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Boys From the Backyard

In less than 20 years, Williams Jet Tenders have gone from longshot to dominating force in the tender market.

It’s not often you find new ways of measuring things. (A unit of measurement since antiquity, a “stone” has been around since biblical times. I equal about 12 of them.) But now, Williams Jet Tenders gives us a new way to measure an important nautical feature: Models from this company allow us to estimate the size of a tender garage in a motoryacht. That Prestige 630 over there? That fits a Williams Turbojet 385. The new Beneteau GT 50? It can accommodate a Williams Minijet 280. And so on, with no signs of stopping.

The Williams Sportjet 395

This goes beyond simple marketing strategies. When looked at a certain way, it starts to resemble something more like evolutionary biology, akin to the symbiotic relationship evinced by a shark and a pilot fish. You clean me, I’ll protect you. You build high-quality tenders, I’ll provide a customized space for them on board. Of course, we (customers and yacht builders alike) more or less take it for granted that Williams produces premium diesel- and gas-powered jet tenders, but that wasn’t always the case.

Sales Director and co-founder at Williams Jet Tenders, Mathew Hornsby describes himself and his brother, John, the technical director, as “two guys who just love building boats.” What started out as a hobby for the siblings has led to the development of a company based in a production facility 6 miles away from their family home in Oxfordshire, England. It was at the house, in the modest garden shed, that the brothers began their journey into the boatbuilding business. Since then, they’ve catapulted onto the global market.

John and Mathew Hornsby February 2018 Williams Factory, Oxfordshire

Founding brothers John and Mathew Hornsby

“Given the number of boats we build,” said Mathew, “you may be surprised to learn that we’ve only got 65 people working here.” But the Williams business, in every incarnation since its inception in 1996, has always been a close-knit, hands-on family affair.

The River Thames is a fixture in Oxford as it winds its way first to London, and then the sea. It was on the Thames—“at probably too young an age in a little motorboat,” said Mathew—that the two brothers developed their interest in boating.

Their father, in his spare time, was a woodworker. And it was that combination­—a practical upbringing around tools, and a nascent love for boating—that led to the brothers’ fascination with boatbuilding.

Using their mother’s maiden name, Williams, John and Mathew began building wooden powerboats at home, first in the shed, and then in the backyard. Their style inspiration was vintage Italian and U.S. runabouts of the ’50s and ’60s.

The Tahoe 20 Jade, the first boat built by the brothers

The Tahoe 20 Jade, the first boat built by the brothers

And then came the pivot, a shrewd move into jet tenders.

Today, debates in the local pub swirl around how many jet tenders they’ve built to date. Said Mathew, “We were guessing, and it’s a little bit more than we expected. It’s actually more than 8,000.”

The seed for the pivot was laid when Gerard Wainwright, owner of U.K.-based Sealine Boats, who the brothers knew, suggested they try their hand at producing tenders. Their first effort, the Ski Rib jet tender, debuted in 2002. Designed to fit one of the most popular powerboats of that era, the Fairline Targa 43, it took off in popularity.

The Ski Rib jet tender

The Ski Rib jet tender

Today the line includes the Sportjet 435, 395, and 345, and partnerships with builders are still pivotal to their success. Mathew calls it a privilege to work with designers on tender garages, sometimes three or four years before a yacht launches.

The role each brother plays in the company happened out of necessity, but Mathew says they’re both very much hands-on. He still enjoys sneaking out of the office and onto the shop floor. I asked him if they ever considered building wooden or fiberglass boats again.

“I think the practicalities of the size of the business we have at the moment preclude it,” he said. “But who knows? One day we may well find ourselves back in a shed somewhere building a wooden boat.”