Identifying an opportunity to carve a niche in the infancy of offshore wind in 2009, Simon Coote calculated it was a risk worth taking.

The writing was on the wall for big steel ship building, so Simon put a business proposition to the Gardline board to look at using its former Richards shipyard on Southtown Road in Great Yarmouth to specialise in small commercial workboats servicing the nascent offshore renewable energy sector, securing the yard’s future as Alicat Workboats.

Moving to repair and build sub-24m vessels was a “big decision at the time” for a business with a heritage of big ship expertise, said Simon.

“It meant decommissioning the dry dock and installing a boat lift. You have to make commercial decisions and it was really hard, but it couldn’t carry on the way it was. We had to downsize to rebuild with a focus as a service and repairer for small work boats.

“There is a lot of history of ship building locally and it is sad to see it go, but you have to keep it going as well as you can. History is good but it doesn’t pay the bills.

“To the older workers, it was sacrilege to fill in a dry dock, but the business was facing an increasingly competitive market with a diminishing number of boats that fit in the dry dock.

“It was a wooden dry dock that was coming to the end of its life. We needed to build a bigger dry dock and at the time it probably wasn’t viable because of the cost.”

A shift to smaller vessels meant retraining its workforce and changing the structure – smaller boats needed fewer people to maintain them.

“We also went from big ships in steel to building in aluminium,” said Simon. “The name Alicat comes from aluminium catamaran.”

Installing a boat lift changed the operation for the 35-strong workforce, reducing the number of people needed to lift a boat from the water from 10 to two.

Eastern Daily Press: Grace Darling, the first hybrid powered daughter craft specifically designed for the offshore wind market and built by Alicat WorkboatsGrace Darling, the first hybrid powered daughter craft specifically designed for the offshore wind market and built by Alicat Workboats (Image: North Star)
Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft had a workforce that had learned its trades as apprentices at the likes of the once world-renowned Richards and Brook Yachts.

Simon started his career as an engineering apprentice with William Overy, which became Small & Co, running the dry dock in Lowestoft.

When he later joined the marine division of Gardline, run by George Darling, he believed boat repair was behind him.

“When George Darling found out about my background on big ships, he asked me to go to the Richards yard for two weeks to give them a hand – that was more than 20 years ago and I’m still here.”

Between 2009-2018, Alicat built three boats a year, as well as taking on some small repairs, but when Gardline Group bought South Boats on the Isle of Wight – the leading aluminium builder for crew transfer vessels (CTVs) – the workforce grew again.

The business then built six to 10 boats a year, peaking at 220 employees between the sites.

When Gardline was acquired by Boscalis in 2018, Simon and co-owner Steve Thacker decided to go ahead with a management buyout of Alicat.

“The CTV market and offshore wind market was in a bit of a lull, so we decided not to take South Boats, and suggested they also did an MBO, which became Diverse Marine,” said Simon. “This allowed us to concentrate purely on Alicat Workboats.

“My prediction from my experience in the UK boat building market was that the new-build market would dry up in the UK with work going abroad, so we decided to concentrate on boat service and repair.”

Simon was right. Spain took over building fishing boats, Taiwan and Japan built tugs cheaper than the UK, and Chinese and Singapore yards grew in the sector.

“More boats working in the UK today are built overseas than in the UK,” Simon said. “I am not saying that we can’t compete with Europe and the Far East, but it is a real challenge.”

Alicat’s quick turnaround yard focused on service and repair works, usually boats in local service – offshore wind-related boats working on Greater Gabbard, East Anglia ONE and others off the east coast, pilot boats, fishing boats, pleasure cruisers, survey vessels and bigger vessels if the boat lift had the capability.

Then, three years ago, North Star was seeking a business to build daughter craft – mini CTVs for up to 12 people that can work at 1.5m depth and are launched and recovered from the mother vessel, as well as being an addition to walk to work platforms.

Eastern Daily Press:  A daughter craft with its mother vessel on Dogger Bank Offshore Wind Farm A daughter craft with its mother vessel on Dogger Bank Offshore Wind Farm (Image: North Star)
Alicat’s team rose to the challenge to build the electric hybrid boats, which are classed as hybrid but are wholly electrical with no diesel generation on board.

