Colin Shepheard remembers Torbay J class yacht Dolphin (previously Sonnet)

Colin Shepheard has been in touch to tell us about his experiences with Torbay J class racing yachts Dolphin (previously named Sonnet).

There have been a couple of posts about the J class: see them here and here.

Here’s what Colin says:

‘I noticed today that both remain Torbay J class boats still in existance are now in German hands!

‘I know about both with maybe some additional history not known to the new owner.

I used to build/repair and maintain wooden boats at Kingsbridge in South Devon, England during the period from 1970 to 1984.

I later moved my workshop to a small village on the edge of Dartmoor, but during During my time at Kingsbridge I was approached by a retired gentleman named Alan Taverner who lived in Kingsbridge, after retiring from London as a photographer.

He asked me to travel to Torquay inner harbour as he had noticed Sonnet in the inner harbour on a summer drying mooring.

The aim was to trace the owner to see if they would sell the boat. It was not until the winter of 1977 that we found her upside down underneath a concrete car park adjacent to the inner harbour. The local Harbour master gave us the owner’s contact details (in obtaining this confidential info it helped that I was well known in the area) and Alan managed to buy.

I transported her to my nearby workshop and Alan set about bringing her back to new under my guidance. I remember that we worked together to replace the inner cockpit coaming, floor boards, external iron keel bolts around the centreplate box and refastened the planking around the stem post and transom.

The complete wood structure frames and planks including decking were saturated but through the winter in my warmed workshop we dried her out and repainted her. Two years later the centreplate box was replaced together with the surrounding wood to the iron keel.

The entire boat was stripped to bare wood and repainted together with the mast and spars. Alan wanted me to sail with him and we had great fun taking her from Bowcombe Creek on the Salcombe Estuary, where she was on a tidal mooring for eight months of the year, to Plymouth and various small inlets inbetween and also to Dartmouth.

She was a great boat to sail and Louis Gale of Paignton had built a lovely fleet of these boats in earlier years.

Alan must have owned Sonnet (after two years he renamed her Dolphin) for a total of some 30 years.

After I sold up and moved to Dartmoor, I let Alan keep Dolphin over winter in my workshop at home.

During the 1980s, Alan moved Dolphin from Bowcombe Creek to a mooring on the river Plym, which runs into Plymouth Sound. The photo above was taken by Alan and shows me sailing her single-handed off the Western Breakwater Lighthouse at Plymouth Sound at the time. The close up is the same picture, but reveals that Dolphin is sailing herself, which shows what a superb balanced rig she had for her hull.

Alan also entered a single-handed race around the Eddystone Lighthouse and I believe could have won his class in boat length, but unfortunately the boat suffered a lot of damage on the sail back when the wind increased and the seas developed a short sharp chop.

It was a great sail for Alan, but the boat required caulking.

Alan’s health deteriorated soon afterwards and he eventually sold her after some final years of neglect.

I’ve heard that heard she was purchased by a new owner who took great care of her and had work done in Cornwall somewhere… And I remember later seeing her for sale again.

I was busy at the time and moved again to do my work for the Plymouth Harbour Authority in maintaining their pilot boat and tugboat and oversaw the rebuilding of two new vessels.

Alan had died shortly after I moved to Sweden in 2009.

On 1998 I remember we both sailed the other J class boat at Brixham, when she was up for sale. After a trip around Torbay, we decided we were not so keen on the yawl rig. I gathered that most of the J class were gaff or gunter rigged. 

I was interested to find they are both now in the same ownership, where I hope they are enjoying a revival for the next 100 years! 

Ant Mace skin on frame boat building courses at the historic Underfall Yard, Bristol

Ant Mace has been in touch to talk about some skin-on-frame boatbuilding classes that he’s running this summer. Here’s what he has to say:

I started building skin-on-frame boats out of personal interest alongside my other restoration work. It’s now the majority of my work. Mainly sea kayaks, but also some canoes and a skin-on-frame version of an Adirondack guideboat, which is a joy to row!

I’m running three kayak-making classes this summer. These are happening in July, August and September in my new workshop at Underfall Yard in Bristol. Students can choose between a modern design or traditional West Greenland-style sea kayak. Full dates are here

I love the combination of the traditional wood frame and modern skin materials. We make the frames from Western Red Cedar or Spruce with steam bent oak ribs, always bending by eye without moulds.  Each frame is custom-fitted to it’s paddler, and lashed and pegged together in the traditional way – without any nails or glue. They’re skinned by sewing on a ballistic nylon, then coated with a 2-part urethane (specifically formulated for skin boats). 

The finished boats end up beautifully lightweight, durable and strong. The lashed frame allows them to flex slightly when taking impacts, rather than cracking as a more brittle material would . I have a sample of skin that I use as demonstration piece when we have open workshops. Over the last 2 years it’s been abused by hundreds of visitors, with claw-hammers, chisels and rocks and is still going strong!

My new workshop is at the top of the historic slipway in Underfall Yard, and a stone’s throw from the lovely Pickle cafe. It’s a fantastic space to run the classes from – it’s much bigger and lighter than the old workshop. Best of all, students will be launching their finished boats from the same spot that iconic ships such as the Matthew were launched from!   

No experience is required to join a class. Last year I had students aged from 16-65 building kayaks.

To see find out more about the courses, see my website ( or drop me an email (

Building a new traditional fishing boat for Dungeness

This is something amazing. Somewhere in Kent, retired shipwright Eric Paine and his friend Len are building a traditional South Coast fishing vessel. When they launch it off Dungeness, Eric believes it will be the first new boat of its type to sail off that beach in 45 years.

There’s a mass of details in these photos, and there is a huge sense of history attached to so many of them – quite a few would have been recognisable to Viking boatbuilders of long ago.

The whole thing is being done by eye and three moulds.

Notice the photo of the boat they’re working from – one key difference between it and the new boat is that the new one will have wheel steering rather than a tiller; otherwise they will be very close.

Notice also the long lath above the boat showing where the sheerline is to be, and the bilge pump, which I gather was something apprentices made many years ago.

I’m sure you’ll all joing with me in wishing great good luck to this fabulous project and a long life for the new boat!