Taking back ground for Island boatbuilders

The demise of many of the Island’s traditional shipyards to make way for a succession of glossy new waterfront building developments is an issue that pains people like boatbuilder Sam Fulford.

But rather than just sit and complain, this passionate craftsman rolled up his sleeves and put his money where his mouth is.  

After his business was caught up in the battle over the Medina Yard site, he made the bold decision to take on the long-unused slipway at Clarence Boatyard at East Cowes, and now, after a complete six-month overhaul, this historic slice of working waterfront has become the new base for his business, Wooden and Steel Ship Repairs.

Having grown up in Arctic Road, Cowes in the 1980s, it was the evocative sights and sounds of the Medina’s shipyards that provided the backdrop and soundtrack to Sam Fulford’s earliest life.

His father was a boatbuilder and the young Sam spent his childhood playing on the river, playing among the old wrecked and abandoned hulks and barges.

“There were lots of interesting old boats on the river” he recalls. “To be able to row past huge North Sea fishing trawlers and light ships moored waiting for whatever might be planned, or ships built by the Souters and the FBM shipyards, sitting there half-finished on the pile moorings at Medham, was amazing – and that was our everyday experience”.

He vividly describes climbing about on the old Paddle Steamer Ryde, as well as the old wreck of the Yellowfin (she whose giant propeller now rests opposite Newport’s Quay Arts Centre), and says they provided “a first class playground”.

On his way to school in the morning, Sam would walk past the Coles Shipyard on Arctic Road, and peer over the fence to the 500 Ton slipway, seeing various ships in repair, from beautiful coasters, to the fast ferries in for repair during the Cowes Express time.

“It was such an interesting and wondrous sight, it ignited one’s imagination –  and it certainly inspired me. I probably didn’t even realize to what extent at the time” he says.

Launching out

Never particularly academic, Sam says he could not wait to finish school.  His passion was for ‘creating and fixing things’ so as soon as he left school, he went to work at Bannisters Garage in Cowes where he did an apprenticeship as a mechanic, working and training with what he describes as “an excellent team who taught me well and influenced me to the value and respect of hard work”.

By the relatively tender age of 22 he had launched out with his own garage business, in a workshop at the Coles’s old shipyard at Arctic Road, 

“I did OK, I was busy, but at that young age, with inexperience of such things, I found it difficult to survive the overhead costs of the business” he says.  “Ultimately I was just unhappy in what I was doing and wanted a change of direction”.

And that change of direction came about through buying an old wooden boat. Sam had decided he wanted a project, something totally absorbing – and he found it in the shape of  a 65’ Admiralty type motor fishing vessel.

Labour of love

The MFV119  was a WW2 boat, built for the Royal Navy for wartime use, and Sam later found out that it was the last survivor of its type used at Omaha Beach in the D-Day landings of 1944, by an American Special Services crew, and as such, is listed in the Historic Fleet of the United Kingdom.

MFV119 turned into a huge, 15-year project, which involved completely re-designing and re-building the boat, to the extent that the only remaining original part is what sits below the waterline.

“That’s often the case with wooden boats” explains Sam.  “The salt water preserves the timbers while the fresh rain decays, so they rot from the top down”. 

To fund the project, Sam’s brother Toby supplied him with work in London, converting and refitting barges to turn them into sea-going houseboats.

“So my life was two or more weeks working 7 days, 10 hours a day in London, and then restoring MFV119 back here on the Isle of Wight until I ran out of money!”

Sam and Toby had such a good amount of work in London that they began to look for riverside work space, a place where they could take barges and larger boats to be repaired and fitted out – but nowhere was available.

And that was when Sam started to become aware of the big squeeze on traditional boatbuilding sites:  “It seemed that all the derelict riverside yards had been bought up by developers, or set aside by Government agencies for building development sites” he explains. 

“The places near London that were available, were totally unsuitable – and certainly not inspiring places to work from!  One must have inspiring places to work from or one’s imagination simply won’t work, and good work cannot be produced”.

The result was that brother Toby bought a place in Kent, Sam headed back to the Island, and their lives went in different directions.

