The East Devon boatbuilder who has dedicated 12 years to one vessel
- Credit: Archant
A yacht of great beauty, a 60ft wooden vessel hand-built with utter dedication in East Devon, is preparing to make her maiden voyage. Mike Ludgrove has devoted 12 years of his life and all his money to create Helena, the yacht of his dreams. Words: Sharon Goble Photos: Matt Austin
When she touches water later this spring, Helena - a boat as sleek and glamorous as her names suggests - will be in her true element. When I meet her on a cold, wintry day, she’s holed up in a grain barn near Exeter.
I climb a tall ladder to reach her deck, just beneath the roof rafters. It has to be one of the most unusual places I’ve ever conducted an interview.
Once on board with Mike Ludgrove, the man who has lovingly built her, plank by plank, it’s easy to close my mind to the workshop noises from below and imagine Helena at sea - bobbing on the waves for the very first time.
I’m curious to know how she came by her name. Mike tells me: “She’s only recently been called Helena. It’s like with a child, you go through a thousand names and then the child is born and you know what to call them.
“Last January, on the way to Cape Town, I stopped off in St. Helena. I fell in love with the charm of that very small community, marooned in the South Atlantic.
Their single link to the outside world was this ship that might or might not come from Africa every month or so. The island doesn’t seem to have that pressing haste and greed that the rest of the world has been infected with. And so the name Helena was born”.
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Helena is a lesson in the art of recycling. The teak deck came from a Victorian cotton mill and the lead used to weight the yacht comes from Exeter Cathedral’s roof! Mike says: “You don’t have to dig into the earth all the time to source materials. There’s a rich supply out there already.
“This teak, because it grew slowly in the rainforest in the 19th century and wasn’t forced, feels like lanolin when you handle it and smells like chocolate when you machine it!”
Mike is clearly a man who’s smitten - with the boat he’s lovingly built, and with the sea and all things ocean-going.
He grew up in South London in a fairly humble working class family. The dock wall was at the end of his garden: “I could see these amazing ships and used to go through a hole in the fence to make the docks my playground.
“I’d ask where the ships had come from and, by the age of 12, I was already plotting to stow away.”
He did eventually get out on a ship, not as a stowaway. In his early teens, he won a scholarship which took him on board a classic yacht owned by Lord Amory: “He understood what a transformative experience it was to take the helm of a boat and how navigating a path across the sea would impact on how you navigate your life.
“It did transform me and I’m sure many other kids. It underscored everything I did in my life from then on.”
Crossing oceans, Mike began to dream of how he could one day get his own vessel that wouldn’t require expensive fuel.
That determination brought about all the stepping stones in his life - the business he sold, the large house he downsized from - to reach his goal of having his own sailing craft.
He has personally fashioned, planed, and assembled every part of Helena, with help from his two sons and a band of their friends.
Having waited so long to realise his dream, he was determined to create something special: “Wooden boats naturally possess a living quality that plastic boats don’t. Helena comes from trees and she is life in every sense to me.”
I meet Mike in the final stages of getting the yacht ‘dressed and ready’ for launch. He revels: “We’re getting all Helena’s jewellery fixed on, all those shiny metal parts which are beautiful as well as highly functional.
“These pieces were drawn individually by the late Ed Burnett, a great yacht designer who famously designed the Queen’s barge.”
This is no vanity project though. Mike’s vision is for Helena to be used to help inspire young people to sail, just as he was inspired as a teenager.
He’s teamed up with the Cirdan Sailing Trust to form the Float Helena Bursary. The aim is for Helena to become self-funding through selling trips, using the revenue to enable young people to experience life at sea.
I say: “You’re going to have a helluva launch party, aren’t you? “Yes,” replies Mike, “I hope I don’t fall in the water!”