The RNLI saves lives at sea.

Bill O'Brien

Also known as: .

Picture of Bill O'Brien.

Born in Dublin in 1920, his family then moved to a farm in the Irish town of Carlow in 1926. He spent happy years as a lad testing model boats in a stream on the old farm at Monavothe, Rathvilly. A family joke is that his first catamaran comprised two wooden pig troughs battened together for paddling on the pond. Finding that one alone was too tippy, fixing another alongside seemed right – even at the age of 10.

Bill left Ireland, joined the Royal Air Force, and was posted to the 202 Group Western Desert. He was stationed in Abukir, Egypt where he served as a rear gunner in the Second World War. In Alexandria, he met Louise, a beautiful half-French half-Italian girl; they courted, under the very watchful eye of Louise’s mother who was very soon under the spell of this gentle man with the soft Irish brogue. Bill (very wisely) quickly learned to speak French and Italian. Bill and Louise were married on September 11, 1943 and lived with Louise’s mother in Port Taufiq 20 yards from the lukewarm sea where he used his free time, and the ideal facilities, to test out his various sailing ideas.

For a short time back in the UK, Bill spent some time on Sunderland and Catalina flying boats, in 1946 at Lough Erne, Northern Ireland and experimented with a couple of Sunderland floats as a catamaran. The concave shaped floats, designed for high speed, were poor performers at slow speed under sail; however, he discovered that a wooden version with a deeper vee forward and some rocket to keel changing to flattish sections aft proved a better compromise for light airs or strong winds. An idea was born.

In 1950 Bill, Louise and their two daughters, Mary-Rose and Liliane, both born in Alexandria, came to the UK and settled in Weston, Southampton. At Weston Bill met Ivan Morris, his brother Franz, Don Harvey, Bert Drought, Phil and Harry Cozens, Leo Line (designer of the Weston Sharpie), Luke Wilkinson, Ken Wyeth, George Gray and Harry Critchley. They formed Weston Sailing Club at the Seaweed hut on Weston Shore in January 1952 adopting Leo’s Weston Sharpie as a Club racing class – two already built, a number of them set to building others in back gardens.

Bill, now a civilian and having to earn a living worked as an airframe fitter at Air Service Training, Hamble (a branch of the Hawker Siddely Group during 1950-1951; Airframe Engineer/Inspector on flying boats at Aquila Airways 1952-1953 and then back to AST again as an Airframe Inspector.

In 1953 the younger members of the Weston Sailing Club wanted a lighter, faster racing dinghy with built-in buoyancy for righting by the crew. The Committee decided on a design competition, designs to be built at the owners’ cost and thoroughly tested before approval. Bill designed and built the Daring and in the Southampton Water Sailing association event in the spring of 1954 (six clubs entered five boats each), having started late, overhauled the other 29 boats, including an 18’ National and a 24’ International. Daring was approved by the Club Committee. Bill later received a request for an “amateur build” competitor and produced the Challenge, a number were built (not professionally) and reports were that she could easily outplane the 505. Local Weston Sailing Club builders of Challenge were Knobby Clarke, Andy Osman, the Morris twins and Ivor Drought.

In the early 50’s Bill still had the catamaran bug and he designed a 14’ catamaran for Denis Roe, a tea planter in Ceylon, as it was then, in 1954 and suggested that the plans could be used by others there to form a separate class for racing.

An opening came in August 1955 when Ken Pearce of Essex won the Fastest Boat Prize at Cowes with his 18ft catamaran, Endeavour, the average speed of which was 14 knots over the nautical mile, although she was recorded on radar at 22 knots in the spurts. Bill spurred on by the favourable reaction at Weston Sailing Club for multi-hulls tidied up his 1946 design, calling it Jumpahead. Bill then with others formed the Springbok Restricted Class Association for catamarans in November 1955 and wrote to Roland Prout and many others asking them to join in with similar sizes to meet the restrictions. Bill made a scale model of Jumpahead and exhibited it on the Captain Watts stand at the 1956 London Boat Show. The Prout brothers also exhibited one hull of their Shearwater on their folding dinghy stand. Both aroused interest, backed largely by the resultant publicity of the Ken Pearce Endeavour success at Cowes. Thus, the Jumpahead and Shearwater catamarans emerged on the sailing scene.

