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Yacht Designer and Master Boatbuilder, John Mullins : 1938 - 2020

by Ian Mullins 28 May 18:05 BST
Brightlingsea One Design number 31 'Blue Peter' was built in 1961 by John Mullins © Mullins family

John Mullins was a designer and builder of World Championship winning Dragon, Soling and Brightlingsea One Design boats. In addition he designed and built many successful sailing dinghies, cruising yachts and motor launches.

Starting as a shipwright in the 1950s, John was known for always doing a job properly, and worked up to be a respected consultant for Petticrows and owned his own boatbuilding business. As a keen helmsman he won his class at several Essex sailing club race weeks.

John passed away in December 2020.

1938 - 1953

John Lewis Mullins, born 14th July 1938 in Brightlingsea, Essex, was the son of Navy sailor John 'Jack' Mullins. Jack originally hailed from Greenwich and had met John's mother, Irene, when working on the barges transporting coal from Newcastle to London. Whilst John did not have a particularly close relationship with his father - so often away at sea - Jack did instil a work ethic in John that would last him a lifetime.

John attended Colne Primary & Senior School and whilst today he would have been diagnosed as dyslexic, he excelled at cross-country running and anything that was not academic. It is during this time John met his life-long friend, Colin Brewer. Colin's dad owned the Yachtsman's Arms Public House, and they spent their free time at the waterside, either racing canoes or building bikes out of scrap. It was here where John first displayed his love of making things.

However, this was a time when you were expected to contribute to the household from an early age, and by twelve John had a Fruit and Veg round that he would complete before school. This was post-war Britain, where rationing was still in place and when the working classes would 'make do and mend'.

Colin remembers the time very clearly: "I was the first one to get a 'new' bike, but given the times we were living in, not to be outdone, John decided, in order to be competitive, he would need to make his own. Within weeks, John had managed to build a bike from spare parts as sturdy and quick as any manufacturer at the time was producing! John also set about saving his pennies to buy himself a 'new' one and within a year had a state-of-the-art Holdsworth, which was the envy of everyone."

Now mobile, the pals would think nothing of cycling 11 miles to Colchester just to see a movie or 80 miles to London. But despite this brief foray into the mechanics of metal and chains, John's real love was on the water. It was here he really excelled, and with the sea in his blood, it seemed the obvious choice to take up an apprenticeship at one of the leading shipwrights in the town.

1953 - 1961

Upon leaving school at fifteen in 1953, John joined Aldous Successors and it was a memorable day for more reasons than one, as it was also the day of The Queen's Coronation and he was given his first afternoon off to enjoy the celebrations.

He started work at Aldous at 7am and finished at 5pm, after which he would often go and do a couple more hours for well-known local shipwright Cyril White. In the summer months, he still found time to work on his own projects. Making many new friends, John soon became known as a likeable, and highly skilled woodworker.

Despite growing up in an era when you did not speak back to your parents or your elders, John was not one to shy away from controversy, especially if it meant doing the job properly. As he would later recount, "I was never a great leader of men, but my trouble was I wasn't a very good follower either!"

This mantra was probably best illustrated when his then foreman Mr 'Buller' Creek asked him to lend a hand on a project. John quickly informed Mr Creek that what he was trying to do would not work, and that he needed to rethink things. "Who the hell do you think you are, young Mullins, are you trying to tell me you know my job better than me? You've only been here five minutes and you think you know better do you?"

The next day Mr Creek was forced to admit defeat and do it John's way.

The other apprentices cried, "Are you mad Mullo, you'll get sacked if you're not careful!" but John stood firm. He was right, and whilst he had not endeared himself to the management, he was respected by them from that day on.

When not in the workshop, John would never be idle and was well known for making canoes for him and his mates to muck about on. With his experience in wood developing fast, it was not long before he was given his first boat commission, aged 18. Soon after reaching this milestone, John was approached by a wealthy local businessman, Roy Bacon, to build a Hornet racing dingy, using marine plywood bent over a simple frame. The craft was named 'Following Breeze' and was considered a masterpiece by her new owner.

