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Philip Watson, Irish Sailmaker – Fifty Years On The Job

1st December 2021
Philip Watson’s take on a colour scheme for the Watson & Jameson sails for the dB2s Decibel, which he co-owned with Joe Reynolds and John Marrow. He is seen here in the middle of the crew at the start of the 1989 Fastnet Race, in which Decibel placed third in class.
Philip Watson’s take on a colour scheme for the Watson & Jameson sails for the dB2s Decibel, which he co-owned with Joe Reynolds and John Marrow. He is seen here in the middle of the crew at the start of the 1989 Fastnet Race, in which Decibel placed third in class.

In November 1971, Malahide sailing enthusiast Gerry Watson journeyed with his son Philip from their comfortable home down the slow Irish roads of half a century ago to Crosshaven, where the son had signed up to join a new sailmaking venture being brought into operation by John McWilliam, a highly-focused and visionary bundle of energy, from a very successful sailing background and with the mysterious added aura of being a former jet fighter pilot.

Gerry himself had made a successful career in the insurance business, and in the expectation that his son would follow into something similar, once he’d completed school Philip was encouraged into trainee accountancy in Dublin. He stuck this for a tedious year and a half. But after the possibilities of a life in sailing and sailmaking had been suggested to him by McWilliam when they’d met at a dinghy regatta where Watson’s successful abilities were conspicuously on display, it was no contest.

Parental acceptance was demonstrated by that long and thoughtful shared drive across Ireland. But in any case, Gerry had only himself to blame, as the Watsons were one of the many boat-mad families which transformed Malahide into a sailing talent developmental powerhouse during the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, with tribes such as Dix, Wilkins, Burrows, Wolfe, Smith, Watson, O’Keeffe, Duggan, Hegarty, McDowell, Hennessy, Rumball, Killen and others interacting to produce prodigious sailing talent which was to manifest itself in success afloat generally, and in racing success inshore and offshore at regional, national and international levels right up to the Olympic Silver Medal won by David Wilkins in 1980.

Malahide boyhood friends still sailing together (and winning) after more than thirty years – Philip Watson on helm, Johnny Wolfe on trim, and Donie O’Keeffe and Brian McDowell ready for action.Malahide boyhood friends still sailing together (and winning) after more than thirty years – Philip Watson on helm, Johnny Wolfe on trim, and Donie O’Keeffe and Brian McDowell ready for action.

Inevitably Malahide also produced successful performers who utilised their talents and achievements to build a career in the marine industry, and Philip Watson was one of the first of them. He’d been talent-spotted for sailing since at least the age of eleven and probably earlier, but certainly by 1963 at the age of eleven he was crew for Robin Hennessy in a Heron when the Herons were the top junior class in the land, and they took third the Nationals.

Before that, the Watson family had spread their sailing wings beyond their regular Mermaid sailing in Malahide with participation in Lough Derg Regatta Week at Dromineer on the Shannon from 1959 inwards, and thus Philip Watson’s sailing interests have - and remain - virtually all-encompassing, taking in sea and lake, dinghies and keelboats, inshore and offshore, and local, national and international.

The range of his customer base reflects this, based on long-term friendships and a record of good service. Thus thanks to contacts initially made all those years ago at Dromineer, the current order book at Watson Sails includes new outfits for at least 24 boats of the Shannon One Design Class in anticipation of their Centenary next year.

Watson-made championship winning sail on Frank Guy’s Shannon One DesignWatson-made championship winning sail on Frank Guy’s Shannon One Design

It takes him slightly by surprise when it’s pointed out that he has now been supplying sails for SODS for half of the class’s hundred year existence, as sails he’d had a hand in making at Crosshaven were racing with the SOD fleet at their Golden Jubilee in 1972. But then that’s the Watson approach to life – he’s so busy with the present and the future that recalling the history of the past fifty years is further down the agenda, and his interest and enjoyment continues at such a level that he simply plans to go on making sails as long as he’s able.

So it takes an effort to recall that, with winter coming on fifty years ago, when he started in with John and Di McWilliam to help fulfill their dream of a world-class sail-loft in a picturesque old mill in process of conversion by the stream in Hodderstown in a sweet fold of the south Cork countryside, as much of his time was spent as a builder’s labourer as it was as a trainee sailmaker.

