With a simple life plan of retiring early and owning a boat, Tom and Lorraine Owen set about realising their dream the only way they knew – with love, dedication and elbow grease. Thea, the result, is a gem to be cherished
Tom and Lorraine Owen realise their retirement dream by lovingly building their own ideal boat
The mere mention of home-built boats makes thoughts turn to moth-eaten amateur fit-outs of 1970s Colvic hulls, interiors a square-cut plywood testimony to the jigsaw-wielding builder’s triumph of enthusiasm over ability. But every so often you discover a gem – a boat built with real talent, unerring love and phenomenal dedication. Thea is the latter, and that home-built status goes far deeper than a hull and deck fit-out. Tom and Lorraine Owen built this boat completely from scratch. They even built the shed at Premier Marina’s Noss facility in which to begin construction.
Entirely self taught, Tom’s history of boatbuilding goes right back to his childhood. At the age of 12, he built himself a punt out of hardboard and at 16, he converted a small clinker-built boat, adding a cabin and wheelhouse and fitting an engine taken from an Austin 7.
“I used to go fishing at Cardiff Docks in the 1960s,” says Tom. “There were a huge number of derelict boats just lying in the mud and I felt that it must be possible to do something with them. It was all done on a shoestring – I was still at school when I had my first boat. It’s just been a sequence of boats thereafter. I went from a 17-footer to a 28-footer to a 34-footer.”
Most of these boats were derelict, and the first proper boat Tom owned was a Golden Hind 31 yacht that he bought in 1975. It had been written off after sinking on its moorings. After rebuilding it, putting a new bottom into it and getting it up to scratch, Tom sailed it to the Mediterranean – quite an adventure, especially considering the lack of radio or navigation equipment.
Tom has owned many boats since then, most early ones bought as near wrecks or insurance write-offs and renovated. He also built an Elizabethan 33 which he bought as a hull and deck and fitted out. At the time, he was, by his own admission, “slumming it,” living aboard the boats that he’d rebuilt. He describes himself as a waterborne hippie.
It was a lifestyle that changed when he met Lorraine in 1981. “The hair was the first thing to go,” laughs Lorraine. The couple got married a year later and bought a cottage in Galmpton, close to the River Dart, Tom having relocated to south Devon on his way to the Med with the Golden Hind in 1975. “We still live there,” says Tom. “Too busy building boats to want to move!”
THE PLANNING STAGES
With interest rates running at 15%, Tom and Lorraine were both working flat out just to pay the bills, Tom doing ad-hoc boat repairs and Lorraine in an office job. They still had the Elizabethan
but were rarely finding the time to use her. It was time for a rethink. “We sold the boat and used the proceeds to clear the mortgage,” explains Lorraine, “And then we sat down and worked out our life plan. We realised that all we wanted was the cottage, a boat, and to retire early, and the only way we were going to achieve that goal was to build the boats ourselves.”
Tom takes up the tale. “We started out with a 23ft angling boat. We bought the hull with the intention of fitting it out but it turned out to be in far worse condition than expected, so we turned it into a glassfibre plug to make a mould to start production. We produced one, which was a centre-wheelhouse motor boat, a pretty little thing. But what we learned from the experience was that we both hated working with glassfibre. I’m a woodworker, and I found working with glassfibre to be a miserable experience.” The mould was duly sold, and in fact ended up in Scotland where the boats continued to be produced.
Lesson leaned, it was back to wooden boats, and in the early 1990s, Tom and Lorraine embarked on their first build from scratch, a 35ft yacht called Selene. Giving up his boat repair work, Tom dedicated himself full time to the design and build, creating a 10-tonne classically styled yacht of timber and epoxy, a system that Tom favours for one-off builds. “You’ve got the wood, which is easy to work with and relatively cheap, but the epoxy coating (inside and out) effectively makes it a glassfibre boat, so all the problems of wood then go away.”
The couple kept Selene for 20 years, cruising extensively. But Tom felt that he had “one last boat” in him, and the decision was made to switch to a motor boat. “We found ourselves motoring much of the time anyway – neither of us have the patience to sail for eight hours just to get somewhere we can reach in three under power. You get there cold, wet and fed up. It’s meant to be a pleasure. So we asked ourselves: what would make it a pleasure? Being warm and dry will make it a pleasure. Plus with a yacht, you’re buried in the hull when in the cabin. With a wheelhouse,
“I’m a woodworker, and found working with glassfibre to be a miserable experience”
you can see what’s going on and be comfortable, and that’s why we came to the conclusion of a motor boat.” And thus the concept of Thea was born.
The parameters were a smaller boat to economise on moorings and other Loa-based costs, so the length was pegged at 30ft. There had to be enough space to live and entertain as the couple spend three months cruising in the summer. A second cabin was deemed unnecessary but a large galley was a must as Lorraine likes cooking, as was a decent-sized heads. A great deal of the experience both of building and using Selene has found its way into the design of Thea. The dinette in the main saloon is a replica of that in Selene (and converts to offer an occasional double berth), as is the forward cabin with its offset double berth and masses of storage (there are a total of 57 lockers throughout the whole boat).
With Selene sold to provide funds, Tom set to work on the design, begging the inevitable question – where do you start? “I’m an artist,” explains Tom, “therefore I get an idea and I’m fortunate that I can ‘see’ the end product. A lot of things don’t, but drawing and building comes naturally to me. I understand curves and shapes, I know what they’re doing. It’s just a pleasure.”
