Focus on Boat Builders: Nobles of Girvan

10th November 2016

With a long reputation of quality boat building, precision marine engineering and reliable workmanship, Nobles of Girvan is one of the UK’s best known and well-respected boat yards.

One of only three such companies in the country entrusted with the maintenance and refit work of RNLI lifeboats Alexander Noble & Sons Limited was founded in 1946 in South Ayrshire. Seventy years on, Nobles is still producing distinctive and durable vessels to serve a wide range of industries from fishing to oil. From tugs to trawlers, purse seiners and wind farm support vessels, Nobles of Girvan continues its long tradition of exceptional quality.

The company has produced around 90 wooden fishing vessels prior to the early 1990’s before switching to steel construction and has now manufactured approximately 140 boats. With the exception of the very first vessel, Margaret Stephen, and a handful of owners who preferred to keep their livery basic, each of these well-crafted boats bears the unique Thistle logo.

Despite economic hardships and periods of worry the company is still thriving and continues to provide work for the local labour force. With a population of just 8000, Girvan employs about 40 people with all but a handful having been with the company since leaving school. A family business with traditional skills and values at its core, Nobles of Girvan still has second, third and even fourth generation family members in its ranks.

Though they have had to diversify their services to meet the changing demands of marine engineering with sustainable wind farm support vessels a key part of their business, the future of this respected business looks set to continue for a few more generations to come.

A brief history

Founder, Alexander Noble, was born in Fraserburgh and learned the boat building trade in the area, acquiring the skills and knowledge that would make him a manager of a boat yard in Ireland in 1933 where he would spend four years honing his managerial acumen. Returning to Scotland in 1937, Noble worked on the Firth of Clyde for a yacht builder, James A Silver before the Second World War interrupted ‘service as normal’. The story goes that two ring net skippers, Willie Mackenzie and Sandy Forbes, whilst grilling Noble over what he planned to do after the war bemoaned the fact that there was no current repair facilities in or around Govan. That conversation planted the seed of an idea in Noble’s mind and, in March 1946, when the smoke from World War II had finally settled, he found the perfect site on the Girvan river upon which his legacy would germinate.

Going into business with his son, James, Noble set about acquiring his first order in an unorthodox manner. Learning of a local skipper, Peter Stephen, who was considering the commissioning of a new vessel, Noble approached him directly and managed to talk Stephens into placing the order with the untested boatyard. Planked with Columbian pine at the skippers request the 40’ Margaret Stephen was launched in February 1947 via unconventional means. The boat yard, yet to have a slipway, laid the vessel on her bilge and, using planks, rollers and the might of a hoard of local fisherman on a block and tackle system, the Margaret Stephen was christened in the Water of Girvan.

Fitted with a 36hp Gleniffer engine the Margaret Stephen was a reliable vessel and, during her long service, was put to use with purse seine nets, trammel nets, line fishing as well as anchor seining.

Though technically the Margaret Stephen was a forty footer, she actually measured 39ft 9” as a result of laws on the size of vessels that were authorised to use seine nets within 3 miles of the coast. She was an example of the practice during this era for skippers to maximise the size of their boats whilst staying within the law. You will find that many seiners built during this period, although known as 40’ vessels are actually a fraction shorter.

After the success of this first launch, Nobles began to take more orders and by 1950 had constructed five more boats; three forty footers (Selina, Mizpah and Janet Lang) as well as Barkett at 58’ and Integrity at 54’.

The 1950’s saw Nobles diversify its production with the completion of rowing and sailing dinghies and pilot vessels. Though 40’ boats continued to be their most popular commission they also began producing 70’ trawlers and motor sailers.

By the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, Noble began producing vessels with more power. A new generation of boats with 112hp engines, greater foredeck with tripod masts and vessels with sheathed sides to their mid ship all met with approval from an ever growing and admiring audience.

The seventies saw the company focusing on larger vessels, particularly trawlers, from the 60’ Village Belle IV¬ produced in 1970 and powered by a Kelvin T8 engine through to 60.75’ Rose of Sharon¬ powered by a Caterpilar 3408.

The construction of boats using timber building methods began to decline in the 1980’s as steel fabricated vessels became more popular and low-cost to manufacture.

The firm continued to produce ships in plentiful supply during the 1990’s but the order book began to grow thin at the turn of this century and serious consideration was given to closing the boat yard. By 2008 a crunch point had been reached and the cost of employing a skilled boat building workforce was a financial pressure that needed to be addressed. Fortunately the management team were able to negotiate a deal with salmon fish farming company, Loch Duart, to replace their existing fleet of seven boats with new vessels. Securing the order has secured the immediate future for the company and boat building continues alongside the companies other marine engineering activities to keep the name Alexander Noble & Sons alive.

During the last seventy years, Nobles boats have been purchased from across the UK including local commissions from Stranraer and Gavan to Cornwall, Ireland and Europe.

Today, the company focuses primarily on the repair, refit and maintenance of existing vessels but maintains a skilled local workforce to deliver a host of other marine engineering and boat building services. They produce vessels for the fish farming industry as well as support boats for offshore wind farming.

The current facilities

Offering a range of repair, refit and maintenance services Alexander Noble & Sons caters for a range of industries within their extensive facilities. Ideally situated on the west coast of Scotland the company preserves and nurtures the skills in its labour force to offer the traditional approach to vessels of all ages. From working on steel workboats, barges and trawlers to caulking, planking and framing wooden vessels the company has a fully equipped yard and workforce.

The site at Newton Kennedy has grown from its original inauguration of rolling the Margaret Stephen into the water to provide four slipways (two with fully covered berths and overhead cranes) with a range of spray painting, joinery and engineering workshops. There are also two mobile cranes on site providing full lifting capabilities as well as fabrication facilities in addition to their heavy engineering workshops.

If you would like to find out more about the heritage of Nobles of Girvan including full details of all the vessels they have built with an illustrated history, then ‘Built by Nobles of Girvan’ is available. The book includes the technical details of every known boat including their fate and some interesting facts and information surrounding t heir commissioning, service and ownership.

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