Island enterprise

Sam started the business ‘Wooden Ship Repairs’ in July 2013, with the idea of utilizing the skills he had learned in the restoration of MFV119 – but before long, it was turned into ‘Wooden & Steel Ship Repairs’ as the need to diversify into both materials became clear.

As the name suggests, the business specializes in the repair and maintenance of larger wooden and steel vessels, including everything from mast and spar repair and construction, to interior refitting and engineering. Sam now works with a group of highly skilled contractors who come in and help for tasks such as electrical works and traditional rigging, as required.

The restoration of MFV119 had got Sam’s work noticed, and as a result the jobs started to come in. The greatest proportion of the work was carried out at Medina Yard, in Cowes, and it worked very well – although Sam could see that the 60 ton weight lift limit of the hoists there would be restrictive, and that if he could haul out heavier boats than any other yard, then work would surely come.

A huge boost for the business came when Sam was joined by other local experts, including Justin Gardner, one of Cowes’ highly skilled boat builders with particular expertise in mast and spar construction.

Then in September last year Sam was given what he describes as a ‘fantastic opportunity’ to take on the slipway facility in Clarence Boatyard – long-unused, and requiring a complete overhaul after over 100 years of constant heavy hard work.

It was a massive undertaking, but in the face of the proposed developments at the Medina Yard site, where Sam and his colleagues had previously done most of their work, he decided to take the plunge.

“The recently-agreed planning permission to build on the Medina Yard site was a clear indication that industry is being forced out” he says.

“Shipyard sites are looked upon by developers and the like, with hungry eyes. In very recent times we see a threat to the industrial work space like has never been experienced at any time. 

“During the war years, bombs may have been dropping from enemy aircraft, but the only result was newer and better workshops that were built to replace what was lost. Now, those who are bent on removing these yards will do so in such a way that work will never, ever be able to be carried out in Cowes again”.

Preserving history

As Sam points out, it is incredible to think, that in Cowes, not one existing quay wall would exist for a vessel of any size to lay for repair works to proceed afloat, to be able to bring a crane in alongside for the removal of engines or heavy equipment, or to remove the rig from a large yacht.

“I wanted to stop that trend” he says. “I wanted to show that these unused and unwanted facilities are needed and can be bought back to life with relatively little work”.

The painstaking work that he undertook along with his friend Dougal Burns and others, involved stripping the cradle right down to its component parts, which revealed that all of the 130 cast iron wheels had been worn out by 100 years of work. 

So, a cast iron bar 8 inches in diameter had to be meticulously sliced into three-inch segments, a hole  bored through and machined to make a bearing surface, and new axles machined with grease ways for lubrication, as the river mud is no friend to rotating metal parts.

Then, half of the timber backbone was replaced, with new steel work and bolts holding the whole thing together.  Meanwhile, the outer sections of the cradle, that stabilize the whole thing, were repaired by reusing the original wheels – the best of them being selected and machined to be all of equal size.

New track sections had to be laid, working between the tides, but luckily when it came to the original steam-driven winch (now converted to run on electricity) that had been well-maintained and remained in fine order. 

“The winch was probably fitted in 1899 at the start of the original yard” says Sam.  “A testament to good British engineering!”

The slipway is in a historic shipyard, built by ‘Groves and Gutteridge’ in 1899, for engineers, yacht and small craft builders.  It was modernized in 1930 as a completely self-contained shipyard, and in parts is still an excellent example of what a 1930’s shipyard would look like.

While it’s certainly a historic yard and of great interest, says Sam, he’s adamant that  “it is no museum, but a home for many excellent businesses, all working hard.

“I run the slipway as hard as it would have been in its early days” he says. “But now we have the efficiency of modern tools and materials.  It’s a combination of using the old and the new which works well. I strongly believe that just because a thing is old, doesn’t mean it loses its capability of effective work”.

“The younger generation should have the opportunity to learn to build and fix impressive objects such as ships. They need that ability like they need air to breathe. There are many people who may not have that creative bent, and would not understand that need, but they don’t have the right to remove the work space from those who want to work this way”.

Sam’s vision is already bearing fruit, with the slipway steadily bringing in work to the business, creating jobs, preserving skills,  and ultimately, supporting the Island’s heritage and economy.

And that, as he says, was the whole purpose.