This Side of the Pond – July 19

By Sarah Pridgeon

When one thinks of Britain these days, manufacturing is no longer the first association that springs to mind – which is a shame, as we had quite the heyday of fancy car production and, before that, we began and led the Industrial Revolution.

But there’s one product still coming out of my homeland – from the town I grew up in, no less – that has become a status symbol right across the world. If you’ve ever been to Miami, you’ve likely seen them for yourself.

This story begins on Poole Quay, a quaint place to spend a summer afternoon that was once the center of one of the busiest ports in the country. It’s been around for nearly a thousand years, was a hub of trade with this fine nation and served as a main departure point for the Normandy landings.

Today, it’s a mixture of pubs and fish and chip shops, with a pottery at one end and a very nice store at the other selling all manner of artistry (my mother calls it “the knicky-knack shop”). There was an aquarium halfway down the strip during my childhood, but it was modest enough that it housed about six fish and a squid.

You’ll find plenty of historical sights, such as a 15th century warehouse and a medieval building. Last time I visited in May there was an impromptu festival going on, so we were forced to dodge a constant stream of miniature steam trains with giggling children riding behind their drivers.

It is, in other words, a whimsical tourist spot with lots to eat and see. I spent a great deal of my time on that stretch in my youth, mingling with the crowds in as they spilled out onto the boardwalk in the evening sunshine with a cold beer in hand.

It is not, however, the first place one would think to head when looking for cutting edge manufacturing. But as you wander past stands selling sticks of rock and seashells, avoiding the seagulls as they dive-bomb for your battered fish, your eyes will inevitably be drawn to an incongruous sight on the water.

Poole Quay, you see, is the home of the Sunseeker – the giant luxury yachts that celebrities like to be photographed on while visiting Miami, Monaco or the south of France.

Today, Sunseeker is the largest privately owned builder of motor yachts in the world – and the biggest manufacturer in the country. It’s now largely owned by a Chinese company, sadly, but most of the boats are still built near that quirky old tourist trap and parked there for the locals to gaze upon.

These things sell for literally millions of dollars, so it’s not like most of us could even afford to rent one for the day. I, at least, will never have the opportunity to sunbathe on deck as half a dozen paparazzi hide behind the dock sheds, which is arguably a positive thing.

As we gawkers stand there in flip-flops and sunglasses, soft serve ice cream in hand, we can but bask in the reflected glory of knowing it was two of our own who unleashed these toys for millionaires into the world. Half a century ago, two local brothers came up with a dream and followed it up with a plan.

The Braithwaite brothers had been working at Friar’s Cliff Marine for the last decade, selling yachts made by an American boat builder. But when that company announced it had decided to shut down its UK operation, they saw an opportunity.

They raised some money, negotiated with the company to buy their boat molds and then turned their attention to the last sticking point: nobody involved in this new venture, then called Poole Powerboats, had ever built anything capable of floating on water.

The brothers didn’t just want to make any old boat, either – they wanted to build state-of-the-art vessels tailored to the desires of their clients. That’s exactly what they did, starting out with open-cockpit speedboats and launching their first, the Sovereign 17, in 1969.

The new boat caught the eye of a gentleman by the name of Henry Taylor, who happened to be a Formula One driver, so he had a pretty penny in his wallet. He wanted one, but only if it could accommodate a full-width speed boat.

Fair enough, said the brothers, and got to work on this new boat, which went on to be a huge success. Soon after, they released their next yachts, including the Daycab 23, the first to carry the Sunseeker name.

Over the years, Sunseeker led the market in style and racing capabilities, producing the superyachts that have come to symbolize wealth and status everywhere people with more money than sense are congregated. (Yes, I know, that last sentence was chock full of salt – I want one of those babies more than I care to admit.)

All of this from a seaside town that, at first glance, is built entirely from buckets and spades. A lovely example of the fact that you really can combine tradition with the ultra-modern, even if those sleek lines look peculiar next to the roasting chestnuts and flat caps.