been searching about so I went to check it out, and realised that it had the exact dimensions as Stormy Weather, the second fastest sailboat at that time. And you don’t see boats with such shapes anymore,” recalled Hartstein, 79, when we met at the RSYC.

“I was looking for performance and Ariel was designed as a racing boat. It didn’t win any race at that time and, surprisingly, none of the previous owners were racing people. They just considered it a beautiful work of art and a family boat,” said Hartstein, who was a drilling engineer in the oil and gas industry.

However, Ariel was badly damaged by termites, had many hollow beams, with thin wood plates glued on to mask the damage. Many frames were also broken or rotten.

Ariel was built in the exact dimensions as Stormy Weather, a famous racing sailboat.

“We could even hear the termites eating the wood when we went on board,” he added.

Hartstein bought the boat from the then owner in 2011, an Englishman who did not know how badly damaged the boat was when he bought it.

The story goes that the owner before the Englishman had found the boat in Lumut and taken it to Thailand for repairs. However, the termites were destroying the boat faster than the process of repairing it.

“Towards the end, he had some problems. I think his girlfriend died so he lost heart and just covered up parts of the boat to make a sale. Then the Englishman bought it, not knowing how bad it was.

“He wanted to take it to Indonesia for repairs but it only made it as far as Port Klang, as the boat was leaking and giving engine problems,” said Hartstein, who also spent time in Singapore, engaged in the boat building and design business.

“When I went onto the boat, I saw that it was a deathtrap and it could not be sailed. Frames were falling apart and I was afraid to even move it to another port. I could hear the frames cracking when we moved it around in Port Klang,” said Hartstein, who did an apprenticeship in a German shipyard many years ago.

Thus began a seven-year journey of painstakingly restoring Ariel, at first with help from a friend and two Sri Lankan workers, and later on, on his own.

He also made the effort to teach the workers everything he knew.

“I am very proud to say that they are now qualified carpenters. When they came to me, they did not know what an inch or a centimetre was, but when they left, they could make joints and read sketches. The top deck hatches were completely handmade by them,” said Hartstein with pride.

Total makeover

Ariel was rebuilt from the “waist” up, with the rudder and keel the only original parts which have been retained. Other parts –like the deck, bulkheads and furniture – were all removed first for the refurbishment.

The bronze floors were also removed, sanded and checked, with only two needing recast works.

Hartstein also took out the 116 bent oak frames – one by one from the inside – in order to keep the shape of the boat intact.

Ariel now features double planking of Western red cedar inside and mahogany on the outside.

“In 2014, we were ready. We had the hull and were ready to put it back in before the deck could go on top,” said Hartstein, who also designed a boat in Hong Kong called Michelangelo, described as the nicest charter boat in Hong Kong then.

But then, a fire destroyed the original teak furniture and deck hatches at the factory where they were being kept.

“So I had to start over again to build the interior but that allowed me, to some extent, to redesign the interior. I went back to the original design of the boat because some of the previous owners had made changes to it. But (that whole episode) was devastating for my pocket and for my morale,” he added with a small laugh.

Boat building is a dying craft, says Hartstein, who has experience in the boat building and design business.

In all, Hartstein spent at least three times more than his original budgeted amount, which was around RM400,000 to RM500,000.

“Building wooden boats is a dying craft. Almost nobody does it in Asia anymore,” said Hartstein, who later handbuilt the dinghy that would go onto the boat.

Ariel now sleeps seven people, and sports an antique toilet as well as a new engine and gearbox.

The stern was the most difficult part of the restoration, said Hartstein.

“Normally, I would sketch and draw (a part) out first but it was very difficult to do that with the stern. So I built it from the inside and shaped it as I went along. It’s longer than the original now, which makes the boat slimmer and 22” (56cm) longer than before.”

Did he ever feel like abandoning the project?

“No, it was a situation where I had spent the money. There were two choices – use a chainsaw to cut it up as firewood or continue building it. And once you get started, you can’t stop. It became a way of life, because every day you are doing something,” he shared, although he admitted that seven years was a bit too long to spend on it.

If he had a choice, would he do it all over again?

Hartstein plans to sail Ariel to Singapore soon.

“Yes, but not here in Malaysia. It’s difficult to get parts and supplies, everything is difficult and people cheat you with materials. It’s not the right environment,” he said, adding that places like America, Italy, southern France or Phuket would be better locations.

“So, for those who are considering doing the same thing, know what you are getting into. And know that you will spend at least three times the budget. If you don’t have the skills, don’t start.

“If I had known how much money I would be spending, I would’ve thought about it carefully. In fact, there is more bronze in this boat than I have paid for in cash and I would have made more money selling the bronze,” he quipped.

Where does he plan to go once the boat is ready?

“That’s a good question. This kind of boat should be in the Mediterranean because there are other boats like this there. Or in Antigua. But first I want to sail it around here for a while, maybe to Singapore,” he said.

Wherever it is, Ariel deserves to return to her full glory and show off what she is capable of.

All about Ariel

Ariel is a 52ft (15.85m) long by 12’ 8” (3.85m) wide cutter boat named after the old clipper ship which had come close to winning The Great Tea Race of 1866.

Designed by Hugh Angelman – known as “The Grand Old Man of Pacific Yachting”, who built and designed boats for more than 50 years – and co-designer Charles Davies, Ariel was built at C.E. Chapman’s yard in Costa Mesa, California.

Angelman based Ariel’s design on Sparkman & Stephens’ Stormy Weather but shortened the stern in his version.

Launched in February 1953, the 16-tonne boat entered the Transpacific Yacht Race in June but did not win.

Ariel changed hands five times, and was based in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In 1990, Ariel made its way to the Marquesas Islands, then Kota Kinabalu, on to Australia, and then back to Kota Kinabalu. Slowly deteriorating, she was found in Lumut, nearly at the end of her usefulness, in 2000.

An Englishman based in Indonesia took over after a surveyor’s report said, “Limited work required and US$10,000 (RM41,415) will get you sailing.” His plan was to get her repaired in Indonesia but he made it as far as the Royal Selangor Yacht Club in Port Klang, where German retiree Franz Hartstein bought it over in 2011, subsequently spending seven years to refurbish it, despite it being heavily termite-infested.