Traditional yacht building methods

21 January 2015 • Written by Oliver Dewar
Gleaming wooden blocks and spars with bronze fittings are synonymous with classic yachts and are crafted using age-old skills

While the current technological climate delivers rapid advances in boatbuilding, sailmaking and rigging, both in terms of design and materials, is there a risk of losing the skills, accumulated knowledge and craftsmanship associated with traditional yachts?

As this progress continues to accelerate, the design goal for modern cruising and racing yachts has always been the development of lighter, stronger, more efficient hardware and increasingly robust and exotic materials have fulfilled this objective. The exciting expansion of the J Class might provide a niche for traditional, bespoke hardware, although the intensity of race course competition within the fleet, combined with the immense power of the new yachts requires modern equipment. Thus, preserving these skills is the domain of classic boat owners, Spirit of Tradition yachtsmen, tall ship syndicates and enthusiasts brave enough to take on a restoration or build a faithful replica.

Anyone fortunate enough to gaze across the decks or up through the spars of a traditional yacht moored stern-to during the Mediterranean classic regatta season cannot fail to be impressed by the amount of care that has been taken to conserve or restore these floating temples of hardwood. However, blocks shatter, masts break and bronze fittings eventually wear out and replacements need to be found.

Maritime Enterprises also makes propellers, rudders, tillers, deck furniture and decorative castings.

One source of new and entirely traditional bespoke hardware is Maritime Enterprises, a small business located in a collection of boat sheds in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. For these craftsmen, epoxy is a dirty word and electric hand tools are considered the Devil’s playthings.

With 40 years in the wooden boatbuilding business Bob Snow, along with his wife and co-director Jan and three skilled craftsmen, produce spars, blocks and hardware that have gained international recognition. Their impressive recent client list includes Blue Bird, the gentleman’s motor yacht built in 1938 for Sir Malcolm Campbell before her re-launch in 2007; the 1920s masterpiece Lulworth; the William Fife-designed Altair; the Spanish royal yacht Hispania launched for King Alfonso XIII in 1909; and the Charles Nicholson-designed gaff cutter Merrymaid.

After a high entry level into cabinet making during the early 1960s, Snow’s first commission was to design and make a baby’s backed stool as a christening present for Prince Andrew. But it wasn’t long before he transferred into the marine industry working for the late Harry Spencer at Spencer Rigging in Cowes.

After time spent in Nigeria repairing wooden seismographic exploration boats frequently blown apart by dynamite, Snow settled in West Wight and began building handmade sailing boats. He also taught ocean navigation and held the position of second coxswain on one of the island’s lifeboats for 28 years. In 2003, the Snows bought Spencer’s block patterns and established Maritime Enterprises in Yarmouth.

Maritime Enterprises made a bespoke kitchen in cypress wood, a timber which is resistant to decay and chemical erosion

‘Most of our business is through word-of-mouth,’ explains Snow over the constant whine of a metalworking lathe in the main shed. ‘We have a network of classic boatbuilders throughout Europe that will always use us and we only advertise in one magazine, although some of the work comes through our website. A lot of owners have done surveys on our blocks and tell us that ours are the best in the world: you can’t really get a better endorsement than that.’

In the varnish shed at the western end of the yard, ash fiddle blocks (named after their violin shape), double blocks and triple blocks await shipment to the recently launched replica of Britannia, the royal yacht built in 1893 for the Prince of Wales.

‘A majority of our timber comes direct from the US or Canada via an agent,’ explains Snow. ‘The sitka spruce and Douglas fir are shipped into Southampton docks and continue by lorry to the island.’

Snow can determine precisely the right timber required for each block or spar.

‘We also use black locust, black walnut and mahogany,’ he says. ‘But most of our blocks are ash or black locust. Black locust is as tough as elm, but just a bit heavier than ash, and slightly more golden in colour.’

Although the blocks are usually destined for practical use, there have been some unusual projects: ‘We’ve done work for Hollywood making blocks for the film Master and Commander,’ continues Snow. ‘There were 30 or 40 blocks for the ship and the onshore mock-up of HMS Surprise.’

Although the blocks in the film were painted black for authenticity, an unpainted souvenir from the film sits among the files behind Snow’s desk.