The management of Hawker Siddely, mainly due to the slowing down of the aircraft industry in the area, was looking to diversify and decided to start up a boat section. Bill headed up the boat section designing his first motor/sailer cruiser – The Shamrock which was successfully received in the sailing world and was featured at the London Boat Shows. Hawker Siddely moved the Catamaran Division to Anglesey in North Wales in 1960 and, although Bill had been offered a position as designer, his preference was for Southampton and the Solent area.

In 1960 Bill decided to set up his own company, Bill O’Brien Ltd. The Shamrock paved the way for the BobCat and the 26ft Channel Rover. A few years later Bill parted company with partners in Bill O’Brien Ltd. and decided to go “on his own” and Bill O’Brien Catamarans was established within Willments Shipyard in Woolston. Bill then designed the 30 ft Oceanic. Over the next 25 years 80 Oceanics’ were built, many of which are located in seas and/or marinas all over the world. One of his famous one off designs was The Anneliese a 70ft catamaran designed for Rosie and Colin Swayle who sailed around Cape Horn (Rosie wrote a book on their experiences - Children of Cape Horn).

Bill left his mark in the Southampton area, firstly with Weston Sailing Club, which later moved to Netley, his boat designing and building companies, and his participation with Norman Kemish and Arthur Gale for his participation in the planning of the inaugural Southampton Boat Show in 1969.

Bill and Louise were happily married for 62 years, his beloved Louise passed away in August 2005. Once Bill retired fully, they enjoyed taking trips to Weston Shore, looking out to sea and reminiscing about those first days of the sailing club. Louise, along with the other wives (one of the regulars was Phil Harvey) and their daughters, used to help in “the hut” making copious pots of tea and huge piles of sandwiches for the hungry sailors returning from participating in yet another race. Bill and Louise felt very much at peace and comfortable by the sea – Louise because she had been born and raised near the sea, and Bill because it was his passion – not many people are lucky enough to spend most of their life having their hobby as their career. He just loved messing about with boats, and although he did eventually retire he never really stopped playing with boat designs and kept in touch with everyone who contacted him with requests and for advice.

Bill’s other love was music – he was a very accomplished accordion player and in his younger days used to entertain many people in the clubs and pubs around the Southampton area. He was still playing the accordion at the age of 88 and spent many hours recording his music and sending the tapes to his family and friends around the world!

Bill loved to read, particular favourites were western stories – Louis Lamour and Zane Gray. The Woolston library had quite a challenge keeping stocks for him. He also loved to tell stories (or yarns as he called them) about his days as a youngster and his time in the RAF. These stories kept his children and later his grandchildren quite enthralled, to them he seemed to have had a very exciting and colourful life. Now his grandchildren enjoy his various hobbies, one grandson has a love of the countryside and gardening, in particular growing vegetables; another is musically gifted; the third has an interest in electronics and engineering; and his granddaughter is carrying on his love of sailing, which she recently took up and participated in the Fastnet in 2009.

Bill left this world on June 28, 2009. It was of great comfort to his family that many people from the sailing community of Southampton attended the funeral and a splendid tribute to him was published in the Southern Echo.

There is no other charity that would be fitting as a remembrance of this wonderful man. He was a key figure in the sailing scene in Southampton when it was really taking off.
Bill was a member of the RNLI and he and Louise attended many of the fund raising functions organized in Southampton.

Added by: Mary-Rose Heaviland on 25 November 2009.

Send to a Friend

Additional images

Click the thumbnails below to view as the main image.

Picture of Bill O'Brien.
Picture of Bill O'Brien.

Charity information


The RNLI is a charity that provides a 24-hour lifesaving service around the UK and Republic of Ireland.

As a charity, the RNLI relies on your support to carry on saving lives at sea.

Appreciations and tributes

Add your tributes

If you would like to add a tribute to Bill O'Brien, please use the link below and follow the instructions provided.

Additional links

Make a donation

Make a donation in memory of your loved one or friend.