It’s a shame that Michael Aspel isn’t still thumbing through his big red book, as David Ireland would make a great This is Your Life candidate. Fearless, adventurous, comical and carefree, his life has been rich and rewarding – yet he’s still only 45.
Born in the seaside town of Hoylake on the Wirral in Merseyside, David was an internationally-competitive windsurfer and also made the British team in Cadet Class sailing. He used his talent for water sports as a form of teenage rebellion and swerved studying in favour of windsurfing on West Kirby Marine Lake. Such was his confidence to not fall in – he did it in his school uniform. Unsurprisingly, age 16 and with no qualifications, David’s headteacher asked him to leave.
David’s disgruntled father decided to remove him from his comfort zone, away from his friends and sailing community, and enrol him at Shrewsbury College of Arts and Technology some 70 miles away. David reluctantly retook his failed GCSEs and embarked on a foundation course in engineering to teach him (in the words of his father) ‘how to focus on resolving problems’. Later, he graduated with a BTEC in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering from the University of Westminster – but, in true David Ireland style, everything is not always as it seems.
“I contracted contagious measles at the time of my finals and had to sit exams in my room,” recounts David. “An invigilator mine-swept my immediate surroundings for cheat sheets and notes then sat quietly downstairs with a cup of tea. Somehow they failed to spot a fax machine on my desk, so I did the entire exam in collaboration with a friend who had recently graduated in the same subject. I wouldn’t have passed it without him. Well, my father did tell me to ‘focus on resolving problems’.”
The day after graduation, David headed to Pwllheli in northwest Wales to join a 75ft sailing boat on a passage to the Canary Islands. He then spent two or three months day working in the Spanish sunshine before being offered a delivery job to the Caribbean on a homemade catamaran.
“The owner was a 28 stone Brit, he could hardly move, and needed help to cross the Atlantic,” explains David. “All went well until we got hit by lightning just off the coast of Barbados and our electrics went on the blink. Of course we’d given up plotting a few days prior and weren’t quite sure exactly where we were – apart from being close to Barbados. We used a local reggae station as a directional finder, studying how the signal hit the aerial of a small portable radio, and eventually navigated our way into Carlisle Bay.”
Having fixed up the lightning-stricken catamaran, David bade farewell to Barbados and took on his next role, a quick delivery trip from St Lucia to Antigua on a 68ft Oyster sailing yacht. With a professional crew of three, it was David’s first glimpse of the superyacht industry; up until now he’d only known about family boats – he wanted more.
The Oyster’s crew helped David type up a CV and lent him a uniform so he could go dockwalking in Antigua. As he strolled purposefully past Blue Attraction, he heard a familiar voice – Nick Flashman. David had sailed with Nick as a kid in West Kirby and here he was, a deckhand on a luxury motoryacht in the Caribbean. Sadly Blue Attraction had no vacancies, so Nick shouted to the boat next door, it was a ‘no’ from them but they quizzed their neighbour, 51 metre Feadship Double Haven – they had a vacancy.
“The captain gave me a quick interview and complimented me on my smart short haircut,” recalls David. “I hadn’t the heart to tell him I’d been trounced at strip poker in the Canaries and the last thing I could take off was my hair. I got the job.”
David stayed on Double Haven for four years, progressing from deckie to second engineer then bosun and finally first mate. He went round the world twice and had coffee with the US-born Hong Kong-dwelling owner most mornings.
“I met him at 5:30am on the owner’s deck. He made the coffee and I cleaned up, that was the deal. It was something we both enjoyed, but I had to scarper before the captain woke as he didn’t condone such fraternising.”
“I resigned from Double Haven 12 times in four years, but the owner kept paying me more to stay. Myself, the captain and chief engineer were the only constants on the boat and he needed us. I was trying to get out of yachting, I was getting cabin fever, and I craved a house with a driveway and a cat. So one day, in San Diego, I got off the boat and phoned to say I was coming home.”
A friend of David’s father asked if he could do him a quick favour on his way back, pick up that 75ft sailing yacht from Pwllheli (now in Florida) and deliver it to the British Virgin Islands. He agreed, and accidentally stayed on board for six months doing day charters.
“Eventually I did make it home. I recall being stopped at the airport for not wearing any shoes, they told me I couldn’t fly without them, but I hadn’t really been wearing any for the last half year. So I bought some flip-flops, and then they asked me to take them off to go through security. It ended in a row. It was clear it was going to take me time to acclimatise to landlubber life.”
