Words by Hannah Tapping
How a snatched conversation resulted in a meeting of marine minds, creating a nautical company that now leads the way in RIB sales and servicing across Cornwall and the south west.
It is rare that a Cornish company doesn’t have a backstory. It is similarly unusual if that backstory isn’t fuelled by a passionate set of skilled individuals who have come together to create something unique. Sail Shape Marine is no different. From small beginnings, the company now provides high-end RIB sales, servicing, maintenance and a unique launch-and-recovery service to discerning boat owners across the Duchy. Having cut my teeth in marine publishing, I’m keen to find out how the paths of Alan Harris-Guerrero, Emelie Harris-Guerrero and Jimmy Hoddinott came to cross and their incentive to create Sail Shape Marine.
We begin with Alan, whose wide smile and enthusiasm for all things nautical is infectious: “Boating wise, I was velcroed to a dinghy mast from the age of about four! Portmellon, Mevagissey and St Austell bay were my sailing grounds as a boy. My mother and father had a small yacht that we would sail to the Isles of Scilly, and as far as the Channel Islands and France; voyages that gave me my seafaring foundation. My father is a master mariner and the King’s Harbour Master at the Port of Gibraltar, so sailing really is in my blood.” Alan goes on to explain that at the age of 16, he applied for a job at the local sailmaker. “Mitchell Sails, I think a little reluctantly, gave me a two-year apprenticeship, after which at the age of 18 I headed across the world to work in some of the biggest sail lofts in Australia and New Zealand.”
Returning to the UK, a business management degree followed, but the draw of the sea was too much and so Alan bought a small 24ft yacht, similar in size to the one his parents had owned when he was young, and proceeded to sail across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and back. Meeting his future wife while he was there, more of which later, Alan returned to the UK to finish a degree in marine science, specialising in low speed aerodynamics: “This was an in-road to sailmaking, as it covered the technical side of lift and drag coefficients and aerodynamics for sails, which was highly relative to the business that I was about to buy – Mitchell Sails – the very company that I had done my apprenticeship with all those years ago,” adds Alan.
“We set up Sail Shape, the new name for the company, in a 500sq.ft loft on the riverfront in Fowey. Winning larger contracts, we expanded into premises in Lostwithiel, making us one of the biggest lofts in the South West.” The company continued to grow and Alan and Emelie then bought Quay Sails which would enable them to provide a sail, cover-making and rigging service that spanned from Falmouth up to the Hamble, an area that incredibly covers 90% of the yachts owned in the UK.
While Alan clearly has a very astute business head on his shoulders, he is self-confessed as being first and foremost a professional sailor, competing at a national and European level in everything from dinghies to one-designs and the larger J24 class. Sailing has been a constant throughout Alan’s life and as a family he now owns a 41ft X-Yacht which they keep in their home town of Fowey. But what of Sail Shape Marine? Alan’s wife Emelie, continues the story: “I was born in Sweden and in comparison to Alan and Jimmy I got into boats a lot later in life. My first real sailing experience was when a friend wanted to get into a sailing college. There was an open day that she didn’t want to go to by herself, so she convinced me to go with her. I thought that you had to be good at sailing to be able to get into this school, but it turns out that you didn’t need any experience… and when they told us that not only did you get to learn how to sail you also got to learn whilst sailing around the Atlantic Ocean on a three-masted training ship for three months every year, I was sold. And that’s where my love for boats started.
“The same friend then decided to take a gap year to sail to the Caribbean and back and invited me to go with her. It was too tempting an offer to turn down and so I flew out to Las Palmas to join her in a race across the Atlantic to St Lucia, which is where I met Alan.” Emelie was supposed to return to her full-time job in Sweden but instead joined Alan aboard his tiny 24ft yacht and sailed around the Caribbean for a few months before going back to Sweden to pack up and move over to England: “Since then it has just been boats, boats, boats!”
Returning to the UK, and with a young family, Emelie and Alan found themselves working long full-time hours. With Emelie working for a successful kitchen design company however, they rarely saw each other and it got to the point that they knew they had to join forces. With two successful sail lofts, it was that chance conversation I mentioned earlier that saw the creation of Sail Shape Marine. Alan’s friend Jimmy, a very successful and experienced marine engineer, came over one Sunday afternoon. “Alan was out there for quite a while,” smiles Emelie, “and when he came back in I thought, I know that face. Last time this happened, we bought a company!”
This time rather than buying a company, a new one was formed. Jimmy brought with him a wealth of experience with high-end marine brands such as Honda and Highfield RIBs, as well as considerable expertise in marine engineering and so, combined with Alan’s business acumen and Emelie’s management experience, the plan was to set up a marine company that would cover the full gamut of sales, servicing and slip recovery.
“I’ve always been passionate about boats ever since I was tiny,” says Jimmy. “Back in the day, my parents bought us an old mirror dinghy and pretty much left us to our own devices, teaching ourselves to sail. We joined the local sailing club and once we had learned to sail, we progressed into racing bigger and better boats. I’ve been Fowey-based my whole life. I had the most amazing childhood, we had such freedom. I didn’t like school much, and as soon as we had finished for the day I would be straight down the hill, either buzzing around the harbour with an outboard or sailing a dinghy even when it was way too windy!”
Jimmy really wanted to study marine engineering, but back then courses were few and far between and so he opted for car mechanics before securing an apprenticeship at Fowey shipyard. Four years of day release saw him qualify in general engineering that covered everything from machining and welding to hydraulics and pneumatics. “I might be working on anything from big tugs with 2000hp engines to traditional pilot cutters. The range was varied, but the thing that united them was that they were all old. This meant that every time something broke, you actually had to re-make it.” Jimmy continued to work there for the next 16 years, before realising his lifelong dream of opening his own leisure marine business selling and servicing outboards.
Jimmy, his wife and family now have their own yacht and every summer sail to the Scillies. “We had just bought ourselves a newer boat and, as I had known Alan since our dinghy sailing days, I had popped over to see him about some rigging work. And that’s when we had that driveway conversation. Within 48 hours Sail Shape Marine was born.”
Jimmy is never found far from the sea. He’s been coxswain of the Fowey lifeboat for the last ten years so his ocean experience is exemplary and this feeds perfectly into the business when it comes to sea-trials and advising customers on the best boat, outboard or accessory for their needs. With the servicing and maintenance side of the business seeing substantial growth, the team has now been joined by Rob Staines on the technical side of
Sail Shape Marine brings together all of the aspects of owning a boat. Whether it’s storing your existing craft in their secure facility, upgrading via their sales service or simply accessing the highly popular launch-and-recovery service, customers know that they are in safe hands. “We look after a lot of boats for people where their Cornish home is their second residence. We can have their boat ready for them when they arrive, whether that be a clean and fuel-up or a full service. If they have a mooring we can launch the boat for them so it’s already afloat for when they arrive or we provide a slip launch-and-recovery service, saving our customers both the hassle of having to own a suitable tow vehicle or indeed towing on Cornish lanes!”
When it comes to buying a boat from Sail Shape Marine, Jimmy and Alan are always available with advice. Even if that means not selling customers the biggest and most expensive boat in the showroom. “We would rather sell a boat that we know our customers will enjoy and be able to manage. They can always come back and buy a bigger and better one in years to come!” adds Jimmy.
“When someone buys a boat from us they can have as little or as much of a handover as they need. I’m very happy to go and launch the boat with them and we’ll go for a run from Fowey to make sure they are comfortable with all the systems. If they need some tips on how to reverse down a slip, I’m happy to do that too. Whatever it takes for our customers to love being out on the water as much as we do.”