Johnny himself had completed a very intensive three-month course as a trainee with the Australian Rolly Tasker, and thus the company was Tasker Sails Ireland. But despite carrying the Tasker boomerang logo, everyone knew it as McWilliam which it soon was, with the arrow logo, and in those places where Philip Watson had already made his sailing mark, his involvement was known and resulted in some early orders.

This was reinforced in 1972 and ’73 when he won the Enterprise Irish Nationals with a suit of sails which he’d made completely himself in the Crosshaven loft, and it gave him the confidence to respond to an advertisement in 1973 for a manager for a new sail-loft, an offshoot of the Swedish Syversen company, which was being established in a section of the former carpet factory in Killybegs in Donegal.

Killybegs may have been well off sailing’s beaten track in those days, but the new setup was properly funded and came complete with the contract to supply sails for the Shipman 28 Class, which was beginning series production in Limerick. Having taken his departure from Crosshaven, Philip regarded the Malahide/Howth axis as his real home, and commuted each week to the growing Killybegs loft and week-night life in a rented bungalow.

That was a formidable driving challenge in itself in those pre-motorway days. But in any case he was already well aware that an ability to drive long distances and still be fresh at the end was a central part of being a successful sailmaker in Ireland, as people expected the personal touch, regardless of how remote their location might be. They expected the sailmaker to be on board and racing for the new suit’s first outing.

Last outing as Syversen Sails – the J/24 Pathfinder II was class overall winner in the 1978 ISORA Championship, and also won the UK J/24 Open NationalsLast outing as Syversen Sails – the J/24 Pathfinder II was class overall winner in the 1978 ISORA Championship, and also won the UK J/24 Open Nationals

In time he more or less gave up tabulating precisely what this involved, but in the hyper-busy period when he was transforming Syversen Sails in Killybegs into Watson & Jameson Sails in Baldoyle in Fingal (or North Dublin if you insist), he found that he’d driven 67,000 miles in 18 months, and in a typical week might have sailed in evening races on at least two of Ireland’s coasts - whether Irish Sea or Atlantic - while also putting in long hours in the loft and somehow finding time to race his own boat of the moment.

After training in Sweden, he opened the Syversen loft in Killybegs in 1973, and soon had added extra contracts to those already established. But with sailing rapidly expanding in Howth – in 1973 HYC provided two of the three boats in the Irish Admirals Cup Team, while ISORA’s growth was roaring ahead – a change of location was increasingly necessary, and in 1976 Syversen Sails relocated to a loft created out of the first floor of Michael Wright’s extensive fish premises on Howth’s West pier.

Sailing successes for his Syversen Sails were coming thick and fast, and the time was ripe for a name change if he wanted to put his own name more directly on these achievements. He’d found a kindred spirit of total enthusiasm in Kieran Jameson of the long-established sailing family, and in 1978 while Kieran continued to successfully race the family’s Swan 40 Finndabar, Philip took on the new J/24 Pathfinder II to contest ISORA at a time when J/24s were still permitted in full-on and completely offshore competition. Despite some decidedly hairy experiences, they won their class overall, they also won the J/24 UK Open Nationals, and it was clearly time to transfer that reputational enhancement from Syversen to the new name of Watson & Jameson.

Derek Joyce’s champion Mermaid from Wexford was one of the first to carry the new Watson & Jameson symbolDerek Joyce’s champion Mermaid from Wexford was one of the first to carry the new Watson & Jameson symbol

Howth was already home for Kieran Jameson, and Philip – having married long-time partner Susan Moore – was well settled in their own house in Howth, where they still live, having reared a family. But their concept of a home base has been expanded by having an extensively-customized inland waterways cruiser which is as comfortable as a houseboat down Shannon way.

It has been quite a journey to get to this happy state, as business for the new firm in the late 1970s was such that they’d to get a purpose-built building in the new Baldoyle Industrial Estate in 1980, where the greatly-expanded loft facilities were almost immediately demonstrated by the creation of the sails for the complete rig of the new Irish Sail Training Brigantine Asgard II.

