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

Motorboat & Yachting - - Contents - Words Nick Burn­ham Pic­tures Nick Burn­ham & Tom & Lor­raine Owen

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!”


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!


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”

Long days and late nights went into the 18-month long build

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

As Tom builds, Lor­raine fol­lows on be­hind sand­ing and fin­ish­ing

To build a boat, first you must build a shed

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

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

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