A Peep through the Porthole
Falmouth’s Dream factory. Behind the scenes at Pendennis Shipyard
Article by The Papa Gorilla
The National Maritime Museum bears testimony to Falmouth’s illustrious past and present. Its observation deck offers spectacular sweeping views out across the Falmouth Harbour: to the north and west, thousands of vessels sit moored at anchor in the open water; whilst the quays in the shadow of the museum provide home or temporary harbour to some mouth-watering pleasure boats. Looking out towards the harbour mouth across the dockyards, it is clear that while Falmouth docks may not be as bustling as in their late nineteenth century heyday, the town remains a working port and harbour (the busiest in Cornwall); with both commercial and military vessels very much in evidence.
Just a little further east past the commercial docks, and away from prying eyes, lies the Pendennis Shipyard: the jewel in Falmouth’s industrial crown and a worthy standard-bearer for the passion and craft that has been evidenced by local ship-builders since time immemorial.
There is a mystique to the world of luxury yachts, with its associations of ultra-extravagance and the private lives of the mega-rich at leisure on secret tropical waters. It was made clear prior to my visit that clients would not be discussed and project details were not to leave the confines of the shipyard – all of which of course merely served to fan the flames of my intrigue and curiosity.
Some objects are of such exquisite manufacture and eye-popping value that I have a tendency to imagine that they fall full-formed from the sky and directly into museums or the hands of the lucky few. And yet when one manages a privileged glimpse into the atelier of the artist, craftsman or jeweller that actually fashioned them, one is entranced by the very real-world skill and artistry that sets the raw materials apart from the finished article.
Luxury yachts fall into that sky-falling category in my mind, and I had never really stopped to wonder where they might possibly originate. Hence my ever-heightening sense of anticipation as I made my way through three separate security posts even to reach the shipyard’s reception area. As I made my way along the secure access road, a sleek chopper came into land at a helipad just out of view – who could it be? Who could be flying in to check on the progress of their maritime creation?
Pendennis Shipyard can handle any needs from light refurbishment to a ground-up custom new build. A standard refit project might be achieved in four to six months or so, while a full restoration or rebuild could see a vessel in the yard for 18 – 24 months. New build projects might take anywhere between two and four years, depending on the scale and complexity. This is serious work.
The business is seasonal, depending on the preferences of the customers concerned. Those that spend their time in the Mediterranean want their vessels shipshape and seaworthy from May to September, whilst those who prefer to sail in Caribbean waters need their yachts from December to April. The work is varied and never-ending at this shipyard that sits amongst the world elite of shipbuilding prowess.
The shipyard is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its inception, at which point it inherited a 150 metre wet dock that has since been divided into two 75 metre wet or dry docks. Catwalks high above the base of the docks (and the waterline when wet) give a mind-boggling vantage point from which to marvel at the activity below. Staircases lead down from the catwalks into the dock itself to give access to whatever masterpiece is currently in the care of the Pendennis craftsmen.
The cavernous space is almost impossibly filled with a vast multi-decked pleasure yacht; scaffolding has been constructed beneath and above the vessel; a mighty winch manoeuvres high above in the ceiling cavity of the covered dock, busily transporting timber from the stockpile to the joiners on deck. Various parts of the vessel are covered or uncovered depending on the state and nature of the works; the teams on deck are dwarfed by the scale of the yacht, whilst those at the base of the dock beneath the hull are like ants scurrying around between the stores spaces and numerous mobile workshops that inhabit the (dry) floorspace.
Pendennis has an almighty 450-strong workforce, representing the full gamut of required trades: fabrication, electrical, engineering, joinery, painting, deck outfitting and more.
What impressed me most was to learn that a high percentage of the team members originate within a 20-mile radius of the shipyard, and a third of the workforce has come up through the shipyard’s apprenticeship scheme. This is a business that actively seeks out local talent and is willing to invest in local people, both to teach them a trade and support them in their ongoing career.
Apprenticeships are hard won, with often more than ten applicants for each of twelve places. Successful candidates spend a year at college and part-time at the shipyard before transitioning into a further three years of full-time practical training, being mentored in the choice of specialisation that is best suited to their skills. Alongside this they all complete a Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award and participate in community projects, meaning that the closed-doors business nevertheless achieves positive outreach into the local area.
