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Tamborine Mountain Boat Builders

Tamborine Mountain Boat Builders

by August 18, 2016 0 comments

Mount Tamborine resonates of rainforest scenes and smells, the arts and the crafts. But did you know there are boats being built up there? Andy Kancachian interviews Scruffie Marine owner Derek Ellard about the mountain-top boat-building facility.



Derek Ellard claims that the most provoking aspect of working on Mount Tamborine is “the seemingly endless Noah jokes.” But for this Tamborine boat-builder of more than 30 years, building boats on a mountain is not a joke. Derek admits, “There are occasional supply problems. However, all our boats are trailerable—even the bus-sized 33—so they are efficiently transported off the mountain.”


For Derek and business partner Annette Hollist, there are numerous advantages to be on the mountain. “We live and work on a beautiful rainforest plateau—our house is ten minutes from the workshop and wonderfully peaceful. It’s lovely living in a small community where you know lots of people and you can rely on friends and neighbours.”


The Scruffie Marine boats are painstakingly hand-built, rather than being assembly-line mass-production boats. Derek points out, “A Scruffie-built boat is a fine seaworthy little ship and would still be so even if it were mass produced. A hand-built boat will always have a special quality. It will always be customised for the owner, and like a work of art, will carry the builder’s signature.”




In the early 1990s, the recession hit Derek’s three high-end businesses very hard. Never one to dwell on misfortune, he knew he had to change direction, so Derek began to list his passions, skills and prospects. “I loved boats, I was a pretty good woodworker with a background in visual arts and I was ambitious. I then researched the boating industry and saw a niche that I could fill and the kit systems were developed accordingly. The first prototype was built on a shoestring and launched on a borrowed trailer. It sailed very well and while it has evolved in key areas, it is still recognizably the same today.”


The company gained early publicity with Brisbane’s Courier Mail. The journalist asked Derek what kind of boat it was. He replied, “It was a back-to-basics knockabout family sailboat.” The journalist’s response was, “A bit scruffy then?” “Scruffy” Derek thought it was a great name. So he decided to use it, but changed the spelling with an “ie” at the end. And it stuck.


Citing reasons for his boat-building abilities, “I had trained in the Fine Arts, but my first love was always in woodworking. So by the time I was in my twenties, I was a full-time shop-fitter and cabinetmaker. Meanwhile, I sailed and worked on the family boat and clients’ boats. The combination of Art School training plus hands-on boatbuilding was valuable in setting up the business.”


Scruffie Marine business partner, Annette is described by Derek as “literally irreplaceable”. Defining her role, he says, “Her skills in office management plus client and supplier liaison are an essential part of the business. But her training in art and design has meant that in-house brochures, publicity materials are readily available and more recently the computer rendering of new models is now in her capable hands and she is currently re-designing our website.” Annette has also had hands-on kit building experience in the yard, so she knows the product and understands the processes.


The Boats in Detail


Great knowledge and skills have developed over the years to keep Scruffie up with the times. “We build with epoxy resins, fibreglass plug and mould-making, thermo-formed and extruded plastics. I have developed a new kit-build system, a hollow wooden mast building process, laminated components and much more. We utilize a comprehensive in-house design process from conception through to production. Exploring innovative combinations of traditional aesthetics with modern hull forms and efficient production techniques.”


Derek continues, “To date, we have sold 329 Scruffie boats. Of these, 75 percent were sold in kit form, while the remainder were finished products. The boats range from the Shimmy 12 to the Secret 33.”


They are all unashamedly “retro” in appearance, drawing on a variety of late 19th and early 20th Century English working boats commonly in use where Derek grew up and learned to sail in the UK. “While they have fishing-boat DNA, the boats are small and traditionally rigged trailerable sailing boats, mostly for cruising—although one, the Secret 20, is wonderfully fast. Incidentally, this boat was chosen by England’s bestselling boating magazine, Practical Boat Owner, as a project boat to feature in the magazine and at the London Boat Show.”


