Great British craftsmanship

Kevin Webster and Ray Smith have boat building in their blood. Born and bred in Norfolk, they both left school at 15 with no qualifications, have worked their way up from apprentices to craftsmen and beyond and now, aged 63, neither has any interest in full time retirement.

Great British craftsmanship

Yet what strikes you the most about these two softly spoken men, with the warmest of relaxed smiles, is a coolness and serenity that it is difficult not to envy. In fact, the only time they look a little confused or even awkward is when you ask them about their job titles. Kevin is the General Manager, while Ray works on the shop floor, though neither description does justice to the wealth of experience and expertise they both clearly possess.

As they start to outline their individual roles, they inadvertently slip straight into describing what everyone else does in the team and therein lies one of the biggest clues as to why the Wroxham-based facility has continued to turn out some of the highest quality boats in the world for over 40 years.

“They call me Fossil,” jokes Kevin. But there is nothing ancient or ossified about him, as a stroll around the Norfolk yard reveals. It’s easy to see the respect amongst the team. Of course they know him, he is the boss after all – even if he is reluctant to accept it – but they all know that his views and understanding are based on a lifetime on the tools.

For his part, he doesn’t just know everyone’s name, but could probably give you the back story on each and every one of the 140 staff. No doubt there’s a wealth of interesting tales here, but it’s Kevin’s story and the strength of his commitment to the community, both inside and outside work, that says a great deal about why this company operates as it does."

“I started in 1971 as a trainee boat builder just down the road here. It was my first job and they gave me a wire brush and told me to rub all the rust off a cradle outside. But I progressed from that to work on other jobs where people trained me and eventually, I became a foreman at 25, before moving on to be a director of Landamore’s.

“Back in the early days we were building the Hustler 25, 30 and 35s, as well as the small end of the boat hire fleet here on the Norfolk Broads. It was Leslie Landamore, the second generation in the family, who got into offshore sailing and that’s where the contacts came from and why we ended up building ocean going yachts in the middle of Norfolk.

“As an apprentice you worked for five years before you received full pay, but you still carried on training and continually learning - I’ve never stopped. Things have changed a bit though. Today you get much more detailed drawings than you ever did before. But then the systems are far more complicated today. What hasn’t changed is how rewarding the work is.”

“Throughout my time, Oysters have evolved continuously, so the job itself is changing all the time. A new model comes out and brings new challenges, but that’s what skilled craftsmen love. It’s what gets them up in the morning; new tasks, new quests, new things that challenge them.”

Ray is quick to agree, adding that, for him, working in wood is what brings each project alive. “It doesn’t matter what wood it is, it’s a living thing and you can do anything you want with it. From laminating to fine edges, corners, shapes, there is no other material like wood to work with.”

“We make all the joinery here and that’s another special feature of our work. All the timber comes in as raw planks to our mill and is sawn up by the mill hand, set into squares and then machined to whatever shape you want. From there we’ll do the rest in the joinery shop and while we have CNC machines to cut things out, the machines can’t do the final stages, cutting out a post or blending the final bits in. That still has to be by hand.”

Ask him about his early days and it’s easy to see why Ray has such an affection for wood. “At school, woodwork was one of my favourite lessons, so when I left I started off 200 yards from where we are now at a little boat yard called R Moore and Son in Wroxham. I worked for them for 12 years, during which time it was a guy called Jack Chippendale that really got me into fine woodwork. He built Fireball dinghies and I was his apprentice when I first started at Moore’s."

“Later on I wanted to build bigger boats. I’d seen them in Yachting World magazine and saw in the adverts that the big Oysters were being built in Wroxham. I found out that they were building them close by at Landamore’s, which is where I arrived in 1982.

Like Kevin, Ray cites the finished product as being one of the biggest sources of pleasure. “The pride and satisfaction you get from being at the end of the project and knowing that you helped build that boat for somebody to go off around the world and live out their dreams – it’s special.”

For all the pair’s dedication to their work, behind the scenes both give back to their colleagues and the community. “I was a charge hand from 1984 till 2017 and then a senior charge, but I had a medical issue and had to take six months off,” continued Ray. “When I came back, I said that I’d like the youngsters, who were doing my job while I was away, to carry on. I was just happy to be back on the shop floor and to help in any way I could and guide them when they needed help.”

Kevin’s broad role in the company has delivered much the same. But outside work he is a community first responder (CFR), once again giving back to society. “I run the local group here so I’m responding to 999 calls, category ones and twos, which are cardiac arrests, strokes, high priority things like that. “It’s quite a big passion in my life and I’m very fortunate because Oyster encourage it. I will sometimes respond while at work to go and deal with a cardiac arrest because the first eight minutes are crucial. If I can get there with the equipment in time you can make a difference. And I have made a difference to several people, getting them back by being able to shock them with a defibrillator.” It’s a big commitment on top of a busy job.

“We get about 40 calls a month and I probably deal personally with around 30 of them. In the last 13 years we’ve responded to just over 6,000 calls.” From both men’s perspectives it’s easy to see how their lives are deeply entwined with their work. No surprise then that neither is currently keen on full retirement. “When I retire in two and a half years’ time I would like to think I can come here at least two to three days a week,” says Ray as he describes a life going forwards that would barely define retirement for many. It speaks volumes, as does Kevin’s view of the world in Wroxham. “I grew up in this village. A lot of people I see to, or work with, I’ve known all my life,” he says. “It’s those friendly faces that really fit within Oyster which is in itself a big family. It really works well and it certainly suits my personality.”

Click here to read more stories from Oyster Life Magazine, Issue 81.