Facilities have expanded to meet the needs of the burgeoning enterprise, and an almighty industrial unit houses two 90 metre and one 45 metre construction halls. These have a real state of the art feel, fully covered but designed to maximise the inflow of natural light to the workspace. All extraction and heating units lie beneath the halls, leaving an almighty sense of space in the halls themselves.
Again, high walkways running along the upper reaches of the halls afford the astonishing spectacle of construction in full flow: in the first hall lay one solitary vessel, again occupying almost the full length of the hall and with the hallmark imposing sleekness of a bright white perfectly formed immaculately decked haven of relaxation and understated yet evident class. Scaffolding and platforms surround the hull; everywhere you look across the vessel there are men and women hard at work – painting, welding, lowering pieces into place; measurements are being taken, plans consulted and heads nod as the finer details are confirmed as passing muster.
The entire yacht is effectively jacked up atop a panoply of storage containers; some of which contain the requisite stores for construction, and others of which house workshops for joiners and welders, paintshops, breakrooms, site offices and other facilities.
Between the halls sit the project offices, where an army of project managers and deputy project managers monitor every detail of every stage of each project. Pendennis Shipyard prides itself on its ability to deliver each customer’s precise vision, executed in the finest detail to the highest standards.
In the second construction hall lay two vessels, one being completely remodelled with a classic Italian design aesthetic, and the other being decked out as a minimalist racer. Each vessel could manifestly serve as a canvas for a hundred different styles, and each was being expertly crafted to reflect the vision of its proud (and soon to be prouder) owner.
And the owners are nothing if not passionate. Whilst the Pendennis team will happily project-manage with full autonomy, they actively welcome the involvement of owners in every stage of the process; and most owners choose to participate with alacrity.
In front of the construction halls is the wet pool, enclosed by lock gates which open onto the entrance to Falmouth harbour. I was shown the latest custom new build project, an achingly beautiful 130ft aluminium-constructed sloop, low and sleek and oozing both style and craftsmanship. I learned that its owner had been present for the ceremony of the lowering of the mast, placing a coin beneath the mast for luck, cherishing this milestone in the realisation of a dream that had been a great many years in the design and making.
The other occupant of the wet pool was STEEL, a yacht built by Pendennis to ice-class specifications. All elements of the yacht’s construction and systems are designed and tested to operate under the most extreme polar conditions, and yet the vessel has nevertheless been kitted out with a marble bath, gym and solarium (in case those arctic conditions precluded the ability to comfortably sun oneself on deck).
These are just two examples of the 30 or so superyachts that have been built at Pendennis Shipyard over as many years, with over 250 further refit and refurbishment projects taking place alongside. Mike Carr and Henk Wiekens are joint Managing Directors of the whole enterprise, each having been with the business since its earliest days, and they provide a window onto the passion that these vessels can invoke:
Mike, the more reserved of the two, nevertheless spoke with manifest fondness for the yachts that pass through the shipyard; describing some as marvels of modernity and cutting-edge technology, and others as historic monuments that are preserved by his teams almost as custodians of a maritime legacy. He suddenly lit up with an understated yet powerful energy as he described the unbeatable thrill of bringing a team together to complete a Herculean and multi-faceted project by means of a beautifully orchestrated combination of meticulous planning and peerless craftsmanship – the very skills that Pendennis Shipyard has taken as a foundation its success.
I turn to Henk and ask him what draws customers to these superyachts, and he turns the question straight back on me, asking what draws me to motorbikes. “Well, it’s the sense of freedom, adventure and excitement; the ability to pick up and go where you like when you like and leave behind your other worries and cares.”
Henk looks at me, smiling with friendly mischief as he watches me answer my own question. “There you go,” he says, “now imagine you could take all of that and transpose it onto a sea-going vessel into which you could pour all your enthusiasm and creativity; in which you could reflect your passions and your personality and then take it to tour the world at leisure with friends and family or simply to get away from it all…”