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Helena: The homebuilt labour of love that was 15 years in the making

This 60ft modern classic represents one man’s exhaustive quest to build his dream yacht. Toby Hodges joins Mike Ludgrove for Helena’s maiden sail

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Photo: Ian Roman

It was a picture postcard spring sailing scene as Helena heeled into the gentle breeze funnelling out of the grand, cliff-banked entrance to the River Dart in south Devon. Perched on a varnished teak seat abaft the wheel, one that he had tailor made to see over the traditional-shaped coachroof, Mike Ludgrove seemed comparatively at ease – which is quite astonishing, when you consider the emotional rollercoaster he must have been experiencing.

This was Helena’s maiden sail, a day that would culminate in his most euphoric high since embarking on this project 15 years ago. Ludgrove’s story is one of determination, resourcefulness and bloody-mindedness. Helena is his magnum opus – not a life’s work, but one that he has poured enough into to ensure she lasts many lifetimes.

The 60ft plank-on-frame yacht is a true modern day classic, a West Country-designed and built yacht, and one of the last boats to be blessed by the design talents of the late Ed Burnett. She is formed from a resourceful mix of recycled materials, including teak decks from a Victorian cotton mill in India and lead from Exeter Cathedral, together with the finest hand-shaped timbers.

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Helena’s striking sheerline is reminiscent of a 1930s yacht. Pictured here off Dartmouth during her maiden sail. Photo: Ian Roman

Helena is the product of art, craft and sheer graft. Her scrupulous, perfectionist build required the sale of three apartments, a house and Ludgrove’s business – plus a crowdfunding campaign. She is the 64-year-old’s lifelong dream, “but she’s had everything I own,” he admits. Ludgrove describes her build as an “act of madness”. “Be careful what you wish for. I never imagined it would take every penny I had, the business and three flats – and it did. Even our house.”

I’d joined Ludgrove and his family for Helena’s maiden voyage, from Exmouth to Dartmouth, and the weather gods seemed to be rewarding the toil involved to get her here, by providing warm, calm conditions. To take a yacht out on its first trip of the season can be nerve-wracking enough, so it is hard to imagine the emotions involved during the first sail of a yacht that you have built entirely yourself over 15 years.

What was the moment Ludgrove had looked forward to the most? “This! Sailing her for the first time,” he beamed, “to feel the wind in the sails and the motion through the water. I began to wonder if this time would ever come.”

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Following that golden first sail, I had the privilege of guiding Helena onto a mooring in the Dart. As we clinked teacups and settled into the cockpit Ludgrove had so painstakingly sculpted, only then could I see the undeniable pride in his eyes – and only then did he admit the relief he felt.

The dream

Ludgrove grew up in Bermondsey and describes the London docks as his playground. “I was always going to have to own a boat or build a boat,” he recounts with the East End still evident in his accent, despite living in Devon for the last two decades. Aged 12, he had the opportunity to sail with Lord Amory aboard his 77ft classic ketch Rona, which was run as a charitable trust to take sea cadets and deprived children out sailing.

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Helena shows her worth as she slides handsomely through the green West Country waters. Photo: Ian Roman

“It underscored everything I did from that moment,” says Ludgrove. “Everything in my life has since been connected with boats and sailing.”

However it was not until the turn of the century that Ludgrove’s dream became a step closer to reality, when he enlisted on a boatbuilding course in Lyme Regis. He built a foam sandwich Fireball, his first active step towards constructing his own yacht, but didn’t want to continue working with foam and glassfibre.

“I wanted a sturdily built boat that you could sail around the world,” Ludgrove continues. “It had to have the living quality that a wooden boat possesses… something that would look at home in the 1930s alongside a Fife or Mylne and be the equal of a boat like that.”

By this time Ludgrove and his wife, Elaine, were living in Devon and got talking to a couple of local wooden-boat experts, Howard Swift of Yealmbridge Yachts in Newton Ferrers and Ed Burnett, who lived in Totnes. Swift put the concept down and was involved with the early stages of build, while Burnett helped with the lines and the maths – down to drawing every single mast fitting in fact.

Burnett is described as one of the most gifted and intelligent modern classic yacht designers of our generation. He was part of the design team for the Queen’s jubilee barge Gloriana and helped row it down the Thames in the 1,000-boat flotilla for the 2012 celebrations.

