HMS conducts an exclusive interview with Ben Davies, MD of Orkney Boats, on the joys and challenges of building this iconic, all-British breed of craft, which celebrated its 50th year of manufacture in 2023.

Tell us about the thinking behind the new Orkney Pilothouse 25 and 27 models you’re bringing to market. What was the motivation behind the development of these two additions to the Orkney range?

Orkney have always offered a larger Pilothouse model, previously the popular Pilothouse 24, which since being launched over 20 years ago, and after nearly 100 boats being built, had become a little long in the tooth and in need of an update. This serious offshore capable cruiser is ideal for those looking to go further and with fewer boundaries, whether it be for offshore fishing, extended cruising or even for commercial applications.

Over the years, Orkney have seen market trends change significantly, with more focus and design influence from our customers wanting a well-equipped and stylishly appointed cruiser, but still with the design attributes, including the excellent seakeeping capabilities, performance and build quality, that Orkney have to offer. It was clear that a complete revamp, rather than an update of the existing model, would be necessary to meet the next generation of owners’ requirements.

Orkney Boats - Pilothouse 25 & 27 inboard versions off The Needles

Pilothouse 25 & 27 inboard versions off The Needles

Orkney, together with Arthur Mursell at TT Boat designs, set about designing not one but two worthy successors. Initially offered with only a sterndrive option, Orkney developed two very capable models that each had extended ‘Category B’ offshore cruising capabilities with a range of over 250 nautical miles and an impressive 27-knot performance, each with different layout configurations. First came the Pilothouse 27 with a larger wheelhouse and improved accommodation for more extended cruising. Thereafter, a shorter wheelhouse Pilothouse 25 allowed for a more cockpit-biased design geared towards the weekender, day boating and sea angling market.

The cuddy designed Orkney’s have proved most suitable for our UK weather.

The cuddy designed Orkney’s have proved most suitable for our UK weather.

You’ve chosen to go down the outboard engine route instead of inboard diesel. What do you consider to be the benefits of this powering option?

Four-stroke outboard technology has continued to advance at an increasing rate, leading to a growing popularity and availability of more affordable larger-size-HP engines suitable for the 25ft-plus motor sector. Advancements in engine management and control systems have improved reliability, control, performance and fuel economy, which has most importantly led to a greater level of acceptance by many owners. To that end, while there will always be a demand for more conventional inboard shaft or sterndrive engines, which Orkney will still offer, we see a shifting trend towards outboard power on our larger models.

The ever popular Longliner 19 underway.

The ever popular Longliner 19 underway.

A key priority of the design brief for both models was to allow both a single- and twin-engine option giving redundancy with each engine, along with the added benefit of excellent control when low-speed manoeuvring with independent directional thrust from each engine. Furthermore, the new systems, such as the Yamaha Helm Master EX, allow both engines to be trimmed and operated independently with a single joystick control. Orkney have chosen the new V6 engine by Yamaha, which we consider to be a premium engine choice and a really nice bit of kit – an incredibly smooth and quiet-running engine with an impressive power-to-weight ratio that is also available with the option of an integral digital electric ‘steer-by-wire’ steering system.

Orkney Pilothouse 20 enjoying glassy calm waters.

Orkney Pilothouse 20 enjoying glassy calm waters.

The move to an outboard configuration has allowed for improved cockpit ergonomics, with access astern via bathing platforms on each side, improved cockpit seating and excellent storage in a large lazarette compartment beneath the cockpit – space that would otherwise be taken up by a large inboard diesel engine. Not only is there more space but there is also a clear weight-saving advantage, along with engine installation and ongoing service and maintenance tasks being simplified. The engine’s ability to be fully tilted and lifted entirely clear of the water when not in use is an added benefit when you consider the inevitable maintenance required with a shaft or sterndrive system, while also enabling operation in shallower waters and the ability to dry the boat out more easily when required. 

The light and airy interior of the new 25.

The light and airy interior of the new 25.

To what degree are the new models customer led?

We enjoy a close working relationship with all our customers and value the feedback we get. Our belief is that listening to this feedback should be reflected in continued product improvement for future boats, and this is no exception with how the design for the 25 and 27 has evolved. While predominately offering a production model with set design parameters, Orkney still recognise that each owner will have their own individual requirements. We aim to provide as much flexibility in the build spec as possible by offering an extensive list of standard and bespoke design options where necessary. As each boat is built to order, every owner will have the opportunity to work directly with the factory, and we encourage regular visits throughout the build, during which a dedicated project manager is on hand to guide them through the various choices and decisions to be made on specification.

Orkney craft aboard it’s trailer ready for launch.

Orkney craft aboard it’s trailer ready for launch.

Can you give us some idea as to the timescales involved from concept design through to the completion of the first prototype?

We are always coming up with ideas for new designs and thus run a continuous new model development programme influenced by the latest market trends. We work closely with designer Arthur Mursell and the team at FISH Composites, looking at new models that would fill a gap in the range or enhance an existing design. Coming up with new and innovative design ideas, working out solutions and finally seeing everything come together is personally something I really enjoy as part of the job – probably the reason I was so drawn to boatbuilding in the first instance. Seeing a design idea that you’ve conceived and developed being used and enjoyed as intended is incredibly gratifying.

Orkney have invested a great deal in their modern and comprehensive facilities.

Orkney have invested a great deal in their modern and comprehensive facilities.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced from a manufacturing point of view with regard to the new PH project?

