His office separated from the workshop by a mere internal door, Spirit Yachts’ MD Nigel Stuart is long habituated to the cacophony of boat building sounds that constantly pierce our interview. But hands-on Nigel wouldn’t have it any other way; he’s developed a passion for these handcrafted modern classics that only founder Sean McMillan could outshine
With a lifelong career in blue water cruising, rising through the Sunsail ranks from novice mechanic to resort manager, followed by operations manager for its new owner TUI, and then seven years as MD of Southampton-based Discovery Yachts, Nigel sidestepped into Spirit Yachts in 2014 and witnessed the company sail into its 25th anniversary year in 2018.
“There’s something quite magical about Spirit Yachts,” explains Nigel. “If you sit back and take an objective look at the marine industry, there’s an awful lot of manufacturers making incredibly similar products, and discussing matters of price alongside not-particularly-interesting features, such as what kind of mattress goes in the master cabin. Production boats don’t seem to take into account the whole, bigger picture. What does comfort really mean? What does performance really mean? For sure it’s not just a well-sprung mattress and heaps of horsepower. Sean has given life to a uniquely different, profoundly beautiful product.”
Lifelong sailor Sean studied a Fine Art degree then spent a wild adventurous youth travelling round the world delivering yachts. He undertook crazy weeks-long crossings cruising at three knots in old boats, amassing a wealth of campfire stories along the way. Once settled back in England, Sean started building classic-style boats under the name McMillan Yachts but, when recession hit in the early 90s, the bank withdrew funding and Sean lost both his business and his house. Tenacious Sean didn’t give up.
In 1992, he was back on his feet and teamed up with partner Mick Newman to create a range of thoroughly contemporary yachts in terms of performance, but with all the elegance of the 1920s and 1930s. They would have long overhangs, low profiles and smooth lines. “Why do all modern yachts have to be fat, white and plastic?” asked Mick. Fortuitously, Mick had access to a derelict farm shed 25 miles north of Ipswich and together they set to work.
Sean kept talking about this beautiful boat he dreamt of building – long, thin, easily-driven, rakish and supremely elegant – and one day he called up and said he wasn’t coming to work but would instead stay home and commit his vision to paper. The first Spirit yacht, the Spirit 37, was launched in 1993. Two were immediately sold and there followed a series of made-to-order boats crafted by the talented ‘two men in a shed’.
When the industry and hubbub started to outgrow the chilly farm shed, the police politely suggested a new premises was found and in 2004 they moved to Spirit Yachts’ current warm, dry location in Ipswich Haven Marina – a facility that was almost doubled in size in 2016 in order to cope with demand.
“Spirit Yachts was largely unrecognised by the more general sailing world, until various tipping points,” continues Nigel. “The first was in 2005, when Casino Royale’s producers got in touch with Sean. They needed a British yacht that oozed style and elegance for newly-cast-Bond Daniel Craig to slink into Venice on. Spirit Yachts was deemed to fit the bill. The custom-made 54-footer needed to go first to Miami, then Barbados, followed by Croatia and finally Venice – requiring ten onerous dismasts as it passed under each bridge of the Grand Canal. Sean said ‘sure’, and then quoted them a price. Exceptionally, they said they’d pay. Most brands pay to be in Bond films, so they must have been stuck on Spirit. The two en-suite cabined yacht was the first sailing boat to navigate that section of the Grand Canal in 300 years.”
“100ft Gaia was the second tipping point. Built in 2007 in a lightwood epoxy and weighing less than 50 tons, she provided conclusive proof that it is possible to build a large fast performance cruiser entirely out of wood. Gaia was so well received that a larger 111ft yacht is now in build at the Suffolk factory, Spirit Yachts’ largest to date, and one of only two 30 metre sailing yachts under construction in the UK right now. Perhaps she’ll prove to be another tipping point in the Spirit story.”
