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The Wilson Flyer Story

8th May 2017

The Wilson Flyer might not be the most cutting edge of designs nor the most successful British boat building story from these isles. However, there are plenty of examples of these sturdy workboats around both the UK and Europe to pay testament to the durability and reliability of the moulds.

Founded in 1963 by Brian Wilson, the Flyer was originally constructed in a small workshop in Bedhampton and has a loyal following. Second hand Wilson Flyers are sought after and those that have been maintained and looked after do hold their value well.

Sometimes compared to the British spitfire, a functional and traditional boat (not entirely perfect but nevertheless an icon), you won’t find many Flyers that don’t ‘fit the mould’, so to speak. Wilson was known for creating boats by the book and remaining true to the form and design for every single vessel. Though a handful of boats were custom built with variations, only seasoned owners of most Flyers would be able to tell each one apart.

In this article, we look at the design of the Flyer as well as the history of the brand along with the current and future plans for the moulds following Wilson’s sad passing in 2011.

Brian Wilson: The Man Behind the ‘Flyer’

Raised on a houseboat on Hayling Island, Wilson was a keen fisherman. His first boat was a sailing dinghy from which he graduated to bigger vessels as his love of fishing progressed. Often found searching for cod off Selsey Island as well as smooth-hound and tope, he favoured the Solent as his regular fishing ground. His favourite spot was found at the back of the Isle of Wight in a place known as Dunnose Head.

After launching the business in the 60s, Wilson found that the clean and simple form of the Flyer was soon in great demand. The popularity for his designs forcing him to increase the output facilities of the business and running a team large enough to cope with orders. A family run business, his wife had an active role in the company.

In August 2011, Brian passed away in hospital; his family by his side. His widow, Sandra, and son, John Wilson continued to keep the business going as a family concern along with Dave Murch (aka ‘Dave the Boat Builder’) until July 2016 when they finally let the moulds go to a new home.

The Flyer: Design

The Flyer comes in a few designs from a 14’ hull, 17’ x 6’ cathedral hull and the 23’ or 24’ dory hull; the 17’ is a classic hull design for sea angling, examples of which can be seen across the Hampshire coast.

The hull is stable enough for fishing on the drift and is not prone to tipping even with the weight distribution being one sided. Some fishermen find that the downside of the design is a bit more hull slap though this can be more down to the waters and conditions than the Flyer itself.

The lateral stability makes handling very solid under choppy conditions and can be planed comfortably at speed. The hull is also very responsive holding tight turns and capable of taking far more punishment than you’d expect.

One of the major benefits to the design of the hull is the performance to horsepower ratio and makes the Flyer a very economical boat to run.

Unsurprisingly for a design created by a fisherman, the deck space is roomy and doesn’t have a small boat feel even in the 17’ model (which provides a deck space of 40 sq. ft.).

The Process of Building a Flyer

Each flyer, made to the same moulds, was created in Wilson’s workshops using the same process:

The mould was cleaned and waxed before being catalysed with gelcoat by hand with rollers and brushes. Working against the clock before the gelcoat cures, a second coat was applied after just an hour before 1.5 oz. of glass fibre matt resin was applied on top of the gelcoat. Taking a further 24 hours to cure, a second 2 oz. coat was then applied in a darker resin which took another day to cure. Laying up around the hull equated to a total thickness of 6 oz. of layup glass.

The top mould (or cuddy) was produced in the same way but with just 5 oz. of layout.

When the moulds were set, they were taken out into the workshop where timber transom boards and ply rib was added to level the floor and take up the shape of the hull. Additional strengthening ply was added to the floor over which more glassing would be applied. With the hull secured to the gunnels and overlaid with resin and fibreglass the floor was given a further coat with gel and wax to help keep the surface easy to clean.

Cabins came in two sizes, one that slept two or a half cabin.

And that was the basic process and build. Anything extra and you would be required to pay for it as well as request it in advance.

Wilson didn’t like accommodating changes to the design mid-build and preferred any alterations to the design to be agreed up front; he was also not known to be fond of making changes, full stop.

In Safe Hands: The Future of the Flyer

The moulds, under the ownership of Garry Bull, live on and are continuing to develop to keep pace with a resurgence in growing consumer demand. You can follow the progress of the new ownership of the Wilson Flyer moulds via the Wilson Flyer Boats Facebook page

Sadly, the topside moulds for a number of the most popular versions of the Flyer require significant investment to bring back to production and as such the 14, 17, 20 and 23 models could be around 3-6 months in the making. Bull expects to be able to create new topsides for these classic modes in the summer of 2017.

Bull is currently in the middle of producing a new version of the 24 which has been widened to 9’ 5" and has taken two orders for the design; both of which are due to be completed at the time of writing this piece.

Whilst much loved as a design, there are changes planned for the next generation of Flyer including higher gunnels, wider beams, thicker GRP and not using any timber of ply to ensure that rot is not an issue.

In addition to adapting the traditional designs and replacing the moulds, Bull is also ensuring that the old moulds now meet the stringent regulations required to meet safety standards.

Additiionally, Bull has changed the process of the moulds, adding extra layers to build the thickness of all boats to a 12oz layup.

A basic hull layup now consists of:

  • 2 x gelcoats
  • 1.5 oz mat
  • 4.25 oz combination mat (woven and chopped strand stitched together)
  • 4.25 oz combination mat
  • 2 oz mat in grey pigmented resin.

The longitudinal and cross ribs are made from 75mm celotex foam and glassed over with 2 layers of 2 oz mat with decks being constructed either from marine ply or nidaplast.

The transom has 2 layers of 18mm marine ply fully bonded in with bonding paste then glassed over with 2 layers of 2 oz mat.

The topsides are built using:

  • 2 gelcoats
  • 1.5 oz mat
  • 4.25 oz combination mat
  • 1.5 oz mat in grey
Buying a Second Hand Wilson Flyer

You can find listings for used Wilson Flyers on Find a Fishing Boat using the search function. A popular second hand fishing boat, Wilson Flyers are always in demand and well priced boats don't hang about.

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