By the time he had finished his apprenticeship at the age of 21, John started to get itchy feet, and along with Colin, they would start to venture further afield.

1961 - 1975

Colin had originally grown up in Burnham-on-Crouch but went to school in Romford, meeting a friend, Carol, who he later introduced to John. John married Carol in Romford in 1962. She was the daughter of a local builder, Jim Parrish, and John was quickly recruited into the family business, adding to his boat building credentials by designing and developing houses, teaching himself how to prepare complicated blueprints on his drawing board.

By 1967 he had also designed and built his own house in Shenfield, demonstrating that his talents were much more than humble carpentry. It was in Shenfield that John began his association with Round Table, often raising money for local charities. In true 'Mullins' fashion, he was soon turning wood again, this time designing and creating a Christmas Float for the local carnival, still used by the organisation 50 years later.

Even though he was now living away from his Brightlingsea roots, John still spent his weekends racing on his beloved River Colne and would go on to win countless races and trophies. John was well-known for taking the helm in popular local classes including the Brightlingsea One Design or B.O.D. as it is better known today (clinker racing boat with centreboard and bermudan rig). It was in the same year, 1961, John built his own B.O.D. - the 31st in its class - and she was named Blue Peter.

It was at this time the phrase the "Sons of the Colne" was formed. John and his teenage sailing cohorts were all making a name for themselves. John had previously worked for Cyril White, and grew up with Reg White (no relation to Cyril) who went on to win the 1976 Olympics with another Brightlingsea local boy, John Osbourne, in the Tornado class.

Other Brightlingsea names include Bob Fisher and Malcolm Goodwin, along with John's good friend Colin, who also went on to be the Vice President of the 470 World Association for ten years. This merry band of sailors were forever competing, mostly with each other, and with each one reigning victorious at one time or another.

By 1968 John had three children. His eldest, Simon, went on to crew with Colin's two sons, Ian and Stuart, racing 470s.

1974 - 1989

After nearly 15 years living in Brentwood, John moved to Burnham-on-Crouch. It was here he married his second wife, Pat. Coincidentally, it was here he was also reunited with his schoolboy pal Colin who had moved back to Burnham the previous decade.

Wanting to return to his first love, boats, John worked on several small projects (in today's language, he 'freelanced') but then laid down some roots, joining local boat producer British European Boats Sales run by Stuart Jardine.

Here he built the Robber series of Quarter Tonner yachts, designed by Sweden's Peter Ståhle in 1975. The last of these was the Robber 3E, designed by Bernt Lingquist and was one of the most successful Quarter Tonner designs in the UK at the time.

Two years later, with the UK economy now in dire straits with blackouts and rising unemployment Mullins joined furniture makers Acketts of Burnham. Here he made bespoke office furniture and most notably designed and built counters for Barclays Bank, once again showing his woodworking skills. Later, Colin's son Graham went to work with John as an apprentice carpenter.

It was here John showed his stubbornness and constant pursuit of excellence once again when he was forced to resign after a dispute with his employers over the quality of the work being produced. He would not be involved in producing anything sub-standard. During this time, he struck a friendship with Barclays' Ken Smith, that would last over 30 years.

In 1977, John finally decided to go it alone and set himself up as John Mullins - Boat Builder. He was quickly commissioned to build another cruiser in GRP for Eric Birch. The Jaguar 21 and Jaguar 23 were both a fibreglass superstructure with moulded non-slip decks and a lifting keel, transom hung rudder with tiller steering and an aft self-draining cockpit.

Despite some incredibly good initial sales, the country was facing recession and the hardships were starting to bite. John did not wait for our first female Prime Minister to come to power; he went searching for employment outside of Burnham in the small Suffolk village of Woodbridge. Here he worked for long-established shipwrights Whisstocks. Times were tough and rather than commute the 120-mile round trip every day, John chose to bed down in a caravan Monday to Thursday, only returning home late on a Friday night.

