Working Lives

Innovation in boat building (1960s-2019)

Location: Reedham

Alan, proprietor of Goodchild Marine, had early ambitions to run his own business. He speaks with WISEArchive about the work and thinking behind the business, and also covers the development of a boat, creating innovations, and his approach to remaining competitive.

Starting out

I grew up Great Yarmouth and Caister-on-Sea, and went to school in Caister. I think my interest in boats was because my father was a chartered skipper. I had my apprenticeship with Maycraft at Potter Heigham under Billy May. My trade was originally building clinker for clinker fishing boats. I left with his blessing at 19 because I had an ambition to start my own business which happened in 1978. I initially built wooden fishing boats, and quickly moved to more modern methods when fibreglass started to emerge.

Our first fibreglass fishing boat was put into service in Great Yarmouth which was a bold step. There was a bit of opposition from the fishermen at the time because they traditionally had wood or steel, and fibreglass had yet to prove itself. Fortunately the first fishing boat was bought by the most successful fisherman; he worked hard and was able to afford a new boat.

I bought the hulls which are moulded by specialist moulding companies and fit them out. It was the learning process of fitting out which taught me the skills of how you laminate. The emerging market meant a lot of learning for lots of people on how to build in fibreglass as part of this transition.

Fibreglass is low maintenance, lighter and doesn’t leak. There aren’t the inherent problems of boats drying out and splitting over the winter period. It’s a shame because I love building wooden boats; I loved the smell and the feel. Initially when we built fishing boats they were 90% timber. It was timber outfitting; the deck and the wheelhouse were constructed in timber. We were lucky to use English oak, and imported timber. Forty years ago timber was more readily available, wasn’t as expensive and we weren’t aware of the destruction of forests. Timber was chopped down at phenomenal rates and nobody thought about sustainability. Only in later years they realised we need sustainable and renewable sources, so the hardwood now is very expensive and probably impossible to obtain in some places now.

Alan’s early endeavours

Convincing what was the Yarmouth Port Authority to buy a new fibreglass pilot boat, because it was the breakthrough into the commercial sector. Fishing boats were supported by grants from the Sea Fishing Industry at the time. A fisherman could gain a grant for a new boat built to a certain standard and by a reputable dealer builder; they paid 50% and the government paid the rest. My apprenticeship was on a yard recognised by the Sea Fishing Industry authorities and I was eligible to claim the grant on behalf of the fisherman. This stopped shortly after I built two or three fishing boats. Successive governments then filtered down the fishing and the amount of fishing, so the writing was on the wall. New boats were built for efficiency and not to increase the amount of fishing boats. The introduction of fishing quotas was another reason to look for opportunities beyond the commercial fishing industry.

I then focused on the markets for pilot and survey boats. This was hard to break into because of the strong competition from established commercial builders like Halmatics, William Osborne, Souters and many others. Our only chance was being competitive and local. I was only 22 at the time and battled hard to get the first one into service. We got it; it was £66,000 and I remember it exactly to the day. It’s still in service.

My first boat was built in a converted piggery at Scratby, opposite to the Duncan Hall School which burnt down. There were pot floors which had things like flower pots upturned and concreted over to keep the pigs warm. I had to smash them out because it wasn’t a suitable floor for boat building. We outgrew the site after about two years. It limited the size of the boats I could build. The bigger boats were built under a tarpaulin sheet over scaffolding because they couldn’t be built inside. It’s not an ideal workshop but that was how everyone else was doing it in those days.

The search for more suitable premises led us to buying a yard, with a bank loan, which originally traded as Bure Marine in Great Yarmouth opposite the yacht station. Whilst it wasn’t directly on the river it lent itself to lifting boats in and out with a mobile crane. I only had Peter working with me, and he’s been with me for 38 years; and my father would run errands for me too. We built a lot of boats there. Our first beach launched boat at that yard was a 38ft fibreglass boat, which was also our last. It was the largest we could build in that shed. We outgrew the facility and it was evident the market was becoming bigger.

There was a restriction on crane usage because we had to close the road between the yard and the river. In the early days we could hire a crane, put up a few signs at the end of the road saying it’s closed. The council became twitchier and wanted official road closures in place, which cost more than hiring the crane and the time to launch a boat.

I was very lucky Beck and Martin’s yard came up for sale at Burgh Castle; Wilfred Beck had basically packed up. It was a timber built shed with tinned cladding, soil floors and a slipway which was good for nothing. It was a massive investment to buy the site, and to get planning permission for a new shed. This transition period wasn’t easy. We were trying to build and finish the Caister lifeboat whilst it was afloat in the river and the yard was inevitably late being finished by the builders. It was scheduled for six months but took nearly a year. We were trying to get other things completed and finding the extra money because it cost more than expected. It was probably a nightmare looking back but it’s what you do.

