Beacon of success: a tribute to the life and times of Spud Rowsell

Spud and Jon Turner powering there way to win the Merlin Rocket Salcombe Week

Spud and Jon Turner powering there way to win the Merlin Rocket Salcombe Week - Credit: Ben Jennings

One of Exmouth’s great characters - a skilled boatbuilder and sailor - has died after bravely fighting a degenerative disease.
Peter Nigel ‘Spud’ Rowsell was born in 1942. A war baby, he affectionately became Spud after his father remarked: “He’s very round - he looks like a potato.” The nickname stuck.
Educated at the Beacon Primary School and the Exmouth Grammar School, where the teachers found the odd clip around the ear was needed to retain his attention, he acquired the skills needed to do well in life. He threw himself into other activities including the 5th Exmouth Wolf Cub Pack and later the 5th Exmouth Sea Scouts. In the Cubs he rapidly became a sixer and acquired all the proficiency badges then available. His mother had difficulty sewing them all on the sleeves of his uniform.
Before his voice broke, he sang in St Andrew’s church choir, finding the income from performing at weddings as a useful supplement to that earned on his paper round. At the YMCA he found he had an eye for snooker and table tennis. He also became a dab hand at solo whist and monopoly. However, it was his skills at woodwork which stood out.
Born the youngest of four brothers, his siblings had already shown promise at sailing dinghy racing it was not long before he learnt how to sail. The potential of the Rowsell brothers as competitive sailors was noticed by the then Vice Commodore of the Exe Sailing Club Ivor Williams who generously sponsored the brothers by providing dinghies for them to compete in Club Racing. Ivor had no children of his own. The brothers were soon winning races and Club trophies.    Spud sailing his Cadet “Scud” won his first medal at a Coronation Regatta held by Starcross Yacht Club in 1953.
By 1956 he had outgrown the junior Cadet class and crewed for his oldest brother Derek. They competed in the National Twelve Championships at Weymouth where Spud spotted the superbly built “Yodelling Ghost” in the dinghy park. He vowed there and then to become a boatbuilder and create beautifully crafted dinghies. His dream included becoming a national champion.
When he left school in 1959, he joined his older brother Brian at the Camperdown Terrace boatyard as an apprentice boatbuilder in B L Rowsell Ltd. The firm specialised in building for restricted classes as against one designs which enabled developments to be made within specific rule constraints in the same way as Formula 1 motor racing operates. Within six months he had mastered the skills needed to build his own National Twelve Foot dinghy in which he placed 9th out of 200 boats at the National Championships the following year. For the following season he built himself another new boat in which he won his first race at the National championships finishing 2nd overall. At 18 he had arrived.
He stayed in this class for another two seasons but after only achieving a 3rd place in 1963 found that he had outgrown that class and needed another challenge. The Merlin Rocket Class was to provide the solution being a dinghy two feet longer as well as being a class Olympic aspirants favoured. The level of competition in that Class was extremely high.
By now Spud had become a full partner in the business which became Rowsell Brothers. The Merlin Rocket became the mainstay of the business for the next two decades.  Over that time the firm built 325 Merlin Rocket Class dinghies along with several one-off boats for other classes. Additional staff were taken on to meet demand most of whom went on to start their own businesses having acquired the skills and know how required. Overtime these bats became more sophisticated with improved control systems, sycamore gunwales and inlaid inwales. At one time the firm had an eighteen-month order book.
It helped that Spud crewed by Jon Turner were particularly successful during this era winning the National Championships twice, being runner up four times and third on another. To this record they added the Inland Championships once and won Salcombe Week twice. The pair were almost untouchable when it blew hard. Spud had achieved his dream. 
During this time other good sailors were drawn to Exmouth to race against him on his home waters and learn from the master. Some moved their businesses to Exmouth creating both employment with Camperdown terrace becoming a centre of excellence as far as dinghy racing was concerned. The next generation of youngsters were also inspired resulting in four of Exmouth young sailors gaining places in the UK Olympic Games in 2000 and 2004 and a similar number becoming involved in Americas Cup events. Talent bred talent.
As a champion sailor it is no surprise that this son of Exmouth would be invited to race in international regattas. He was invited to sail 16-foot skiffs in Australia, participated in Olympic selection trials in the Flying Dutchman class twice, in a Star boat once and in the Soling Class twice.
During his quest for glittering prizes Spud was also a member of the RNLI crew for 20 years and responded to many shouts. As well as serving on the big boats he also became a helmsman of the Inshore Life Boat. Operating with his brother Brian on the 29th May 1966 the pair responded to a shout concerning swimmers in difficulty off Dawlish Warren. At the time the pair encountered heavy seas left over by an easterly gale and were thrown out of the IRB. Fortunately, they were able to haul themselves back in the boat and find three of the missing four swimmers who were returned to the paramedics on the beach. Setting out again to look for the fourth swimmer they were again struck by a big wave and tipped back into the sea. Another supreme effort was required to get back aboard following which they were stood down to recover. The RNLI recognised the bravery of the brothers and both were awarded a Vellum for courage and determination in completing their mission.
