Sell wot you got, not wot you ain’t got…

Richard Pierce

Sell what we’ve got….not what we’ve not got!  I was stopped in my tracks when I heard this clear order from the production manager to the marketing department of the competent manufacturing company I worked for in my early 20’s. And the absolute wisdom of those words has rung in my ears ever since a project I embarked on in the early 1990’s.

The mantra works in a number of ways, but fundamentally it says deal with certainties, not possibilities. 

In the early days of my own boatbuilding business we had few orders, but it was immediately clear to me I should use my time to produce boats, solid products that had a value that could, sooner or later be realized. If a day passed with no product,  a day was lost that could never be regained. We duely started to turn a profit.

Without a sample available, winning a customer is much more difficult, so a substantial part of each day was spent creating new boats. For the first few months these were capitalized by a bank loan of £500, sufficient to cover the material costs of 4 small dinghies in those days. Within 6 months the loan was repaid, and we never used credit again, preferring to re-invest the proceeds of sales in more tools and materials.

After 10 years trading this model was providing a steady if unremarkable income for a few faithful helpers and me. A flow of orders flowed from the distinguished house-style of our product, which was clearly different from anything  anyone within hundreds of miles of our sales pitch was offering. We were building beautiful race-winning yachts.

Freedom 2 cockpit

Then the catastrophe happened. I was lured into a contract to build two racing yachts, just a little larger than those we had been turning out regularly for a few years. Armed with hundreds of photographs and drawings of  typical and contemporary 5-5metre class (34ftLOA) racing yachts I gave a fixed price, and set to work.

CAD machine printing was a new innovation at that time, and in lieu of a  bulky envelope of sweet smelling dye-line construction  drawings, the first package from the designer was a roll of drawing plastic showing the sections, neatly and accurately printed full size, followed by many feet of fax. Precise in some ways, but not a firm base for a contract I later realized….

Time being of the essence (the yachts were to be delivered six months hence to Norway for the World Championships) we set to with little other than a small scale profile drawing showing the station locations and the luxurious, full size, planking-reduced sections to work from. To save time and money the designer’s proposal was that we would remove the decks and cockpit soles from 2 old 5.5’s and install them ready fitted out to the new hulls and keels.  Retaining the old sailnumbers would also avoid the substantial payment of a building fee to the IYRU, an organization to which one of my customers was a past chairman!

Deck Transplant 2

The new hull building proceeded apace, with slight delays occuring with the delivery of the designer-specified non woven tri’axial glass cloth, a material I had no previous experience with. (In the event this material needed so much epoxy to fill its interstacies its doubtful it was, in practice, any better than a conventional flat weave low-crimp cloth).

Epoxy Glass Layup

John B- Salamander- Bulb

At this point line drawings for a bulb keel arrived… at the last possible moment, with some further details later by fax. A pattern had to be built and delivered to the lead keel foundry, Henry Irons in Cornwall some 388 miles distant. The shape was significantly more complex than anything seen in the 5.5 class before, and so the pattern took twice as long to make.  Apart from superior hydrodynamics the designer was aiming to place the CG lower than conventional, which meant that a hollow stub keel had to be built into the hull.

Keel Well

The fabrication and installation of these elements took way longer than the usual 5.5 arrangement (which was simply to bolt a fin onto a flat on the bottom of the canoe body using big washers and ten or a dozen bolts ready cast into the keel). Apart from the enhanced difficulty of ensuring perfect alignment, many hours of extra manufacturing were involved in this ‘new’ layout.

Keel - Spacer

Did I mention a call from the foundry? The lead castings turned out significantly heavier than designed, and so had to have the top 4″ removed, to be replaced by deadwood. Another small job in itself that multiplied the time needed to fit the keel. At this point I had to move the yacht hulls to other premises with the benefit of an overhead crane… the finished & painted hulls could not be simply lifted onto their completed fins standing on a trailer. This also complicated the painting  process… each boat took 8 hours of almost continuous paint spraying.  I climbed on and off 2ft high benches to reach from deck edge to keel sole, round the boat 6 times. Painting just a hull or keel is very easy by comparison.