Despite the stories of a leaking roof, no heating and no TV, John revelled in his work, producing some of the finest ship carpentry of his career. He designed and fully fitted the internal woodwork of Whisstocks' own design, Blest. A unique aluminium boat, John learnt a whole new set of skills that he went on to use, again and again.

By 1980, John had returned to Burnham again, working on a few non-yachting projects. In 1982, he was approached by John Dungey to take part in the notorious Round Britain & Ireland Yacht Race in Ocean Beetle. It was only the fifth time the event had been held, and things got off to a great start. They had actually won the first leg on handicap.

However, their enjoyment was short-lived and regardless of John's pedigree and being a yachtsman of some regard, the challenge was too much, and John and his helm retired due to sickness - yes, sea sickness!

Ironically, the family had been more worried about John's inability to swim! The man who had spent his whole life being on the water, did not like to be in it. Perhaps this is why he had always been such a successful sailor?

On his return, he met up with Barclays' Ken Smith, recounted the tale, and with Ken's backing, John took the opportunity to bring to life a design that had been formulating on his drawing board for some years and his love of wood led him to produce the aptly named Monarch. (In August 1990, Ken and John were joined by his two sons as crew and won Burnham Week in the new craft.)

In 1986 John designed and built his own aluminium boat named Commander. This was considered quite revolutionary and innovative, as this material had been rarely used in this way before. Unfortunately, little was recorded of this vessel other than a few photos, but one thing is for sure, it was warmly received by the owner at the time.

This was quickly followed by a rare commission, The Thames River Launch in 1987. The craft was built for users to follow the rowing events in Henley and is believed to have featured in a few movies over the years. In 1988, John produced yet another bespoke design, the Estuary Launch.

1989 - 2007

By now, John's reputation as a master-craftsman was well established, and he was approached by one of Europe and Denmark's well-known Olympic Gold Medal winning yachtsmen Poul Richard Høj Jensen. Jensen had participated in four consecutive Olympics from 1968. He won a gold medal in the Soling class at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, and again at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

Jensen had worked with Paul Elvstrøm and Hans Fogh, and then set up his own company, Hoj Jensen Design, which became the North Sails Scandinavia franchise. In 1989, this business merged with Petticrows in Burnham on Crouch, and Jensen set about re-designing and building Dragons - the first for the new company.

Jensen had heard about Mullins' work and wanted him to take on the might of world-renowned Danish boat maker Börresen, and redesign the International Dragon Class from scratch. John was always going to build his first Dragon in GRP and after the best part of a year on the drawing board, John presented his first design to Jensen in 1990.

This was the boat that catapulted John to international acclaim. As his youngest son, Ian (who spent many hours in the workshop with John) remembers, "this was Dad's heyday!"

Following the successful launch and working closely with Ricard-Jensen who was winning repeatedly in the new boat, the two enjoyed a working relationship many would envy. For the next 15 years, John would constantly improve, tweak, and redesign the Dragon. In addition, John would get to travel throughout Europe including Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Turkey, and Estonia, promoting, and fitting out the boats.

It was during these 'golden years' that John was fortunate to mix with Danish Royalty, with the Prince of Denmark admiring his designs. And our own Princess Anne, on a visit to the town, was given coaching by John in one of his Dragons.

In 1994, John's work was temporarily halted when he had a heart attack at the tender age of 55. He was rushed to Whitechapel Hospital in London where he had a triple heart bypass. John was lucky (his father's heart attack at 55 was not so lucky). Whilst he had given family and friends a shock, it was less than a year before John was back at the drawing board. As part of John's recovery, he and Jensen had taken on redesigning another of the well-known Börresen boats, the Soling.

Petticrows was sold in 2005 and has been under the guidance of fellow Burnham-on-Crouch expert boat builder (and former Dragon World Champion and Gold Cup winner) Tim Tavinor. As a sign of the respect John held among the local sailing fraternity, Tavinor would continue to consult John, even in his retirement - something Mullins was always happy to do.

