Dreams don’t come much bigger than building your own boat. It’s an incredibly romantic idea: pouring blood, sweat and tears into the creation of a vessel that will repay you with freedom and flotation. But as is inherent of all lofty aspirations, imagining oneself building a boat is all too easy and the next step all too hard; for most it’s a goal that will go unfulfilled, and unpursued for that matter.
But whether you’ve ever dreamt it possible or not, The Balmain Boat Company know that you can build your own vessel. They know that your boat will be beautiful and seaworthy; that it will only take two short weekends to build in your garage or living room; and that it will come in at well under $2000. They know you can build a boat because they’ve designed a flat-packed, DIY boat kit that will allow you to do so – whomever or wherever you are.
The Balmain Boat Company is Andrew Simpson, a sailor and industrial designer from Sydney, and Nicole Still, a former Time Magazine journalist from Loveland, Ohio. The two met in 2009 when Still, who by then had been working in Sydney as a brand creator and digital strategist for five years, needed a CAD drawing done. Someone referred her to Simpson and they were soon collaborating on a couple of work-related projects.
Still has a motto of ‘How hard can it be?’ and Simpson was quickly impressed by her sense of determination and business know-how. When he approached her with his prototype for a flat-packed boat – which could be shipped anywhere in the world and put together by anyone who could wield a hammer – it was Still’s turn to be impressed. “I think we could make really good business partners,” Simpson told her and Still quickly agreed. They immediately abandoned the project they were working on at the time to start planning The Balmain Boat Company. “It was just meant to be a test case to see how well Andrew and I work together,” Still says. “Now I consider him to be amongst the top 10 people I’ve ever met.”
Simpson is a father of two and it was family interest that first inspired his Balmain Boat design. “I built the first boat for myself,” he explains. “I wanted something I could go out to visit Cockatoo Island in, because my Grandfather used to work there. But I’m not a master craftsman, so I wanted to make it as simple as possible to build. It was only ten days from [me] having the idea to being on the water. I refined the design from there, to make the boat more elegant and easier to put together.”
Still had never been sailing, but Simpson’s love of the ocean proved contagious. Coming from a close-knit family in a small town, she also shared his lament that people seldom build things from scratch – be they billycarts or tyre-swings or boats – for their kids or for themselves these days.
“Andrew’s got this incredible passion for the ocean and sailing and we’re both passionate about beautiful things,” she says. “I knew a lot about building things and I loved the idea that we could help make parents and grandparents look like legends. I’m into storytelling and saw this as a way for people to share their stories of building and sailing their boats.”
The Balmain Boat Company was launched in the spring of 2011. Since then, they have shipped boat kits to every state and territory in Australia and as far away as France and the United Kingdom. The boats are a testament to Simpson’s design acumen. They’re sold as flat sheets of timber that any pair of hands can transform into a watertight vessel. Still’s hands were two of the first to show how achievable it is – you can watch her progress on their website. They’re also cheap, functional and as elegant as anything you’ll see on the harbour or bay.
The boat kits are laser cut from certified sustainable-source marine ply and, when constructed, are just over two metres long (big enough to seat three adults). They can be fitted with sails, oars and outboard motors and there is a miniature version for kids that can be towed behind the ‘Classic’ model.
“They’re never going to win any races,” Simpson admits. “But we tried to capture a sense of romance with them. They’re what people picture when they think of a rowboat.”
As for any grand plans for The Balmain Boat Company, Still and Simpson are more interested in growing things steadily and meaningfully – like a family business – than expanding rapidly. They haven’t chased publicity or taken themselves too seriously. In fact, Still laughs when it’s referred to as a business. “It’s just a hobby,” she insists, but interest in the boats is healthy and sales steady.
“It’s a passionate thing, rather than being about dollars and cents,” Simpson says. “But we’re a profitable business. If we didn’t make a cracker I’d still do it though,” he pauses. “I think it’s worth doing.”