The complete suit of sails for the new Sail Training Brigantine Asgard II were made by Watson & Jameson in Baldoyle in the winter of 1980-81The complete suit of sails for the new Sail Training Brigantine Asgard II were made by Watson & Jameson in Baldoyle in the winter of 1980-81

The sails for Asgard reminded everyone of the sheer diversity of the Watson & Jameson output, as they’d established a solid reputation for competitively-priced sails in a package for local One-Design classes, yet at the same time they could produce solidly reliable cruising sails for customers of the calibre of Arctic voyager John Gore-Grimes. But equally they could turn their hand to special racing sails which were capable of winning races for Irish skippers at top-end events like the Dragon Gold Cup.

But it was in offshore racing that they really hit the peaks racing separate boats. Philip himself achieved notable successes in GK 34s such as Frank Hughes & partners’ Tearaway and Donal Morrissey’s Joggernaut, and also on Dehler dBs such as Brian Kelly’s Rapparee and especially on the Db2s formerly known as Spirit, which he bought in partnership with John Marrow and Joe Reynolds in 1989, and re-named Decibel.

The GK34 Joggernaut (Donal Morrissey GBSC, sailed by Philip Watson) on her way to the overall win in ISORA Week 1982 at AbersochThe GK34 Joggernaut (Donal Morrissey GBSC, sailed by Philip Watson) on her way to the overall win in ISORA Week 1982 at Abersoch

The W & J loft may have been asked from time to time to make standard-looking sails, but they were right up to speed with the latest sail-cloth developments, and Decibel looked like a floating test-bed for all of them and in every colour too, a Howth version of a sailing rainbow. Yet they did the business, culminating in the 1989 Fastnet in which they took third in class, and very quickly the latest sail technology knowledge directly gained in racing with the international fleet in the Solent and the RORC programme was transferred back to the output from the Baldoyle loft.

Hitting the big time – a Watson spinnaker smooth as a billiard ball, and in the overall lead in a race in the Etchells 22 WorldsHitting the big time – a Watson spinnaker smooth as a billiard ball, and in the overall lead in a race in the Etchells 22 Worlds

The increasing possibilities of computer use were also being monitored, and in 1993 the first Watson & Jameson computer-generated suit of sails was produced in Baldoyle. But with the Celtic Tiger starting to flex his muscles, business was so brisk that some basic production had to be outsourced to Hyde Sails in England, and when Eddy Hyde decided to move his mainline outfit to the Phillipines, Watson & Jameson found themselves assessing and designing standard sails which were actually made in the Far East, even if the more special elements of their sail output continued in Ireland, as did the bread-and-butter sideline of servicing liferafts.

The economic situation was in a state of increasingly rapid development, and other factors were coming into play. While Watson & Jameson had constructed what was their own building in a then partially greenfield site back in 1980, Baldoyle Industrial Estate and Business Park towards the end of the 20th Century was rapidly becoming one of the busiest in Ireland, and indeed still is.

As the Millennium approached, the W & J building – which had employed 14 at its busiest - was worth many multiples of what it had been built for, yet with the growth of the Internet and the accelerating development of computers, sailmaking of all industries could become a very trans-national business.

For sure in customer relations it still needed the personal touch, but that required few people, and while anyone acquiring a Watson sail expected to communicate with the man himself, they equally accepted that if he reckoned a sail made in a remote location was as good as it was possible to get, they were happy if he was prepared to stand over its quality.

Then too, with the symbolic approach of the Millennium, Philip Watson and Kieran Jameson realized they would soon have been working in harmonious partnership for nearly a Quarter of a Century, and Kieran now felt he might like to try other projects. Philip for his part wanted to stay with sailmaking, but it was a very different trade from the one he’d joined in 1971, and could be run in a new way.

Symbol of a fresh setup. The Hanse 292 Chanser on Lough Ree setting sails with the new Watson Sails logo. In 2000 she cruised round Ireland and also won her class in the Howth Autumn LeagueSymbol of a fresh setup. The Hanse 292 Chanser on Lough Ree setting sails with the new Watson Sails logo. In 2000 she cruised round Ireland and also won her class in the Howth Autumn League

All the stars were in alignment. Watson Sails was established with a seamless move to a new base in a compact unit with a useful floor-space in the attractive Wheatfield farm complex immediately south of Malahide. The W & J building in Baldoyle went profitably on to other busy owners. And Philip expanded his interests by taking on the Hanse agency, and promptly demonstrated both the boats and the new branding of his sails in 2000 by cruising his new Hanse 292 Chanser round Ireland – some of it on the Atlantic seaboard sailed single-handed – and then winning his class overall with a race to spare in the Howth Autumn League.