Alan Goodchild, early 1980s

Expansion of the yard

We had a boatyard next door called Breydon Marine, who ran a very large operation, coasters, and a small company called Quality Fibre were at the back. Quality Fibre manufactured GRP (glass reinforced plastic) components, like diver’s helmets, for the off-shore industries.

It was a difficult decision to buy Breydon Marine when it went into administration; they had a ship catch fire and it was the end of their operation. We were congested; a brand new large shed on a very small plot. It was natural to expand. What allowed us to get a bank loan was our building the first travel hoist in Norfolk for lifting boats out of the water. Building it and were paying to have it put into service was justification to the bank we could expand our storage.

Slipways inherently silt up and fill up with mud, and inherently hard work to maintain. To invest in building a slipway would cost nearly £100,000 and made it difficult to offload because it’s in the ground and part of the yard. Travel hoists were common on the South Coast but not Norfolk. The travel hoist was initially to lift boats in and out of the workshop rather than drag them up a slipway. It was a back door and could be sold off. It became very popular and the first in service in Norfolk; it didn’t take long for people to visit.

The transition of buying Breydon Marine was fantastic. We could demolish the blister hanger which occupied a massive amount of land, and dig out the derelict slipway in the middle. At the end was the marina, and we were struggling for moorings and boats afloat space. We could then occupy the land behind the marina, Quality Fibre and Wilfred’s caravan. It was part of the deal we allowed him to stay on site with his caravan. Winter storage was very popular, and the hoist kept it clean and secure in good conditions. We just resurfaced all the yard and people loved it. With Breydon Marina we tripled our presence on the river front.

The pilot boat market and beyond

At this point we were emerging in the pilot boat market gathering momentum and name. We supplied as far as Shetland Islands, Channel Islands, Ireland and even France. There were ten or a dozen builders at the time; even down to three it’s still competitive now. It’s a specialist market and retrospectively I think it would be a hard market to break into. Port authorities and buyers will only buy proven vessels now, and not from drawings or a good sales talk. They did when I first started; I convinced them by looking at the fishing boats I had built.

We followed pilot boats with survey vessels, then wind farm boats. We had started building a lot of pilot boats for various ports around the country like Aberdeen. As we became familiar with that market, its clients and customers, it was obvious there was a market for small survey vessels. They wanted to survey their own ports to see where dredging was required, so we also made multi-work boats – vessels dedicated to the maintenance of the port.

Multi-work boats tend to be heavier and based on fishing boats, with survey boats tend to be catamarans due to the equipment. We developed a lot of products for this specialist niche market. I’ve always focused on these markets because there’s a lot of competition out there. The more specialised and robust you make your product addressing a certain problem, then there’s less competition. It’s a bit more challenging but I like the challenge; it keeps the market cleaner and there’s less competition.

The wind farm built off Great Yarmouth on Scroby Sands was the first off shore wind farm to be built with a trial of 30 turbines. We built a small survey vessel to survey the sand banks for its suitability for piling and building the wind farm there. It became obvious the crew would need to travel there. This was when we started to focus on support craft for wind farms. Initially a 12m or 14m catamaran was sufficient, but as the market emerged it required 17m, then 20m and now we’re building 28m wind farm boats.

The survey vessel market diminished once the surveys establishing where the fields are were completed. Wind farms moved further offshore where bigger vessels can do the surveys. As the small survey vessel market dried up the support craft was needed. We adapted the designs and built specialist support vessels for that market and provide maintenance. These are commercial boats usually contracted to third parties so there’s a penalty for not having the boats in service. Our maintenance and back up service is supported with a 24 hour call out.

Alan Goodchild, 1989

Green sailing

We’ve built some launches for the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and other operators who offer similar inland trips around nature reserves. We are now building the UK’s first hybrid pilot boat, and I believe is also the world’s first. We’ve sold it to the Port of London Authority who are investing in it because of their green strategy. There’s a lot of pressure for greener ships going into city centres like London, Liverpool and Southampton. There are technologies to make ships hybrid, and the challenge for pilot boats is balancing speed and weight. We need to design the boat to be as light as possible without compromising its strength, have a low drag coefficient, and accommodate the hybrid equipment.

The hybrid equipment includes the batteries, electric motors and control systems; an additional three tonnes of weight for a 13.6m pilot boat. We are achieving 15 knots projected or predicted speed with hybrid propulsion, whereas according to our calculations a traditional pilot boat design achieves 8 knots. We’ve managed to convince the port authorities it’s the way forward and the interest is amazing.

With it being legislation led any police force operating within towns or cities will gradually come under emerging green policies to reduce our carbon footprint. Even as a yard we’re monitored before we can tender our carbon footprint; we’ve invested heavily on changing all our lighting to LED. It makes sense for the port authorities and government bodies awarding the work are looking at the companies they award it to.