“111 aside, also in build right now is our largest motorboat to date the Spirit P70, a 50CR cruiser-racer, and a 65ft deckhouse. After that there is a healthy order book. Although we can’t deliver any more boats next year, we can certainly start some new projects and are happy to say we deliver every yacht on time.”
Wood is at the heart of every Spirit. It’s the only natural, sustainable boat-building material that offers beauty, durability and a favourable strength-to-weight ratio. It can be easily shaped and formed and moves with changes in heat and moisture without breaking. Wood withstands the elements and provides excellent sound and thermal insulation. It’s also very beautiful and the yachts are designed to be just as beautiful in 100 years as they are today. But Spirit Yachts is not just in the pursuit of making things look pretty. The mast, sail set-up and everything below the waterline is made for racing. Boats are extremely lightweight, on a par with carbon fibre, and very fast, earning Spirit Yachts success in classic regattas across the globe.
Take the Spirit 52 for example. Flight of Ufford was designed by Sean in 2005, specifically for himself and his family. It has enjoyed many successive years of competitive racing, claiming plenty of trophies, including first place in Class 1 and Yacht of the Regatta at this year’s Panerai British Classic Week. “This is the best regatta I have ever raced in my entire life,” said Sean at the time. To provide the cherry on the cake, Spirit 52 Oui Fling came second in Class 1. The flush-deck out-and-out racer was only launched in June 2017 and did one better at last year’s Panerai by winning Class 1. The British owner had only sailed her for one week, so Spirit Yachts got it exactly right.
“Our customers are split pretty evenly down the middle when it comes to cruising and racing,” says Nigel, “although even the cruisers are all tempted to have a go at a regatta – especially if there’s a great off-water social programme.”
The art of craft is undoubtedly alive and kicking at Spirit Yachts. Finishers, joiners, cabinet makers and carpenters all reach for hand tools to complete their tasks. There is not a mould to be seen. A little computer-controlled machinery is used to make patterns, but so little in fact that Spirit Yachts outsource it to a subcontractor. Surely it’s hard to find such traditional talent in this techno age?
“Applications stream in from across the world and we are happy to employ people who are worth investing in,” adds Nigel. “We’re also fortunate enough to be able to dip into a pool of talent provided by local colleges, and then take them under our wing and train them further. You’d be surprised how many youngsters decide the modern world isn’t for them and prefer to embrace a craft. Also, let’s not forget that the average university graduate in this region earns around £17,000 per year – our trainees could be earning the same wage five years earlier, even more by the time they’re at graduate age.”
“Our current workforce totals 54, including myself, and is a nice mix of men and women, old and young, which makes for a very pleasant atmosphere. Founder Sean still loves his work and has no plans to step aside, designing boats is stitched into his DNA. He handles initial client consultations, drafts designs and keeps a close eye on quality and finish throughout. Tragically Mick left the story in 2007 when he was killed in a light aircraft crash.”
“With a Mechanical Engineering degree and years’ experience fixing Sunsails, I like to be involved in production and warranty. We don’t have a warranty department here, things rarely go wrong, but if they do the management team handles calls directly. I can nip down to an owner’s boat and fix things myself, I don’t have to call an engineer – I am one.”
“Broadly speaking our customers fall into the 40 to 60 age bracket and tend to be European or American. I will include Brits in the ‘European’ category – for the moment. Brits make up around 40% of our clients right now, but it goes in waves. Without wishing to sound trite, the common denominator is that they all own beautiful things. Their artwork may not be a famous name, or the most expensive, but it will be striking – without being too flamboyant. They like fine things but prefer to be understated – although a Spirit yacht is quite a statement.”
“My 18-year-old son helped with the delivery of a 63ft deckhouse for a very wealthy owner. He was included as part of the team and would sit down for a beer and a chat with the owner, a young guy at the start of his career journey alongside a man at the absolute top of his game. I think that’s quite an unusual scenario in yachting, but it says a lot about our ‘breed’ of customer.”
