I recently sent reader and occasional contributor Keith Johnstone a message I had received from another reader. Keith kindly dealt with the message, there followed a remarkable coincidence, and then out came some amazing memories.
I’ll let Keith tell the story:
Hi Gavin – When you sent me the e-mail saying that a chap wanted to talk to me about my forward-facing rowing boat Gizmo, you certainly started an interesting chain of memories.
I contacted your reader and sent him some pictures and design information, which I hope he found useful.
By coincidence, that very same weekend a long-time friend also contacted me about Gizmo, saying that would like to come and discuss the design and also bring an interested pal. So we arranged a time and met.
Steve’s friend turned out to be a naval architect who was building a carbon fibre rowing boat of his own design, and was interested to find out what I had learned about the practicalities of Ron Rantilla’s design. We spent a couple of hours looking at the pictures and sketch plan of Gizmo. Both of them were pleased with what I was able to tell them, and intended to go ahead with building forward-facing rowing boat mechanisms to fit their individual boats.
But there was a lot of talk about using carbon fibre in the rowing rig, and about fiberglass also, as Steve makes mini subs and my own interest dates back to when I made a 14’ glass-fibre boat when I was 17, in the mid 1950s.
Later, in the 1960s I bought a company making industrial glass fibre products. It was during my time with this company that I was asked by a chemical company to make a test box to their design and to use a new carbon fibre they had been working on.
The box was to be some 30′ long and roughly 2′ 6″ square. An aim of the project was to see if it could remain perfectly straight with no flex. I later found out it was to carry helicopter blades to emergency breakdowns.
It was successful, thankfully, but an absolute one-off.
As we were also all interested in sailing, I told Steve and his friend the story of how I started a yacht building subdivision of the glassfibre company. This was the first DIY glassfibre boatyard in the UK: customers came to our covered yard and built their 34’ ocean cruising boat hull and deck for £1300 including VAT. One of them went on to win the Yachtsman of The Year Award.
‘I think I read a book about one of those boats!’ said Steve.
I didn’t know anything about the book as I moved away and returned to my previous line of work as a chartered surveyor in the late 1970s.
They asked how I came to be running the business. I had been a sailor since I was twelve, starting in Firefly dinghies and graduating to offshore boats.
I noticed that most people buying boats were in the 17’ to 25’ range, or so. The leading boat of the time was the Contessa 32 but despite her length even she had limitations for the mass market, as she had such a wet foredeck in rough weather that people sometimes had trouble getting back to their home port.
I started on an extensive market research exercise with the aim of bringing a safer boat to that market at a reasonable cost. The market research showed that the boat should be about 30-35’ length over all, and a DIY product.
The strongest construction applicable to a one-off boat of this size would be foam sandwich, glassfibre construction. The only place that I could get the definitive manual on this method of construction ended up being the Dutch Navy, but it was fantastically helpful.
The next problem was finding a design. I approached as many as ten British naval architects, who were all sure that the fibreglass method was too complicated for amateurs and so they preferred not to sell me a design.
But by chance a merchant seamen friend gave me a few Australian sailing magazines and in it I found an article describing the perfect plan by Bruce Roberts, who already operated a DIY yard in Brisbane. He was pleased, I was pleased. All I needed now was a yard.
That part turned out to be easy. Birkenhead Docks was feeling the pinch with the introduction of shipping containers, and so had surplus transit sheds to rent, so we took one.
These were cavernous sheds alongside the quays into which general cargo ships were unloaded straight into the buildings. If you can imagine a 34’ deep-keel yacht standing up, then another one being lifted over it by crane, that is how tall they were. The floor area was 24,000 square feet, with a clear span.
The deal was that the customer came to us and used our male mould to apply a layer of sheet foam and then applied the correct number of fiberglass layers followed by a smooth paste to be sanded to form the outer surface.
They then used our female mould to lay up a fiberglass deck moulding in the normal manner. We used a crane to lift and turn over the finished hull moulding and after the customer had installed the bulkheads lifted the deck into position to be bolted and glassed into the hull.
That all took a month and we included another month to complete the first stage and also any other work the customers wished to complete before taking the boat away to its final fitting out berth.
We provided all glassfibre related materials, full time guidance and if required, assistance. There was so much space that we were able to rent space for further fit out work to be completed at the owners’ pace.
The take up was good, and we had a really diverse section of society come to us to build boats. To mention just a few, they included two local sailors, two people who had just sold a taxi company in New York, an orthopedic surgeon, an ex RAF electronics wizard, a cameraman from the program Trumpton, an RAF jet pilot and a very dedicated engineer who made rim locks.
An interesting point is that to our knowledge, there were no build faults by the owners. The pessimistic British naval architects were wrong about the abilities of our amateur boatbuilder customers.
One of our customers was Les Powles. A the time, I read that Les had been given the Yachtsman of the Year Award at the time and sent a letter of congratulation to him via the awarding body.
After my meeting about the forward rowing rigs, I read both of Les’s books: Hands Open and Solitaire Spirit: Three Times Round the World Single Handed. I also sent an email to the owners of Lymington Marina to ask for my email address to be passed on because apparently, Les, who is now 90, still lives aboard Solitaire in a free lifetime berth in the marina. I hope to hear from him some time, but won’t mind if I don’t as I am simply in awe of his amazing achievements.
I was very pleased recently to see a letter Les wrote to Bruce Roberts thanking him for a very good design, and written after Les’s first circumnavigation. The letter is still on Bruce’s website 50 years after the event. How cool is that?
I also found out that another Nor West 34 sailed in the OSTAR single-handed transatlantic race.
The last step in this story is that I was in touch with my pal in Sydney, and suggested he look for a copy of Les’s second book as it would cost £43 to send my copy to Sydney. We lived near to each other during the 1960’s, and he immediately replied to my email to say that he had found a copy of the book in Sydney.
To my great pleasure but also attached a copy of the sales sheet for both the Nor West 45 and Nor West 34, which we handed out at the Manchester Boat Show (see above).
Incidentally we never built a Nor West 45 though did sell some plans. I found one being built about three miles from my home in the South West that went on to charter in the Mediterranean and then the Caribbean.
I sincerely hope that the owners of all the Nor West 34’s have enjoyed the fruits of their hard work and gone on to derive an immeasurable amount of pleasure from their long sailing adventures.