The heady smell of resin, the scrape of planes on wood and the sink of sawdust underfoot. These are the first things to hit the senses on stepping inside the lofty shed at the Elephant Boatyard, a place where the past has come full circle to meet the present.

Amid the organised chaos of randomly stacked planks, arcane tools and ribbon-like slivers of shavings sit boats with a glorious past, propped up in the dry and awaiting renovation – not least Suhaili, the 32ft Bermudan ketch in which, in 1969, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston completed the first non-stop, solo circumnavigation of the world. Dominating the scene, however, is the half-completed hull of a 51ft ketch, its partly decked topside affording a bird’s-eye view into an empty skeleton of sculpted khaya wood, its ribs clad in a fluid curve of rich and meticulously laid cedar planking. 

The boatyard’s badge on Jo, a classic Nelson yacht
The boatyard’s badge on Jo, a classic Nelson yacht © Benjamin McMahon

The Elephant Boatyard, near Southampton, is one of the few places in the world that can make a boat such as this. The traditional skills required to craft larger boats are difficult to find, as are people willing to allow such a project the time. It can take up to two years to complete a build from start to finish, and prices can easily reach seven figures.

“My family arrived here in 1951,” says owner Tom Richardson, the 76-year-old yard master. “In those days, you could count the number of people who owned boats on the fingers of one hand. Sailing didn’t have the lifestyle appeal that it has today, and the Elephant was nothing more than a shed, a few mud berths and a slipway. What’s now the marina was full of sedge.” 

White-haired, sociable and a natural raconteur, Tom joined his parents’ business in the late 1960s. He will shortly hand the Elephant over to his rather more reserved 51-year-old son Matthew, an experienced racing yachtsman and boat builder who returned to the Hamble after years spent working on major events such as the America’s Cup and the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race.

Tom and Matthew Richardson with boat designer Nigel Irens (middle)
Tom and Matthew Richardson with boat designer Nigel Irens (middle) © Benjamin McMahon

Richardson’s father designed patrol boats for Navy use during the war before setting up a dinghy company. When he bought the boatyard at a property auction it had no name, but its subsequent moniker seemed appropriate because it was along these very shores that Bursledon shipwright George Parsons built HMS Elephant, a 74-gun ship-of-the-line laid down in 1783, launched in 1786 and broken up in 1830 after nearly 45 years of service. In 1801, she carried Lord Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen – on which occasion, legend has it, Nelson held a telescope to his blind eye when it suited him not to notice the signal to retreat.

By the time the Richardsons acquired the yard, the building of such big ships was nothing more than a page in the area’s history and postwar austerity meant “yachties” were a rare species. “We barely had enough work to occupy the only traditional boat builder we had on the team,” says Tom. “To make ends meet we opened one of the country’s first dinghy sailing schools.”

The Elephant first became busy building boats made from glass-reinforced plastic – the then-new material better known as GRP that, in the 1970s, looked set to put a permanent end to wooden hulls. “I bought a GRP boat and won several races in a season,” says Richardson. “That led to people asking us to make similar models. But then someone came along with a commission to build a wooden quarter-tonner, so we had to put together an old‑style building team.”

A 51ft yacht designed by Nigel Irens under construction
A 51ft yacht designed by Nigel Irens under construction © Benjamin McMahon

That “someone” was an enthusiastic sailor named Bob Brooks, the American-born film director who created the celebrated early ’70s “For mash get Smash” TV ad for Cadbury’s dried potato, and later the JR Hartley “fly fishing” advert for Yellow Pages. The build was sufficiently exciting that it raised the boatyard’s profile. “The ’70s and ’80s were an incredibly busy time,” Richardson explains. “We landed a great deal of work building ocean racers made from western red cedar and spruce. They were so light they could easily compete with boats made from GRP.” Furthermore, Richardson and his team began using the new West epoxy resin system to keep the wood watertight and reduce weight. “We were probably the first yard in Europe to use epoxy for wooden boat building and it transformed the process,” Richardson adds. “We built 65 boats, the biggest being a 71-footer with a carbon mast 120ft high. It was the tallest unstayed rig in the world.” 

