- ‘Today we stand on the edge of an exciting future.’
- ‘It’s taken many years for us to filter through suppliers until we found the companies we are happy to use …’
- ‘Twelve months’ lack of attention to a wooden boat like a Fairey can result in the equivalent of two years of decay.’
Yard Visit – Custom Yacht Works
Mike Taylor meets Custom Yacht Works founder Mark Lewis and discusses the latter’s career path, the history of the company, current events and the exciting future that lies in wait …
Custom Yacht Works, based in Swanmore in a beautiful part of Hampshire, is understandably always a hive of activity whenever I call in. This is hardly surprising as the company has accrued a considerable reputation for first-class classic-boat restorations. At the time of my latest visit, the team were busily working on five Fairey powerboats and were awaiting the imminent arrival of a further two, both Huntsman 28s, which will undergo major restorations.
We begin with founder Mark Lewis telling me about his background.
‘I began my career in 1986 by embarking on an apprenticeship at Kemps Quay boatyard,’ he reveals. ‘I was that annoying apprentice who was always asking questions. But very quickly I realised that if I wanted to learn anything about the artistry of marine engineering I had to work closely with the older craftsman. They were the ones with the wealth of knowledge and had probably forgotten more than I ever knew.
‘In those days an apprenticeship was a lot harder than it is today. Nowadays, a boatbuilder earns more in an hour than I earned in a week. Also, it was common practice to be laid off at the end of the apprenticeship period. Eventually I left Kemps and turned my hand to tool making, securing a job at Borden Composite Tooling. They were linked to the naval and aircraft industry, manufacturing components for companies like Plessey Marine. Then, in 1993, we suffered another downturn in the economy with the inevitable forced redundancies, which caused my second career path change.’
Mark moved into the electronics business with responsibility for managing printed circuit board handling equipment. ‘I actually misunderstood the job description when I applied for the interview,’ he continues. ‘But, by chance, this became my first experience of being in charge of my own destiny as I later became a partner in the business.’
However, a change of circumstances meant that Mark moved on again, this time to join Fairlie Restorations with its world-renowned expertise in constructing Fife sailing yachts. Mark tells us: ‘This was a crucial time in my life as, significantly, I began to receive commissions to undertake private restoration work. Very soon the volume of work rose to a point where it was interfering with my day job, so I left Fairlie to set up my own company.’
Mark came to Swanmore Business Park in 2005. ‘At that stage the factory facility didn’t exist, it was just a large cowshed. However, with the help of the owner we quickly developed the building into something that resembled our marine engineering requirements to function as Custom Yacht Works.’
Soon after setting up the business, the marine industry experienced two damaging recessionary periods in succession. Rather than do nothing, Mark decided to take positive steps by purchasing machinery at a time when the majority of other companies were either selling equipment or becoming bankrupt. ‘It has been my experience that if you lack staff to take on the workload, you look for ways to become more effective. Critically, we rearranged the factory floor with particular emphasis on allowing us to work in a more methodical and efficient manner. Where we didn’t have the skills or the facilities to undertake certain tasks, such as lacquering joinery, this was subcontracted to other specialists. However, it soon became apparent that their standards of finish did not match what we at CYW demanded.’
To resolve this issue, Mark acquired more space to accommodate a spray booth and heated drying room. ‘We now have complete autonomy over the quality of all our work,’ asserts Mark. ‘We are very fussy. A vessel or piece of joinery work will not leave our factory unless we are entirely satisfied with the craftsmanship. Our driver is quality of finish, not profit margins. Our clients expect excellence in everything and we strive hard to maintain that standard, a value that contributes significantly to the reputation Classic Yacht Works enjoy today.’
Over time, CYW have forged essential links with Fairey boats. ‘Remember,’ says Mark pointedly, ‘the first Fairey craft, the exquisite Huntress 23s, are now approaching 60 years old and senior citizen status. It’s not surprising that these delightful boats, along with their later stablemates, the Huntsman, Spearfish and Swordsman range, now require constant attention, with many on their second and even third refit. Our skilled artisans are sympathetic in the restoration of these beautiful boats, and we have established ties with Fairey owners throughout the UK and worldwide, including Kuwait, the United States, Switzerland and Holland. Twelve months’ lack of attention to a wooden boat like a Fairey can result in the equivalent of two years of decay.’