Helena was to be his final design – he visited many times during the early stages of the build, but died in 2015 aged 43, without seeing the finished product. It seemed fitting that we sailed into the river his office overlooked.

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Toby steers Helena into the Dart from a protected cockpit. Photo: Ian Roman

Both Swift and Burnett had their own preconceptions for the project, which influenced the design. “I wanted to finish it in four years and for an affordable price – £200,000 or so,” said Ludgrove. “But Howard [Swift] said we could build a 60-footer just as quick for only a little more!”

They agreed on a classic, long-keeled design. “Ed wanted an elegant counter – and said it should have a bowsprit,” Ludgrove recounts. “If you’ve ever experienced a boat in a sea, he said, a sail on the end of a sprit draws a really good line.”

In contrast to many classic yachts, Ludgrove wanted an interior with comfortable spaces that could host friends and family for sociable occasions. Below decks is indeed a breath of fresh air. You expect such a traditional looking craft to be dark and somewhat pokey.

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Joinerwork is in solid maple for an invitingly light feel. Photo: Richard Downer

But a shallow companionway leads into a bright maple-finished interior. Ludgrove wanted it to be light enough to read a book below, so selected American rock maple – “it’s high in silicone so kills your tools,” he reports, but the results are worth it, and the quality of joinerwork is exemplary.

The marathon begins

The Ludgroves were living near Totnes at the time Helena was being designed and were still running their café and juice business. He put an advert in Farmers Weekly for a barn to use and got a call from a farmer who had an accessible barn near Honiton, Exeter, albeit with 1,000 tonnes of wheat still inside. “A couple of months later, we had a contract, so I thought ‘right, better start building!’”

“The first thing we had to do was create the biggest drawing board you’ve ever seen – 30ft x 60ft.” This was used to draw out the body plan, sheer plan and waterline at full size. “I wanted to loft out – it took a while to get the lines right, but you pick up discrepancies that way.”

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Helena’s stem and frames take shape before she is planked up…

Ludgrove then brought the heavy equipment in, such as three-phase planers and saws – “old fashioned, solid English machines, bought from companies going out of business.” It was soon time to start laminating all the mahogany frames. “We made our own laminating jig,” says Ludgrove – a four tonne machine for bending the frames, which he thinks produces a stronger result than steam bending timber.

Ludgrove consistently refers to the build collectively, as a joint effort. But apart from friends and family occasionally helping with the heavy lifting stages, and Howard Swift in the early stages, the rest was just him, day in day out, year after year. Elaine was left to run their business. “But it was her idea that I build my own boat,” Mike jokes, before adding more earnestly: “Everything we had went into Helena – we bought no clothes, no holidays.”

Hours become years

Burnett insisted the build was bulletproof. “Each plank was epoxied and stainless steel screwed to the one below and sheathed,” Ludgrove explains, “so the hull strength is massive.” Rotating the hull was an enormous task, which nearly pulled the roof of the barn in –“I could see it bending!” It was 2006, and, little did Ludgrove know then, but there was still a decade of fitting out Helena to go.

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…and later turned

As the build tales continue, we move Helena from a swinging mooring to the visitor’s pontoon in Dartmouth for the evening, to allow friends and family to board. While he clasps a well-deserved cold ale, I admire the swept decks Ludgrove has laid. The teak deck, it transpires, had originally been a cause of great financial concern, until a friend who runs a ship breaker business in Bombay told Ludgrove of a 19th Century cotton mill that was being broken up in India.

“I was able to do the whole of the deck and cockpit with this proper thick rainforest teak,” Ludgrove explains. The 7.5m planks were so heavy he had to set up rollers to move them and it took four people to put them through a cutting machine to get quarter-sawn, ¾in thick planks.

Helena’s ballast is another story of resourcefulness and hard work. Within her long keel lies 12 tonnes of lead, which once lined the roof of Exeter Cathedral. Having been given a hefty quote for the amount of lead he’d need, Ludgrove decided to build a crucible, buy scrap lead and melt it into ballast himself. The Ludgroves were by this stage living in rented accommodation in Exeter and, after discovering the cathedral was being reroofed, found they were able to source the old lead.

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Adding lead from Exeter Cathedral to the custom crucible…

Ludgrove built an insulated furnace and used propane bottles with flame torches and coking fuel to melt the lead. “It looked like Armageddon!” his son-in-law Will Hoare remarks, having helped with the operation and documented much of the build.

