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Derek Fawcett MBE passes away

by Alice Driscoll 20 Sep 2023 15:28 UTC

Derek James Fawcett MBE - 6th June 1937 - 12th September 2023

An inventor who transformed the lives of millions of yachtsmen through his designs which included the two-speed and three-speed winches for which Lewmar became famous, before developing the first electronic autopilot forming the Autohelm brand for Nautech, orchestrating its sale to US-giant Raytheon and establishing the product range which remains today the foundation of marine electronics manufacturer Raymarine.

Derek James Fawcett, who has died aged 86, is well-known within the marine industry for his innovations which transformed the lives of millions of yachtsmen around the world. A man who was generous in both his time and support for an industry which he loved, he established and built up a company from a one-man band to an internationally-renowned, award-winning multinational organisation. With a life-long love of sailing, which was shared by his wife and children Julie and Roger, he also pioneered the ability for visually impaired people to share the joy of sailing through his invention of audible compasses and instrumentation. Throughout his life, he was generous in giving both his own time and significant charitable donations, one of which led to the foundation by the RYA of the organisation now known as Sailability.

Born in London and a graduate of Bristol University, where he read Mechanical Engineering, Derek's fascination with the aviation and nautical world saw him initially working as a Scholar's Apprenticeship with De Havilland in Edgeware. Shortly after his marriage to Frances in 1961, he was transferred to Toronto, Canada, where he worked on a project developing lightweight antenna systems. On his return from Canada he worked on aircraft flight simulators and rocket technology, making him an expert in both propulsion and navigation. With an all-round expertise now which included project engineering, decision-making and management, he took up a role in Hampshire with a fast-growing company called Lewmar, where as Chief Engineer he designed and patented the two-speed and three-speed winches that transformed the lives of millions of yachtsmen around the world.

Following this success Derek struck out alone with a design for the first electronic autopilot aimed at the burgeoning leisure yachting market. Working initially from his back room, by 1974 he founded Nautech with the autopilot brand Autohelm. Initially designed for yachts between 17-35ft LOA, more than 6000 hours of technical development and over two years of stringent at sea testing in the most challenging conditions saw the product launch to the market. The first Autohelm Tillerpilot was exhibited at the Earls Court Boat Show, and its virtues were quickly recognised. It won a coveted British Design Council award in 1976, presented by the Duke of Edinburgh.

Nautech exhibited the Autohelm MkII at the 1976 British Marine Trade Show, and more international awards followed, including in 1981 the Export Award for Smaller Manufacturers and Queen's Award for Export Achievement.

His innovations quickly found their way into the hands of the most adventurous of yachtsmen. The whole family were involved - supported wholeheartedly by his wife Frances, his children Julie and Roger spent more than one afternoon watching their father personally fitting autopilots to the boats of household names such as Tony Bullimore and Chay Blythe for their short-handed around the world race attempts. Other world-renowned sailors attributed their race-winning success to Autohelm technology, with the company achieving first in every class in the Round Britain and Ireland Race in 1982.

With the company expanding rapidly, Fawcett recognised the need to develop both the technology and the product range, developing instrumentation - the designs of which are still recognisable today - and pioneering new microprocessor-controlled manufacturing techniques. The company continued to grow and moved to purpose-built premises at Anchorage Park, Portsmouth. Throughout the growth of the company, Derek was always extremely interested in the development, support and welfare of his staff, and was fondly looked upon as a father figure.

As an engineer first, with a passion for product development and a desire to make the best use of new technology, the innovation never stopped and Derek went on to transform the fluxgate compass, making it accessible to the leisure industry. It was for this, as well as for his work promoting engineering and employment in the region, that he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Engineering from Portsmouth University, which in typical style he was too humble to ever use as a title.

Derek and Frances' charitable activities were also numerous. Having accepted a challenge to design a unit that helped blind people steer a boat using tonal indications for course - high pitch for turn to port, low pitch for turn to starboard - the whole family spent many summers taking blind people sailing, often in their own boat "Chantue" (an anagram of Nautech). This organisation went on to become RYA Sailability and was the benefactor of a significant charitable donation from the Fawcett Family Charitable Trust, established after the sale of Nautech to Raytheon in 1990. The Trust went on to help numerous other causes close to Frances and Derek's hearts including Portsmouth Grammar School and Portsmouth Cathedral.

In 1996 Derek received an MBE for services to the marine industry, in addition to an already significant list of awards achieved through the lifetime of the business. This included more British Design Awards than any other British company - 1975 Autohelm, 1989 Personal Compass, 1990 Autohelm 4000, 1990 SeaTalk System, 1992 ST Autohelm 2000, and in 1981 Queens Awards to industry with 60% exports. Ten years later, the company won the Queens Award for Export Achievement with 81% exports from sales topping £12.4m and over 300 employees. It was presented with British Safety Council Awards for six consecutive years from 1988-1993, The Royal Cruising Club Medal for Services to Cruising, two Silk Cut Nautical Awards, and Derek was voted President of the British Marine Federation.

He did not stop after retiring from Raytheon, and after gaining his full IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) rating in both fixed wing and helicopters along with Frances, he supported a young group of engineers on their journey to make instruments for the leisure aviation market. The company was called Skyforce and Derek was instrumental in a successful exit to Bendix King, securing a significant reward for the founders of which Derek refused to take a penny.

A much-loved father, husband, grandfather and friend, his love and unstinting generosity will be missed by many. Derek's wife Frances passed away two years ago, and he is survived by his two children and three grandchildren.

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