“People are always curious about clients’ various eccentricities and offbeat requests, but honestly we like to add in a small piece of customisation for every owner. We’ve concealed jewellery boxes in furniture, drinks cabinets under armrests and fridges into cockpit tables. The aforementioned 63-footer started life slightly shorter but, when the owner realised it would be hull number 63 off our production line, he said we’d better add a couple of feet on the end. We’re all ears when it comes to personalisation. However, if they want an ugly slug, we’re not going to make it. Thankfully, no one has asked for one yet.”
Price-wise, a Spirit Yacht is quite expensive at the smaller end of the size-length spectrum due to the lack of moulds and automation, but above 60ft they become very price-competitive and fall in the same ballpark as perhaps a Wally, Oyster or Swan – albeit wrapped up in a lovely wooden package.
“Please don’t interpret this as arrogance but we don’t have direct competition,” claims Nigel. “You could say our competition is all boats and no boats. Why would someone buy a Spirit over a Swan or vice versa? The answer is they make the decision that’s right for them.”
“I have great admiration for several British boat builders, Cornwall’s Rustler Yachts and Cockwells in particular, and we get together and have a meal out as friends. Of course, I have great respect for Sunseeker, Princess, Fairline, too. Collectively we employ and train vast numbers of people and do huge things for Britain’s reputation in the global yachting industry.”
“The most meaningful conversation we’re not having in the yachting industry is end of life. There’s a huge rallying cry in the media to ditch plastic, and quite rightly so, but what about fibreglass? Nobody knows what to do with the increasing number of fibreglass hulls nearing obsolescence. They can’t be burnt as fibreglass creates horrific fumes and the leftover fibres go airborne. Landfill is a short-term solution, but toxic landfill gas and groundwater pollution pose a threat to both our health and that of the environment. The preferred option seems to be to leave your boat rotting at anchor or abandon it up an estuary. Large boat manufacturers need to enter the debate.”
Aside from the obvious, that a wooden boat can be dismantled and safely disposed of in any number of ways from firewood to sawdust, Spirit Yachts is always looking at a more eco way of working.
“Some baulk at the idea of us producing motorboats alongside sail,” continues Nigel. “I too feel somewhat disgusted at the prospect of filling a boat with fuel, but our boats are not clunky fibreglass things, they’re crafted from wood, beautiful and highly fuel efficient. The P70 was purposely designed to go from Hamble to Norway and back on the same tank of fuel. Our new 111-footer is a hybrid with an electric drive system supported by four lithium power banks which are regenerated while under sail. If you go out sailing for four or five hours you’ll replenish any energy used and return with full batteries. Our 65ft deckhouse operates a similar system and our upcoming Spirit 44 has no diesel or gas on board at all, just electric propulsion combined with solar on the deck and sails.”
“In a way, clean propulsion is the easy bit. Energy-efficient hot water, showers, heating and cooking is the hard bit – but we have solutions for all. And, without doubt, our customers appreciate it. They turn up at our factory in Teslas – we had to install a charging point outside as so many have electric cars. We’ll keep fine-tuning the eco side of our endeavours and champion refit and restorations to prolong our yachts’ lives.”
It seems a shame to mention the ‘B’ word at the end of a tale of triumph and tenacity, but with May, Barnier, Juncker et al still thrashing out a divorce, Spirit Yachts must be prepared. “The great recession of 2008 taught us not to be complacent, but I suspect Brexit will make the rich richer. They will move their money and hedge their bets. If the pound wobbles, overseas buyers will only find us to be better value. We’ll be just fine.”
“What concerns me more is cultivating our next generation of sailors. I don’t think enough effort is being focussed on the grass roots of sailing. As a nation, we’re chasing after Olympic medals and finding the next Sir Ben Ainslie, but not encouraging children to love sailing for just that, getting out on the water and having fun. This will do the future of British sailing yacht manufacture far more mischief than any B word.”
By Sarah Forge