Spud also found time to join the management committee of the Exe Sailing Club. First elected to serve in 1963 he rose through the ranks to become Commodore between1989 and 1992.
On three occasions Spud brought the week-long National Championships of the Merlin Rocket Class to be sailed off Exmouth under the burgee of the Exe Sailing Club, bringing prestige to the Town and trade to the local hospitality sector. He was also instrumental in hosting the National Twelves Burton Week at Exe on two occasions.
His next venture was the round Great Britain and Ireland Race in 1982 in partnership with Mark Gatehouse. The approach was to build a 50ft trimaran starting in the Autumn of the previous year with a new design by Phil Morrison who became the project manager. Youth Training Scheme labour and volunteers were used to support a small core of professional boatbuilders. Spud and Mark gave their time freely at weekends and evenings after running their firms during weekdays. The budget was extremely tight with mast and sails sponsored and donations sought from many people and businesses. The intention was to donate any surpluses when the craft was sold to the Exmouth Swimming Pool fund. This was very much a community project hence the name of the craft being “Exmouth Challenge”. The Exmouth Journal provided superb support with a fortnightly update on progress. In the event “Exmouth Challenge” came in third having led the fleet twice during the race. The trimaran was sold to Yvon Falconier and after all creditors had been paid a cheque for £19,000 was presented to the Town Council. 
At around this time Brian surrendered his interest and a new company Rowsell and Morrison was established. Phil had been the designer of many of the fast Merlin Rockets, Twelves and International 14’s the yard had built giving the new partnership a design and build capability which soon attracted clients looking for larger racing machines. This enabled a move into building bigger monohulls, catamarans and trimarans using the techniques developed for the “Challenge” culminating in the build of a 60-foot monohull intended for the Round the World Race.
The partnership created the design and built the plugs (from which other builders can make the boats) for the RS 400 and RS 200 dinghies which have become extremely popular. Ventures into creating transatlantic rowing boats and other innovative projects followed. By 1991 Phil had become involved in designing Salcombe Yawls, a traditionally built 16-foot relatively heavy craft raced regularly on the attractive Salcombe estuary. A long-time friend and client for whom he had built several Merlin Rockets asked Spud to build him a Yawl to the Morrison design Spud was keen to try his hand at traditional boatbuilding and agreed. The first boat proved time consuming to build and Spud decided not to build any more.
However, some eight years later after his partnership with Phil had been dissolved, he was persuaded to change his mind and Rowsell Boats began a four-year period of building Yawls during which another nine would leave the yard. Spud built one for himself and won the hotly contested Salcombe Regatta in 2002, 2004 and 2005. He won again in 2011 in a Yawl built by his crew Kevin Driver. This was a special win as not long before Spud had needed bypass surgery.  
It is said behind ever successful man stands a strong woman. In 1966 Spud married Janet Gregory who he claimed was an incredible find. She fully supported her man and his various campaigns and in due course presented him with two sons and two daughters all of whom enjoy the water and joys of sailing on the Exe estuary. The eldest Guy operated a boat building and repair service from the Camperdown workshop with his younger brother Frank being the proprietor of Rowsell Sails. Becky teaches swimming and is a keen windsurfer. Stephanie and her husband Eric Bridge run Edge Watersports from the newly built centre on the sea front. Between them seven grandchildren have been born to carry on the family traditions. Spud and Jan were very grateful that their children all live close by and have remained attracted by what Exmouth can offer.
In his retirement years Spud and Jan spent a month each year sailing on a catamaran in the Caribbean. Originally purchased by son Guy with a view to charter work. Up to six fortunate friends (usually former Merlin Rocket sailors) would be invited out for a fortnight to enjoy the delights of cruising in warmer waters and the sumptuous meals Jan created on board.
In the months before he died Spud wrote an autobiography “Living my Dreams” On the back cover he says: ” Little did I know when I gained my passion for sailing at such an early age that it was to form the basis for my entire working life as a boatbuilder and competitive sailor. I think it is true to say that if I had my time again, I wouldn’t have it any other way”. Copies of this book are available from Edge Watersports at £15 a copy.
Spud’s funeral is to be held on the 9th of July at Point in View Church. Attendance by invitation only. Prior to the service the cortege will pass the new lifeboat station around 1100hrs where the RNLI will honour the passing of a former crew member.  It will then proceed along the sea front to arrive in Camperdown Terrace at about 1115 hrs.
He will be sorely missed by his family and all those who knew him and shared his adventures.    
Ben Jennings    

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