The Story Behind Recluta: A resurrection by Germán Frers Jr
The Story Behind Recluta traces the tale of a 1901 Camper & Nicholsons build that ran aground in Argentina during World War II and was recently rebuilt by Germán Frers, with the 67ft wooden classic linking three generations of his family, from his father to his daughter Zelmira.
Words: John Higginson
Germán Frers Jr skippers Recluta at the 2021 Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez; his son Mani and daughter Zelmira are on board; Photo: Kurt Arrigo
When Zelmira Frers sailed with her father Germán Frers Jr on the 67ft Recluta at several Mediterranean regattas in Spain and France last autumn, it marked 120 years since the first version of the ketch was launched by Camper & Nicholsons on England’s south coast. Almost 80 years since the original Recluta ran aground during a race in Argentina in 1942, her eventual rebuild in Buenos Aires and return to competitive sailing last year linked three generations of the Frers family across eight decades.
Zelmira has captured the yacht’s story and her family’s connections with it in The Story Behind Recluta, a 200-page book launched during Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez where her 80-year-old father was skippering the restored version of a yacht his father first worked on during World War II.
Zelmira was initially unsure about her presence in her father’s boatyard; Photo: Ezequiel Diaz Ortiz
While Germán has since spoken with pride about his daughter’s first book, Zelmira admits that he was initially unsure about her presence in his boatyard as she began capturing the revival of Recluta over a three-year period.
“From the beginning I was certain this book was going to be very atypical. I wanted it to be very atmospheric, to hear sounds, voices, smells, to really communicate all what was happening in that boatyard,” said Zelmira, an architect, creative director and photographer.
Zelmira describes The Story Behind Recluta as an homage to her father; Photo: Ezequiel Diaz Ortiz
“At the beginning, I don’t think my father was comfortable with me going to record and take photographs of all the carpenters and the place. He would rather be discreet. However, I think he is happy now. In a way, this work is an homage to him.”
ENGLAND TO ARGENTINA
Launched in 1901 at the historic Gosport shipyard opposite Portsmouth, the original yacht had multiple owners of varying nationalities before arriving in Argentina in 1940. She was bought by Charlie Badaracco, who asked Germán Frers Sr (1899-1986), an engineer and self-taught yacht designer, to adapt her rigging to a Bermuda style.
Germán Frers Sr (1899-1986) founded his studio in 1925; Photo: Archivo Familia Frers
In 1942, Recluta – Spanish for recruit, as in young soldier – competed in one of Argentina’s historic ocean races, from Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata, with newspaper articles playing up expectations of the “big yacht from England”. But just past the halfway mark, a violent storm led to the yacht running aground in the shallow waters off Cape San Antonio.
The crew was able to free Recluta, but while making the manoeuvre, a crewmember fell overboard and as they turned the yacht back to rescue the sailor, she ran aground again. Badaracco salvaged what he could from the stricken yacht and the remains became a tourist attraction.
The original Recluta runs aground in the 1942 race from Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata
However, Recluta’s story hadn’t run its course. Determined to hoist her sails once more, Badaracco turned to Frers Sr to recreate the yacht adapted to his own design, using parts rescued from the original to construct what would be the largest yacht ever built in South America. Despite the initial enthusiasm, the build was continually delayed as the ravages of the Second World War led to a shortage of the required materials. Eventually, the project was suspended indefinitely. Recluta had ‘run aground’ once more.
Born on July 4, 1941 – soon after Recluta had arrived in Argentina – Germán Frers Jr followed in his father’s footsteps as a yacht designer. At 16, he created the 10m racing boat Mirage, the first built in Argentina from fibreglass.
Germán Frers Jr followed his father into yacht design; Photo: Archivo Familia Frers
In 1965, he was summoned by Olin Stephens to join the legendary Sparkman & Stephens firm in New York, where he became one of the team’s main architects. In 1970 he returned to Argentina to take over his father’s studio in Buenos Aires, later adding another in Milan, designing for Nautor’s Swan since 1981 and establishing himself as one of the world’s most acclaimed boat designers.
LINKING THE GENERATIONS
After coming across his late father’s drawings and designs for Recluta, it was Germán’s decision to rebuild the yacht that drew Zelmira to the family industry, even if only as an observer.
Germán Frers Jr beside Recluta in 2017; Photo: Zelmira Frers
“My father started working with his father at a very young age. He would go to the studio and listen to his father speak about different projects. My grandfather was a romantic, a very good storyteller and kept the coloured blueprints of Recluta hanging on the wall for many years, saying he wished he could have rebuilt it,” Zelmira says.
