Ruling the waves as ever

Ruling the waves as ever

Big ships no longer take shape on North East rivers but Chris Turner's nippy little craft are world winners, as Brian Nicholls discovers

We still get nostalgic thinking back to those newsreeled, champagne-cracking launches once a regular highlight of our rivers.

Yet today, though you hardly hear about it, prow-priming goes on, with a new craft turned out at a staggering rate of one a week on the Tyne. A tiddler next to a whale perhaps when you measure a racing yacht or dinghy against the liners and warships once gliding down the slipways. But today the skill and craftsmanship of Chris Turner and his workforce of 24 is acknowledged worldwide at a time when, ironically, competitive sailing and rowing in this country - despite remarkable achievements of our many Olympic medal winners - appear to be in decline.

In almost 1,000sq m of workshops at Tanners Bank near North Shields Fish Quay, the UK's only Olympic boatbuilder is enjoying growth that Turner hesitates to put down to any single factor.

"Obviously we've a good workforce - some have been with us over 20 years - and we've been here a long time. With all that, we've good continuity of product."

Built to win, is the motto of Ovington Boats and, the good news is it's training more people while it still has experienced builders available and willing to pass on their knowledge, and their little known knacks. Oddly, though Turner himself is a world champion sailor celebrated in the International 14 and Scorpion fleets both as a sailor and a builder, he doesn't usually employ sailors.

“Comparatively speaking, there aren't that many in the North East," he points out. “But most of our staff got their first moulding job here. The majority have learnt their trade at Ovington boats. People taken on from elsewhere would need retraining because there's quite a difference in what we do, compared with the moulding process elsewhere in this area, such as for wind turbines and caravans. 

"We build lightweight racing structures. We look along every avenue to save weight. Caravans and turbines need quite high health and safety margins. Not that a boat will fall apart. But a turbine blade snapping would make a mess of somebody. We build more a sort of Formula 1 type product, though," he grins, "it doesn't seem like it when you look at the state of things in here."

Ovington Boats' performance, for all that, justifies its claim to be one of the world's most successful businesses engaged in small boatbuilding for the high performance dinghy and sailboat markets. Its range includes the Olympic Class 49er, the ISAF and RYA Youth Asymmetric 29er Class, the new 29erXX, Musto Performance Skiff, Flying Fifteen and International 14.

It also builds the Albacore, Byte, Lark and Solution. To landlubbers, these names may mean little. Suffice to say that Ovington boats are the chosen craft for every Olympics from 2000 until 2020 at least, capturing glory for competitive sailors in many other prime international events besides.

Moreover, the firm will develop, design and custom build boats. Turner explains: "We started building for the Olympics in 1996, when our boats were first selected. Boats are chosen in four year cycles by the world governing body. Our boats have been voted through as core equipment until 2020. They're guaranteed to be in the Olympics should the sport stay in the Olympics till then."

Doesn't that sound pessimistic? "No sport is guaranteed for the Games, though I guess 100m running is," Turner says realistically. "Even Greco-Roman wrestling, stuff of the earliest Olympics, was almost excluded recently. Though Britain excels at sailing and rowing, water sports are generally costlier to run than other events, whereas 100m running needs only a track, a gun and a timer. We'll see what happens. It's beyond our control."

Ovington AnneThat would surely damage Britain's future medal aspirations? Turner, again realistically says: "I'm not sure the explosion of public interest in sailing and rowing in light of Britain's outstanding sports successes is popularising the sport, for it's actually in decline. I say that as a committee member of the Royal Yachting Association."

Why? "Largely because there are so many other things to do these days. Unfortunately kids sit in front of Xboxes and the like. Youngsters aspiring to the sport must be prepared to travel a lot. We're here in the North East, yet most of our UK sales are at the South Coast. Anyhow, there's much more to the sport besides Olympics, although two of our products are at the Olympics, which does bring kudos.” It would be ironic, again, if some other countries queuing for Ovington Boats - and comprising 60% of total sales today - were to leave tomorrow's British rowers and sailors lengths behind. Germans and Danes are big customers. Last year it was Russia, India and Estonia.

The Russians ordered around 30 boats, and the Estonians have returned for a top-up. "Indians were on the phone again this morning. So it's been pretty good," Turner smiles. The UK, by contrast, has been on a recessional course, with emphasis on luxury rather than recreational. Ovington boats appeal with "new age" character. Turner elaborates: "They're a little more high tech than many. In sailing, you have a piece of equipment and you race the same equipment, competitor against competitor. Many boats in the Olympics were designed in the 1960s. Our equipment is 30 years newer. It's lighter, faster, more attractive, and a lot more fun - more slash and burn.

"It's taken a long time for some emerging nations to grasp this. They've gone for traditional, whereas in the UK and Australia we're a bit more 'out there' in extreme sports. Now the like of these countries realise the 49er, the Olympic boat particularly, is here to stay. And with it voted as core equipment, they now have to put the infrastructure in place to train today's youngsters to be Olympic athletes of tomorrow.

