John Welsford's website

John Welsford's designs

From the Drawing Board
(occasional ramblings of a Small Craft Designer)

by JohnWelsford

On Customers

Customers to me are both the most rewarding, and the most frustrating part of the job. If not for the customer, then the job would just be a way of thinking aloud with a pencil, the random jottings of a mind preoccupied with matters maritime and, in the end, pointless. I, like a lot of others, had folders full of nice ideas, dreams which would never see reality leaving me with no way of checking that any of the stuff I'd drawn would work.

A simile springs to mind. I, as a teenager much too long ago, designed spaceships during maths period, but without the opportunity to actually build one, did not realise that the mass energy ratio achievable with the fuels specified would not get Luke Skywalker to his next assignment with Darth Vader in time to save Princess Leia from the lascivious clutches of some slimy villain. ( If I had listened to my teacher a bit more I would have been able to calculate it, but that's beside the point)

The customer though, builds the results of my thoughts, uses the boat, provides feedback and is able to compare the boat with their expectations, trying it out in company with other boats of similar size, and enabling me to gradually incorporate the lessons learned in future designs.

Comparing the boat with their expectations, now there's the rub! How do I know what is really going on within the echoing halls of someone else's psyche, how to divine what fantasies are driving their enquiry for a set of plans or custom design? 

The first way is to paint a word picture of the boats use, Phil Bolger taught me this one, ( by example, if you are going to copy an idea, only copy the very best, thank you Phil). I had been doing it to a certain degree for a while, recounting my own adventures afloat and using that to illustrate the capabilities of the craft concerned, but over the years the designs became too numerous to build one of each, and I gradually woke up to the fact that adventures are too often cold, wet and uncomfortable. So I write fictions, "Bolgeresques" I call them. Stories designed to put into context the boats capabilities and strengths, where and how it is intended to be used, the loads it will carry and how far, the smell of the salt and the skirl of the gulls overhead, the spray flying as she butts through the rising chop and the warmth from the stove when at last she is at anchor in some remote sheltered cove. 

You've got it! A way of connecting with the clients' fantasy.

Another way is to sit down with the person concerned and gradually produce a brief for the design, first we identify the customers starting point, usually one of my other boats or a specific task for the boat. Navigator, one of my real pets, came as a result of two such enquiries. I had an approach from a very experienced sailor, an "Extra Master Ocean Going under sail" about as high as you can get, who wanted a training boat for his local club. She was to train teenagers in the sailing of high performance keelboats, but without the costs of a 25 foot high tech racer, she should be easily built as a club or home building project , she should look a little like some of my previous boats ( which is what attracted the client in the first place) and be as economical to produce as possible while being consistent with the training goals.

I drew the design up, and the club meantime decided to go with an existing class ( hiss, spit) but a couple of the originals were built. A while later a previous customer, a hardy veteran who had already built two of my boats came wanting a longer range open cruiser. Together we dug through my drawing file and came across the Navigator, he loved the hull, it fitted the design parameters and with some alteration to the interior it would be ideal. But the oversized sloop rig with all of its complex controls and powerful sheeting systems was not going to suit a slightly built singlehander wanting to make coastal passages in New Zealand's windy waters so we started off by outlining the functions of the rig.

He needed lots of sail area for light weather, easily reduced for fresher winds, it had to be directionally stable to assist the boat to self steer, quick and easy to rig, and cheap. Bob was ok with "alternative" rigs and his previous boat, one of my "Rogue" designs, had used the sprit boomed standing lug that is a favourite of mine so we began with that.

The directional stability needed to reduce fatigue on a long distance single hander can be obtained by either spreading out the underwater lateral plane, not easy in a centerboarder and not good for wriggling the boat up narrow channels under sail, or by spreading the rig out fore and aft. With this in mind I drew a yawl rig, jib, main and a mizzen a little larger in proportion than most yawls .


The process went on, and in the end Ddraigge ( Welsh for Dragon, Welsh mythology is big on Dragons boyo) became one of the most popular of my designs, with boats as far away as Finland, and Russia. In this case the process of consultation and customer involvement was a real success, I had a client who had a good idea of what he wanted to achieve, I knew him well enough to know what he would like, and we both of us were able to be clear and unambiguous with the other. 

Success. Its not always like that though.

I had another enquiry, a while back, for a serious small cabin yacht. The guy travelled in from Japan to see me so in spite of some reservations generated by a rather odd telephone conversation I was keen to see him.  He wanted a cabin yacht big enough for him to sleep in in comfort, small enough for him to build in a limited building space, and consistent with his skills and tools, and which would suit his vision of "his" boat.

Now the first two items were not an issue, pretty standard stuff. We'd gone through them on the phone and he'd brought an incredibly detailed drawing of his building space with him. It showed not only the floor plan and the door which was great, but included every structural member of the building, the make, model and colour of the car that normally parked in the space and the kinds of flowers that were in the flower beds around it! Warning bells? They were deafening!

So we discussed his vision, and after an hour or so of hard work all I had was that he wanted a boat that reminded him of a "Scottish Castle, up on a misty crag above a dark grey stormy Loch" .


I showed him pictures of Shetland Faerings, Viking Longships ( and shortships) Luggers, Fifies, Zulus, Loch Post boats, Salmon Skiffs, Falmouth Quay Punts, Morecambe Bay Prawners, Flatners, Keels, and sailing barges. Nothing!

I set him loose in my library of magazines to find pictures of boats that he liked, he came back in a couple of hours with a pile of pictures as high as your knee, but the boats he had picked were not consistent in type or style. I tried to analyse the features that attracted him to them, no help there. I asked him which features in the pictures he'd selected reminded him of his Castle, nothing consistent there either .

At this stage I was openly looking at my watch and had asked him a couple of times what time was his bus leaving? 

Well, I got rid of him eventually, and it was a couple of weeks before the next letter arrived. By this time I was dead sure that the mist around his Scottish Castle was in his head, and did not want anything to do with him. But having come all the way from Osaka I did feel obliged to have a go. So I read the letter, full of mystical maunderings about spirituality and emotional atmosphere, still nothing I could get a handle on, but drew sketch proposals of three small and slightly traditional boats that would any one of them done what was needed in practical terms and sent them off.

When the reply came back it told me in no uncertain terms that I was a person of very little intelligence (in rather less polite words) as he the client had been very specific in his requests and that none of the three proposals displayed any indication that I had listened to what he had been saying.!

So, if you are a keen boatie, wanting to build a little cruiser that will fit into your confined building space, and can be built with hand tools and basic skills only, come and see me, but not if you want a boat that is like a "Scottish Castle".

John Welsford Small Craft Design.