As we begin our tour round the yard, Mark recalls the build process used by Fairey Marine’s skilled staff in making these classic cruisers originally. ‘Many of the Fairey team at the Hamble factory were left over from wartime aircraft manufacture,’ he explains. ‘Manufacturing the hulls involved using individual hand-cut timber laminates. Each one was numbered to identify its place in laying up the layer of the hull as they were placed on a large mould or “buck”. Each layer alternated in the direction of the laminates and was held in place with adhesive. The complete hull was then placed under a large vacuum bag and rolled into an oven called an “autoclave” where the heat cured the adhesive. The result was an extremely light yet torsionally rigid structure ready to take the topsides.’
Rather than simply making repairs using large pieces of wood, today CYW still use the same wood laminate construction techniques when repairing or restoring these vessels. ‘Of course, our methods and the standard of adhesives have evolved considerably since the 1960s,’ smiles Mark.
In the workshops there are three Faireys undergoing work. The Huntsman 28 known as Midnight Blue, which received a full interior refit and structural restoration, is one of just two Fairey powerboats to take part in the Queen’s Jubilee Thames pageant in 2012. Behind is another Huntsman 28, Santa Maria, which will act as the tender to a grand ocean-going yacht once her comprehensive restoration has been completed. Meanwhile, the third Huntsman 28 is Mark’s own Fairey, Cheyne. She has been completely stripped out in readiness for a total rebuild when time allows and acts as a shop window for CYW’s capabilities. ‘Today, our abilities at CYW extend way beyond hull repairs and restorations,’ says Mark. ‘We offer a complete service including engine transplants, retrimming and comprehensive cabin refits.’
Out in the yard stands Grey Don, an aft cabin Huntsman 31 and only the second of her type built, undergoing an extensive interior/exterior restoration and the installation of new Yanmar diesel engines. Also, two other Fairey Huntsman craft, Shikari and an original racing Huntsman, 202, await servicing.
‘It’s taken many years for us to filter through suppliers until we found the companies we are happy to use,’ Mark asserts. ‘We expect as much effort from our suppliers as we give to our customers. Wood, especially the mahogany that we use, has become a valuable commodity, so finding timber of the highest quality can prove difficult. It hasn’t been unknown for us to return wood three or four times before we are happy with the standards of the grain. Nowadays, our preferred supplier is Robbins Timber, who have provided our materials continuously for at least 12 years. We are also very particular over our choice of plywood, lacquers, fastenings and glues, which are all purchased through a responsive and reliable supply chain.’
As we walk on to view the work going on with Midnight Blue, Mark explains how a typical CYW project is orchestrated. ‘At the start we always emphasise the need for the boat to be structurally sound. Invariably, restoration projects then grow to encompass manufacturing a new interior. At this stage we welcome a large amount of input from the client over how they would like their vessel to look. These discussions range from, say, the colour of the leather upholstery to what timber they desire for the cabin joinery. We even discuss the direction of the grain, which timber is to be used where, and the orientation of the joints. We are always happy to work with a client’s drawings, or in some cases we will produce the drawings ourselves.’
Our tour over, we then repair to Mark’s office, where he explains more about life in the Custom Yacht Works community. ‘Recently we signed a contract for a very exciting project involving a ragged chine powerboat designed by G. L. Watson of Liverpool. The owner contacted us from Switzerland after a recommendation from another of our clients. The vessel is barely more than a hull and a few pieces of original structure. Our client is very pragmatic about the project and wants it to be restored to its original specification. His uncle had the boat built in 1969 and it competed in the Round Britain race of that year, navigated by experienced powerboat racer Dag Pike. Despite stopping to repair the outdrive five times midway through the race, it still achieved a respectable 10th place overall with a maximum speed of 29 knots. There is a strong emotional attachment between the owner and his boat, which we can empathise with, and this results in considerable pressure on CYW to restore the vessel to its former splendour.’
