Tom and Lorraine Owen built their 30ft motor cruiser completely from scratch, working together with phenomenal dedication. Nick Burnham went to meet them
Building a wooden boat from scratch is a huge investment in time and money – hence the popularity of home build kits on the market.
But husband and wife team Tom and Lorraine Owen went one step further, both designing and building the 30ft motor cruiser Thea from scratch. They even built a shed at Premier’s Noss marina facility in Dartmouth in which to construct the boat.
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 out of 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 were derelicts, the first proper yacht Tom owned being a Golden Hind 31 that he bought in 1975. It had been written off after sinking on its moorings, and after rebuilding it, putting a new bottom into it and getting it up to scratch, Tom sailed it to the Mediterranean – quite an adventure.
Tom has owned many vessels since, most early ones bought as abandoned boats or insurance write-offs and renovated. He also finished off an Elizabethan 33 which he bought as a bare hull and deck and then 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 that had to go,’ laughs Lorraine. The couple got married two years 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. ‘We still live there,’ says Tom. ‘We’re too busy building boats to want to move!’
With interest rates running at 15% back then, 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 33 but were rarely finding the time to use her. It was time for a rethink.
A plan for the future
‘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 motorboat, 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 learned, 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, he dedicated himself full time to the design and build, creating a 10-tonne classically styled yacht of timber and epoxy, a system Tom favours for one-off builds.
‘You’ve got the wood, which is easy to work with, but 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 he had ‘one last boat’ in him, and the decision was made to switch to a motorboat.
‘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 for a start. Plus with a yacht, you’re buried in the hull when in the cabin. With a wheelhouse you can see what’s going on and be comfortable, and that’s why we came to the conclusion of a motorboat.’
And that led to the concept of Thea.
They wanted a smaller boat to economise on moorings and other LOA-based costs, so the length was pegged at 30ft. There had to be space in which to live and to 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 – converting to offer an occasional double berth – as is the forward cabin with its offset double berth and masses of storage (in fact there are 57 lockers throughout the whole boat).
With Selene sold to provide funds, Tom set to the design, begging the inevitable question, where do you start?
‘I’m an artist,’ explains Tom, ‘I get an idea and I’m fortunate that I can “see” the end product. It just comes naturally. A lot of things don’t come naturally to me, but drawing and building do. 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 and ask “Will this 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 2 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 four inches deep at the bow increases aft to a depth of 2ft to provide directional stability and protect the single shaft-drive propeller 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 element 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 armrests and reach and rake adjustment.
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. ‘A plastic shed is not the best because it’s too cold in winter and too hot in the summer – it’s basically an oversized greenhouse. But it provides essential cover from the elements and you just have to adjust and work around the fact that it’s not a perfect situation.’
Lorraine adds: ‘During the summer we were starting at 6am and finishing at midday, then we’d go home for a siesta during the heat of the day and then 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 formed upside down, the mahogany frame made first and then skinned in plywood and epoxied.
‘I tend to build, Lorraine tends to finish,’ says Tom. ‘She does the rubbing down, the filling, the varnishing, the paint etc. So I’m building frantically, and she follows along and finishes it.’
Mid-summer was the red letter day when the inverted hull was removed from the shed and very carefully turned right way up. Then it went back 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 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 was launched with a small celebration on 3 December 2016, making her officially the last boat to be built at this 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 – incredibly helpful. And that includes the company CEO Peter Bradshaw who always came to see our progress when he was at the site.’
The total build cost (including shed and renting the site) came in at £45,000, but of course that doesn’t account for the labour.
‘The economics are 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.’
‘Yes, 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 35hp 4-cylinder diesel, an identical motor to the one that served them so well over 20 years in Selene.
Cleverly, the wheelhouse door aperture is just slightly wider than the engine, so in a worse case scenario the entire motor can be removed from the boat without dismantling either it or the boat.
So, 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 Mk1 is always the one with the problems, but she doesn’t appear to have any. She’s an excellent sea boat, is easy to handle and she’s economical. Top speed is eight knots, with a cruising speed of seven 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 along the south coast to the Isles of Scilly and then on to Ireland.
The motor cruiser 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 another boat to come? Tom smiles. ‘I think we’ve done enough boatbuilding for now. It’s time for us to just enjoy some sailing.’
LOA: 30ft 0in (9.1m)
Beam: 11ft 0in (3.3m)
Weight: 4.75 tonnes
Engine: Beta Marine 35hp diesel engine
Cruising speed: 7 knots
Fuel capacity: 47 gallons (215 litres)