A look at and inside Pendennis

Nov 23, 2020 by Larry Rumbol

Let us first set the scene, as the location of this shipyard is very much a part of its DNA. Cornwall is a county in England, right at the southwestern tip of the British Isles, an area steeped in ancient history, industrial heritage, folklore, tradition, and natural beauty (achieving UNESCO Heritage Site status in 2006).

Cornwall played a major part in shaping the world we live in today, at one time producing 40% of the world’s copper. Mining began here around 2150BC and ended in 1998. A new source of copper was identified in April, so mining in Cornwall may well rise again. 

Cornwall was also rich in tin and by the 1870s produced half the world’s arsenic as a by-product of tin production. At its height, there were 600 large steam engines pumping sea water from subterranean tin mines and 600 chimneys standing sentinel around the wild countryside — many existing today as historic landmarks. 

Pendennis Shipyard, Falmouth Cornwall, England (50.1508 N 5.0558 W)

Cornwall’s heritage is not only about mining; it is also very much about fishing. It has two coasts, north and south, 45 miles apart, and 422 miles of coastline. The village of Newlyn is the biggest fishing port in England and has survived the ebb and flow of fish-stock and quota politics to remain thriving. 

Successful fishing goes hand-in-hand with boat building skills, equally producing the finest of seamen. Fast and weatherly fishing boats can survive the worst weather when so manned, can fish when others cannot, and can be the first to market to get the best prices. Historically, many fishermen crewed the great yachts of the golden 1920s and ’30s as they knew how to wring the most out of a sailing vessel. 

That tradition spawned some of the UK’s finest boat builders in Cornwall. The Cornish port of Falmouth is the first deep-water port of refuge from the prevailing southwesterly gales after a rough Atlantic crossing. Competition to be the first to get a pilot on board a trans-Atlantic arrival was strong; the fastest sailing pilot cutters won the business, which could be lucrative if the ship in question was headed to Liverpool up in the northwest of UK.

As ships became bigger and went farther, these time-honed maritime skills organically grew into a major ship repair industry as the Port of Falmouth prospered. Indeed, there is a thriving commercial ship repair business there today.

Where commercial ship repair bounces along and survives, sharing the same Fal Estuary view in Falmouth is a flourishing world-class superyacht repair and refit business, Pendennis Shipyard.

Enjoying consistent growth with major investment for over 32 years and a proud boast of being one of largest private sector employers in Cornwall and certainly the largest superyacht employer in the UK, Pendennis is both a new build as well as a refit and restoration yard. This yard competes on a world stage and can be seen at all the major shows, conferences and exhibitions around the world. Pendennis Shipyard and its story is as worthy and as rich as its Cornish roots.

How it all began

Let us wind the clock back a bit and look at the history of Pendennis Shipyard. At one time, Falmouth had the biggest dry dock in England, which was completed in 1958. As is the way with commercial ship repair, there are always outside influences preying on their fortunes and Falmouth Dry-Dock was no exception. Its workforce fluctuated from thousands to a few score and vice versa as its fortunes changed. 

It was bought in a doldrum period by UK entrepreneur Peter de Savary in the late 1980s. PdeS, as he is universally known, had a weather eye on the potential for waterfront real estate development and also as a base for his 1989 America’s Cup challenge with the infamous Blue Arrow brand (I had the pleasure of sailing on her; memorable). And so Pendennis Shipyard was born in 1988.

Its first contract was to build the 125-foot (38m) ketch S/Y Taramber, designed by the much missed Ed Dubois. She was completed in 1991 and is sailing today as S/Y La Cattiva, proof that this was not going to be just another yard.

This project was soon followed by a refit of the 228-foot (65m) three-masted schooner S/Y Adix, one of the largest sailing yachts built since the 1930s. This was no end-of-season refit either. With a 6m extension and a full interior strip out, this classic yacht firmly put Pendennis on the map. (And I am told she has enjoyed her fourth refit there, too.)

In 1993, the management team took control of the yard with Mike Carr and Henk Wiekens continuing at Pendennis today as directors of the only owner-led superyacht builder in the UK.

So is it a builder or refit yard, classic or modern? This is the question I put to Toby Allies, Pendennis’s joint managing director. As evidenced by its reference list, the yard can rightly say it has a diverse offering delivering refit, re-build, classic and modern projects for both sail and motor yachts alongside each other. As experts in building and refitting 30m to 90m motoryachts, 2016 saw the yard breathe new life into M/Y Aquila, which was the yard’s largest volume refit to date and the largest privately owned yacht to be refit in the UK. 

M/Y Aquila

This one-year project involved revitalization of all five deck levels, subsequently awarded Best Refit at the World Superyacht Awards and Best Refit at the International Superyacht Society Awards in 2017.