2007 - 2014

Continuing to work with Petticrows John never lost his passion for all things boating and, despite cutting back on the number of days he was working full-time, with more time at home to think, his thoughts turned to the drawing board again, as he still wanted to achieve things.

As such, it was not long before John was asked to look at the original plans of one of his first loves, the Brightlingsea One Design. In John's own words at the time...

"I had built a BOD for myself (Blue Peter) in 1962 and decided to do some research into the fleet to see if I could build them in fibreglass rather than the expensive wood option. I had some basic drawings and plans on paper and shared my ideas with old friend Poul Ricard Hoj-Jensen. Poul immediately encouraged me to redesign the boat for the 21st Century and if I did, he wanted one. I then spent the next 12 months researching, re-drawing the old plans, and bringing them up to date, so I was at a stage where I could put forward a formal proposal to the class. After a few discussions and presentations, I was asked by the committee to go ahead and build the first B.O.D. in GRP".

By the spring of 2008, Jensen had the first boat from the mould (Greta, number 51), and it was agreed John would have the second new boat but his would be number 50. With 'Greta' being launched on the same day as the B.O.D's 80th Birthday celebrations outside the Colne Yacht Club in August 2008, many people turned out to see the new GRP boat. Jean, the daughter of the original class designer, Robbie Stone, was the special guest on the day. The first ever B.O.D. had been named after her.

It was during the exhibition race, and in the last stages of the course, that what became known as 'The Moment' occurred: when the new boat overtook rival local boatbuilder Malcolm Goodwin's wooden B.O.D. with a few hundred meters to go... thus giving John enormous satisfaction.

Sadly, this was to be John's last time on a racing boat. In late 2008, having a second heart attack, John was finally forced to take a proper break. This time, after having two stents inserted, it took John 12 months to fully recover. He knew he would have to slow down (he was now nearly 70!) but his thoughts were soon turning back to the workshop. However, this enthusiasm to start work on yet another project was tempered in mid-2010 when John was diagnosed with the early onset of dementia.

It was a disease that would go on to rob John of his cognitive abilities and, despite a gallant effort to complete his new B.O.D. and sail it himself, it was clear this just wasn't going to be possible. As his youngest son Ian recalls, "It was a very slow process to start with. Dad would visit the workshop he had built in the garden some decades earlier, daily, but often he would return not being able to remember how to perform some of the most basic tasks. So it was decided that it would be best for all concerned if the boat was sold, in the hope it could be finished."

In 2013, John reluctantly contacted the class to say he was looking for someone to purchase and complete his boat. His timing was impeccable. The new boat was bought by another original Brightlingsea-er, Sue Bouckley, and was fitted-out by Wivenhoe Boatbuilder Simon Hipkin.

With the boat completed in 2014, Sue's daughter, Hannah Stodel, was there with her GBR Paralympic team to douse the boat in Champagne and to crew for her Mum along with sister Abbi on Eider's maiden voyage. In a rare trip back to his beloved town of Brightlingsea, John was invited to witness his last boat launched. In addition, to add some 'romance' to the story, it turns out that John and Sue had another unexpected link...

When John became an apprentice shipwright, his first master was a man called Harry Webb - who was Sue's maternal grandfather - and he was at school with her mother and aunt, both of whom sailed B.O.D.s. Although John was very sad to let number 50 go, he was reassured that his final boat had not only gone to a good home and family, but also to one with which he had a long-standing connection.

2014 - 2020

By 2014, John's memory was starting to fade, and his condition was made worse in 2015 as his eldest son, Simon, passed away, having his own heart attack aged only 51. This hit John hard, and it is said this led his dementia to worsen greatly. But John was not one to just give up and despite moving to a care home in Bradwell in 2018, he enjoyed many days out with son Ian, who helped to document John's career. Ian is a golfer not a sailor but his father's lessons were still passed on...