“Tom is so gifted,” says Lorraine. “But this was a big investment in terms of time and money, so once Tom finished the plans, we did take them to a naval architect to check it would work. That also helps with arranging the insurance.” The design is offshore rated, making channel crossing a possibility, and the stability is exceptional, rated to recover from 90° of heel – not that the couple plan to put that to the test!
A MODERN CLASSIC
The design is pure retro. Tom likens the bow to World War II air sea rescue launches, which were double-diagonal construction with a reversed cutaway bow. A wide beam creates plenty of space on board (she’s 11ft wide rather than a more typical 9ft) as well as stability, and a keel about 4in deep at the bow increases aft to a depth of 2ft to provide directional stability and protect the single shaftdrive propellor and rudder.
With the plans formalised, all that remained was the small matter of building her and that included every single aspect, from the construction to the plumbing, wiring, engineering, glazing and rigging. The only thing Tom won’t tackle is stainless-steel welding. Upholstering was also outsourced (except for the helm seat which is actually a very comfortable VW van seat, complete with reach and rake adjustment and armrests).
A shed was erected in March 2015 at Noss Marina on the River Dart, the same month that the first wood supplies arrived – mahogany for the deck beams. “If you don’t have a half-decent place to build something, you’re never going to do it,” says Tom. “In a perfect world I’d have a workshop with central heating but we didn’t have it so that was that. A plastic shed is not the best because it’s too cold in winter and too hot in the summer – it’s basically a greenhouse. But it provides essential cover from the elements and you just have to adjust to the fact that it’s not a perfect situation.”
“In a perfect world I’d have a workshop with central heating but we didn’t have it so that was that”
Lorraine says, “During the summer, we were starting at 6am and finished at midday. Then we’d go home for a siesta during the heat of the day and come back and work through the evening.” And work they did, for up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week for 18 months.
Initially the hull was built upside down, the mahogany frame formed first and then skinned in plywood and epoxied. “I tend to build, Lorraine tends to finish. She does the rubbing down, the filling, the varnishing, the paint etcetera. So I’m building frantically, and she follows along and finishes it.” July 25 was a red letter day – the inverted hull was removed from the shed and very carefully turned the right way up before being returned indoors to start on the rest of the build.
Tom calculates that 9,000 man-hours went into the boat in total, slowed only slightly by two unplanned hip operations for Lorraine during the build. Tom worked right through Christmas, stopping only for Christmas day itself.
With everything checked (a surveyor oversaw the build, and the electric and gas systems have been inspected), Thea launched into the River Dart with a small celebration on December 3, 2016, making her officially the last boat to be built at this once great industrial shipyard with a history of boatbuilding stretching back into the 19th century. Tom and Lorraine can’t speak highly enough of the yard that has been home to their dream for so long. “Premier Marinas were superb. They were incredibly helpful way beyond what would have been financially useful to them. And that includes the company CEO Peter Bradshaw, who always came to see our progress when he was at the site.”
They worked for up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week for 18 months
The total build cost (including building the shed and renting the site) came in at £45,000, but of course that doesn’t account for the labour. “The economics of it were not good from a commercial point of view,” says Tom wryly, before adding, “But that was never the point. It proves that you can achieve an awful lot for a reasonable amount of money. And with epoxy coating of the wood inside and out, we’ve got the advantages of a GRP boat but with the character of wood. We could have fitted out a GRP hull and deck, but it would never have been exactly what I wanted, and it would have cost £26,000 for the hull and deck alone.”
“We could have cut some costs,” adds Lorraine. “We didn’t have to have a teak-laid cockpit, for example. But we wanted it, so…”
Motive power is via a Beta Marine 4-cylinder 35hp diesel, an identical motor to the one that served them so well for over 20 years in Selene. (Cunningly, the wheelhouse door aperture is carefully configured to be just a couple of inches wider than the engine, meaning that in a worst-case scenario, the entire motor can be removed from the boat without dismantling either it or the boat.) Begging the obvious question, how does it go, and has it lived up to expectations?
“For us, this is the perfect boat. She has proven to be better than we’d hoped. The MK I is always the one with the problems, but she doesn’t appear to have any. She’s an excellent sea boat, she’s easy to handle and she’s economical. Top speed is 8 knots, with a cruising speed of 7 knots using two and a half litres per hour.”
So far Thea hasn’t been further than Salcombe, but the intention is to retrace their favourite cruising route, which is along the south coast to the Scilly Isles and up to Ireland. “We will get over to France,” says Lorraine, “but we have a slight restriction. Our cat comes cruising with us, and even with the new passport scheme, it’s difficult to return from France with him on board.” The boat is already proving its worth as a sea boat. “She holds the water really well. Coming back from Salcombe there was quite a big race around Start Point, and she went through it like it wasn’t there.”
So is this it, or is there a further boat left to come? Tom smiles. “I think we’ve done enough boatbuilding for now; it’s time for us to just enjoy some boating.”
“We could have fitted out a GRP hull and deck but it would never have been exactly what I wanted”
The build begins with the hull upside down
The wheelhouse roof beams are slotted in The finished hull is turned and put back in the shed
As Tom builds, Lorraine follows on behind sanding and finishing
To build a boat, first you must build a shed
The big day – the launch of Thea
The couple handled almost every single aspect of the build Bottoms up! Thea has 57 lockers in total
Long days and late nights went into the 18-month long build
Lorraine’s user-friendly galley takes shape
The realisation of a dream – and a huge amount of hard work
The 35hp Beta 4-cylinder diesel is good for 8 knots and burns just 2.5 litres per hour