Derek explains that Scruffie boats were initially niche-market driven. But in recent years, the “Spirit of Tradition” movement has gained momentum especially in Europe, so the boats are finding increased opportunities. In Australia, the Shimmy 12 and Stornaway 18 share top billing, and in the UK, the Secret 20.


Scruffie boats are unique in many ways. “We pioneered the slot system kits which make it much easier and quicker to build. All models are quick and easy to rig, the Shimmy 12 can be rigged and launched in ten minutes. Our boats are little ships rather than dinghies. They are safe, stable, seaworthy vessels with a proven track record as navy cadet and sail training boats. Their modern version of gaff or lugsail rigs perform very well. And we are always complimented on their looks.” These boats have simple, efficient three-quarter length ballasted keels—no dagger boards to jamb or trip you up in the shallows. It is the company’s refusal to compromise on quality that has definitely helped to ensure they are still very much in business.


What can we expect from Scruffie boats? Derek is confident that Scruffie owners can rely on the boats to get them home safely, and assures his buyers that they are real sailing boats, “not skittish nerve wracking show ponies.” “The gaffers and luggers are inherently more stable than Bermudan-rigged craft, which is why they persisted in workboats over the centuries. They can take rough weather and smooth sailing equally. They are powerful but safe and steady in a seaway. While a fin-keeled racer will beat our boats to windward, we don’t give too much away. Off wind, our long keels and low aspect rigs come into their own.”


Scruffie Goes Solar Electric


“Our first solar electric boat, the Sienna 19, performed really well and still does,” explains Derek. “But the boat really needed to be bigger to take full advantage of more solar input.”


Enter the Secret 33, a yacht-design hull with a higher freeboard for survey requirements and big passenger capacity of up to 16 persons. “The first of the new boats is in service in Perth as a 12-passenger boat and performs really well with at least three quarters of the daily power consumption coming directly from the sun, leaving a minimum of shore charging necessary to top up.”


Derek explains other advantages. The running costs are dramatically lower then diesel. There is no noise, no fumes, no vibration, and most importantly, no pollution. Clearly this is excellent news for the owner or operator.


Derek is excited about the future of Scruffie solar electrics. “We have enquiries from Florida, Turkey, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. We have a unique river-cruise mountain-tour package based on the electric launch which we hope to get up and running soon.”


The other exciting development for Scruffie Marine is that the CEO of Oceanvolt, a Finnish electric sail drive manufacturer, recently visited the Mount Tamborine premises and was very impressed with the new Secret 33 electric passenger launch. They have featured the boat on their Facebook page with an excellent response, and on their website. Thus, the new boat will spearhead the company’s new sales push with GRP electric and sail-electric boats.


Derek points out, “Solar electric propulsion is perfect for displacement speed boats. Simply put, it is the future. Our Secret 33 has 1.6 kilowatts of power on the canopy, enough to power it to four knots as long as the sun shines. If you are fed up with fuel costs and worried about your grandchildren’s future in a rapidly deteriorating environment, it’s the only solution.”


Derek feels that as a business owner it is his responsibility to do the best he can for customers and for his home—planet earth.



What the future holds


Scruffie Marine has future plans for several unique designs. Without giving too much away, Derek has a long list. “A new four-person solar-electric resort boat, a third-world sail-electric cargo or passenger boat, and a new 12-passenger sailing day-tripper boat.”


The boat building business is very rewarding for Derek. He states, “The unalloyed satisfaction from designing and building a new boat from scratch and finding that she sails beautifully is a great incentive. We’ll leave the world in a better place.”


If you are planning to build one of the Scruffie boats or any other wooden boat, Derek leaves you with this advice: “You will need patience, the continuity of ancient skills, the recognition of fact that man has always built his own things from bark huts and dugout canoes to sheds, houses and boats—it is in our genes. We need this more today than ever and so do our kids. “


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