For Yachts & Country
Born from humble beginnings, here’s how the “Big Three” British Builders got their start.
Sometimes British politicians like to reassure those sections of the electorate who are finding it hard to adjust to post-imperial life that we can still “punch above our weight.” It means nothing, so it can be applied to virtually anything, but it sounds good—you can almost convince yourself it’s true.
And in some areas, it actually is. There is stuff we’re still good at, and if you want a cool car, a nice suit, an excellent pair of speakers or a genuinely frightening retro-styled muscle bike, all served up with an ironic smile and a self-deprecating attitude, the U.K. should sit near the top of your list.
Boats, too. We’ve always been great boat builders. Back in Edwardian times the very -smartest yachts came out of British boatyards. Scottish larch-on-oak fishing boats were the prettiest in the world. Cowes Week remains the premier yachting regatta, and (whisper it) our nuclear subs are quieter than yours.
There are three British boat brands today that can look any other in the eye. Whether you’re after a hot little deep-V dayboat or a stately superyacht, at some point you will have checked them out. Recognized from Bar Harbor to Sydney Harbor, they might be big names now, but they all started out within a few years of each other, in the 1960s, in a small way. Very small, in fact.
Perhaps the smallest start only looks that way because the end result grew to be so big. Sunseeker is a globally recognized name now, but it began as a humble boat sales business operating out of a garage in Dorset, on England’s south coast. The Braithwaite brothers—Robert, who died last year age 75, and John, 72—started work in their teens and then took over for their father and his partner. The family firm sold Scandinavian sport boats and 17-foot Owens speedboats—an American brand built in the U.K.
“Robert was a natural salesman, and I was fascinated by design and engineering,” John remembers today.
It was Owens that gave the young men their big break: When the U.S. company pulled out of the U.K., the Braithwaites bought the molds for the 17-footer. “The Sovereign 17 came in two versions, a hardtop model and an open speedboat, using the same hull and deck,” says John. “They were put on the market in 1969.” Tentatively at first, using an outside contractor to build the S17, the two brothers were soon pressing ahead as if they had boatbuilding in the blood.
With business underpinned by strong sales of Scandinavian imports—the Jim Wynne-designed Coronet boats did particularly well—they realized that they needed a wider range of home-grown product, and John set to work. “The first thing I did was design and build a 20-foot cuddy cabin model, the S20,” John explains. “This was done by scaling up the 17, cutting and shutting an existing hull.” He had never done anything like it before, but it worked: “More by luck than judgment, it was a very good boat, much better than the 17.” Emboldened, John created a 23-footer next—still based on the 17, but with substantial modifications including a modified deadrise and more beam.
It was the S23 which their new dealer, Henry Taylor in the South of France, exhibited at the 1975 Paris boat show. Taylor’s advice proved invaluable. “He explained that he wanted boats that people could use with their families, to sunbathe, swim, picnic and enjoy the Mediterranean climate,” recalls John. “He said if we built them, he could sell them.”
It was a turning point. “Robert and I now had a clear vision of what we wanted to build: fast, high-quality, practical boats to use in the sun.” They wanted to emulate the style and flair of Aston -Martin—but, as John admits, they could hardly do so with a modified cut-and-shut U.S. speedboat. It was time to bring in professional expertise, and with the kind of bullish drive the company has become renowned for, they went straight to the top.
Don Shead had raced offshore throughout the 1960s, and his own designs had won every European offshore title going. He had designed superyachts for Tommy Sopwith and the King of Spain. He was the man. So they phoned him.
“It’s every designer’s dream to get a big production boatbuilder,” Don told me, although “they were nothing then—a very small company.” But their timing was perfect: He had been sketching ideas for a production cruiser based on his old raceboat, Avenger Too, winner of the round-Britain race. John liked what he saw. The sketches became the Sunseeker 28, which launched in the summer of 1979. It was the start of one of the most fruitful relationships in boatbuilding.
As Don Shead said, “Everything just clicked.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of England, a businessman named Jack Newington had acquired a couple of flooded gravel pits, dug a channel linking them to the river, and built a marina. It was 1964. If yachting on the south coast was still the preserve of the upper classes and their wealthy emulators, here in the Fens and Norfolk Broads it was a more democratic pastime, and most yards had fleets of boats -available for family holiday hire on the safe inland waterways.
In 1966 Jack acquired a set of molds for a dumpy little two-berth cruiser, which he put into production as the Fairline 19. It sold well, and by the time Jack’s son Sam joined the firm in 1970, it was already becoming a force in British production boatbuilding. Sam, who died in 2017, was a high flier: an ex-RAF fighter pilot with an MBA from Columbia, who was working in London.
