Daws Heath's boat builder

Finesse Yachts

I have been writing about sailing the rivers and creeks of the Thames Estuary for a number of years. It all started with my first book which chronicled my childhood afloat on the spritsail barge May Flower.

Both of my parents hailed from Essex. Father was brought up in Chalkwell down near the rail line and my mother came from Prittlewell. Both became members of the Leigh-on Sea Sailing Club. The Ardley family had been sailors for many years and the family go way back locally: it is known, but unconfirmed, that a forebear was burnt at the stake in Rayleigh High Street on 10th June 1555 – for dissenting. It was a trait my father had too: they shared the same first names!

My father bought the May Flower of Rochester (Blt 1888, 48 Net Reg tonnage) in March 1950 from Green’s the millers of Maldon. A crowd of Leigh Sailing Club sailing buddies helped bring her round over an Easter weekend to Leigh-on-Sea. It was the first and only time father used a professional skipper. That skipper, incidentally, then lived in South Benfleet. My parents actually sailed the barge up to the bridge and berthed her below it for a period during 1954 for a break from their normal Kentish berth, until disappearing back beyond the Thames.

When ‘May Flower’ was published I began to write about sailing beneath the Downs along that evocative stretch of water now commonly known as Benfleet Creek. Those yarns spread across the estuary to cover the River Medway and the Swale. It is an intimate look comparing how things were along the waterways to how they have since developed or returned to nature, as is often the case. Mingling within are colourful accounts of the area’s abundant wildlife and beautiful marshes. The stories are based around the Skipper & Mate plus, of course, the boat, our Finesse 24 Whimbrel which was built up the road from my present abode on the edge of Hadleigh.   { For more on whimbrel,  the bird, click here.}

A further book features the waters below the Downs, but this time it also traversed the ‘east coast’ – the common name for the estuary waters sailed by us ‘yotties’ between North Kent and mid Suffolk! Well, having got thus far I found I couldn’t stop: my head is filled with years of experiences … and I enjoy looking into and digging up little snippets of local history of many of the places visited and passed by adding colour and a seriousness to the writing.

At the end of October (2011) my latest book, The Jottings of a Thames Estuary Ditch-crawler, was published, in which, amongst many coastal tales, I relate the history of our area’s unique boat yard – the yard in the woods. The story of that yard ( Finesse Yachts ) ran out into a large chapter which could have made a booklet itself. It was compiled after many long interviews (chats) with the boat builder and a number of those who knew him during his working life. It tells of the three classes of cruising yachts which were built by his team and of several other one-off vessels too.

The first of the classes was a 21 footer. It was followed by a 24 footer and then a 28 footer. The ’28’ was actually preceded by a single 27 foot vessel. The story is interesting indeed. The proprietor was able through his abilities to turn his hand to just about anything and during his time as a boat builder he had to: boat building was and remains a very funny business, completely at the mercy of whims and fiscal downturns.

Few people now know of this yard, and you will not find it: it has gone. It sat off Bramble Crescent in the midst of all that lovely woodland bordering the ‘water board’ storage facility in Daws Heath.

Please do not wander the area poking around for bits of old boat … there is nothing left to indicate its near forty years of activity. The builder and his wife live down the lane, quietly, in contented retirement, and that is the way they wish to remain… But you can read all about it in The Jottings

My web-site www.nickardley.com can supply details of this and all my books.

{Ed:  related film at..
http://nickardley.com/ditch-crawler-mate-and-whimbrel-star-in-new-my-classic-boat-youtube-film/ }

Finesse 25 No.5 sailing in the Nore Race in the 1970s. Alan Platt is standing by the mast on foredeck duty.
Bob Clark (Nick Ardley)
Inside Finesse Yacht's building shed around 1980.
A F Platt (Nick Ardley)

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  • Hopefully I can clear up some of the issues around F21, SN80, aka Catherine-1. As my father says above, we have owned this boat since November 1991 and I have the builder’s certificate from Alan dated 28th September 1984. Now as to why SN79 has a build date of 11 years after that I can’t say.

    By Mark Syms (13/07/2016)
  • Hi Graham,

    Great to hear from you. Clearly your vessel is probably one of the ‘last’ Finesse 21s to come out of the yard: Alan closed up his boat building within a short time of this. Now what we don’t know is actually when No.80 was built for her original and later owners have not come up with a date…

    It was not unusual for numbers to appear out of order: the actual firm ordering set your number.

    If you contact me through my web site http://www.nickardley.com I can either add you to the ‘East Coast’ or not. Do you know about the Finesse Facebook site – a closed site for owners and crew/friends. There is also a web site, and a google based site. Will send links when I hear from you…

    The ‘of Orford’ is probably the place she ‘lived’ for her first period of life. Most were actually launched from the hard at Two Tree Island in Hadleigh Ray (Lower Thames), however, boats sold to owners living afar were delivered by road. I think Jot was more likely to have slipped into the water locally…

    We have a F21 No.78 on the ‘EC’ list of craft.

    Look forward to hearing from you.


    By Nick Ardley (01/10/2015)
  • Hi everyone,I own a finesse 21 sail number 79, built in 1995 and named ” JOT”  The plaque on stern says Orford, I presume it was launched there when it was built. She is in fine condition and I currently have her moored in the Lake District hope this info helps! Graham

    By Graham Sowden (18/09/2015)
  • Hi Paul,
    the F21s were up to 73 by 1985. David doesn’t actually say when his No. 80 was built. The biggest problem I’ve had is confirming the numbers: Alan does not have much - if any – paperwork left.