Now age 26, David went into the family business – the motor trade. His father had a Mercedes dealership and put him on the sales team. It wasn’t long before David got the sack. The police breathalysed him outside the pub while picking up his Dad. David hadn’t even been in the pub, but he was over the limit from the night before. He lost his licence and company policy meant his contract had to be terminated.
For his licence-free year David decided to go to Hong Kong to find work. He knew people there and, being a British colony, he didn’t need a visa. On day two he got a job selling life insurance, and one year in Hong Kong became three.
“Dad called and asked me what I was planning on doing – stay in Hong Kong or come back to the family business. It was my Gran’s 80th birthday that weekend so I made a decision there and then and left the next day for England.”
David spent a few years back at the North Wales dealership until Mercedes antagonised his father by forcibly amalgamating showrooms. He took them to court, won, and sold up. David sidestepped to Liverpool Mercedes where a certain young Lucy was on a university placement working in the HR department. They started dating and, with Lucy able to tip him off about the best upcoming roles, David progressed from corporate sales to manager of the West Kirby dealership followed by heading up the group preparation centre. A senior position became available at Mercedes-Benz Trucks, but David sensed he had been in the UK too long – he turned it down.
“I’d holidayed in Mallorca in my teens, I liked it, our family had a boat in Andratx, so I started to look for a business here,” explains David. “I felt I needed to get back to boats, it’s where I felt at home, so with my engineering and motor trade background, plus a captain’s licence, the plan was to buy a yacht brokerage – it seemed like a perfect fit. I lined up a few interviews and took Lucy away with me for the weekend.”
“We’d just landed and in the taxi Lucy said ‘I feel at home already, I could live here, let’s move’ – I confessed that was exactly what I was planning. She’s always had a knack for knowing things before they happen.”
The brokerage businesses were unsuitable for one reason or another, so the agent asked if they were interested in a clothes shop. The answer was a flat ‘no’. What if it was a clothes shop for yachts?
“I asked if it was Deckers, and it was”, says David. “I knew Deckers, we ordered our Double Haven gear from them, but they were now teetering on bankruptcy and in need of rescue. In January 2005, Lucy and I jointly signed a purchase agreement, on 6 April we got the keys to Deckers’ Santa Catalina office. We’d moved to Mallorca.”
The Deckers of 2005 was a small locally-focussed concern. Last year it was a two-million-euro turnover enterprise with 80% of business coming from outside Mallorca. How did the Irelands (Lucy and David married in 2008) do it?
“In 2010 we were asked to quote for a well-known Russian gentleman’s fleet, five boats. In reality it was way out of Deckers’ league, but when it started to look promising we put a deposit on a new premises and machinery so we could fulfil the potential order. If there was no deal, we’d just forfeit the deposit. We got the deal. This was a massive turning point for us. Up until then our annual turnover was around 200,000 euros – this contract alone was worth half a million.”
Supplying to the biggest boat in the world (at the time, 180m Azzam now has that accolade) earned Deckers great credibility and they were able to launch a new build department. David and Lucy then worked very hard to secure fresh business, undoubtedly helped by a growing industry – including the megayachts themselves. Deckers Barcelona opened in 2011, Antibes in 2014.
Deckers’ second turning point began incubating around five years ago.
“Over the years we have constantly pitched against Dolphin Wear. We’re pretty much identical – same product, same customers,” recounts David. “Owner Patrick Gilliot and I were introduced about five years ago at Antibes Yacht Show. Neither of us was too keen to meet the other, but we shared a bottle of wine at a Chinese restaurant and tried to find some common ground. As the banter and wine flowed, we decided we got on quite well and would find ways to work together rather than against.”
Last year, in 2017, the two companies merged to form DWD Uniform Solutions. Same staff, same premises, but shared resources and, of course, shared costs.
“We only really started as DWD Uniform Solutions on 8 January this year, so just weeks into our new structure and format,” finishes David. “But we know we have a stable, reliable business and the client can have 100% confidence in us. There are not many clothing companies out there large enough to handle huge orders. Take Eclipse as an example, it has around 106 crew each needing perhaps four pieces of every uniform item – thousands of pieces in all different sizes. No normal supplier carries that amount of stock – we do. We are a formidable force in crew uniform and target a five million euro turnover in 2018.”
Deckers’ rags of 2005 have certainly become the DWD Uniform Solutions riches of 2018 – not bad for a lad who was kicked out of school.
Sarah Forge, firstname.lastname@example.org