Fitting the keels did not bring the job to completion… another first for these yachts was the inculsion of a trim tab. As all yachtbuilders know, fitting, fairing, flapping and pivoting a tab or rudder to the trailing edge of a keel is a highly skilled job. The final sting in the tail was a call for existing rudders to be modified. These would be extended in depth to almost the full draft of the yachts, with a modified foil section. Sometimes its easier to start from new!

Tab Bearing - Rudder

Further delays were encountered when special chainplates had to be manufactured… the fabricators did a great and prompt job, but I was frustrated that the drawings were not available at the outset of the contract. Off-the-shelf parts also caused frustration… specified stock rudder bearings from an American manufacturer with a UK agent arrived only after much chasing on the telephone. What a waste of time. At a late stage new masts from an untested alloy were specified, and when the tubes were drawn they proved almost impossible to drill to mount fittings!  Fortunately this was outside the scope of my contract.

In the last month before delivery another insideous, unforseen factor grew out of control. With time slipping away one owner started to call on their newly invented mobile phones, not just once but many times a day, each time with another good idea. I estimate I took over150 calls, 75 hours, during that last month, with no positive benefit to the yachts.

Loading for Norway

Even loading a yacht on a trailer into a container sounds simple… in the event it would have been easier to tow the yachts to Norway behind the trusty Scimitar!

I learned very painfully that I should always keep a diary of additions and variations to contract, however insignificant they might appear at the time. In this instance each variation from the conventional seemed almost trivial, but collectively they would have been my downfall had it not been for other trade. From that time onwards, customers were welcome at the yard after 4 on Friday afternoon to inspect progress, meet or phone to agree variations to the contract. All other time was ringfenced for constuction.

The ability to build a beautiful boat is not sufficient to ensure a fruitful future in boatbuilding. Skills in sales, estimating, accounting, purchasing, man management, planning, contracting and transport are equally important elements; ignore any one at your peril.

Final Details

Sell what you’ve got…. this does not necessarily have to be something you have completed, it could be a skill or experience you have already acquired, but  whatever, it should be something of which you are in complete control of every last detail, from drawing to finished specification. Something you have in stock.  The most reliable sub-contractors will sometimes be unable to deliver, but then its your head on the block, not theirs.

Happily 20 years on, the yachts have new owners, are re-named and sailing in the Netherlands :

Rob Smolders 5 no 2

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The Inverse Length Rule of Boat Ownership….

The Victorians, those pioneers of yachting, held that the length of one’s boat (in feet) should equate to one’s age in years.


When my daughter Anna, seen as crew above, was born her feet were about 1/4 of a foot long. She arrived in this world two weeks later than predicted, during which time I built her a little pram dinghy. By the Victorian measure the Walnut was far too long for her. At nearly 8 feet overall the dinghy would be too long for years to come….  as Anna’s sailing career started in earnest at the age of 2.

In 1978 the first five boats built commercially by the Franklin-Eldridge partnership (my Windermere boatbuilding company then based in Ulverston) were to a similar design. Our pram dinghies aroused significant interest at the Bristol Boat Show in 1979, as they were the only wooden boats there, and thanks to an International Paints ad. campaign running at the time that drew attention to the emerging glassfibre plague, osmosis.

                                                  8foot pram

The dinghies we built for sale used the finest materials available at the time, Brynzeel laminated mahogany for planking, with all other woodwork in solid Brazilian mahogany apart from the oak rubbing strips. Rowlocks were bronze, from Davy’s old store at 88 West India Dock Road London (I can smell the sweet mix of tarred rope, kapok, cork and canvas now). Some dinghies had a thick, soft rope fender, specially wound at Kendal Ropeworks. Others were rigged to sail. My view is that we should always use the best available materials regardless of cost for boatbuilding, materials being a small part of the total but a major factor in longevity. Equally, non-durable materials should be avoided at all costs.

