15 March 2002

Why boats and bullocks go together well

A perfect location and

boating experience have

combined to help one

farming couple to create

an expanding marine

business that blends

perfectly with the landscape

and economy.

Mick Roberts reports

THE rugged Cornish coastline provides an ideal backdrop for the sailing fraternity who adore the countys open waters, beautiful coves, anchorages and harbours. And St Winnow, on the upper reaches of the Fowey estuary, typifies that Cornish sailing experience.

Frank Stephens and Stephanie Chapman farm 130ha (325 acres) of owned and rented land at St Winnow Barton, which is literally on the banks of the river. Its the perfect location for what the couple describe as their mixed rural business, which includes farming, a holiday cottage, a five-pitch camping/caravan site and the latest addition – St Winnow Yachts, a boatyard that is now the south west distributor for Selva boats and outboard engines.

&#42 Nautical sideline

A centuries-old ferry crossing leading straight out of the farmyard, down a slipway and into the river has provided a nautical sideline for the farm for years. "Traditionally we have stored about 20 boats here, lifting them out of the water in the autumn, storing them on hard standing and putting them back in the following spring," says Frank.

About five years ago, however, the couple nearly stopped storing boats. "It was very much a sideline, and at the time farm incomes were acceptable. Stephanie was debating whether to go back to work lecturing at the local college, so we were thinking of stopping the boat side," he adds.

A new baby put paid to those plans, so Stephanie stayed on the farm and continued to develop the boat business. "We gradually increased the usable area in the yards and began to store more boats," she says.

At the same time the couple stopped growing arable crops, freeing up more management time to devote to the boats.

This also coincided with the eclipse, and a one-off diversification aimed at tapping into the influx of tourists predicted to come to Cornwall to witness the event. Together with their landlord, they set up a temporary family campsite for 1000 people on the land they rent at Bodinnick overlooking the harbour at Fowey.

When some children were unhappy to find they were not camping by a beach, the couple simply made one for them in the farmyard. "We tipped 50t of sand in the yard and painted a beach scene on the buildings so that the children could have their beach to play on," says Stephanie.

This epitomises the couples approach to customer service. "We tried to treat the visitors how we would like to be treated. And thats how we run the boat business as well. We look after the boats as if they were our own," she adds.

&#42 Winter servicing

With more boats being stored at the farm the couple soon realised it was time to add value to the storage by offering services ranging from a simple pressure wash to winter servicing of engines. They will do any work required and also supply their customers with parts and consumables, such as special anti-fouling paint.

"In years of boating I have accumulated a range of valuable skills, such as yacht maintenance, engine repairs and servicing. At the same time experience gained from working with farm machinery also comes in useful," says Frank.

More specialist work is done by local, reliable contractors. But when he heard that some customers had travelled a long way to buy a new rubber dingy he saw another opportunity. A trip to the Southampton boat show to look for an inflatable dingy ended up with St Winnow Yachts becoming the south-west distributor for Selva motor boats and outboard engines.

Taking on the dealership last year appeared to be the final piece of the jigsaw for the boatyard. But now Stephanie has discovered yet another opportunity – helping customers to sell an existing boat (they dont take part exchange or trade-ins).

She has now added yacht broker to St Winnow Yachts expanding portfolio. And for next season they will also be selling the Swale range of traditional rowing, sailing and fishing boats.

With so much boating activity it would be easy to assume the couple would try to hide the farming activities from the visitors and boatyard customers.

Far from it, Stephanie insists that the farm remains an integral part of the mixed rural business and despite all the changes they plan to make to the yard, the bullocks will still remain in their pens right next to the pressure washer where they clean the boats.

&#42 Simple, low-input

Indeed, Frank and Stephanie are as keen to talk about the farm as they are the boats. They run a Limousin cross South Devon and Friesian suckler herd (going back to when they were dairy farming) taking beef cattle to store or finishing, and a flock of 200 Texel cross sheep.

The sheep and cattle are kept on simple, low input systems using clover leys. Although they have made some changes to the farm to give them more time for other activities, they feel these are no different to the changes they would have had to make to cope with the farming situation in the past two years anyway.

Nevertheless, the boats have carried the farm in the past couple of years, and have helped to keep not only the family, but also two others in virtually full-time work. But, stresses Stephanie, all parts of the business – farming, boats and tourism – are intertwined and none would thrive without the other.

Top left: Boats and Limousin cross South Devon and Friesian suckler herd rub shoulders.

Top right

and centre: Frank Stephens and Stephanie Chapman.

Right:

The land runs right down to

the river.