From an early age Nick Spurr has been fascinated with the craft of boat building, harbouring a romantic notion to own his own yard. James Barton meets a man who realised his dream after buying the Amble Boat Company in Northumberland.
NICK Spurr was only six years old when his grandfather gave him his first taste of sailing and boat building, starting an enduring passion he has never lost.
So convinced did Spurr become that he had found his calling, that at the tender age of 16 he left home and scoured the country for an apprenticeship, settling eventually on Robson Boatbuilders in South Shields.
Spurr says: “I remember spending many weekends and holidays in my childhood in and around a boatyard my grandfather had taken an interest in because he owned a sailing boat.
“He used to take it regularly to the yard for repairs and I began to spend my holidays and weekends either there or rowing in the dinghy he bought me.”
Soon Spurr’s hobby became an obsession to which he dedicated his life – first becoming a highly skilled boatbuilder and finally returning to the region that trained him to buy the Amble Boat Company in Northumberland.
After 30 years Spurr has realised his childhood ambition and is one of a dying breed of craftsmen trained in the construction of wooden boats.
However, this has not stopped him adopting modern techniques and materials, building a successful business with a £1m turnover and 14 staff.
But at the beginning, difficulty finding work almost ended Spurr’s aspirations before they began.
He says: “I was desperate to become an apprentice but in 1975 the government put a 25% VAT tax on all luxury goods, which decimated the yacht building industry, and although I spent a good 12 months looking I couldn’t find an apprenticeship anywhere.
“My father was keen to help and was the one who discovered South Shields business Robson Boatbuilders, which served the fishing industry and I was fortunate enough to get an interview – they must have spotted something because I was offered an apprenticeship.”
From this point Spurr’s life changed dramatically: the boy who came from a comfortable middle class existence in Beverley, near Hull, was exposed to a much tougher, working class community, learning the practical skills of a boatbuilder serving the fishing industry.
He recalls: “It was hard, physically-demanding work, often having to manhandle huge pieces of oak, elm and larch after a delivery and the money I earned didn’t even cover the cost of my bedsit.
“But I was doing something I loved and learning all the time – I have fond memories.
“I remember my first day very clearly. I had found a white boiler suit to work in but it was only when I arrived that I realised the only other man wearing a white one was the manager. The lads really ribbed me about that and I couldn’t wait for it to get oiled up and dirty.
“South Shields was a real eye-opening experience, but I was accepted and treated with respect and I loved it.”
After initially staying in a bed and breakfast, Spurr moved into his own two-up-two-down home after seven months.
“I went from the relative comfort of living with my parents to a house that only had an outside toilet and no central heating,” he says.
“It was one of the original houses built for the shipyard workers and although it was sometimes quite difficult, for me it was all part of the experience.”
It was a four-year apprenticeship which taught Spurr about every aspect of the wooden boatbuilding process.
He was taught to take a scaled-down drawing from the boat designer, draw an actual size plan (called lofting) and from that construct the hull, deck, superstructure, engine and stern gear (the propeller and drive shaft).
“The only thing we couldn’t design and build were the detailed electrics and the hydraulics,” he says.
Spurr’s love of his craft becomes clear through his thoughtful delivery. His knowledge of the waterways in the 1970s provides a valuable historical archive of an era which existed for decades but has now long since passed.
Spurr says: “Robson built wooden boats up to the size of 65ft trawlers called seine netters [after the type of fishing they undertook].
“We also built foy boats [which took the lines of the commercial vessels in the Tyne and moored them] and pilot cutters [which guided visiting vessels in and out of the restricted channel of the Tyne].”
Foy boats have long since disappeared, but there are still some pilots boats on the Tyne.
As part of his apprenticeship Spurr also attended South Shields Marine and Technical College to hone his skills of carpentry and joinery.
“It was only years later when I worked in the US for a huge boatbuilder and found that my rounded skills were in great demand and I realised how unbelievably fortunate I was to get one of the last apprenticeships of its kind anywhere.”
Robson, which employed 30 staff, finally went out of business in the early 1990s.
Spurr says: “When the government ended the subsidy to contribute towards the cost of building fishing trawlers, demand tailed off and many boatbuilders lost their main customers and were eventually forced out of business.”
Local names such as Lambie in North Shields, Captain Frank McNulty in South Shields and even J&J Harrisons in Amble (the yard that Spurr now owns) were all forced out of business by declining demand from the fishing industry.
As a result, the number of people with the rounded skills that Spurr acquired dwindled.
“I still keep in touch with many of the friends I made from those times, but only a few of us have stayed in boatbuilding,” he says.
“There is me and Fred Crowell, who I worked with at Robson and who has his own yard in South Shields, the others are either outside the region in boatbuilding or have gone into the oil and gas industry.”
