Tide turns in new wave of shipbuilding

In Whitby, Chris Berry finds business is booming at one of the last trawler manufacturers in the country.

Jim Morrison with James Morrison and and Edward Oliver on board the trawler "Our Lass III " at Parkol Marine shipbuilders in Whitby. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

The days when Yorkshire’s ports were stacked with large fishing fleets tackling the bitter swell and harsh inclement weather of the North Sea have largely been consigned to history. Except in one corner of Whitby, which is now home to England’s biggest trawler manufacturer.

Today’s tourist-oriented seaside town was the country’s sixth largest port in the 18th century and vessel manufacturing was big business until the early part of the 20th century. Although it may never recapture its status in either of those regards, the efforts of one modern day boat building company are garnering significant attention.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

On the east side of the River Esk, as you make your way down to Whitby’s old town, are what appear to be two massive white boxes. Inside one of them is the largest trawler to have been built in the UK for many years.

Jim Morrison, managing director of family business Parkol Marine, which is building it for Lockers Trawlers, another Whitby-based company, knows every inch of Our Lass III. The vessel is part way through construction and the detail, the craft and time involved is immense. Jim is the man at the helm and rather like others involved with the sea he is superstitious too, at least when talking numbers.

“This will be our 29th boat although we’re calling it No.30 as there never was a number 13,” she says. “She’s the fourth boat we will have built for Lockers who fish out of Peterhead and at 26 metres long she’s by far the biggest we’ve ever built and bigger than anything others have built for some time.

“When we complete her ready for fishing we will have spent 10 months working on her. She will then be out in the North Sea every day and capable of landing a total catch of around 70 tonnes of white fish including cod, haddock, coley and monk. The intention is that she will go single trawling at first, but when there is a partner boat they will fish alongside each other.”

Our Lass III started life in modular form with Jim and his team putting together the engine room and accommodation section in one of their assembly sheds.

“The keel comes in at around six to eight weeks into the job,” says Jim. “The keel has to have over 40 tonnes of ballast before we then start assembling the boat. It’s all about stability and safety at every stage both in the work we do and ensuring that the boat is right for its owners.

“Once the keel is laid we then start bringing the modules out of the sheds and lift them into place. Within a week you then see a boat forming outside. We then continue building the boat upwards, creating a giant white box from sheeting and scaffolding which allows us to carry on working through all weathers.

“Before any boat leaves here every aspect of safety has to be undergone and there are strict guidelines that have to be followed. You cannot pass the pier end in the harbour out to the sea without completing every form imaginable and acquiring every certificate. Everything has to be 100 per cent and we leave absolutely nothing to chance as it is people’s lives at stake once they are out on the sea.”

When you consider the scale of what is being built and the time and manpower involved, just how much does it cost?

For obvious reasons Jim is keen not to give anything away that could give his competitors an advantage, but you should be thinking in seven figures. It is easy to see how costs could spiral out of control if production times were allowed to slip.

“We have earned our reputation in the industry on a simple premise. We work hard and long hours and we turn around jobs in good time. The company was started by Ken Parker and John Oliver in the 1980s, which is where the name came from, and John always had the motto ‘time’s money’.”

Jim is Whitby born and bred. He served his time as a welder with Dorman and Long in Middlesbrough, building bridges before returning to work in the Whitehall shipyard that is now a housing estate.

“When I worked at Whitehall there were 100 employees and we were building motor cruisers and trawlers. Alec Briggs was managing director at the time and then he started a business of his own. While a number of them stayed with him I strayed back to Teesside where the better money was. I was laid off in 1988 and was friendly with John (Oliver) who had by now gone into partnership with Ken (Parker). Ken subsequently retired so I helped out John and our friendship and business working life blossomed. I became an equal partner with John.

“At that time we were all about the general maintenance of engines on boats and we would have around two-dozen boats at a time to maintain. John’s trade was as an engineer, fitting diesel engines and mine was fabrication work.”

Together the pair bought a dry dock from Holland and had a small workshop in a garage 400 yards away. They soon outgrew it and by 1997 they had purchased the one that sits alongside the River Esk today. Jim’s son James joined the company as an apprentice and they now have a staff of 30 all Whitby-based. “They are our biggest asset. We’ve just had two lads complete their apprenticeships and we have recently taken on a full-time electrician. Mike Trotter became Apprentice of the Year. It’s great to see them developing in the business and they all have the right attitude. Our boat building started when a trawler called Selina Anne owned by Donald McLoughlin from Tobermory was based here. Donald asked us to undertake some alterations to her, was delighted with what we did and the time we did it in, and told us he wanted a boat building in 12 months’ time.”

True to his word Donald returned the next year and Parkol Marine became boat builders. They built a 10 metre scalloper in 1997 from May until October and they have never looked back.

“Our first official trawler was Rebecca in 1999. That was a big learning curve for us. We’ve since built trawlers for companies all over the UK from Brixham in Devon right up to the Orkneys and Shetland Islands. I would never have thought we could have achieved all that we have, where we are now competing against the big boys like MacDuff up in Fraserburgh, but most of that has to be put down to our workforce.”

Tragedy struck three years ago when John died.

“We were like brothers and our families are very close. It was such a big shock and so unexpected, but his son Andrew has really stepped into his father’s shoes. John’s wife Esther has been the company secretary for many years and she is now one of the partners, along with John Mcgraw of Goole.”’

Parkol Marine also have their own boat designer, Ian Paignton, based in York. Although Ian has his own company, the lion’s share of his work is with Jim and Parkol. But it’s not all about building fishing vessels for Jim and his team. They still carry out a great deal of maintenance.

Last year they received a job to cut two boats into two and put an additional 10 metres in the middle.

“We are also conscious of fuel saving for boats and Ian has developed nozzles that make boats 20 per cent more fuel efficient. Our boat building occupies us around 75 per cent of the time with the maintenance work taking up the rest. Our order book is full until 2014.”

Many holidaymakers will have seen the replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour in the harbour, taking tourists on pleasure cruises. That was another of Parkol’s creations. “We built it for Colin Jenkinson. He’s a renowned fisherman from Scarborough and he rang us to ask whether we could build it. It’s two-fifths the size of the original and was a delight to make.”

So what is inside the other big white-sheeted box? “‘It’s another first for us. It’s an ocean-going yacht, which is a massive motor cruiser.”

Parkol’s work has also appeared on television in the series Trawlermen, following those who make their living from fishing. Their trawler Challenger was a regular feature in the programme.