“In those days our customers were as new to boating as we were,” he later recalled. “Pleasure boating for the masses was in its infancy, and we were one of the first companies producing boats that were reasonably affordable.”
It was Sam’s vision that turned Fairline into one of the most famous British boat brands, setting his sights on seagoing craft and international sales. He followed up the 19 with a 20-, 23- and 25-foot cruiser, all drawn to his specification by John Bennett, the best-known designer of the day. Then came the 29 Mirage and 32 Phantom in 1974, which established Fairline as a leading force. The crowning achievement of the early years was the Fairline 40, a flybridge design, the biggest production motorboat built in Britain at the time. Launched in 1977, the model changed the game: “We were suddenly, internationally regarded as a player,” Sam recalled. It remained in production for 11 years.
But even while the 40 was in development with John Bennett, Sam had his eye on the next step, and he started working with another naval architect. Bernard Olesinski was only 32, but he’d already owned his studio for seven years. He designed a Jon Bannenberg-styled 97-foot superyacht before his 21st birthday and had sold his designs to yards in the U.K., Italy and Asia. An apprenticeship in Cowes in the early 1960s gave him first-hand experience of the offshore designs of Sonny Levi, Jim Wynne and Ray Hunt.
But Olesinski wasn’t interested in being the next superstar raceboat designer. He wanted to create production boats. Fairline gave him the chance, and he gave Fairline some enduringly successful designs. A new 26 was launched in 1978 as the Fury. This was followed by 21- and 23-foot models as Sam upgraded the range. Olesinski’s Turbo 36 concept from 1982 became the archetypal European cruising boat, with its commanding deck salon, huge aft cabin and sturdy seagoing hull. Hundreds were built.
Fairline’s partnership with Bernard Olesinski came to rival Sunseeker’s with Don Shead, as ground-breaking vessels like the Fairline 50 and the Targa 48 helped define their era. At a crucial time in their fortunes, both companies instinctively understood the importance of excellent design.
In the old naval port of Plymouth, a young naval officer named David King rented a shed by the water with two partners, bought a set of molds for a 31-foot boat, fitted it out to a pretty good standard—he was a trained engineer—and sold it as the Project 31 for £3,400.
They later worked out that it had cost them £3,450 to build, but they soon had orders for two more, and David decided to quit the navy. It was 1965.
A 31 was a big boat in those days, “a size that successful people aspired to,” David told me. “We sold boats to retired civil servants, doctors, businessmen, at least one knight of the realm and a high-ranking European gentleman who worked as secretary to the Pope.”
So successful was the venture that within a year revenues hit £30,000, and the year after that £150,000. They adapted the molds to make the Project 31 bigger, and it became the Princess 32. It caused a sensation at the 1970 London boat show. “At previous London shows we had generally sold between two and four boats,” David recalled, “but at the 1970 show we took orders for 20 from distributors, and sold another 10 retail.”
For a brand that wants to go places, one model is never enough, and David called in the services of the redoubtable John Bennett, whose 33- and 37-foot designs for Princess became ubiquitous in marinas all over Europe.
Things were going well. But just like Sam Newington, David King always had one eye on the future, and when a young naval architect walked onto the stand at the London boat show, he gave him a ready hearing. The designer was, of course, Bernard Olesinski. His first Princess was the hardtop 30DS in 1980, which was an immediate best seller, even by Princess’s standards. A flybridge version soon followed.
It was Olesinski’s next design that really made waves. David could see how well Fairline was doing with their flybridge 40, and he knew he had to take them on. He asked Bernard to design the biggest Princess yet—the Princess 45, which was unveiled in 1982.
“Remember that in those days if the weather cut up rough you used to have to turn into it and try and edge over towards where you wanted to go, keeping your bow into the seas,” David told me. “But the 45 could handle a cross-sea, and was fine in a following sea as well. It was superb. And, it saw us through that recession—we took enormous market share.”
The 45’s seakeeping set a new standard, and raised the expectations of the customer. Planing boats were no longer just for sunny afternoons—they had true cruising potential. The Princess 45 was a milestone not just for Princess but for British boat design.
One milestone out of many, and the process goes on. “There was great competition between Princess and Fairline, and Sunseeker sort of zoomed into fashion in the mid-to-late 1970s,” Sam Newington said in an interview towards the end of his life. “We were always looking at where the others were going next and trying to outdo them. The fact it was so competitive was one of the reasons that the British industry was so successful. Strong competition spurred us on to greater efforts.” And still does.