Mears Boat Builders was one of our first finds at the With Love Project and we’ve looked forward to meeting the family behind the beautiful wooden boats for a good while. This year, the business is celebrating 71 years of success and has moved on to the third generation, as Alex Mears takes over from his father Paul.
We arrive to find Paul up a ladder mending a 20ft boat outside his workshop. Paul is in his 70s now and has been making boats here for years. He jumps down from the ladder and leads us into the workshop, which sits on the edge of an estuary and is less than 200 metres from the ocean. It’s a great space with a high roof and pulley systems hanging from metal beams. There’s a half-built wooden boat sitting at the back and hundreds of tools hung and placed in specific order. He shows us around and tells us the business moved here in 1982, just a stone’s throw from their old shed, which his father had occupied from 1957. Before that, Paul’s dad had a place over in Beer, converted from an old grain store, that he started working from in 1945.
For as long as he can remember, Paul has always loved wood, spending time every day in his dad’s workshop. He says... “we had to walk past my dad’s workshop on the way back from school and a friend and I would always go in and nick a few bits of wood, throw them in the brook nearby and race them all the way down to the beach.” He started working with his dad when he was 15, but it wasn’t until he was 18 that he built his first wooden boat. His dad learned his trade in Exmouth working for Ron Lavis in the years before the war, then for Dixons during the first couple of years of the war until he became foreman building wooden MFVs (Military Fishing Vessel) in Topsham during the remainder of the war. He had a great working relationship with him, saying “my dad was brilliant to work under, he could turn his hand to most things – metal work, plumbing, electrical work – but he was a real master when it came to using wood. I was constantly learning from him. I’m still learning now, every day.”
At their height they were building three or four wooden boats a year with around five people working for them, one of whom pops in just as the kettle boils. Graham still lives in the town and worked with Paul at the boat yard years ago. He’s in his 70s now and loves a good brew and chat at the workshop. With nearly 100 years of experience combined, Paul and Graham have some great stories to tell about the boat making business. We perch ourselves on one of the wooden work benches with a brew and it is an absolute pleasure to listen to the two of them. Graham is just one of a steady flux of people popping in and out during our visit to the workshop or, as Paul calls it, “the town’s community centre”.
Paul has three sons, two of whom, he says, are “smart as anything, but give them a hammer and a nail and they haven’t a clue what to do with them. The third one though, Alex, is bloody good with wood.” Alex joined the firm following a five year honours degree in structural engineering. He is away at the time of our visit, picking a boat up from Scotland. Paul says “He may be taking over but he’ll have to get used to me being around. Retirement just isn’t for me, I’ve tried golf but the bats are far too bloody small.”
Paul used to be down at the shed until 9pm at night most days, but now, he tells us, his back lets him know it’s time to go home about 3:30. It is clear this isn’t just a job for Paul, but a way of life. Surrounded by boats and friends popping in for a brew, the smell of fresh sea air wafts in through the open doors; personal projects sit close at hand, with years of tinkering left in them. Even with Alex taking over the business, it’s obvious Paul won’t be putting his feet up any time soon.