Spurr is proud of the boatbuilding tradition of which he is still a part. “I remember the first boat I built when I was 17 – a 12ft rowing boat for Saltwell Park in Gateshead. “My girlfriend Katie [now Spurr’s wife and Amble Boat Company co-owner] and I queued to hire it out but when we got to the front it had gone out, so we waited until it came back. I vividly recall the marvellous feeling of satisfaction sitting in a boat I had built myself.”
But even at this early stage Spurr knew he wanted more. It was not going to be enough for him to acquire the craftsmanship – he also wanted his own yard.
“I wanted to be master of my own destiny and create something,” he explains, “and in the early 1980s, when I was still at Robson, I was offered the opportunity of buying a boatyard in Alnmouth. It was tempting, but I realised I didn’t have the business management skills to cope with taking charge.”
So instead Spurr put his ambition on hold and went back to college in Southampton to study boatyard management and was able to spend seven months placement in the US, working for the biggest yacht manufacturer in the world – Morgan Yachts.
“It was here I discovered new materials such as fibre glass and aluminium but my skills from Robson were immediately recognised and I loved working there, adding to my knowledge.”
When Spurr came back to the UK and graduated he initially wanted to go straight back to the US, but instead was offered a position with specialist yacht builders MG Yachts in Scotland, where he started as works manager.
But the company ceased trading and what followed was a period of change whilst Spurr acquired more skills and finally, in 1993, ended up working at the Amble boatyard he now
Again the company he was working for – Marshall Branson Marine – experienced financial difficulties and ceased trading. Spurr was able to purchase the three-acre site from the receiver.
He says: “Boatbuilding is a difficult business. Orders, particularly for the bigger boats, are lumpy and it can be feast and famine.”
In the 12 years since buying the yard Spurr has managed to diversify the business, launching a franchise for French yacht maker Beneteau.
He offers storage facilities for up to 55 boats, caries out repairs and servicing for the RNLI and private owners, as well as boatbuilding.
He says: “I knew from my own experiences that running a successful yard is reliant on you making the most of the opportunities available to you. This is why we moved into the franchise business, which accounts for half of the company’s sales.
“Just after I bought the business a major customer pulled out and we nearly folded, so now we have business coming in from different areas and spread the risk.”
The boatyard takes orders from South Korea and Bahrain to build aluminium vessels for oil pollution control and is prototyping a new transportable boat for military and disaster area applications for the Maritime Rescue Institute.
Two years ago Spurr invested £600,000 upgrading the yard, has recently completed an RNLI inspection which should result in more business, and is expecting to increase the amount of boatbuilding work after talks with a major customer.
“This place represents everything Katie and I have ever worked for, and although I have proved I am prepared to borrow money to develop the businesses, I will not be rushed into making rash decisions.”
Spurr has made his own luck, but knows he is fortunate to be doing something he loves. Succession is not assured.
“Ben, my 21-year-old son, loves sailing but is studying to be a doctor at Newcastle,” Spurr concludes.
1960: Born in Grimsby.
1964-76: School at Fleet and Beverley.
1976: Left home.
1976-81: South Shields Marine Technical College.
1981-84: Southampton College.
1976-82: Robson’s Boatbuilders
1982: Morgan Yachts
1983-93: Spells at MG Yachts, Rampart Boatbuilders, Victoria Yachts, Campbells Boatyard, Norsail, Maryport Boat Company.
1993: Marshall Branson
1995: Bought the Amble Boat Company.
What car do you drive?
BMW 335 and a Land Rover Discovery for towing boats.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
A great tapas bar.
Who or what makes you laugh?
Watching a funny film with my son.
What’s your favourite book?
I don’t read many but the last one I read from cover to cover was Slave, it was a very moving read.
What’s your favourite film?
At the moment, probably Pirates of the Caribbean, having just come back from a sailing holiday in the Grenadines where we sailed into Wallilibou Bay on St Vincent, where the films were shot.
What was the last album you bought?
An album by Senegalese singer Akon, now at the bottom of the stack after suffering great ridicule from my family.
What’s your ideal job, other than your current one?
Practical aid worker, helping others to physically rebuild their homes, boats or communities after a natural disaster.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you’d teach it to say?
What’s your greatest fear?
The thought of parachuting or bungee jumping just isn’t natural.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
To be honest with yourself and others, maintain an open mind and constantly network with others.
Worst business advice?
I hope that I wasn’t given any.
What’s your poison?
Lager, gin and tonic, red wine, margaritas and sambuca – but not all at once.
What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?
Mail on Sunday and the Northumberland Gazette.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
My first pay packet was £16.00 for 40 hours.
How do you keep fit?
Sailing and less-than-regular visits to the gym.
What’s your most irritating habit?
You would have to ask my family, I don’t think that I have any.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with/admire?
My family would say Del Boy Trotter, I always had greater aspirations.
And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Richard Branson, Billy Connolly, Nelson Mandela and Prince Harry, because he is a bit of a lad.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a good man.