Title: Variations on a common theme

Pages: 64 - 67


Author: David Thorpe, Photographs by John Perkins

Variations on a common theme


If the ever increasing number of boats and dinghies in use is a sure sign of our increasing affluence, so it might also be seen as a sign of sure-fire success for any new boat produced by the nation's boatbuilders. But the large number of designs which are never made in any quantity show s that this is not the case. The industry has few companies with anything approaching a production line for boats.

One of the difficulties for a boat builder aiming at volume sales is to identify what it is that his customer wants. A few want a yacht to express wealth, some a racing dinghy in which to compete. Others need a cruising boat offering maximum speed and space for minimum cost. All these require designs to achieve functional objectives, to accord with styling fashions and to be constantly upgraded. To establish a product line firmly appealing to a worthwhile market in what is not a large body of customers can be a matter, despite considerable design effort, of more miss than hit.

Honnor Marine, builders of the Drascombe range of dayboats, has successfully side-stepped competitors' problems by producing adaptable, multi-purpose boats, all based on the same traditional hull shape. It is not surprising that 46 year old Luke Churchouse and 52 year old John Westell, principal partners in the Is year old firm, should have appreciated the appeal of the traditional in boat design. Their sheds stand on a meandering stretch of the river Dart high up at Totnes, a location steeped in boat-building history.

In 1966, John Watkinson, working as a Devon boatyard manager, showed at the London Boat Show the 18ft gin dayboat which he had designed and built as his personal dream boat for his wife and family. With demand soon exceeding his available production capacity in timber, he asked Honnor Marine to make the boat in glass fibre. Thus in 1967, the line of Drascombe dayboats was born. The Drascombe Lugger, as this first boat was called, gave Honnor Marine a product that was different from the modern concept of yacht or dinghy; it captured for them a small but exclusive and steadily expanding share of the sailboat market.

'We were searching at that time to produce something unique, in that it was not competitive', Churchouse recalls. 'We wanted to produce boats the way we wanted them, ie to a high standard without continually looking over our shoulder at people making the same product cheaper. John's boat was ideally different and we liked the design. We also appreciated, if not foresaw, the need for boats that could be trailed and not kept on a mooring. We did not envisage a big increase in turnover from the Lugger. It was and is a specialist boat, aimed at quite a small selection of boat buyers. It did not produce a sudden explosion.'

The Drascombe Lugger's tan sails, yawl rig with jib and old-fashioned lugsail and mizzen, her glass fibre clinker hull simulating the overlapping hull planks of traditional timber construction, her pine spars, heavy brass fittings and teak trim, wrenched the heart strings and loosed the wallets of those sailors who hankered for traditional hull forms: people who sail because sailing is an escape that appeals to them and who need a boat evoking the trade winds and the parrot in the cage.

The first full year of Lugger production (1968) was a good year anyway for Honnor Marine. It had started in 1961 when Pat Honnor, a retired army colonel, and Luke Churchouse founded the company to build racing dinghies. A licence to make the French 420 dinghy brought them orders for a boat a day, mainly from the USA, and turnover climbed to 140 000. Of this the Lugger contributed some 40 000 of business, the equivalent of 60 boats. It was the beginning of the end for dinghies at Honnor Marine (they relinquished the 420 licence and closed all dinghy production early this year) and the beginning of the Drascombe line which already numbers some six models and for which there is no end in sight.

After the Lugger came the 21ft gin Longboat, another boat for rugged day sailing which could take an outboard motor or be rowed if wind and petrol both failed. Westell described how she evolved by stretching the Lugger. 'She started as a Lugger. She has the same bow and stern with a midship section which we added in. The Longboat with the original open deck had fairly limited appeal. We then produced the fixed caddy version and opened up a new market because she appealed to the family man. We are now modifying this version for next year, offering a cuddy layout to include a galley and portable loo. Few people actually want to sleep aboard but they all want to brew a cup of tea.'

Three pictures of the 18ft 9in Lugger fore-runner of a range which includes the larger Longboat and the smaller Dabber. Considerable thought has gone into keeping this family day-sailer spacious and uncluttered. The loose-footed mainsail can he furled to the mast the outboard is mounted in a well astern of the mizzen mast. Below the engine mounting on the 15ft 6in Dabber is set beside the tiller on the port side, opposite the mizzen bumpkin.

Top the Lugger's moulded grp lapstrake hull is reminiscent of traditional clinker hulls. Left early stages in the construction of the Driver, a new 18ft powered fishing boat. Above the Longboat and Lugger are fitted with furling lines which roll the jib neatly round its luff rope.

That was in 1969. In 1971 came the inevitable mini-Lugger at l5ft 6in called the Drascombe Dabber. When Honnor Marine asked John Watkinson if he could shorten the Lugger by about 3ft to fit a lower price and weight range, his answer was 'no'. A completely different approach was required. The basic requirement was a safe family boat with the Lugger type of cockpit layout and the Lugger type of trunk-mounted outboard: this way, engine maintenance can be carried out afloat and the engine can be left in place when the sails go up.

However, the price had to be kept down and the answer lay in a 'balanced' hull. In other words, up to a reasonable angle of heel the underwater shape forward would not be unlike the underwater shape aft. This type of hull needs very little steering and hence can use a simple rudder, hung on the transom. The resulting V-sectioned stern also suited the sidemounted engine, economising on space and leaving room for a large, useful cockpit.

This summer an inboard-powered fishing version of the Dabber called the Drascombe Launch was produced. Now this mini-Lugger will also be stretched to meet a new market demand. The newboat will be launched at next month's London Boat Show. The Drascombe Driver, as the new model will be called, will be an l8ft outboard motor sailer for the family man wanting to sail but needing an engine to get him and the family home if his outing is blighted by lack of wind or his lack of sailing ability or both.

As with the Longboat, the Driver has been built by cutting its smaller sister in half and adding a section in the middle. She typifies the Honnor/Watkinson philosophy of design by evolution. It is part of tradition that boat builders cut pieces off or graft them onto their boats to suit customer's needs.

With a range unrivalled in the industry for its charm, and for its outright 'golden oldie' appeal, Honnor Marine's turnover has risen to over 300 000. Exports total up to 45 per cent, the majority of overseas boats going to the USA. The workforce has increased from the original 1961 complement of a single apprentice plus the two partners, to a staff of 75. Honnor's success, in an industry susceptible to the whims of fashion and to chills from the economy, makes Luke Churchouse's thoughts on why he left a safe job with Shell in 1961 to make boats an object lesson for other builders. 'I was on the marketing side of ships, bunkering, liaising with shipping companies. l was interested in developing a business rather than doing it with boats. If the thing had fallen out zenith fountain pens, I would have done it with fountain pens rather than boats. I think this is unusual in the boat industry'. It is.



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