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Boat Conversion from a Fishing Vessel to a Yacht

Charmed Life

Converted yacht "Radient Star"

After her providential conversion to a salty, globetrotting yacht, a noble old Scottish fishing vessel encounters another spot of luck. Maybe.

Back in 1993, Alan Buchan was a 61-year-old middle-ager, although the circumnavigation he’d completed a few years before had hardly diminished his youthfully buoyant seafaring spirit. Standing on a long, work-worn commercial pier, he grimaced, then turned up his coat’s collar. It was mid-November and blowing half a gale—a not uncommon happenstance for Scalloway, a little fishing town in the Shetland Islands, a far-flung Scottish archipelago with a distinctly Scandinavian climate. He felt expectant that morning but tired—he’d just come all the way from Aberdeen on the overnight ferry, some 230 nautical miles, and the ride had been slow and rough. 

The Buchans onboard Radiant Star upon arrival in Anacortes, Washington

Like most seafarers, Buchan was a rover. And he’d been traveling the coasts of Scotland for months now, staying in small inns and hotels, poring over the classified ads in Fisherman’s News, examining one old commercial fishing vessel after another, and then moving on, always disappointed but ever hopeful. Because he was an American (albeit of Scottish descent) whose family was famously associated with a solidly terrestrial bread-baking business in Seattle, his quest to turn an old Scottish workboat into an oceangoing yacht seemed a bit strange to those he met along the way.

“A dinna understan’ yeh at first,” a broker had chided him at one point. “But noo ah see yoo’re serioous, man. Serioous!”

Radiant Star’s new, replanked foredeck

At 10 o ’clock, the two fishing boats Buchan had been waiting for ghosted into the harbor. Each was a herring drifter, a hardy sort of watercraft typically built of wood at the time and designed to prosper in the infamously wicked weather of the North Sea. The first—Orion—seemed nicely proportioned and adequately maintained, at least when viewed from afar. Buchan liked her well enough. But the second—Radiant Star—put a lump in his throat. She had a soulful something he connected with immediately, as well as an absolutely spectacular sheer line. Moreover, according to local reports, she’d been built by the J&G Forbes yard 37 years earlier in Fraserburgh, the town his Scottish father had immigrated to America from in 1903. Her fish hold was jammed with bins of white fish and ice when he went aboard, but he quickly decided the dark, dank space—as well as Radiant Star herself—would suit his purposes perfectly. “Oh yes,” he chortled, “I can make a condominium of this!”

The decision was a providential one. Had Buchan not purchased the old drifter on a handshake that afternoon, she’d have gone to the wreckers within months, her rock-solid Norwegian oak timbers and larch planking to be sliced to smithereens by crews with chainsaws. Indeed, on that particular day in 1993, literally hundreds of Scottish trawlers and drifters had already been hacked to death by the British government, under intense pressure from the European Union to boost dwindling North Sea fish stocks by purchasing commercial fishing boats and then destroying them.

Buchan purchases lead pigs for ballast in Buenos Aires.

Buchan got to work. Making his new charge ready for an 18,000-nautical-mile voyage from Scotland’s coast to Skyline Marina in Anacortes, Washington, by way of Cape Horn, was likely to take several months, he surmised. And there were some major projects that needed doing, among them: removing all winches, power blocks, and other fishing gear; replacing the rusty steel wheelhouse with a brand-new aluminum version; installing three temporary, range-extending fuel tanks (extracted from less fortunate, chainsaw-destined sister ships); adding a Kolstrand hydraulic windlass and Forfjord anchor; and building a stout, seaworthy aluminum skiff with a Perkins diesel to serve as a ship’s tender. Nevertheless, Buchan and Radiant Star (along with a couple of friends for crew) took departure right on schedule, in mid-July of the following year.  

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.