The biggest challenge has been to improve on what we currently have and develop two new models alongside one another, namely the 25 and 27. To achieve this, we have looked to keep as much as possible common between the two models in the design and development, including much of the structure, engineering and new deck layout, which is not as simple as it may seem when you consider the differences and unique features each model offers. We believe quality is achieved as much by design as it is by the fittings and equipment you use. For this reason, any new model developed will go through extensive sea trials and testing, working closely with our key suppliers.

Versatile open layout with collapsible canopy.

Versatile open layout with collapsible canopy.

During my time at Orkney, much effort has gone into modernising the Orkney range to ensure a strong future for the business.  A challenge in itself is striking the right balance between our traditional niche design and a more modern edge. While Orkney are a well-established and long-standing brand, we are a relatively small business by comparison to many, especially some of the mass-produced ‘pêche-promenade’ giants such as Jeanneau and Beneteau, who have huge development budgets to play with. One big consideration for us is being able to offer a design that competes on the same level but remains original and doesn’t become just another ‘me too’ product. Bringing a new product to market is not without its difficulties: aside from the obvious cost, getting a design right simply from a drawing can be incredibly challenging and there have been plenty of head-scratching moments. In some cases, we have resorted to building a full-scale mock-up to make something work, rather than relying on a 3D model on a computer screen. After all, once tooled and ready for production, if it’s wrong it can be a very costly mistake to put right! Typically, from the initial concept being taken forward to the design and development stage, a new model can take as long as 24 months to reach the market, and that’s if everything goes to plan!

Orkney Boat on trailer

Are you able to give some insight as to the size of the financial investment involved in bringing two new vessels such as these to full realisation?

I won’t share exact figures with you – I try not to think about how much money is spent on R&D. However, I can tell you that it’s the single biggest capital outlay to the business. But equally I consider it to be hugely important that we continue to develop, improve and keep the Orkney model range current.

Orkney Boats under construction

Orkney Boats under construction

Orkney are one of British boatbuilding’s longest-established companies. To what degree does the fact that you are a family-run concern make a difference to the way you as a company function?

We look forward to celebrating our 50th anniversary next year, and as one of only a few remaining independently run British boatbuilders, Orkney enjoy the freedom and flexibility that come with this. When I walk around a harbour and see our boats, or turn on the television and spot an Orkney in the background, as is often the case, I’m really proud to be involved with such a long-standing and renowned British brand. We run the business like any other manufacturer, with all our products very much standardised and with tight controls on quality and processes. In fact, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do on this scale any other way. That said, we try not to take things too seriously – after all, I chose a career in the marine industry to enjoy what I do and I try to instil a relaxed, friendly working environment throughout the business. I spend as much of my time out on the workshop floor as I do behind my desk and love the fact that all those working here care so deeply about the product and the business.

Orkney Boats under construction

Orkney Boats under construction

Have you ever been tempted to sell out to a big, corporate buyer?

Yes, of course, always tempted. I’m patiently waiting for Elon Musk to call me any day! But all joking aside, at the moment our focus remains firmly on developing our new products and continuing to build and strengthen the brand after a roller-coaster past few years. But it’s an incredibly exciting time to be involved with the business with so many new things happening. Looking ahead, I’d need to see that any potential ‘would be’ investor was fully committed to retaining the core values and principles that have underpinned our products and relationships with our customers, suppliers and staff.

The hulls are suited to crane liftings.

The hulls are suited to crane liftings.

Orkney are a brand known for their strong ties with the traditional boating market. To what degree might the new PH series open up new areas of the market for you?

The introduction of an outboard option complements the existing range of smaller outboard-powered models we offer. The latest design innovations enabled by these new models will undoubtedly have a wide-reaching market appeal for our next generation of Orkney owners looking to find a high-performance craft with contemporary styling, while still offering excellent seakeeping characteristics and assured build quality.

During my time at Orkney, much effort has gone into modernising the Orkney range to ensure a strong future for the business. 

During my time at Orkney, much effort has gone into modernising the Orkney range to ensure a strong future for the business.

The Orkney philosophy strikes a good balance between traditional design principles and more modern design capabilities and performance. Orkney continually strive to improve and use the latest materials and equipment available, while being sure not to stray too far from our design ethos of building strong boats to a very high standard. This reputation for quality is something we are very proud of and protect fiercely, with now over 15,000 boats having been built since Orkney first started in 1973, many still in use to this day. Hence our strapline: ‘Built in Britain, Built to Last’.

Orkney Boats

Could you describe some of the key USPs/standout features of the new craft, and what aspect of its design are you most proud of?

I’m very proud of all the design aspects we’ve come up with. By developing a completely new deck, a huge amount of time and effort has gone into revisiting and looking at where we could make any improvements on previous models. This includes a vast cockpit lazarette and engineering space that will be the envy of many on a boat of this size. The outboard engines sitting further aft have allowed for much improved cockpit ergonomics with dedicated comfortable seating and easy walk-on/off access from astern, making this a great space for our owners to relax and enjoy while still feeling safe. Much thought has gone into this area in particular, with fold-away side seating and a clever suspended seat design over the outboard well operating on a custom fabricated pantograph hinged bracket, which allows the seat to move forward when the engines are tilted and, most importantly, still be usable. We’re all really excited to see everything starting to come together now as the boat progresses in build to the point where it should be ready, literally in the next few weeks, to begin its very first sea trials – just in time for you guys to come and test her this summer!

www.orkneyboats.com

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