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Spotlight – Mah Jong

Mah Jong is a 52ft 2in Bermudian Yawl made largely from teak. Originally built in 1957, the boat was designed by Sparkman & Stephens at the renowned Cheoy Lee Shipyard in Hong Kong.

Now widely appreciated for her design and build quality, the classic yacht was relaunched in 2017 following a meticulous restoration project. The level of commitment required for the rebuild is often celebrated in the industry. Classic Boat Magazine recognised the preservation work by awarding Mah Jong with Best Restoration Over 40’ in 2018. In the same year, she came top in her field at the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta.

Since being given a new lease of life, Mah Jong is enjoying sailing adventures once again. She now regularly participates in yacht regattas and charters around the world.

Mah Jong classic racing yacht

A colourful history

Mah Jong was the brainchild of a group of student friends from the USA. Having all just graduated from college, Hovey Freeman, Mike Merle-Smith and Gilbert M Grosvenor pulled together resources to commission the project. Despite selecting Olin Stephens – one of the best designers of the period and finest boat building materials available – Mah Jong was built on a tight budget. At a cost of $30,000 USD the build was completed in just six months. The finished result was a yawl that was built to race and withstand all weather, with large and robust features consisting of a deep-draught and tall rig.

The name Mah Jong derived from the Cantonese game of chance, which seemed highly appropriate at the time considering the adventurous and hopeful nature of the project.

mah jong 1957 plaque

Shakedown Cruise

Following the build, Mah Jong embarked on a shakedown trip that lasted 10 months and covered a total of 15,000 miles. The crew was made up of owners and family members, all were all relatively young and inexperienced. They sailed from Hong Kong to Manila, and through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean. The trip included two months exploring the Greek Islands, and was featured in a 1958 edition of The National Geographic.

After the cruise, Mah Jong returned to the United States and went on to compete in the 1958 Newport to Bermuda Race. At this point the owners’ dreams of sailing around the world had been fulfilled they decided to pursue the careers they had studied for, and Mah Yong was sold.

New ownership

Having spent 25 years at Mystic Seaport – the largest maritime museum in the United States went, through a number of owners and spent the majority of the intervening years before it’s restoration drying out on a beach on the Caribbean Island of Virgin Gorda. The boat was in need of the right new owner to come along and save it.


Despite the deterioration of the boat, current owner Pat Ilderton could see the value of the original quality of build and materials used. Gannon & Benjamin boat builders shared the same vision and together embarked on a painstaking restoration. A project which remained true to the original design conception, similar to the attention to detail that could be found in the interior carvings by Chinese craftsmen. Nothing from the dismantled original build was wasted – the Bermese teak which is irreplaceable now was all recycled and used again.  When it was time to relaunch Mah Jong headed straight for success at the Wooden Boat Show at Mystic Seaport and the Vineyard Cup.

Mah Jong restoration plans

Regatta Ready

Today Mah Jong sails frequently, both chartering and competition. This is a fine example of a classic yacht that still sails today providing unforgettable experiences for its crew and guests. Each time she sails, the crew develop more ideas for adjustments and modifications, making this an ongoing labour of love. The fine craftsmanship and performance values make Mah Jong worth spotlighting as of one of our favourite examples of classic yachts.

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