Monday, 3 February 2014

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

This is the second guest post from Richard Pierce and contains a lot of thought-provoking stuff.

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 duly 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.

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!

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 interstices its doubtful it was, in practice, any better than a conventional flat weave low-crimp cloth).


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.

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

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 inclusion 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!

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, unforeseen 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 over 150 calls, 75 hours, during that last month, with no positive benefit to the yachts.

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 construction.

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.

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, see the picture at the top of this post.

Comment by Ewan

There are at least two lessons here. Not only should you only sell what you can deliver, but when you have no client in view you must keep the yard busy by creating something you can sell later.

A good example of the latter is the beautiful Rosemary IV built by William Fife III when the Fairlie yard was temporarily out of orders. The result was not only a lovely work of art, still sailing today, but one of the few examples of what the designer really wanted to produce, unconstrained by the troublesome requirements of a customer. I've written about this before, here: The designer unconstrained

A similar episode happened when I was building Sonas to a design of the late David Ryder-Turner (David was indirectly responsible for Richard and I meeting up, but that is a story for another day!). By the late 1980s orders for wooden yachts were few and far between and the McGruer yard had been suffering like many others. Under a scheme funded by public money the yard was persuaded to build a little yacht on spec and to engage some trainees in the process. David readily agreed to do the design work, I suspect gratuitously, and four young people were duly signed on for the duration of the build. The result, the lovely Amber, was sold before she was completed. Sadly no lessons were learned by management, who failed to cash in on the new talent that had been acquired. Amber will remain for all time the last wooden yacht ever produced by this once great yard. 


  1. What a fascinating piece, creating works of art in any form has always been a fragile existence, fortunately a few are still willing to take the risks for which we must be grateful.
    Nice to see my boat Crunluath lurking in the background at Rhu beyond Amber. Nothing exotic or remarkable but a little bit of Clyde boat building history still sailing in her home waters.

  2. Your comment, Ewan, about keeping a boatyard busy by building "on spec" struck an ancient chord of 1960s vintage and relates to the Rosneath yard of James A. Silver Ltd.

    The yard manager, an English chap called Willis, was under pressure due to lack of orders and managed to persuade one of the firm's customers to finance the building of the biggest boat in the yard's history on the understanding that if 'Silver Trident' remained unsold upon completion then the financier (one Francis Showering of erstwhile Babycham fame) would purchase her.

  3. Apropos James A. Silver Ltd, here is an interesting video on that yard's John Bain - designed 58 footer, 'Silver Sula'. She was built for Mr John G. Stenhouse of the eponymous Glasgow insurance broking firm.

    Silver Sula is of the ' Ormidale' Class and not 'Ormindale' as stated by the advertisement

  4. Apologies, Ewan, I omitted the video link to Silver Sula :

  5. I too admire Rosemary and agree she is Fife at his very best. According to Uffa she was heavily and in my opinion unfairly criticized by Laurent Giles.


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The Wherrymen
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