“It is a small 12m boat and we had to fit everything into it,” said Simon. “There are effectively two electric cars worth of kit in there.

“Building new boats is interesting. With the hybrid and electrical aspects, they are very technical and challenging to build.”

Four of the six North Star daughter vessels, worth £1million each when they are fitted out, are completed, with three at sea on the Dogger Bank Wind Farm. A vessel for another customer will start to be built in the next month.

“We have two in build at the same time. We fabricate the hull and then move it to the outfitting while another hull is fabricated,” said Simon. “We also have solid repair bookings for the next few months. The yard can take up to 13 boats at one time with capacity normally reached in winter.”

Looking to the future, Alicat Workboats aims to continue the tradition of quality boat building with one eye on changing times, adapting to stay ahead and relevant.

Creating the next generation of boat builders

Training and investing in young people is important to Alicat.

Five apprentices are currently going through training as fabricators, engineers, outfitters (carpentry and joinery) and welders, delivering all-round transferrable skills and getting their first experience of new generation hybrid and electric vessels.

“Training is key for us and the future of boat building in the UK, but it is hard – especially finding the young people that want to do it,” said Simon. “I’m turning work away because I can’t get the people. 

“My first thought when a tender lands on my desk is: Can I find the people to do it? I have workshop space but sometimes we haven’t got the people to do it.

“East Coast College works hard to promote us and our opportunities. In an ideal world, I would have an apprentice with every skilled man I have, but you 
can’t afford to do that.”

Simon’s son, Mason, 24, began working as an apprentice electrician working in the business when he left school. 

“Shipyards have always been a good training ground,” said Simon. “Back in the day, they were effectively building a small town with all the amenities – it demands a whole range of skills. 

“People trained in ship building can turn their hand to anything. The oil and gas industry was built around people who had trained in boat building at Richards and Brooke Yachts. I’m sure oil and gas wouldn’t be as it was had it not been for the training our region’s boat building yards gave.

“We support the Government’s National Shipbuilding Strategy, but my argument is that we are talking about it 20 years too late. Now it is launched, more needs to be done.” 

A lack of investment and grants for the industry had “left it to stand on its own feet”, Simon said. 

“We have a lot of pride in what we do and great satisfaction in building something from scratch and seeing it sail off out to sea, knowing it will be doing its job for the next 30 years.”

Eastern Daily Press: Rachel Parsons, one of North Star’s daughter craft, taking to the water from Alicat Workboats quaysideRachel Parsons, one of North Star’s daughter craft, taking to the water from Alicat Workboats quayside (Image: Alicat Workboats)

A perfect partnership

When North Star initially started looking for a UK shipbuilder, it became clear that a contender was right on the doorstep of its Lowestoft operation.

“While it had been some time since Alicat Workboats had conducted boat building activities, the company’s knowledge and skills are used daily across the windfarm crew transfer vessel (CTV) sector,” said Andrew Duncan, renewables director at North Star.

“Its proven track record and credentials of delivering quality fabrication and innovation, coupled with it being based in Great Yarmouth, made it the ideal partner for bringing our new unique design of offshore wind hybrid-powered daughter craft to life.

“The Alicat team has a wealth of experience and an in-depth knowledge of ‘what works’ with offshore wind CTVs that transpose to our special fleet. The company’s excellent fabrication skills, and ingenuity in packaging the technologies, were also factors we sought when deciding which company would manufacture the daughter crafts, which support our service operations vessel (SOV) fleet.

“This, coupled with our local proximity, which allowed our teams to have regular heartbeat progress update meetings on-site, provided the full pathway toward success for delivering the growing fleet on schedule.

“The quality of Alicat’s work and understanding of the sector requirements is shown through the company’s ability to take an original concept and vessel design and share their own valuable recommendations. This has ensured that the North Star daughter crafts are optimised to be not only high performance, but comfortable and quiet for the windfarm technicians transiting onboard the vessels.”