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Passion for boats keeps Northfleet business Simply Skiffs afloat

PUBLISHED: 15:07 14 March 2013 | UPDATED: 15:07 14 March 2013

Hamish and Sarah Napier-Fenning

Hamish and Sarah Napier-Fenning

Archant

What do Stella McCartney, the Falkland Islands, Dad’s Army and Reading Council all have in common?

Hamish with one he made earlierHamish with one he made earlier

The answer can be found in a Northfleet yard where boat builder Hamish Napier-Fenning keeps the flame burning for a dying industry.

His hand-crafted skiffs, punts and canoes can be found across the globe in places as far flung as the Falkland Islands, and in shop windows as exclusive as Selfridges.

But his skill is one that has become almost obsolete in the UK due to high labour costs and developing technology.

Yet despite this, the 30-year-old’s business – Simply Skiffs – is proving there is still a market for small and “beautiful” boats.

Hamish applying the finishing touches to one of his boatsHamish applying the finishing touches to one of his boats

He said: “Wooden boats are just wonderful to look at, they’re very beautiful.

“It’s a shame really because boat building is dying out a bit in this country, but I just find the complexity of the designs quite formidable.

“Some of the workmanship you see on older boats just doesn’t exist any more.”

Keen sailor Hamish has been walking decks from a young age, since he and his father would take to the waves with his brothers in tow.

Though his siblings today work in the financial industry, Hamish moved from renovating large boats to making smaller ones from scratch in 2007.

“My dad sailed all his life,” said Hamish. “He got me into boats and have been working in and around them ever since.

“I had never worked for myself, but I saw a gap in the market and went for it. There aren’t many businesses making wooden boats and my customers are especially keen on the fact they’re made by hand.”

If you type “wooden row boat” into Google, Simply Skiffs are the first port of call – which Hamish sees as one of the key reasons that his skiffs are now scattered across the globe.

He has made vessels for Reading Council’s playgrounds and film companies, plus a west end production of Dad’s Army.

But perhaps his highest profile customer was the daughter of Beatles legend Paul McCartney.

The designer ordered a boat in 2010 to be included in shoots for her summer collection – though the majority of the 80 models he churns out a year go to far more conventional clients.

He said: “My skiffs are 95 per cent sold to people who have their own lakes and ponds. They use them either for maintenance, or because they need to get to a little island.

“Other times it might be hotels who order a batch to bob around in their waters.”

Often out delivering his boats across the UK, Hamish’s workshop is looked after by his wife Sarah, 26, who also does her bit either with paperwork or getting her hands dirty in the construction .

Boating truly is a way of life for the couple, who leave behind long days boat building in Northfleet to arrive home at their floating home moored in The Medway.

They moved into the barge three years ago and although it can be driven on water, Hamish learned the hard way to keep it in one place.

He added: “It’s a wide beam canal boat, so it can move but it’s a nightmare to control and last time I tried we ended up on a sandbank.”

His boats range in price from £370 to £780 and above. To find out more visit simplyskiffs.co.uk.

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