parallax background

Boating: Cockwell’s; hand-crafted boats from Cornwall

3 October 2023
A limited-edition off-roader from Morgan
2 October 2023
Alain Ducasse: A Life of Food and Passion
3 October 2023

Water and wood

Nautically inspired from childhood, Dave Cockwell now runs a firm using classic methods to create superb boats

T he ocean, the sea, the loch, the canal. The water. There are few more evocative words in the English language. The word ‘water’ invokes freedom and life, danger and adventure, class and luxury. The need for being on the water is a calling, an irrepressible urge.

Riding on the water soothes us and connects us. Those who are fascinated by the movement of the wave and captivated by the clouds on the horizon are the lucky ones. Those who can’t imagine a weekend without some time in a boat are favoured. The water is calling.

Life on the water is all that Dave Cockwell knows.

‘I had my own boat from the age of six, a little boat with a small engine. When I got to the age of 11 I had my own yacht as well,’ Dave tells me from the Southampton Boat Show. ‘It’s the independence. At a very young age you are the captain of your own ship, aren’t you? You’re in charge. ‘My dad has a picture of me as a toddler in his garden, I’m sat in a cardboard box next to his boat, and I’d made the box into a boat.’

Today, Dave is still the captain of his own boat and his boat-building business; one that has developed like no other. Cockwells describes itself as a ‘traditional boatbuilder in a modern world’. With his team, Dave makes motor launches and sail and motor yachts.

There is one element that sets Cockwells apart from most other boatbuilders in the world: wood. All the varied vessels that leave the company’s Mylor Creek Boatyard in Cornwall are dominated by wood. No chipboard and no MDF.

These are boats where you’ll finds dovetailed joints and real hinges, where each part is handcrafted. The boatyard is a joinery. It’s teak, mahogany, chestnut, walnut and, in particular, English oak that dominate the scene.

‘I think what appeals to people is that they look like a proper boat, like the ones you imagined when you were growing up.’

A glance through the Cockwells’ portfolio demonstrates how craftsmanship combines with luxury. Grace, a 30ft private day launch, features mahogany decks riding a rich navy blue hull. The galley and cockpit are designed for the family. It’s elegant in its silhouette and the detail of the design. Or take Merlin, a 48ft Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter, a replica of an older boat, Peggy. It was crafted over two years. Her hull is made with an oak frame and larch planking and finished with bronze fittings. This boat, that sails from Brittany to the Baltic, is a masterclass from shipwrights and riggers, sailmakers and boatbuilders.

‘People who like our boats just don’t want big plastic blobs,’ Dave says. ‘I think what appeals to people is that they look like a proper boat, like the ones you imagine a boat should look like when you were growing up. But they’re not old fashioned, they’re contemporary and stylish in a traditional way.

‘I’ve always thought that if your lines flow properly on a boat and your proportions are good, then it will behave properly, and our boats do. It’s very obvious to anybody they just look right.’

Judges and the press agree. A few days before we spoke to Dave, the team were celebrating a first place in the Concours d’Elégance in Cannes for its Titian Tender, praised for being a masterpiece in artisan craftsmanship and technical ingenuity.

Even their Duchy range of motor launches, made with composite glass fibre hulls, looks like wood and is finished with expert joinery. The Duchy 27, launched in 2011 and designed by Andrew Wolstenholme, is a classic day boat that will comfortably carry six, or take two people away for the weekend. It has rich teak decking, custom-made stainless steel handrails, leather seating and a bathing platform and ladder. You can even add a hot shower. On the water, it handles beautifully, powered by a Nanni T4.200 engine.

‘You have to have a trusting relationship between the boatbuilder and the client. We’re not building something you can throw away, we’re building something that you can treasure for years to come.’

Although Dave didn’t set out to be a boatbuilder, chatting through his history, it’s clear his route was defined from a very early age. He grew up in Bristol, son of a boating fanatic who worked on docks around the world, including their home town. His father, a builder by trade, spent most of his weekends on the water.

Dave was always with him. ‘We were always fixing boats, constantly. Sailing on the weekends and generally hang around on boats, that’s all I ever did really. I passed my navigation qualification aged 11, the only qualification I actually have!’

Knowing Dave had spent a youth tinkering with boats, he was asked to help fix one up and from then boatbuilding has been his life. At first, repairing boats straight out of school and then moving on to help with builds of cruising yachts or power boats.

Cockwells started out in a boatyard in Bristol City Docks that Dave’s dad helped restore. From that bustling boatyard, Dave would repair and restore boats. It’s also when he started to employ people, including an apprentice.

In 2002, he moved Cockwells to Falmouth in Cornwall and eight years later to Mylor Creek boatyard. ‘A place where I could stop work at 5pm and go sailing,’ he says. It was there Dave started building a bespoke wooden boat, a 45-foot Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter. On a whim, they took it to the Southampton Boat Show. ‘People couldn’t believe what they were looking at. They thought we were nuts, but I sold both of these boats at the show when nobody was selling boats like that. And it’s been flying ever since.’

‘You have to have a trusting relationship between your boatbuilder and your client. We’re not building something that you can throw away, we are building something that you can treasure for many years to come.

‘It’s something you can pass on to your family. There are few things you can do in this world that will become future history, but having a boat built for you that will last more than 100 years is one.’

Words: Staff

This article was originally published in Halcyon magazine in 2018

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

thirteen + ten =