Brian Tankard RIP

Our shipwright, Saul, reflects on his memories and the life of Brian.

I first met Brian in 1979 when, barely out of my teens, having just finished a boat-building course at Falmouth he responded to my letter seeking employment by inviting me to drop in for a chat.  I arrived at the arranged time to find him inside a simulated clinker hull that had been cut into quarters and stretched in length and width and was in the process of being joined back together.  He was holding a level up against a plywood bulkhead and was deep in conversation with his foreman and, apart from a wave from the midst of a web of plywood and battens, he had barely seemed to notice me.

I was already nervous and this was clearly not going to be a normal interview.  I gathered that there was a twist in the structure and the discussion was getting quite heated as to how to remedy it.

Brian suddenly fixed me with a beady eye, "You've been to college, what do you think the problem is?"

This was not a method of building boats I had encountered in my two years of study but I felt that some sort of answer was required.

"Perhaps its those two screws holding down the stem," I guessed.

"Right lets see," was his response and he promptly reached down and unscrewed them.

To my horror there was a loud bang and an equally loud 'biong ' and the whole thing shook like a wet dog and I was convinced that I was going to be responsible for the collapse of hours of painstaking work and also any chance of getting a job!  To my relief everything was still holding together and Brian again offered up his level to the bulkhead.

"Straight and true" he pronounced with a grin, "Come back in a week!"

So began a ten year involvement at Weir Quay with the redoubtable Brian Tankard . The fact that the boatyard is here today is entirely down to Brian’s two overriding characteristics, that of resourcefulness and tenacity.


Having developed his passion for messing about in dinghies on the backwaters of Essex Brian had built up a thriving business from very humble beginnings building yachts, which he then set up in Tavistock.   Whilst in business he built the Tankard 23' - Windsor Life - which was in the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest yacht to circumnavigate the British Isles.  Tankard Yachts employed many local craftsmen and order books where full until 1975 when the incoming government imposed a VAT rate of 25% on pleasure craft and related products and the orders "disappeared overnight".

Not one to slink away and lick his wounds Brian purchased a small plot of land on the Devon bank of the Tamar with a pond and a slipway made out of old cars sunk in the mud.  With very little capital he resolved to build a boatyard.  He had to endure much protracted negotiation and a judicial review to get planning permission but his perseverance was rewarded and he could finally start.

The only place to build his house and workshop and leave some hard standing for yachts was on the pond. Undaunted he built a raft of concrete upon which the office now sits and the workshop sited underground below the high tide level. Brian oversaw and did most of this work himself and it is a testimony to its construction that hardly any water finds its way into the workshop even on equinoctial spring tides.

When a crane was needed for the yard Brian built one by modifying an army lorry and adding a welded lattice jib.  Needless to say he did all the welding himself.  In this way slipways were built, moorings laid and customers came from far and wide.  In the evenings he applied his craftsmanship to his house or one of the many projects he always had on the go.  There was even provision for a swimming pool in his plans.  This bit of luxury however never got developed as the allotted hole in the ground was often taken up storing one of Brian’s boats.  But as he used to say, "There are not many people who can boast they have a Dragon in their swimming pool!"


Although able to turn his hand to many things it was through his woodworking skills that Brian's talent really shone.  Many small craft that had languished on the tide line were rescued and beautifully restored.  He did not have much time to enjoy using them as they were soon bought up by admiring customers and he would enthusiastically embark on another project.

I was often given the dubious honour of being invited to help in this 'after hours' endeavour.

"You can use the boat whenever you want " he would say cheerily, "Treat it as your own."   But I knew what would happen.  After weeks of evenings sanding, painting and sticking bits of wood I would be looking forward to a relaxing sail when Brian would announce, "A chap came in yesterday and fell in love with the boat. He offered me such a good price!......"   The consolation is the experience and knowledge gained by working with him I value to this day.


Brian's charm and enthusiasm was infectious, "Likeable Rogue" was a description often used and I got to recognise the bemused smile on the faces of those who had dealings with him.  He was a consummate raconteur and the working day always enlivened by his anecdotes.

Brian epitomised someone who lived by his wits, and although he never shrank from taking advantage if he saw an opportunity he was quick to help those in trouble. It has always struck me as a cruel twist of fate that he had to give up all that he worked for when he became ill.

The 1970's and 80's were an exciting time in the marine industry with the birth of many small companies supplying a rapidly growing demand for practical, affordable yachts.  Traditional skills and new materials were combining, there was an air of optimism with many colourful characters leading the way.  Brian was in the thick of it and wherever it is that these entrepreneurial salty souls end up there is bound to be a group of them gathered around one with a twinkle in his eye and an easy wit, telling tales of haunted workshops, eventful boat deliveries and a life lived to the full from a backwater in Essex to the banks of the Tamar.