It’s one thing to tell yacht and boat buyers that all of the metalwork and woodwork is done in-house, but it’s another thing entirely to show them — although showing clients a boatbuilding facility typically happens pretty deep into the buying process.
That’s where Plymouth, England-based Princess Yachts differs. At Yachts Miami Beach, a metalworking artisan and a woodworking artisan stood inside a massive booth with sunlight pouring in. They had samples of their work and they were ready to answer questions about just what kind of craftsmanship goes into each boat, and really each piece.
Almost everything is built and created in-house — from the plates to the railings to the wooden cabinetry and the stitching and linens.
“This is the third show we’ve ever done with this process,” says Paul Stanbury, a metalworker at Princess Yachts, who spoke to visitors at Miami Beach. “The customers are really impressed to see how the components are made on our boats in the U.K. We have over 2,050 staff and a 64-man team in the metal shop, and any one of them could make a handrail or grab handle,” he adds, gesturing toward a table of gleaming stainless steel items.
Princess Yachts is renewing its emphasis on the craftsmen who construct the boats and provide the attention to detail that the company says sets it apart from other builders. More than 80 percent of Princess Yachts are constructed and crafted in Plymouth, prompting the company to launch an “Inside Princess” video and social media campaign to help get the word out. The series focuses on the mold shop, the loom shop, the metal shop and the woodworking shop.
As a piece of that renewed effort, the company opted to create “pop-up workshops” replicating the factory areas of the shipyard in which visitors were able to watch and interact with Princess artisans from the furniture shop and the metal shop. You could spend a quick hour marveling at the work of Stanbury and his colleague, Martyn Hamley, a craftsman in the wood shop.
The concept seemed stunningly simple, yet completely unique. Though the yachts themselves — the 131-foot M/Y Anka, 88 and 75 Motor Yacht, Princess 68, 60 and 43, and the S72 and S65 — were the focal point, throngs of customers and potential customers gathered to examine the build processes and discuss some of the distinctive things Princess Yachts does to create its fit, finish and quality.
“We’ve got 10 guys in the metal shop who are polishers; there are six different cells of production,” Stanbury says, adding that the polishers generally stick to that work. “The fabricators and welders can be doing any one of the components that we make.”
That said, among each shop they try to have one person or a couple of people working on a given piece, if possible.
It allows them to showcase how they will weld a tank on the side instead of on top because that would weaken the structure, says Mike Murdoch, a dealer with Freedom Marine International Yacht Sales in Canada.
Hamley, who has been with Princess Yachts for 22 years, says he is one of 80 people who work in the wood shop at Princess, which was founded in Plymouth in 1965. Today Princess shipyards cover more than 1.1 million square feet. The South Yard, where the M Class superyachts are built, is a former naval yard dating from the 17th century.
“One of the things we do is show the evolution of a product in a single-line factory,” Hamley says. In this case, a gorgeous round table that was part of the 131-footer’s interior took Hamley 106 hours to complete — plus machine time cutting components and paint shop varnishing, which is difficult to quantify. But he detailed to customers how he added between nine and 13 coats of varnish, painstakingly matched up the grain and added engineering details that make the drawers seamless to open and close, for example.
“When you finish a piece of furniture and stand back and look, you get an enormous sense of pride,” Hamley says. “Much of the timber used is hidden, but a lot of it is visible in the headlinings, bulkheads and, of course, the furniture. Timber varies as a raw material, so the ability to produce all of the components and furniture in-house allows for continuity, care and achieving the best finish possible.”
It was a cool concept for so many reasons — customers could see firsthand the enthusiasm that Hamley and Stanbury had for talking about their crafts, and demonstrating with pride what goes into each piece. Then observers could see the wonder develop on customers’ faces as they realized that, for example, a piece of wood was not cut on a curve, but instead was several thin pieces that were compressed and shaped so the final product would be stronger and more durable. And the process has been beneficial to dealers who gained valuable insight into the yachts and how they are crafted, which can only enhance the company’s ability to sell them, Murdoch says.
Lastly, for the craftsmen to see their finished products on the boats and watch people delight over the craftsmanship and quality seemed to reinforce their sense of pride.
“When you go on the boat and think, ‘I made that,’ that is an incredible feeling,” says Stanbury. “This is so unique, even within the boating industry; so many subcontract all their parts, so they don’t have the quality control.”
“It’s been so well received on so many levels, and it’s a fantastic opportunity to meet customers and dealers,” Hamley says. “Often even the dealers and brokers have not seen this level of detail about what goes into creating these pieces.”
As much as they seem to have enjoyed their break from the shop, both expressed eagerness to get back to work.
“It’s great to break things up, but I’ve been doing this for 41 years and I still enjoy going to work,” Stanbury says, adding that he began metalworking at age 16. “There’s always something new. Princess is always innovating.”
He personally did some tinkering for the show, with an all-metal flag depicting the Plymouth coat of arms on one side and the American flag on the other, that several stopped to admire.
Though Princess has had some of the same challenges as U.S. manufacturers in attracting skilled labor, retention has been less of an issue, Hamley says, and a shift to a four-day workweek has been well received on all levels.
“People ask how we retain people so long,” he says. “We’re well paid. We work in good conditions, and Princess is always updating products, so there’s always something new. We’re not just doing the same thing every day.”
The average term of service is 16 years in the workshops. “Our new apprentice training scheme is also going to help — Paul and I are both training apprentices now,” Hamley says. “I’ve been working with a young guy who’s been with me for three months — he has great potential.”
Stanbury has been mentoring two apprentices a year. “It’s a four-year program,” he says. “The first 12 months, they’re basically at college learning. We have contact with Plymouth City College, and also local schools.”
From year two onward, the apprentices combine release to further education with on-the-job training, working toward the ability to perform marine engineering operations.
The company will send some of the trained craftsmen to local high schools to do demonstrations and get them interested and even bring awareness to the local jobs.
“Showing kids what we do is very important,” Stanbury says.
Although some women have been attracted to apprenticeships, none had sought to enter one for metalworking, which surprised Stanbury. “I think women would be able to do some of this more easily than men because they usually have smaller hands and are just more dexterous in general. I’m surprised we haven’t gotten any that have applied, but I hope that will change,” he says.
The apprenticeship program was reinstated about five years ago — for about 20 years, there had been none. “Apparently somebody thought they could train someone in six months to learn a trade or a craft. That is just not realistic,” Stanbury says. The company employs about 100 apprentices a year and has been recruiting annually.
This all coordinates with the whole “Crafted in Plymouth” tagline the brand has been using. “We like to think we’re innovators in lots of ways,” Stanbury says. “Certainly we are in this regard.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue.