When Richard Churchill decided to bring an old Sunseeker Superhawk 34 back to life, he wanted it to look and feel like a brand new boat, including the colour scheme!
Boats have always been in my blood. I grew up in Dartmouth where the river was my playground. I started sailing dinghies aged 10 but my fascination with motor boats started when my dad bought the former Admiral’s launch from the Dartmouth Naval College.
This handsome 22ft clinker-built wooden launch had clearly seen better days, so my dad set about restoring it to its former glory. It was a great lesson in what you could achieve by refitting an older boat, but my head was already being turned by the shiny new gin palaces that were starting to appear on the river.
I loved the sleek styling and performance of these modern sportscruisers. For me it was all about power and speed, an addiction that has stayed with me for life, so it’s no surprise that as a teenager I also got heavily into racing motocross bikes.
To help fund my new hobby, as soon as I left school I started working for Peter Kidd, building bespoke power boats for the military. When Charlie Chivers asked Peter to help set up Ribeye Boats in 1998, I became their first employee.
It was still a young company back then and I was involved in every aspect of the process, from laying up the hulls to fitting the engines and rigging the wiring. I even had the chance to test and deliver the boats.
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It was a great place to work and the perfect way to learn many of the skills I still use today. However, when I was offered the opportunity to move to Menorca and work for the Sealine charter school, training customers and looking after the boats, I couldn’t resist the lure of a life overseas.
It was a fabulous few years but after a while I started to miss the UK and my racing so I wrote to Princess and Sunseeker asking for a job. Remarkably, David King, the founder and CEO of Princess Yachts passed my CV on to their distributor, Princess Motor Yacht Sales, where for the next four years I worked as their warranty engineer, as well as helping out at their boat show stands.
It was while working at the London Boat Show in 2000 that I first saw a Sunseeker Superhawk 34 in the flesh. It had recently featured in the Bond movie The World is Not Enough and the instant I saw it, I was smitten. Ever since then, it has always been a dream of mine to own one, but at the time it was well beyond my means.
From boats to wheels
It was around this time that I also looked into buying a motorhome that I could use as a home from home while racing. I came to the conclusion that everything I looked at was overpriced and under engineered.
I was convinced I could do a better job of building one for myself so I bought an old Mercedes Sprinter van and used my boat-building skills to convert it into a motorhome. Someone saw it, loved what I had done and offered to buy it at a price I couldn’t refuse.
When the same thing happened all over again, I realised I was onto something and left Princess Motor Yacht Sales to set up R C Motorhomes. The business has grown and grown since then and we now build bespoke high-end motorhomes for clients all over the world.
Although motorhomes are now my business, I never lost my passion for boats and as soon as time and money allowed I bought an old Fletcher Cruisette to try and encourage my own family into boating. I found it abandoned in a field in Teignmouth and paid £800 for it, including a trailer.
It was clearly a rotter but the hull was sound and even though the wheel fell off the trailer within hours of buying it, I managed to get it home. Over the coming months I cleaned it up, fitted a brand new 115hp Evinrude outboard engine that had been sitting in a dealer unused for three years, had all the upholstery redone and found a new trailer for it.
We had a lot of fun on it as a family but after four years we had started to outgrow it so I sold it with a view to getting something bigger once I could afford to.
Although I kept an eye on the market in the intervening years, it wasn’t until 2018 that I stumbled across a slightly shabby looking 1998 Sunseeker Superhawk 34 advertised for sale on the Isle of Wight.
I put down a deposit on it with a view to cruising it straight back to Devon to start the refit. I even got as far as putting my sandwiches in the boat’s fridge, but when both engines overheated during the sea trial, I revised my offer and the sale fell through.
Not long after I found another one for sale in Denia, Spain. It was tatty and sunbleached but the Volvo KAD44 engines seemed in better shape so I bought it and had it transported back to England for the refit.
As planned I spent months redoing the cabin, cockpit, hull and fittings but within half an hour of the big relaunch one of the engines suffered a meltdown. It took another six weeks before we could get it back on the water and even then I never fully regained confidence in it.
Every time we went out something seemed to go wrong and although it was usually something minor, it spoiled my enjoyment so I decided to sell it and start again.
It was a painful lesson but I realised that I didn’t have the time or patience to mess around with old engines. I loved the look of the boat but I needed all of it to be as good as new, not just the furnishings.
Back to square one
I got back in touch with the owner of the Isle of Wight boat and asked if he’d consider selling it to me at the same price I’d offered him two years earlier. He admitted that he’d barely used it since then (it had taken him several months to discover our sandwiches lurking in the fridge) and that the engines were in an even worse state than before.
I said I was happy to buy it nevertheless but he insisted I come and look at it first. I duly made my way to the Isle of Wight and spent all of five minutes looking over it. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
The cover looked like a duck pond, the fenders had weed hanging from them, the decks were filthy and the upholstery inside and out was as tired and saggy as an old shopping bag.
It was perfect! I wanted the worst example I could find to be sure I wasn’t paying a premium for it and by the looks of things I’d found it. I bought it there and then and had it trucked straight back to my workshop.
The first job was to strip it bare and chuck most of it in the skip. Everything that could come off, did come off; engines, sterndrives, upholstery, carpets, skin fittings, roof panels, trim tabs, cleats, wiring, galley units, windscreen, dashboard and fuel tank. If it wasn’t permanently attached to the boat, off it came.
I wanted a blank canvas to work on and that meant stripping it right back to the bare hull and deck so I could start again from scratch. And this time I wasn’t going to compromise on any of it.
If it ended up costing a little more than expected or took a little longer, so be it. There’s no point starting a project like this unless you’ve got the means and the energy to see it through to the end.
Once I’d stripped everything off, the next step was to sand back the hull inside and out in readiness for repainting. I also decided to remove the two small portholes on either side and replace them with bigger skylights in the deckhead.
The portholes in my previous Superhawk always seemed to leak and were so low in the hull that they were constantly dipping below the surface during turns. Besides, it wasn’t as if they were large enough to allow much of a view out and it meant I could reconfigure the interior to add locker and galley units where they used to be.
Once I’d filled and faired the spaces where the portholes were and cut out the deck openings for the new hatches, I flowcoated all the interior surfaces in light grey, including every last nook and cranny of the bilges, lockers and topsides.
It was all going to be covered up anyway but I was determined that every inch of it should look, feel and smell like new, even the places you wouldn’t normally see. For the outside, meanwhile, I’d chosen an Awlgrip paint colour called Signal Red. I’d seen a Princess R35 painted in a similar shade and loved how sophisticated it looked.
Red is the colour
It took forever to paint the hull, as I had to do it in stages, masking off areas as I went before spraying and moving on to the next stage but the product itself was a dream to work with, leaving a lovely smooth finish even before it had been lacquered and polished. While this was going on, I sent off all the stainless steel fittings to be sandblasted and powder-coated matt black.
The other big exterior change was fitting a T-Top in place of the current radar arch. It was an idea I’d borrowed from boats like the Fairline F33 and felt it would help modernise the Superhawk’s own sleek lines.
I’d already sketched out my vision for it but to ensure it looked right in the flesh and fitted onto the existing radar arch supports I made a mock-up in plywood then fine-tuned it with a jigsaw until the dimensions were bang on.
Only then did we design it on Autocad, mill out a foam block on our CNC machine and make up a mould for a local carbon fibre specialist to manufacture it. The end result fitted perfectly and looked superb, especially once I’d added an F1 style Halo support (to make sure there was no flexing at speed) and lacquered it to show off the carbon fibre weave.
If this sounds like a mission it was nothing compared to planning, prepping and fitting the new engines and drives. The first job was to remove all the old fittings and clean out the bilges. It then took another two days of sanding everything back to provide a key for the paint to stick to. It was a grim job but I wanted the engineroom to look just as red and spotless as the rest of the boat.
I’d ordered a brand new pair of Volvo Penta D4 300s with the latest DP drives and joystick control from Marine Engineering in Looe in Plymouth to replace the old KAD44s, but first I had to completely reconfigure the space as neither the engine beds nor the transom holes matched up with the old ones.
The latter was particularly concerning as I wasn’t convinced that simply glassing over the old holes and cutting new ones would be a solid enough solution. Instead I templated both sides of the transom and had two stainless steel sheets made up with precut holes for the sterndrives so that I could sandwich the repaired transom between them.
The new transom shields were then bolted directly to the shiny stainless steel surface, giving the added effect of a mirrored transom.
Getting the engine beds to align with the sterndrive holes while still leaving space for all the ancillaries was almost as tricky. I’d planned it all out by making 3D profiles of the engines from sheets of MDF so I could see for myself roughly where they needed to sit and how much room that left around them but to make sure the engine beds and transom holes were in the right spot I had to borrow the actual Volvo jig from Marine Engineering Looe.
Once that was sorted I got to work fitting waterproof cabinets with clear fronts and LED lighting for all the electrical connections before finally lowering the engines into place. To be certain everything was shipshape, I asked a Volvo engineer to check it all over. He was amazed at what a good job we’d done.
Inside and out
Compared to that, refitting the cockpit and interior was fairly straightforward. There wasn’t a lot I could do to change the layout, given the position of the structural bulkheads, but I did manage to extend the length of the bed by changing the curved saloon seating for an L-shaped bench.
With no portholes to work around I also added eye level cabinets to the saloon and galley as well as a swing out television. To give it a modern look, all the new galley units, carpet and upholstery were finished in light grey with details like red piping and matt black handles to tie it in with the exterior colour scheme.
I even managed to integrate a pull-out coffee machine into the galley. The cockpit got a similar makeover with brand new foam seats and sunpads trimmed in grey waterproof Movida fabric and more red piping.
I also added reversible bolsters to the sunpads so guests could face both ways. The helm was more involved as I wanted to swap the original bench for a pair of bucket seats and replace the old dashboard with a modern glass bridge console featuring two big flush fitting 16” MFDs.
I couldn’t find any off the shelf seats that fitted, so we designed and made our own ones with matching headrests and flip-up bolsters based on a pair of Lamborghini car seats. The console was even more involved as the only way I could make it work was by creating a brand new moulding that would sit over the existing one.
Once again I had to build a mock-up to make sure it would fit before fabricating the finished item but it all then slotted neatly into place. The final step was programming my own software so I could access all the systems from my phone or iPad.
By mid-May we were finally ready for launch. I’d renamed it RED, partly for the obvious reason but also because it’s an acronym for Realise Every Dream, which is what this project represents for me. As we towed her to the slipway on her new trailer (an eBay buy I’d refurbished), I was filled with a sense of pride, albeit tinged with anxiety.
I’d put thousands of pounds and hours into fulfilling my lifelong dream and this was crunch time. Much to my relief both engines fired up on the button. We did have a small leak from one of the hoses caused by a loose jubilee clip but once it was sorted everything worked exactly as planned. Since then it has been a picture of reliability.
It will cruise all day at 30 knots and maxes out at around 37 knots. Not that I’m overly fussed about how fast it goes, the hull is superb but above all it’s a fabulous boat for day trips out with family and friends. Everywhere we go people stop to ask me about it and take photographs.
It’s a real compliment to know that I’ve created something people are drawn to and even when I put the boat away at the end of the day I still find myself looking back three or four times before I can drag myself away!
If the price is right…
The whole project cost me around £220,000 plus the price of the boat and the time I put into it. The way I look at it, that is still a fraction of the price of a Princess R35 or Fairline F33, even though I’ve effectively got a brand new boat with a superb hull that looks the business and is unique to me.
It’s hard to say what it’s worth now as I never built it to make money but if someone offered me £350,000 for it I might just part with it. Not because I want to but because I enjoy the challenge of the project as much as the boat itself. It’s like reading a really good book – you’re excited to know how it finishes and yet don’t really want it to end.
If it does ever happen, I’d happily do it all over again. I’m already thinking about the next boat and now that I’ve been through the learning curve it should be a lot quicker next time. I’d even consider rebuilding someone else’s Superhawk if the money is right – after all, it’s not just my dream I’m keen to realise, but every dream.
First published in the December 2022 issue of MBY.
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