Having owned and restored 100-year-old yachts over the past 40 years (and modern versions of the same), I would say any yard that has a foot in both camps and truly embraces modern technology and classic design has to be Nirvana for an owner who wants to put their mark on a yacht. Am I over-blowing that? I don’t think so, having listened to their equal enthusiasm for both. I pressed Allies for a favorite project but he couldn’t help. “It’s like choosing a favorite child,” he said. “I just can’t.” [See the full Q-and-A with Allies here].

Investment sprouts

I first visited a fledgling Pendennis in 1988 and, apart from the eye-watering vista into the Fal Estuary, I would recognize little today had I not been since, all credit to a yard that has continually invested in equipment (£22m alone in 2015).

A quick resume of what has been achieved: 

  • 2004. 150m covered wet dock, a floating dock gate added to allow one 150m dock or two 75m docks. 
  • 2006. A 400-ton travel hoist installed 
  • 2013. The singular construction hall was replaced with two 90m halls alongside a 45m double-width hall, as well as new project offices, workshops, a hospitality suite, a 85m mast shed, and the arrival of a 640-ton travel hoist. The 14-acre site also boasts a 7,500-square-meter wet basin. 
  • 2019. New 800-ton travel hoist begins operation.

When the business was founded, the average yacht that came for refit was 100 feet (30m). It is now 180 feet (55m).

Past projects of note include Leander, Northern Star, Haida 1929, G2, Malahne and Lady E. Currently in the yard is M/Y Marala for a major restoration due for completion in 2021. This 1931 Camper and Nicholson yacht has had few owners in the past 50 years, retaining much of her original character and even machinery. London-based design house Muza Lab has been commissioned to bring a new look to the décor that both respects and celebrates the 1930s spirit of the vessel. I understand that there will be superstructure modifications to restore her original lines.

M/Y Lady E is nearing the end of a sympathetic refit, creating an additional 120 square meters of guest space. A refit period of about a year is no mean feat in today’s conditions.

No matter the size of the business, people buy from people, and not always one person either, but an amalgam. Cornwall has a 2020 population of 569,243; Pendennis Shipyard employs more than 400. (It hardly needs saying that that is 400 skilled people, whatever their trade.) I asked Allies how that skill level is maintained. Very intelligently, I would say. Pendennis has been running an award-winning (2019 Excellence in Business Training Awards – Best Apprenticeship in a Large Company, and the ultimate accolade of Best Company to work for in the Marine Industry, to name two of its 20 major awards) general apprenticeship scheme since 1998 and a Surface Finishing scheme since 2005, recruiting 12 young people at a time onto each scheme. Allies said nothing makes him prouder than to see a young person take off his red hard hat and put on a white one after four years of training. The yard just graduated its 250th apprentice and boasts over a 90% retention rate after graduation with many former apprentices eventually moving into senior management positions. 

There is a mantra at the yard the team calls the Pendennis Way – namely “Perfection is Personal”.

Cornwall is a close-knit community. For employers to succeed, they need the workforce and the town behind them all the way. That the yard is revered in the town amongst all folk — whether they work there or not — is an indication of Pendennis’s moral compass. In recent years, the company has focused heavily on the health and well-being of its workforce with an on-site gym, health and well-being classes, and a subsidized canteen providing healthy-eating options. All this gained them gold awards in the Cornwall & Isles of Scilly Healthy Workplace contest the past three years.

Expansion overseas

Pendennis made an investment in 2018 in Vilanova Grand Marina in Barcelona, Spain. Its Technical Service Centre opened in 2109 and there are plans to develop a second phase to increase the services offered to its clients in the Med. The marina has 48 superyacht berths, each serviced by a pedestal with decalcified water, electricity supply and a telephone line. The marina is ISPS-certified and has 24-hour security and surveillance services. Crew are well catered to with a gym, on-site bar and restaurant, and, of course, all the on-shore facilities including a hospitality team. 

Pendennis made an investment in 2018 in Vilanova Grand Marina in Barcelona.

The facility includes 30,000 square meters of hardstanding, a 620-ton travel hoist and the majority of the workforce on loan from Pendennis Falmouth with their attendant skill set and attention to detail.

Pendennis possesses the necessary skills and technology to complete the work they undertake, and its reference list is due testimony. The fact that many vessels return for multiple refits speaks volumes.

But is there something more? It’s hard to define: Cornishness? Pride? They are all weak superlatives when you look at the whole package. It is definitely about the people — and yes, I think I am able to say that. I was in the ship repair business in Falmouth for some years and you get to understand what that is, even if you can’t describe it fully.

I suggest that anyone considering using this yard should just go there and drink it in.

Larry D. Rumbol has more than 40 years experience in marine engineering, specializing in condition monitoring, and is the recipient of industry awards in that field. A sailor since childhood, and a builder and restorer of many yachts, he is currently marine business development manager with the oil/fuel and hydraulic laboratory group Spectro | Jet-Care in the United Kingdom, United States and Switzerland. Comments on this story are welcome below.