Stepping out. In 2002, the Hanse 371 took line honours in her class in the ARC, crossing in 15.5 days.Stepping out. In 2002, the Hanse 371 took line honours in her class in the ARC, crossing in 15.5 days.

A couple of years later he did the ARC with the Hanse 371 Megawat and took line honours in class with a 15.5 days crossing time. But meanwhile back home while Watson Sails continued to make or at least monitor the production of sails of all sizes, he reinforced his relations with Ireland’s many local classes, with the Mermaids and the Water Wags, in particular, responding favourably to the Watson treatment, while the Shannon One Designs regard him as one of their own.

Their relationship goes way beyond those first SOD sails of fifty years ago, as it reaches all the way back to 1959 and a Malahide sailing family arriving with their caravan in Dromineer to get the best from Lough Derg Regatta Week, and an energetic and always-curious little red-haired boy emerging from amongst them for his first excited glimpse of this decidedly exotic lake racing class. Philip Watson’s zest for all this and more remains undimmed.

 Clean sweep. On a one-reef day, the tuck in the sails hides the fact that this Shannon OD lineup is wall-to-wall Watson. Clean sweep. On a one-reef day, the tuck in the sails hides the fact that this Shannon OD lineup is wall-to-wall Watson.

Published in Watson Sails
WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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Watson Sails information

Watson sails is managed and owned by Philip Watson who has over 50 years experience in sailmaking and repairing.

Watson Sails are manufacturers of high-performance sails for racing and cruising. 

Philip is only too happy to advise you on your sail selection for cruising or high-performance racing. 

Philip Watson started making sails in 1972 and was instantly successful, winning the Irish Enterprise dinghy Championships that year (and the next) with a suit of sails he’d made himself.

The following years saw successes in many other classes with Philip keeping his own racing going too, gaining a 2nd in the 470 nationals in ’74, and in 1978 he won the Irish Laser Nationals and the UK J-24 nationals within two weeks of each other.

Offshore racing was a big draw in the eighties, and Philip made sails for many of the IOR racing fleet that took part in the ISORA championship, saling with customers, and finding time to win his own class in ’78 on the J-24 Pathfinder and in ’89 aboard the DB2s Decibel which also placed 3rd in Class in the Fastnet Race that same year.

In the nineties Watson Sails cracked the Irish Dragon Class, gaining 40% of the sail market after Philip helped Robin Hennessy & Des Cummins score 2 wins in the ’93 Gold Cup aboard Water Rat with sails designed locally, but tested internationally.

Philip, like most competitive helmsmen, had a short stab at the 1720s over a long weekend in Howth gaining a second in the Nationals, but this slight disappointment was made up for when Xerox won the 1720 Nationals with a full suit of Watson sails a year or two later.

In 2000, Philip bought the first Hanse yacht in Ireland and took on the agency. That year he cruised around Ireland in the Hanse 292 Chanser, and later won the Cr3 IRC in Howth Autumn series with a race to spare. These days Hanse build over 400 yachts a year, and their range goes from 32 ft to their flagship 63 footer.

Ten happy Irish owners took delivery of new Hanse yachts in 2007. 

Watson sails are still winning in many one-design classes and Philip has turned his skills to making cruising yachts faster and easier to sail, with a range of fast and long-lasting laminated sails suitable for racing or just fast cruising Experience gained in the 1720s has helped us design cruising chutes that can sail really low yet remain stable and easy to trim.

Removable bowsprits and furling gennakers are the future for short-crewed cruising yachts, especially for the Hanse range of Yachts which feature large mainsails and relatively small, self-tacking jibs.

Experience (including an 2002 ARC crossing in 15.5 days), gained on the Hanse 371 Megawat was brought to the fore in the 2007 ARC, and 3 of the 7 Irish yachts crossing to St. Lucia used twin Yankee jibs designed and supplied by Watson sails.

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