But as the millennium turned, the yard saw demand dip markedly. “We went from having boats stuffed cheek by jowl in the sheds to an almost total decline in demand,” Richardson recalls. “GRP production had reached a level where a yacht could be exhibited at a show, ordered off the stand and delivered a few months later.”

In the workshop at the boatyard
In the workshop at the boatyard © Benjamin McMahon

Increasingly the Elephant turned its skills to the restoration of classic yachts, working on a slow but steady stream of notable models. But while the boatyard was kept ticking over with repairs, refits and restorations, appreciation of vintage yachts was slowly growing.

“It took us into a fresh era which, ironically, is somewhat based in the past,” says Richardson of the Elephant’s current business, as he takes me on a tour of the yard. He points out a 1969 boat called Arctic Skua, the first to be built from scratch here, and an 1899 Bristol pilot cutter for which the Elephant shared an award for the best classic boat restoration. There’s also a 57-footer called Overlord that began life as Pelikan, once the pride and joy of Nazi president Hermann Goering before being taken as a prize of war in 1945.

Refitting work on Border Legend, a 50ft ketch
Refitting work on Border Legend, a 50ft ketch © Benjamin McMahon
A yacht’s binnacle compass aboard a project at the Elephant Boatyard
A yacht’s binnacle compass aboard a project at the Elephant Boatyard © Benjamin McMahon

“During the past 10 to 15 years it has become increasingly popular to rejuvenate classic yachts,” says Richardson. “It’s partly because some of the more famous examples have been pulled out of the mud and restored to their former glory in order to be sailed at dedicated vintage regattas that have helped shine a spotlight on traditionally built craft. Although we live in an instant world, it seems that some people are sufficiently adventurous to want to build a wooden boat, and regard doing so as the pinnacle of their life’s work. They realise that they will be putting something down that will be a part of the future.” 

The 51-footer in the boatyard is one such example, built at the request of businessman Charles Watson. “I grew up sailing an old wooden boat designed in 1960,” explains Watson. “It belonged to my grandfather and, within the family, she crossed the Atlantic six times: once as part of a voyage to Venezuela for my honeymoon in 1989. She was always maintained at the Elephant, but we parted with her after my grandfather’s death because I was starting my own business and simply didn’t have the opportunity to use her.”

Nigella, a restored 1959 motor launch
Nigella, a restored 1959 motor launch © Benjamin McMahon

Designed by Nigel Irens (who created the catamaran in which Ellen MacArthur made a record-breaking solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005) – this new commission is built to be capable of facing the harshest ocean conditions and, significantly, has been made to be as simple as possible. There has also been a strong eco-friendly aspect to the design. “We ensured the wood came from a sustainable source and are looking at various offset options to ensure more trees are planted than were used,” says Watson. “We’ve gone for as many green energy systems on board as possible – solar panels, for example – and an electric outboard for the tender that is, essentially, a miniature version of the yacht. The aim is to cross the Pacific without using any diesel.”

Asked why he has been prepared to go to such lengths to build a boat, Watson answers, “I briefly considered restoring an existing classic but, with any old boat, the day she falls apart tends to come sooner rather than later. The Elephant is the only yard that truly lives, breathes and understands the philosophy of wooden-boat building.”

The old name board for the Boathouse, a converted warehouse in the Elephant Boatyard built in the early 1900s
The old name board for the Boathouse, a converted warehouse in the Elephant Boatyard built in the early 1900s © Benjamin McMahon

Even Richardson has been surprised by what seems a measured but significant market for beautiful and characterful wooden boats. “If someone had told me 30 years ago that we would soon be pulling a brand new, all-wooden yacht out of that shed,” he says, “I would never have believed them.” 

Richardson didn’t see the classic boat revival coming. But perhaps it wasn’t only Nelson who had the right to be blind sometimes.

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