“One day my father had a chat with his fellow naval artisans, about his dreams and Argentina’s political condition. I think he saw the Recluta project as a way of giving the carpenters more work, to keep with the tradition, but also a way of getting closer to his father, and later to have a classic yacht to sail on with friends and family.”
Recluta in 2017; Photo: Zelmira Frers
Although the rigging and other elements were initially saved from the original yacht, over time they had been used on other boats and projects, so Germán had to start the project from scratch, buying the wood from Rosario and using Alaskan wood for the masts.
Zelmira says she was interested in documenting the build as soon as it began, visiting the boatyard with her father soon after she had completed a photography workshop in Spain with Hisao Suzuki, who writes the foreword in her book.
Germán Frers Jr with Recluta in 2018; Photo: Zelmira Frers
For three years she recorded and photographed the build, immersing herself in the working routine of her father and his team of craftsmen including the lead craftsman ‘Tito’, now in his mid-80s, as they revived woodworking skills used during the country’s golden era of yacht building.
“I realised what was happening in Argentina with those craftsmen was unique. For them and my father, maybe it was normal, very natural, but for me it was new. I had never seen construction of this kind,” said Zelmira, who has also studied photography under Aldo Bressi and Gaby Messina.
Recluta in 2019: Photo: Zelmira Frers
“I was already convinced of doing something because I found it beautiful, then my father told me what had happened with the original Recluta. There were historical articles, photographs of the wreck, the plans of my grandfather. I had a shock of adrenaline and excitement. I had to tell this story. I was moved by this desire to build something that was transmitted through generations. It was very poetic.”
Zelmira’s early multidisciplinary career reflects the artistic and creative nature of her grandparents, who include poet and writer Elvira Orphée and artist Miguel Ocampo. However, she says the Recluta project allowed her to find out a lot more about her grandfather Germán Frers Sr – whom she never met – as she read everything that he wrote about the boats he designed.
Zelmira discovered her grandfather “was a very good photographer”; Photo: Archivo Familia Frers
“I read my grandfather’s book Viajes, Diseños, Regatas (Travels, Designs, Regattas) and found a wise man with a special sense of humour. He had a particular relation with time, a particular rhythm. I think he was a slow person, but he managed to put time on his side,” she says. “I also discovered he was a very good photographer. It was nice to get to see everyday life scenes from his point of view.”
Zelmira also says the project has been a source of inspiration for her sister Mia, an artist. “Through Recluta, she has also found a way to connect with our grandfather and express through drawings and paintings all that has moved her about this story.”
Germán Frers Jr with Recluta in 2021; Photo: Zelmira Frers
While Zelmira admits she was personally drawn to the Recluta story and rebuild, enjoying how it strengthened connections to her family history, she soon realised she was capturing artisanal skills on the wane, boatbuilding skills and craftsmanship that once thrived in her country.
“The book started as a personal motivation, but I realised very soon the story was beyond me. It’s an important documentary for our naval culture, especially in Argentina,” she says. “Recluta is testimony to a thriving period in Argentina, when the marine industry was at its peak, the time of my grandfather. In this book I wanted to immortalise a small part of the beautiful history of Argentina’s nautical development and a few of its silent protagonists.”
Father and daughter on Recluta; Photo: Ezequiel Diaz Ortiz
For the book’s launch in Saint-Tropez, Zelmira was joined by her father, her brother Mani and his son Germán, and her sisters Mia and Victoria. The first edition of The Story Behind Recluta is published in both English and Spanish (A Través del Recluta) and balances photos with words.
Despite focusing on what might be perceived as a niche topic, Zelmira intended for the book to be accessible, not only to sailors but also fans of architecture and design, areas she herself has specialised in for much of her career so far, creating a wide network of friends and associates.
After arriving in Spain from Argentina in August 2021, Recluta sailed in many European regattas
As well as working with the Zen architect Paul Discoe in the USA, Zelmira co-founded the machimbre® studio (2013-2017), designed furniture and objects that exhibited at the Maison&Objet Paris 2016, and worked on branding and art direction for fashion brands.
Now a self-employed architect, she has spent much of the past few years working on The Story Behind Recluta and is delighted that it’s now in print, earning positive feedback from inside and outside sailing circles.
The Story Behind Recluta, by Zelmira Frers
“The launch of the book was long awaited and went very well. It has had a very good reception by both sailing lovers and friends who are not so involved in that world, because above all it is a design object with a very nice story,” she says.
“I’ve also tried to make it accessible, easy to read. I always imagined children reading it, so I tried to ensure it catches people’s attention and is pleasant to read. There are many photographs, but also text and dialogue that build a special atmosphere. I want it to be a very pleasant, easy experience for the reader, while at the same time I wanted to send a deep message.”
To find out more about the book or place an order, visit:
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