"They are purchasing the 29er, which is the baby brother - the youth training boat to get to Olympic standard. That's where we get  volume. Russia has 30 29ers and four Olympic class boats. We've run a coaching clinic in Russia, Estonia and Portugal this summer."

Last year, of almost 400 craft turned out, 160 were 29ers. Ovington prices range >> between £5,000-plus and £25,000, the 49er being around £20,000. “We're doing a new style one," says Turner, “a larger yacht. We've 10 orders, five to the USA, five to Australia, and some more to Morocco to follow. So we're looking to get into bigger boats. Our builds are more competitive. We don't really have a leisure boat per se, though it depends on the definition of leisure.”

Turner explains that Ovington is the UK's only Olympic boatbuilder, as distinct from Olympic class, because few boatbuilders are left in the UK, though there is Laser Performance in Oxfordshire, now Anglo-American and claiming in the USA to be the world's largest producer of small sailboats. It was skills shortage that set Turner on a North East course from his business on the South Coast. "You couldn't get anyone to work for you there," he says.

He feels fortunate to have worked a few years with Dave ("Ovi") Ovington, the celebrated founder of Ovington Boats who died in 2005. Turner had earlier sub-contracted his manufacturing to Ovi and, in return, provided technical services as a pattern maker - "I made his moulds, he mass produced my boats. That's how I've ended up in the North East."

Their synergy sparked from a passion to boatbuild from an early age. Ovi's father, a contractor, ran his family business from nearby Mariner's Lane. Ovi in his father's shed took to joinery tools and started making boats - becoming the elephant in the room eventually. He launched the business in 1975, building traditional wooden boats initially, and race-winning Enterprises especially.

He progressed to glass fibre construction, and was first in the UK to develop on a production basis "vacuum bagged foam sandwich," an application now globally common. When he died, Holy Saviours Church in Tynemouth was packed for the funeral, with another 200 stood outside - sharing in the service over a PA system.

"I got into boatbuilding the same way," Turner reflects. "I luckily won national championships. But when you're 16 or 17 and can't afford a boat you build your own. I sold it, built another the following year and did exactly the same. Dave too had built a boat. Someone wanted to buy it and he grew the business that way.

"My son sails. He's four. Age doesn't matter. I've competed against people into their 70s. And with some a lot younger than me - that's what's good about the sport. Not all boats rely on physical ability. Obviously the Olympic guys go at it and are really fit. But that's the pinnacle. You can just sail a boat and use your mind - a mental game of chess as much as a hard-work-leaning-out type of job. I'm still at the level where I like a bit of the hard work."

Turner, 41, who was 15 years Ovi's junior and joined the firm in 2005, recently became sole owner of Ovington Boats through a secondary management buyout. The empathy he and Ovi shared suggests the latter would have been pleased by the outcome, albeit Turner must now be even more peripatetic, not only delivering orders personally, attending meetings and competing in events, but also keeping up homes both in North Shields and Lyme Regis - "a place not many people hear about, though The French Lieutenant's Woman was filmed there," he adds helpfully, "I've never seen that."

He spent three months on the South Coast working on the Olympics. "We'd three or four events down there, each a week long. Over 12 months I've spent that time on the South Coast while my wife and family were up here. Now I spend three months on the South Coast with them, and commute back at weekends. With a good infrastructure here I don't have to worry too much."

He was then about to deliver a boat to Hendon, before going on to Portsmouth and elsewhere for a couple of meetings, then making for a weekend's racing at Brighton, competing in national championships with an Ovington product. "We support or sponsor many events we build products for," he explains. He hopes to have a sales office or holding station on the South Coast eventually.  
Michael Smith describes Ovington Boats as a "unique and exciting North East company." He's a corporate finance partner at accountants Tait Walker, which Ovington Boats has worked with since the original MBO in 2006.

Funding for a 50% share of the business second time round was raised through HSBC, with Tait Walker's corporate finance team helping to structure the deal. Looking ahead, Turner says: "We've ambitious plans. Our 49er FX boat is a new class for the 2016 Olympics and we currently sell around 60% of the market for these, worldwide. It's going to be a prime area for growth in the coming years." Let's hope there are young British sailors sufficiently skilled to be first over the line in them.

Salute to the past

Working flat out now, the company can muster four teams to produce 10 boats a week - 11 with overtime.

“Sadly we don’t do any wooden boats these days. It’s a shame because I’m traditionally trained. I used to build boats with copper nails in. I can show you my woodworking tools in my toolbox. They’re very traditional - even to the wooden hand planes. But they haven’t seen light of day for five or six years. It’s all composite work now, with a vacuum pump the most specialised tool, I suppose.”

However, he adds, proudly: “We’ve got one of Dave Ovington’s wooden boats from the ‘80s that he built himself. We bought it back out of nostalgia. We’re going to refurbish that and if we ever move we’ll put it in the foyer as a bit of history.”