Anna’s boat was more experimental, and used a very much cheaper plywood planking which we called Palmtree Ply. Its coloured sticky label showed a photo of palmtrees on a beach and although BS1088 was stamped on the edge the British Standard kitemark was missing. The surface veneers were a rich brown and very hard indeed… we think it was Acacia Koa from Hawaii. The 6mm ply had just 3 laminations, the core being 4mm of a wood that looked and worked like bamboo, but we were never able to identify it for sure. Palmtree ply has proved supremely durable over 33 years, but is sadly no longer available I don’t think.

The varnish job was experimental too. Our friend Adrian Baker, famous for his Alpha Graduate Class sailing dinghies, gave the bare wood 4 coats of 2pack polyurethane, all in one day. That was it for the next 20 years. Though the fine cosmetic finish deteriorated irreparably within a few years (the dinghy lay outside summer and winter) there is still no sign of rot even where varnish peeled years ago.

In her first springtime Anna was coming afloat with us, but she was probably 18 months old by the time she first sailed in Walnut. The sail was made by my father, just as he had for my own pram dinghy in 1960, but this time with the benefit of wide, stable red Terylene sailcloth and a zigzag electric sewing machine. (In 1960 the cloth was cream Egyptain cotton, the roll just 2 feet wide, and given a false seam every 6″ to help resist stretch. Like other materials of the period it smelled good).

In the early days we priced dinghies by the foot… £35/foot for a rowing dinghy in 1978. In due course I revised the formula to £8 per part, and to this day this has proved a depenable way of estimating, albeit with a periodic review for inflation. Encouraged by my father I have always enjoyed putting numbers round things, measuring them and applying formulae.

Descended from a long line of clipper skippers and trans-atlantic steamer captains my father was a surveyor by profession, born in 1916.  In contrast to the Victorian rule of thumb he maintained that  fundamentally the pleasure derived from a boat is inversely proportional to its length. Within limits, and based on my own boating experiences through the reign of Queen Elizabeth ll, I agree.

Royal Windermere 17 Yachts Falcon & Freedom, racing in 1984 Many predicted the demise of the Royal Windermere 17 restricted class through the 1970’s as race turnouts dwindled, and mass-produced glassfibre boatbuilding boomed.  Indeed the National Trust conserved a couple of yachts in sailing order as an important Lakeland icon, fearful that the heritage would be lost. The yachts could be hired from Fell Foot Park by the half day. 

Then in 1981 David McCann asked Ian Howlett to design a new 17 for Richard Pierce to build. Freedom, no 44 won her first race, and absolutely dominated the fleet in her first season. Not only was her hull form a significant development in the class, her construction revolutionised the structural integrity (and maintenance needs) of wooden racing yachts, and revitalized the class. 

Freedom’s launch heralded an unprecedented decade of  excitement, growth, and development. A flurry of yachts were brought out of retirement and restored, some half a century old, and just a year after Freedom’s launch Brian Ellis ordered Falcon, no. 45 during the excitement of the 1983 America’s Cup. The class hastily (and sadly… rp) ruled against winged keels when it was rumoured that the new yacht would sport this feature! 

Throughout the class history America’s Cup designers have been called to draw Windermere 17’s.  Alfred Milne, David Boyd, Arthur Robb, and Olin Stevens are all represented, and until the late 1960’s Windermere 17’s hull forms resembled 12m yachts of the day.  But at this point RWYC sadly ruled against the newly emerging bustle. This feature would have reduced the building cost and maintained the handling character of older yachts.

Un-noticed by most, the reason for Freedom and Falcon’s superiority was largely down to a reduction of wetted area, achieved by moving the rudder post forward and thus shortening the keel. While significantly reducing skin resistance, this had the unfortunate consequence of increasing the likelyhood of stalling the rudder with attendant loss of control. Ian’s later designs incorporated a skeg behind the rudder which helped alleviate the unfortunate characteristic, and Freedom and Falcon were modified in due course.

The 1984 season opened with the launching of Falcon, sadly disqualified from her first race for a pre-start port & starboard incident involving a boat from another class that unsportingly strayed into the the starting area and forced its right of way.  But thereafter Freedom’s absolute superiority was challenged and the remainder of the season was hard fought between the two new yachts. The photo shows a typical finish at the Henholm line after several hours of close fought racing!