Raymond Jeckells: Innovative designer kept Norfolk family sailmaking business at the forefront

Excel London Boat Show, three generations of sailmakers from Jeckells, LtoR Raymond, Chris and Ben. 14of20 Picture; Sam Robbins Copy; Ed Foss EDPpics Copyright 2004 (01603) 772434

An innovative designer and maker of sails, Raymond Jeckells, who has died aged 82, was the head of one of Norfolk's oldest businesses.

Established at Great Yarmouth in 1832 and now based at Wroxham, he took advantage of emerging technology to keep the family firm at the forefront of sailmaking.

Although he had to weather stormy and testing economic conditions, he appreciated the importance of investing in computers to continue to make the best sails in the world. In the early 1980s, Jeckells the Sailmakers was the first loft in the country to have a computer-controlled laser cutter, which was featured on the BBC's Tomorrow's World.

A fiercely competitive sailor, he was always looking to innovate and became the first UK sailmaker successfully to fit a window into a sail. As a keen racer, it also improved safety on the water.

Raymond William Jeckells was born at Lowestoft, where the business also had a sail loft. Although it had been founded by Yarmouth fisherman, Robert Jeckells five years before the start of Queen Victoria's reign, about a century later the firm moved its headquarters to Wroxham and opened a new loft as the hire boat industry started to expand in the years before the second world war.

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He went to Norwich School, where another younger pupil was Martin Broom, of the boatbuilding dynasty. As the friends and rivals competed on the water over the following decades, he had some early successes. When he passed his driving test, he parked his Austin 7 outside the school, with his Norfolk dinghy, Cockle, on a trailer. Then, he went to pick up Martin's dinghy, which was placed on top of Cockle and off they went in his 747cc car, towing both boats weighing more than half a ton.

When they both decided to get a Yare & Bure One-Design, his father's insistence on an 8am start worked to his advantage. He contacted Herbert Woods at Potter Heigham, where after National Service he had been an apprentice, and placed an order to be ready for that season's sailing. His boat, number 70, was named Silver Skipper. When Mr Broom, who started work half an hour later, also rang the boat builder, he was told that his vessel, to be numbered 71, could not be completed for another year.

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When he succeeded his father as managing director in the early 1970s, the boating sector was severely depressed – as inflation, fuelled by tripling of oil prices to $10 barrel and a wave of strikes devastated boatbuilding. As the country's largest sailmaker, their customers were going out of business almost every day.

He had to make some tough decisions to keep the firm afloat. Where the firm once employed about 150 often long-serving staff, the five lofts eventually became just one employing about two dozen people as new techniques were adopted.

A laser cutter, accurate to 0.01mm, would heat-seal every cut to prevent fraying and also reduced the amount of space needed to make sails. From the late 1970s, Mr Jeckells had been using a Hewlett Packard calculator to design sails. When his designs were printed on a till roll, it made it possible to cut sails on tables instead of on the floor. Further, 3-D design software in the early 1980s was quickly followed by a laser robotic plotter.

While Jeckells has also one of the largest libraries of sail-plans, with more than 40,000 on record, it diversified into areas of allied business.

He was a relatively young man, when he first won the Gold Cup at Wroxham Week in 1963 and later repeated success in 1978 and 1979, including on one occasion with his oldest son, Stephen. His great friend, Mr Broom, who died last month aged 79, was also a multiple Gold Cup winner.

A member of the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club, Norwich Frostbites Sailing Club, Horning Sailing Club and a past commodore of the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club, he was still sailing his white boat until a year or two ago.

For many years, he was treasurer of the Museum of the Broads and was proud to have been treasurer of his local church for a number of years.

He was married in 1957 and leaves a widow, Gillian, two sons, Stephen and Christopher, four grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

A service of thanksgiving will be held at St Benedict's Church, Horning, on Tuesday, December 10 at 12.30pm.

Michael Pollitt

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