Published: 19 October 18

My life with the YDSA (and general yarns!) by David Cannell, YDSA Full Member

Please tell us about your company and your current role as a Surveyor and Designer

I am the principal of a small company, David M. Cannell & Associates. We have been designing and surveying yachts and commercial craft for over 40 years. The smallest design is 19ft and the largest 40m.

Although many of the designs have been commercial and quasi military – patrol boats and the like – my first love has always been sail boat design. We have worked on a very large range of vessels from a survey and consultancy point of view, but these days most of the work involves super or mega yachts, including a 160m new build in Germany and a 140m sailing vessel, and much of my effort involves Expert work or Expert Determination.

How did you get started in your career?

After secondary school, I read Physics at London University and on completion of my degree I realised that my passion was sail yacht design and I wrote to Olin Stephens at Sparkman & Stephens for a job in the USA. We met and he advised that I needed to go on a drawing course, but there was no such thing in the UK. Thus, I studied naval architecture and then, through a colleague, joined Lloyds Register of Shipping with the request that I work in the yacht department (much to their shock and horror, as the yacht department was then nearly the lowest of the low!). After a few years, I decided to set up my own practice in yacht design and started with design of small production vessels, including Tamarisk, Calypso and Samphire Classes and then steadily progressed to larger vessels.

Why and when did you join the YDSA?

In 1972, I joined various organisations including the Royal Institution of Naval Architects, the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers in the USA and the then Yacht Brokers, Designers and Surveyors Association at the same time when I started business on my own. I joined the YBDSA as it appeared to be the only organisation dedicated to yacht and small craft work and, of course, had been long established.

How has the YDSA benefitted you?

Probably, the greatest benefit of the YDSA is to meet and discuss with like-minded Members various issues relating to our field and be a Member of an organisation that has a structured information and training protocol dedicated to benefiting the knowledge of the Members.

What changes have you noticed through the years affecting surveying and designing?

Perhaps, the biggest change affecting designing is that now most of the yacht design work is carried out “in-house” by the few building companies left, just using perhaps a well-known yacht design name to provide a very small part of the design requirements. In the early days, the yacht designer undertook all the work, including hull shape, structural and fit out details, but nowadays, much of that is carried out in-house. As for surveying, the big change is probably the number of surveyors operating in the UK and worldwide. For instance, in my area when I started, there were only four or five surveyors operating the whole of the East Coast from North Norfolk to the Thames and now there are dozens.

With the exception of those qualified YDSA surveyors, I think the standard of survey has generally fallen. I have become involved in looking at Professional Indemnity insurance claims and some of the so-called pre-purchase condition surveys are little more than a description of the vessel. That is not to say that there aren’t good, highly qualified and knowledgeable surveyors operating. I think possibly the problem is with so many surveyors chasing the work, the fees charged in real terms have fallen dramatically over the years and a survey on perhaps a 30 ft wooden boat, which would take a full day, plus another half day writing the report, is completed in a few hours today by many surveyors.

What milestones have you reached with the YDSA?

I suppose one of the major milestones was when I was elected to Committee in the 1970s. The YDSA was very different then, with no head office and the secretary working from a room in a private house. We used to meet at Steering Wheel Club in London, as Tony Needell was a member, as he was very much involved with power boat racing and some car racing – his son, Tiff Needell, has continued with that theme. The Committee then was far less formal than today and it tended to be the requisite that any new applicant had to be either known by or met by a member of the Committee.

This was not a bad system, although it gave the impression of an “elite club”, which it certainly was not. I very much enjoyed those days on the Committee. An enormous amount of time was spent when the Association of Brokers and Yacht Agents, who were in some difficulty at the time, joined with the Yacht Brokers, Designers and Surveyors Association, making us a larger organisation, which later divided into the two separate sections, Designers/Surveyors and Brokers/Yacht Agents.

What was your first job?

I think I recall the first survey was on a 24 ft wooden motor sailor and the first design to be completed and built was the Tamarisk 24 Class GRP gaff cutter. This was a bit of a heresy as far as the traditional gaff sailors were concerned. They considered that the only correct material for a gaffer was timber and to build in GRP such a vessel was unknown at the time. Later the Cornish Crabbers and the like followed suit.

What are your hobbies?

I race in an Oliver Lee design, a two-man racing keelboat, the Squib, in which we have great fun – a very difficult boat to sail fast, exceedingly quirky and after six years of sailing a Squib I am still learning. I also enjoy skiing in the winter, a bit of tennis and gardening.

What are your career highlights?

Apart from the early designs, being commissioned to design the new Arethusa for Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa was a very exciting project that lasted a long time, as the Arethusa was fitted out by the International Boatbuilding Training College in Lowestoft and the whole project from start of design to completion of trials took about four or five years. She is a then modern 72 ft timber ketch, now named “Faramir”.

On commercial design, “Protector III”, the fishery protection vessel operating in the North Sea. Also, being commissioned by Bollinger’s in the USA to design the new US Coastguard inshore patrol vessels based on a Daman steel hull shape. About 85 of these 87 ft inshore patrol boats have been built to date. I should also mention “Neptune”, a 200’ galleon designed for the Roman Polanski film, Pirates, and now lying in Genoa as a tourist attraction.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

As mentioned previously, new design is probably the most interesting and exciting, although there is a lot of fairly mundane graft in completing the design, but then to carry out trials on a vessel you have designed is a magical moment (hoping that all is going well!). The intellectual exercise in giving Expert advice in litigation or carrying out Expert Determination in a dispute is also very interesting. I tend not to undertake pre-purchase condition surveys, unless for a particular long-standing client.

What advice would you offer to someone considering your career path?

You must be excited and dedicated about the field you are entering. I would suggest it is no good becoming a small craft naval architect unless you enjoy what you are doing. Similarly, you must enjoy looking at boats to be a good surveyor and consider and think about all that you are looking at – why it’s there, why it’s got a problem.

Formal qualifications are an advantage, but use the learning time to further your knowledge beyond the syllabus and fully understand how yachts and smaller commercial craft are designed and built. If you are setting up on your own, prepared to put in a lot of time for little remuneration will greatly benefit you in the long run. In my first five years I went into a lot of debt as the fee income didn’t cover my living and travelling costs, let alone pay a half decent salary.

What is your favourite motto or saying?

Work hard and it will come right in the end.

The way forward?

I am convinced that the way forward for the YDSA is to maintain standards. It is all too easy to let standards slip and enlarge the organisation, but with that, reputation falls. I have noted over the years that those who complain that the YDSA is too difficult to join or too “picky” are very often those that don’t last in the industry and want a quick and easy career route.

I think it is vital that not only the individual Members, be they surveyors, brokers or designers, offer a first-rate standard, but also our Association continually develops its benefits to Members. There will always be another organisation snapping at our heels. We are the longest established and, I would argue, the most venerable organisation serving small craft practitioners anywhere in the world.

David M Cannell & Associates
River House
Quay Street

+44 (0)1206 823337

See David in our Find a Surveyor

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