Dartmouth’s dockside was by now teeming with tourists eating ice creams and fish and chips, many giving approving nods and comments directed at the lines and finish of Helena. Her topsides positively gleam.

Longboard sanding was the most thankless task says Ludgrove. “We spent months doing it but ended up with this lovely finish.” He also vacuum-infused a layer of glassfibre above the topsides for durability. Achieving this level of finish for the paint he says was perhaps the hardest task – along with building an iron carriage from lorry wheels in order to move Helena out of the shed to allow a crane to get to her.

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…and fitting it to the keel

“Although it [the build] has been joyful it’s been an exercise in hardship,” Ludgrove reflects. “Life is difficult, but when it’s difficult I’m the sort of guy to try it. But I think this has cured me – I think I want it easy from now!”

Ludgrove built the spars himself but his challenge was finding enough room to do so. The farmer cleared another barn to allow Ludgrove to build his 70ft mast on the diagonal. He shows me the template he used, which involves 14 vertical sections, glued around a hollow centre and wiring conduit – “the maximum number of glue lines for the maximum amount of strength,” he explains.

The only parts of Helena that Ludgrove didn’t build himself were the machinery, winches, sails, portholes, electronics and upholstery.

No compromises

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The C-shape galley connects to cockpit and saloon

But why did the build take so long? “Everything had to be patterned and made with hand tools to fit exactly,” Ludgrove replies. “Everything had to be jointed. Every knee was made with a lapped joint to take the loads properly. It was perfectionist and obsessive.”

This precision mentality is arguably what led to Ludgrove pouring his worldly goods into the financial mix. “We sold the flat in London – that’ll see it through, I thought. But then I wanted a Caterpillar engine, Andersen winches, a bow thruster – it all added up.

“I couldn’t compromise on the equipment,” he admits. “So we began to dissolve the flats, the retail business I owned, then the property in Totnes… then the house in Exeter. It swallowed up everything.”

Ludgrove used to pattern every part in hardwood, in case he wanted to build a second boat. “I took great pleasure in burning them all about three months ago – I just couldn’t bear the though of someone saying ‘come on, let’s build another one’!”

Crowdfunding a classic

Finally the money pot ran dry and led to the difficult decision for Ludgrove to ask the public for funding through a crowdsourcing campaign to help get Helena from shed to sea. She was finished but still needed extracting from the barn, and to be launched and rigged with sails.

“It’s not easy asking people for money,” Ludgrove concedes. “But we were not asking for a gift – people can come for a sail.” He was selling day sails. “People were contributing because they just wanted to be part of the project. One person then offered all the money we needed.” Both Hyde Sails and Naturalmat also provided heavily discounted equipment.

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The tall cutter-rigged sailplan harnesses the light breeze. Photo: Ian Roman

“So now Helena has to do something different to what was planned. We need to get her working and making money otherwise we’ll have to sell her,” Ludgrove explains. The layout and interior should help encourage guests and paying clients. The lion’s share of the accommodation is reserved for the lovely, light saloon, with an open bulkhead connecting to the galley.

It was Easter Friday when I joined Mike, Elaine, one of their sons, Henry, and son-in-law Will for Helena’s maiden sail. Just two days later she left for Brest where she picked up her first charter. She then sailed across the bay of Biscay, rounding Cape St Vincent as we went to press, bound for Greece to do the Spetses Classics regatta with some Australian guests who’d bought time aboard during the crowdfunding stage.

So Mike and Elaine have begun a very different new life aboard Helena. “I want people to enjoy the boat – that means a lot to me,” Ludgrove confesses. “It’s a life-changing thing to build this and a privilege. There’s nothing humdrum about it.”

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Relief, pride and smiles: Mike Ludgrove finally helms the yacht he built entirely by hand

I can’t help but wonder what has been the most rewarding part of building Helena. “Now,” Ludgrove replies without hesitation. “When people say ‘I love your boat’.

“I hope lots of people come sailing,” he continues – and really means it. “I want her to be a source of joy. That’s what sailing’s about.”

Specifications

LOA: 19.00m (62ft 4in)
LWL: 13.23m (43ft 5in)
Beam: 4.08m (13ft 5in)
Displacement: 28,500kg (62,831lb)
Sail area: 160m2 (1,722ft2)

First published in the July 2019 edition of Yachting World.

The post Helena: The homebuilt labour of love that was 15 years in the making appeared first on Yachting World.

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