Future Proof: Billy Tyrrell, director, Arklow Marine Services

Change of tack allows boat builder to stay afloat

Even traditional industries must be prepared to chart new courses if they want to stay afloat, according to Billy Tyrrell, director of Arklow Marine Services. The fourth-generation boat building company has just delivered its third vessel specifically designed to service the fast-growing offshore energy sector in the UK.

Pressure to adapt the business arose from the fall-off in the fishing industry. “About five years ago we realised that we had to change tack,” says Tyrrell. “We had been looking after the fishing industry but the decline meant that industry was gone from us.”

Offshore wind farms provided an ideal opportunity for a new direction. Not only do they require specialised vessels for both construction and maintenance, but the rapid development of the industry in the UK and potentially Ireland means there's plenty of scope for growth. Vessels servicing offshore wind farms have special requirements, explains Tyrrell. "They have to be built to a high standard with low noise levels and high comfort levels. It's geared to keeping engineers in tip top condition; engineers need to be as fresh as when they come on board the vessel. And when the wind changes, they need high speed to collect personnel."

The €2.3m Gardian 18 was completed in November. Designed to carry 12 personnel and two crew, it is made from aluminium, the light weight of which allows it to achieve a sprint speed of 30 knots (around 35mph).


Despite the specialised requirements of the offshore sector, Tyrrell says it has not been difficult to adapt. “We’ve learnt from our craft. The basic principles are the same; we’re just applying it to different markets. The utility companies call the shots. They need a boat to keep the crew safe in demanding working environments.”

The Tyrrells have been building boats in Arklow since 1864 when John Tyrrell, Billy's great-grandfather, opened his shipbuilding yard. Among some notable boats built by the family are the Gipsy Moth III in which Sir Francis Chichester twice won the single-handed transatlantic yacht race, and the Asgard II.

Up until the 1960s the boats were made from timber, usually locally-sourced oak. Steel then became the material of choice before being usurped by aluminium, which is a third of the weight. “It’s a more difficult material to work with but you get a better finished product,” says Tyrrell. “Aluminium welding is extremely difficult.”

It takes between 30 and 35 weeks to build a 20-metre boat. The company currently make two or three boats a year, which are built and fitted out in Arklow before being launched from the Quay wall.

Tyrrell entered the company in 1976, after completing his Leaving Cert. After three years he left to study naval architecture in Holland before returning to take the helm along with his brother John, a marine engineer. Two other Tyrrell brothers, Peter and Michael, also work at the company.

In addition to building new boats, the company also maintains and repairs vessels such as Irish Ferries' Jonathan Swift and boats used by the Geological Society of Ireland to map the sea beds.

Tyrrell says the vast range of skills used in boatbuilding, such as design, carpentry, hydraulics and engineering are also transferable to land-based projects, and Arklow Marine Services is often called on to do work such as factory fit-outs and machine maintenance.

The extremely tight margins on boatbuilding make this extra work essential. “It’s a good mix to have. You need the big contracts but you need the small stuff too.”

Work for the offshore energy sector currently makes up between 40 and 50 per cent of turnover, a figure Tyrrell would like to see increase to around 70 per cent.

“In the UK they’re building 33 gigawatts of offshore projects. We’ve put a lot of time into this and we’re hoping over the next four to five years that we’ll be some sort of player.”

He says the market has already changed. “It is difficult to break in. Two years ago the utility companies would come and deal with us directly. Now they’re going to the main operators. Things are changing so quickly.”

In the longer term, Tyrrell hopes that Arklow Marine Services will be well placed to navigate the market if and when offshore wind farms are developed in Ireland.

“We’ve put a lot of time into this. We’re hoping that eventually it is going to happen in the Irish Sea and it’ll be on our own doorstep. The wind is there and it’s ready for development.”