The state of manufacturing

We import too many spare parts and materials, but I think it’s a reflection on two generations of successive governments not focusing on manufacturing. As a nation the UK has lost a lot of its manufacturing base, and now they’re realising we shouldn’t have done that and we’re playing catch up. My concern is the loss of two generations of skilled tradesmen who can teach the skills. If we can focus on it, and the government’s committed, we could do it. We need to manufacture more than we do.

If you look at the traditional cheap imports from countries like China and Japan they’re not cheap any more. They have better life expectancy and want good living standards. I don’t think the savings from ten years ago are there now; prices go up, and cost of shipping around the world continues to rise. The pressure for future governments is to really focus on manufacturing here. I welcome that; I think it’s long overdue.

We train apprentices ourselves so we have people who understand our methods and standards. The more traditional boat builders we attract from within the industry generally can’t quite understand our methods. We embrace a lot of new technologies which can’t compare to what they’ve been doing. We are sort of cutting edge, embracing electronics, write software and run on computers, which makes the efficiencies. We design in 3D CAD (Computer Aided Design) and invested in CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines to cut the materials. We train the young workers to run these machines with a young design team working on this. The younger people embrace the technologies; in my experience the more traditional builders try to resist it.

We are seeing more interest from young people leaving school who don’t think you have to go to university to succeed; they’re encouraged by schools and careers people to look at alternatives. University is brilliant if the job you want requires a degree. But if you just go because it’s a trend, and leave with a degree with no idea of a job, it’s not. They have a high salary expectation which is too high for a trainee to start on and no longer young apprentices. The careers advice hasn’t catered for those who didn’t take the university route, and now they recognise there are other opportunities and trades. We have hope colleges are able to deliver the training which is currently lacking.

Memorable projects

The most rewarding contract was building the Caister lifeboat – the first self-righting, 38ft beach launched boat. It saved the most lives on record on that station outstripping all the lifeboats throughout its history. It could go over sand banks and only got pensioned off because of its speed to attend to vessels.

The most unusual project is probably the dredger which can walk on the river bed. Because conventional dredging operators were unreliable we designed our own to dredge the marina. A traditional dredger has spud legs, basically tubes or piles going up and down which spike down to the sea bed.

We thought we need to spud it down when it’s working to anchor it. There are bridges on the Broads so the spuds had to be easy to lower to transit under the bridge. If we were going to the expense of making the spuds hinged, then a pin allows them to move 30 degrees from upright in either direction. Effectively they spud to the bottom and could walk on them. This eliminates the need for a propulsion system for the spuds because the boat can be walked into position instead.

We have designed a specific one called a Marina Master. Sadly we build them in Italy because the necessary components are either German or Italian. It’s cheaper to build over there than here at the moment, though I think that will change. They’ve sold to dedicated marina operators. It’s a specialist piece of kit because it can also go under pontoons and under boats without moving them.

We developed a man overboard system and it’s compulsory for pilot boats to have them. I watched the Fastnet yacht race in the late ‘70s where several people sadly lost their lives. Those rescued by helicopter were dead on arrival having survived in the water for 11 hours clinging to wreckage. This sparked a massive inquiry whose outcome was twofold.

The body produces a chemical when in a state of panic due to a survival instinct. It stops production when somebody is rescued and they feel safe. The minutes when someone grasps hold of you and say “I’ve got you, you’re okay now” it stops and almost shuts the body down. The RNLI changed their training methods for recovery of people in water. In our training we never tell anyone they’re safe until they’re physically out of the water and they are safe. We’ll say “we’ve got you but you’re not safe yet”. The other is when being rescued by helicopter lifting them out head first induces cardiac arrest, and most die of a heart attack.

As a man overboard system is compulsory I designed one which would lift the body horizontally. This would be immersed under water by 0.5m so the casualty is floating on top and can be lifted out level. The challenge is how to get a platform underwater without it sticking out of the bottom of the boat. Regulation demands a prop guard to avoid the person’s feet from getting tangled in the propeller. So we developed a platform which automatically folds out as a ladder.

We gave our first one to the Hampshire police when we built their patrol vessel. They ran it as a trial for us and we’d give it to them as a test bed. The guy in charge of the operation at the time now works for us after retiring from the police; he’s our sales and business development manager. He trialled it extensively and we’ve developed it since; we’re on version 10 and on every pilot boat we build. We’ve sold them to Australia, southern Spain and receiving inquiries from all over the world. It’s being specified by name and accepted as a reliable and robust piece of kit, though it’s not cheap. These are the products we’re trying to make better or safer.

Looking ahead

We’re very fortunate we’ve got an extremely good order book at the moment, despite everything that’s going on in the world, Brexit and other things. Prospects look bright for the future as it help

s us retain our work force. We’re not a hire and fire operation; most of our staff have been with us many years. It also helps us to recruit people if they can see you have a good order book which shows stability. I think of all the things people need at the moment is to feel there’s a bit of stability in the world.

Alan Goodchild 2019

Alan (b. 1957) Goodchild talking to WISEArchive on 22nd January 2019 at Reedham.

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