‘We involve the client as much as possible,’ says Bob Snow, Maritime Enterprises, director

Despite involvement with a string of high-profile yachts, the Snows equally enjoy less glamorous projects. ‘The biggest boats we’ve worked on would be Lulworth and Britannia, but they were not the biggest jobs. Often the most satisfying jobs are the smaller boats when you do everything.’

Currently occupying the main shed at Maritime Enterprises are the Douglas fir 17 metre main mast and 11.6 metre mizzen mast for the 16 tonne Fred Shepherd ketch May Bird.

‘We’re supplying all spars and fittings,’ confirms Snow, ‘and the most complex element is getting the sums right on the fittings. We have all the patterns from Spencer Rigging and we’ve made a lot of patterns ourselves. People don’t realise how complex it is.’

The craftsmen of Maritime Enterprises hand plane masts and wooden fittings: power tools are not allowed.

As with the choice of timber, the use of quality metal is a priority.

‘We mainly use AB2 bronze and work closely with the bronze “guru” David Witt, whose skill and knowledge is second-to-none. AB2 is far stronger than silicon bronze or any of the other varieties, and this is why our castings are relatively expensive,’ Snow admits. ‘But they will never go green!’

The masts for May Bird are built with attention to detail that is typical of Maritime Enterprises.

‘Some of the masts are quite complex and getting the right aerofoil section is vital,’ says Snow. The company produces hollow and solid spars and the masts for May Bird are the latter. ‘We only build masts in the traditional way and will never use epoxy,’ he says.

No laser measurement is involved and the process is entirely manual with countless man-hours of hand planing. ‘We use a 14:1 ratio – for every inch of thickness you have 14 inches of taper which gives you the angle,’ explains Snow. ‘So, a four inch thick bit of timber will have a scarf length – from maximum thickness to zero – of 56 inches. The same measurement applies to booms as well as masts.

‘We scarf-up as long lengths as possible and normally we deal in 12 metre lengths of timber, which is heavy. With hollow masts, getting the wall thickness spot on is crucial.’

One highly complex element of the build in a solid mast is routing out the internal channels for plastic conduit to carry radar, navigation light and communication equipment cables: a job undertaken when half the mast’s section is completed and carried out with skill to avoid any mast-fitting screws or attachments meeting the conduit.

While craftsmen continue planing the mast for May Bird, work on the ash hoops that will attach the sails to the spars continues with all the radii shaped by hand. Through experience, Snow and his team understand precisely the number of laminates required for the hoops – usually between eight and twelve – to withstand the loads of various sail sizes or configurations. The varnish work and leatherwork is completed by Jan Snow, who juggles the company’s bookkeeping with spells on the metal lathe.

Today, the company’s hand-made masts must also contain cables for the yacht’s electrical and electronic systems.

A relatively recent development for Maritime Enterprises is the move into domestic architecture. ‘With the financial climate on the change, we thought we had better diversify,’ says Snow. ‘Our first recommendation came through a timber company and it took off from there and now two or three architects push stuff our way.’

The company have completed installations in landmark properties around the Isle of Wight using their expertise in woodwork and casting. ‘It is just as demanding as the work on yachts and you are using the same skills,’ he explains. Completed projects are truly diverse and include a spiral staircase of extraordinary complexity and unique, boat-style, hardwood beds.

One of the early commissions was a roof terrace in Cowes where the Snows supplied and fitted varnished teak decking (glued and weighted with iron pigs to avoid driving screws through the roof membrane) with a cast stainless steel table/skylight supported on stanchions. It included integral lighting and a 40mm armoured glass top etched with a correctly aligned compass rose. It was a monumental job that required a crane to transfer every component from ground level to the three-storey building’s roof.

With a successful entry into residential installations, are there plans to diversify further?

‘I’ve always thought that blocks would make wonderful ornaments,’ says Snow. ‘Or possibly convert them into lamps.’

A handmade, polished block with a bronze insert bearing a yacht’s name would be an elegant addition to any superyacht saloon, he says.

‘All we need is someone with a shop in London!’

_ Photography: Mark Lloyd_

Sponsored listings