Creating a flawless finished product
Master craftsman Lee Parker takes us behind the scenes at Oyster Yachts where he’s made a career out of building beautiful boats.
Too often, yachts are seen only as finished products. We might see them floating majestically on the water or bobbing serenely in a marina, but we’re far less likely to see them as a work in progress. That’s a shame, because to visit a shipyard is to open the door on the magical combination of tradition, craftsmanship and passion that gives yachts their edge.
It can take years to build one yacht, such is the attention to detail and complexity of work. And master craftsman Lee Parker knows that better than most. Parker heads up the joinery department at Southampton shipyard, Oyster Yachts, and is responsible for ensuring the exacting high standards on every yacht that slides out onto the River Itchen.
Parker started out building colossal ships for the Royal Navy after completing a five-year apprenticeship, before joining Oyster as a bench joiner. “As a bench joiner, your day-to-day routine is furniture construction,” he says. “Your job is to meet the Oyster standard using the techniques we’ve adapted over the years.” Those standards include rules such as not having any visible screws on show whatsoever.
In addition to the team working as bench joiners, there are also craftsmen aboard the boat in the shed, installing the furniture made in the joiner shop. “It’s a two-part process,” explains Parker, who has been fortunate enough to work in both positions. Parker’s team also works closely with the finishing department and the design team. “All of our projects are set out in 3D models before we even start,” he explains. “We’ve just got new software so the owners can put on virtual reality headsets and walk around the boat before it’s even begun. It’s quite a nice touch.”
Understandably, given how long he’s been working in the yard, Parker’s standards are sky high, whether at home or at work. “We call it the joiner’s eye,” he jokes. “I am one of those people that can come to your house and my eye just goes to the imperfections.” That’s down to a career spent meticulously quality controlling. “In the joinery shop, things go through the quality process and everything needs my signature on it. If we aren’t happy with it, even because of a tiny chip or a scratch, it will not leave the shop. It’s got to be right. We are obsessive.”
The results of such perfecting efforts are clear in the final product, of course, and for Parker and his team, the day a yacht is completed is extraordinarily special. “When you see the finished product it’s unbelievable. The finish and the level of detail that goes into it all is off the charts. When you present it to the owners, they are blown away. They have their hands over their mouths. It’s awesome.”
An Oyster yacht
An Oyster yacht
It’s largely up to the owner what happens on launch day. Some like to keep their privacy, but often the team are invited down to the marina to join celebrations. “One owner said to me only last week that we’d helped shape his dream,” says Parker. “He broke the bottle of champagne on the side of the boat and got everyone involved. It can be an emotional affair for the owner.”
Similarly, when Oyster CEO, Richard Hadida’s Lush was completed, he invited the team out for a sail around the Solent. It’s perhaps unsurprising that owners are so keen to pay their thanks; after all, they tend to be heavily involved every step of the way. “Owners have the opportunity to tailor-make their own yacht and deviate from the standard layout,” explains Parker. With Hadida’s yacht, it was a case of transforming an oak yacht into a walnut yacht – but it can go far beyond a material change.
One owner, for example, had his boat destroyed by fire and brought it back to the yard to be completely rescued and refit. “We rebuilt a lot of it and it was brought back to new from a black inferno. The owner came on and burst into tears – he was so happy to have his boat back. He said it looked better than the day they’d received it.”
At 37, Parker has spent decades perfecting his trade since finishing his apprenticeship, with many of those years spent at Oyster. “I’ve made some of my closest friends here,” he says. “And I still get a buzz with every project we complete.”