In contrast to the hurly-burly of life that is Custom Yacht Works, Mark is eager to tell me all about his latest business plans. ‘Fairey Marine are famous for their Huntress, Huntsman, Swordsman and Spearfish models. However, they also built smaller inboard and outboard runabouts known as the “Carefree” and “Cinderella”. These were slightly over 14ft overall. This size falls somewhat short of today’s boating expectations. It’s for this reason I have established Fairey Marine as a new and separate business. Our plans are to introduce a 6m tender, with manufacturing scheduled to begin in 2018. Called “Sabre”, she will utilise a composite hull in a variety of layouts and finished to the exacting standards associated with our reputation and the name of Fairey. There will be significant owner options and finishes that can only be offered with a custom-built vessel. We have given considerable thought to how we can incorporate small design touches, fittings and finishes that will ensure that the Sabre will satisfy our customers’ most challenging needs and stand out from other, similar, manufacturers’ boats.’
For their first vessel, Fairey Marine plan to fit a water jet propulsion system that will ensure safe entry into shallow water close to swimmers and convenient storage on the side decks of a superyacht or in a garage. ‘Critical to our thinking is that the Sabre has been designed so its size can be increased without losing the overall essence of its form and style, and, more importantly, its handling characteristics. We envisage that the Sabre will prove to be popular, not only because of her versatility, but because of the ability for us to install whatever drive systems our clients specify.’
To foster interest in the Sabre programme, Fairey Marine will be encouraging prospective clients to visit their facilities at Swanmore to view all the options, including paint colours, wood veneers and materials. ‘We always find that for customers, choosing samples is a very tactile experience and is the aspect of the entire programme they enjoy the most,’ says Mark.
However, Mark’s final surprise during my visit was his news about the second part of Fairey Marine’s future programme. ‘The Huntsman 28 remains the jewel in the crown of Fairey Marine’s prestigious history. From every angle it is generally acknowledged as being a beautiful boat. At 28ft overall, it’s also a very sociable vessel with a large cockpit area and respectable cabin accommodation too. We plan to introduce our version of the Huntsman 28, custom built as you would expect, with an almost endless list of options. The only restrictions are the client’s imagination and the limitation of the boat’s structure. As originally built, the Huntsman 28 had a rather basic galley and heads facilities with a V-berth seating area extending forward to the bulkhead incorporating drawers and cupboard space. Our Huntsman has many layout options, including a well-appointed galley and freshwater flush toilet. The forward bulkhead has been remodelled to allow the V berth to extend further forward, giving a light and airy feel to the accommodation with a surprising amount of extra space.’
The interior of the Huntsman will be fitted out with Fairey Marine’s exquisite standards of handmade joinery in varying types of timber and fittings, more usually found on much larger yachts. ‘We plan to offer stimulating alternatives to the usual plethora of limousine tenders and RIBs that service the world’s superyachts. Again, it will be capable of being increased in size without detriment to style, handling or performance. The interior will be entirely flexible, so the soft furnishings can be removed and replaced with seating suitable for transporting guests without getting wet or windswept. Alternatively, the cockpit can be fitted with different seating arrangements, allowing guests to sit back and relax while being transported to a night’s festivities in style and comfort. Our Huntsman will combine essential modern technology with traditional elegance recognised by the discerning customer in a demanding marketplace.’
There are certain iconic brands that draw admiring glances from discerning observers the world over, e.g. Learjet, Ferrari, Balenciaga, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Balmain and Burberry. ‘We have the credibility of our years of working with Fairey boats of beauty and class,’ says Mark. ‘We feel the time is now right to resurrect the Fairey brand without compromising the original craft. To date, the Sabre and the Huntsman have created considerable interest among owners of superyachts – clients who can reasonably indulge their merest whim and who have the vision to link their passion for luxury and speed with the name of Fairey. Today we stand on the edge of an exciting future.’
Custom Yacht Works
Southampton SO32 2QQ
Tel: 01489 877133