"Dad was a very driven man. As such, growing up, most of my time with Dad was spent in the workshop (he worked most weekends). Or if we were not making stuff, we would be walking his beloved dogs (he had three Labradors in all) along the sea wall in Burnham-on-Crouch, looking at the boats going up or down the river. Whilst it was difficult to distract him from his passion, he did instil in me three core values. Firstly, 'If a job's worth doing, it is always worth doing well'. Secondly, 'Always leave a tidy workbench when you leave' (this is metaphorical rather than literal) AND finally, 'There are people that talk about making things happen and there are those that make things happen; be the latter!'. All of which have been invaluable in my own life and career."

In June 2019, John's final wish was to return to his beloved Brightlingsea, where he was able to at least smell the Brightlingsea air, even if he couldn't remember where he was geographically.

John passed away peacefully in his sleep in December 2020.

In his last few years, he built a bond with Ian that would see them laugh, remember, and relive some of his great achievements via photographs and day trips to the 'Hard' at Brightlingsea. And despite being short of sight, and with failing cognitive thought as he battled with dementia, he was still able to tell you who came first, second and third in the 1968 B.O.D. regatta, AND that the town dated back as far as 'The Romans'.

This was a fact that would tickle John, if for none other reason than it reminded him of his favourite film: Monty Python's Life of Brian. A message that would be cheekily remembered at his funeral, when his favourite song, 'Always look on the bright side of life!' was played.

Career - Employers

1953 - 1961 - Aldous Shipwrights (Brightlingsea, Essex)
1962 - 1974 - John Mullins Builders & Parrish Builders (Brentwood, Essex)
1974 - 1976 - British European Boat Sales (Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex)
1977 - 1978 - Acketts of Burnham (Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex)
1978 - 1982 - John Mullins - Boatbuilder (Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex)
1982 - 1983 - Whisstocks (Woodbridge, Suffolk)
1984 - 1988 - John Mullins - Boatbuilder (Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex)
1989 - 2006 - Petticrows (Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex)
2007 - 2010 - John Mullins - Boatbuilder (Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex)

Boatography - Designed/Commissioned/Built

1956 - 1956 - Hornet: Following Breeze (Roy Bacon)
1962 - 1962 - Brightlingsea One Design: Blue Peter (self)
1968 - 1968 - GP14: Babysham (self)
1974 - 1976 - Robber (British European Boat Sales)
1978 - 1979 - Jaguar 21 (Eric Birch)
1980 - 1981 - Jaguar 23 (Eric Birch)
1982 - 1983 - Blest (Whisstocks)
1985 - 1986 - Monarch (John Mullins - Boatbuilder)
1986 - 1987 - Commander (John Mullins Boatbuilder)
1987 - 1988 - Thames River Launch (John Mullins - Boatbuilder)
1988 - 1989 - Estuary Launch (John Mullins - Boatbuilder)
1989 - 2006 - International Dragon & Soling (Petticrows)
2007 - 2010 - Brightlingsea One Design (John Mullins - Boatbuilder)

Boatography - Owned

1962 - Brightlingsea One Design: Blue Peter
1968 - GP14: Babysham
1985 - Bespoke design: Monarch
2010 - Brightlingsea One Design: Eider

Racing Honours

1962 - Pyefleet Week, Brightlingsea Winner: Blue Peter (helm)
1964 - Pyefleet Week, Brightlingsea Winner: Flying Dutchman (helm)
1968 - Pyefleet Week, Brightlingsea Winner: Babysham (helm)
1982 - Round Britain Yacht Race - Leg 1 handicap winner: Ocean Beetle (crew)
1990 - Burnham Yacht Week Winner: Monarch (helm)

International Honours - Designer

1989 - International Dragon Class - World Championship Winner
1991 - International Dragon Class - World Championship Winner
1995 - International Dragon Class - World Championship Winner
1999 - International Dragon Class - World Championship Winner
2009 - International Dragon Class - World Championship Winner

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