    I’ve tracked down the last two F24s, No. 69 & 70. I do believe that Catherine One was the last F21… Maybe you have the date in original papers.
    From my book (ch 2) you’ll know when he ceased building…

    Best wishes

    By Nick Ardley (26/03/2015)
  • Further to David Goodbourn’s post from 24 August 2012, which I have just seen.  I bought the Finesse 21, sail number 80 (name Catherine) through Woodrolfe Brokerage in Tollesbury in 1991 and sailed her until a couple of years ago.  I have now given her to my son Mark who, with his wife Jen, is still sailing her.  I have never seen a Finesse 21 with a sail number higher than 80 and so assumed she was the last to be built.  Does anyone have information to the contrary?

    By Paul Syms (12/01/2015)
  • Great stuff.

    I have heard of the Marine Quarterly: I was a seafarer for 31 years… Perhaps I should drop them a line!

    Sorry, I don’t know anyone from the Thorpe Bay SC. It is difficult when people sell boats on without a case history file. I have all information appertaining to my F24 from the time she was ordered in 1983. However, I’d never leave my log book aboard though.

    Does your F21 have a number carved on the stern post? Or is there a number on the mainsail?

    Drop me a line on my web site reply http://www.nickardley.com - there is an east coast Finesse Group on Face Book – I can send you details. There are also Google sites and a web site. Do you know about the 2014 Finesse Rally? I can send details too.

    I drop in on Alan from time to time – he has been very interested in the Finesse Rallies and other stuff in print.

    By Nick Ardley (10/03/2014)
  • Hello gentlemen, good to read your discussions. I am a proud owner of a Finesse 21. Mr Platt, when I called him out of the blue, thought it was delivered in 1970. The man who bought it was called John Burrell. He is sadly deceased but his son, Allen, may be known to you as real dingy racing champion at Thorpe Bay YC. My boat was called originally ‘Seaspray’, but now is renamed ‘Moonrise’ by me, after many intervening owners and name changes.  She is a lovely little boat but kept far from the sea now, on the River Avon (Stratford to Tewkesbury). She doesn’t seem to mind! I wish a log book had travelled with her, but sadly none has.  It has been good to piece some of her history together with the help of Pauline Burrell and Mr Platt himself. Nick, have you come across The Marine Quarterly? It’s a rather unusual and special publication. I was wondering if they might like to hear about Mr Platt from you?  Might be an appreciative new outlet for your most interesting research. Well done. 

    By Christina Kulukundis (05/03/2014)
  • Nice to see comments still coming in against this piece … watch the archive and (in library) for information in the spring: I shall be talking, a little, about Alan and his boats at the Essex Book Festival.

    By Nick Ardley (22/11/2013)
  • I remember the yard very well as I lived in Bramble Road and often walked to Belfairs past the road. You could smell the wood and see inside the shed; also. a friend of mine lived in the house opposite, beautiful area.

    By Roger Shinn (04/11/2013)
  • My dad knew Alan, my dad was the man from the Pru! He too built boats but only as a hobby! I went to Platts yard many times in the 70’s!

    By Andrew Aldridge (10/10/2013)
  • Hi David, Friday 24th May meet in Stangate Saturday 25th May – mass sail up to Chatham Marina – facilities berth booked. BBQ arranged. Sunday 26th in marina – some will have to leave to get home. Monday 27th – dispersal. Contact by email (through web site) and I can send ‘stuff’ to you. You would be welcome to come to Chatham by road.

    By Nick Ardley (07/03/2013)
  • Hi Nick, thank you for the info regarding meet, I will be in France around that time but would love to know the exact dates, it sounds exciting. Sorry about delay but will keep a close eye on this page,  have been travelling.  Am trying to sort a couple of pics out of my boat in Alan’s shed; regards David.

    By david goodbourn (26/02/2013)
  • Hi David, Sorry, just seen your comments… Always away sailing see! Very interesting indeed and well done you. Do you know where the boat is now? You may interested to know that a first ever meet of Alan Platt built vessels is being planned for the River Medway next late May BH weekend (2013.) See my web site, details referenced in original article. This can be used to contact me, too. This area has the greatest concentration of Alan’s boats seen for a very long time – a home-coming perhaps…

    By Nick Ardley (26/09/2012)
  • Hi, I had the pleasure of having one of the last 21 ones to be built, sail number 80, and I had blue sails and added a bowsprit to her, it was always my dream to have one of Alan’s new boats. As she was built, I kept a history of her build from the keel being laid to her first touch of the sea. When I sold her, I passed over the book to the new owner and said that - if ever you sell - the book of her build must stay with her, and a couple of years later I had a phone call to say that the new owner has her history, Hopefully you will find this of some interest, I named her Catherine one, regards Davy g

    By david goodbourn (24/08/2012)
  • Ian, I don’t know where you live, but do feel free to contact me through my web site, be good to get your thoughts. I have had a few contacts since ‘Jottings’ was published with the Finesse Story.

    By Nick Ardley (16/02/2012)
  • I was an apprentice at that yard and remember my time well, 1962-1968.

    At that time there were only 3 of us: Alan Platt, Alan Parish and myself. Shirley Platt would do all the finished paint and varnish work. Hard work but a great grounding for life.

    By Ian Downing (12/02/2012)
  • An interesting article, I remember the yard well and the range of wooden Finesse boats. They don’t build them like that anymore.

    By Ian Hawks (02/01/2012)

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