Spirit Yachts may be best known for their stunning sailing boats, but in a remote corner of Ipswich docks, a beautiful motor cruiser is gradually coming to life
I should have known better than to rely on my phone’s sat nav system. It has taken me three-and-a-half hours to drive from Southampton to Ipswich, braving the M25 at its rush-hour worst, and I’m not in the mood for a confrontation with Google Maps. There’s no mention of Spirit Yachts at the entrance to the docks, a steel barrier is blocking my path and even after the nice lady in the marina office has pointed me in the right direction, I still can’t find what I’m looking for.
My phone’s screen suggests it’s less than 100 metres away but the road seems to end abruptly at the slipway outside Fairline’s testing centre, where a crane is inching a Squadron 53 towards the water. It’s only when the man operating it moves out of the way that I realise the track carries on round the side of the Fairline facility to reveal another building beyond it.
The rolling shutters are open on both sides and through the safety netting I can just catch a glimpse of an arrow-sharp wooden bow picked out by the sun’s rays. Even from here I can make out the sensuous curves of the hull, so smooth and pale it looks like a sculpted piece of driftwood bleached and burnished by years of gentle erosion from the sun, sand and sea.
This is Spirit Yachts’ stock-in-trade, elegant sailing yachts with long overhangs, low freeboards and svelte lines that hark back to the glory days of the 1930s. All of them are handcrafted out of wood but built using the latest hi-tech methods to make them light, fast and surprisingly tough.
What’s less well known is that they also build powerboats. Not in huge numbers and often for existing owners of Spirit sailing yachts, but that is starting to change thanks to a very special project taking shape in one of its two main sheds.
Known only by its project name of P70, it has been commissioned by an experienced motoryacht owner who was born in Norway but lives in Britain. He currently owns a semi-displacement Fleming and wants his new yacht to exceed the seakeeping, engineering and build quality the Fleming offers, but with the soul of a wooden craft built to suit his precise needs.
If this doesn’t sound like a challenging enough brief, his key requirements are that it has to be capable of cruising comfortably at 18 knots non-stop for 1,000nm through the North Sea. That’s because although it will be based on the Hamble most of the year, he wants to be able to cruise to the Baltic for the summer months without having to worry about refuelling en route. And in case you’re wondering, he doesn’t bother with crew either; it’s usually just him and his wife or a few good mates to help with rope and fender duties.
It’s the kind of brief that would have most production yards thanking the customer politely for their enquiry before suggesting that they might like to look elsewhere. Not Spirit Yachts. Head designer and CEO Sean McMillan enjoys a challenge and the beauty of building in wood is that the usual constraints of fixed moulds don’t come into play. It’s not the only advantage; when used properly wood is remarkably light and strong with excellent insulation properties against sound and cold, as well as being infinitely repairable and environmentally friendly. Nor does it suffer from the leaks, rot and constant need for maintenance that wooden boats of old used to. The trick is to use it and treat it in much the same way as the layers of gelcoat, glassfibre and foam cores that make up a conventional GRP sandwich construction.
The process starts with the creation of a set of ring frames made up from multiple layers of sapele, shaped and bonded
to the exact dimensions specified by a computer program from Sean’s original hand drawings. These are fixed into position
on a laser-levelled jig and planked over longitudinally with 27mm-thick strips of interlocking Douglas fir screwed and bonded to the ring frames. Once the glue has set all the screws are removed and the holes filled to make sure there are no mechanical fixings to corrode. If this sounds worrying, bear in mind that Boeing bonds the wings of a 747 to the body of a plane for the same reason.
With the main structure now secure, between two and four layers of 3mm-thick kaya wood veneers are laid diagonally over the planking in opposite directions, marked, cut and attached using plastic staples, which are then sanded off, before being bagged and vacuum infused with epoxy resin. Kaya looks similar to mahogany but has a more open grain, which allows it to soak up the epoxy in much the same way as woven roving glassfibre matting. Last but not least, a thin layer of transparent GRP scrim is added to create a perfectly smooth and watertight finish that can be painted or even varnished to show off the wood beneath. The end result is a totally inert structure with much the same strength as carbon-fibre but without that material’s brittle, unforgiving nature that transmits sound and vibration almost as efficiently as a drum.
Spend a few minutes talking to Sean and you begin to wonder why more yards don’t build in wood. His answer is
as telling as it is believable: building in wood requires exceptional skill and experience to achieve the necessary strength and finish expected of a high-class yacht as well as a lot of man hours. In other words, it’s neither easy nor cheap. But the best things in life rarely are.
Being a Spirit Yacht it also has to look the part. Its sailing yachts are inspired by the elegant proportions of J-Class yachts but the P70 has no obvious forebear to pick up on. It does share some of its design cues with the handful of P40s already built, such as the flared bow and tumblehome stern, but the size and volume needed to accommodate the owner’s wish for three double cabins, a covered wheelhouse, saloon and dining/galley area meant some fresh thinking was needed.
The exterior profile alone went through 22 different iterations before being signed off and even now some of the details like the angle of the bow and design of the air intakes are still being worked on – the latest idea draws inspiration from the intakes of a classic Mercedes 300SL.
The end result has a recognisable 1930s motoryacht aesthetic but with its own distinctive style and layout. The length-to-beam ratio of 4.5:1 is much slimmer and more efficient than the 3:1 ratio of most modern motoryachts, while its dry weight of 22 tonnes is almost half that of a normal 70ft GRP flybridge. This in turn enables it to use smaller than normal 800hp MAN engines while still pushing its semi-displacement hull up to a maximum of 24 knots.
Four separate fuel tanks with a combined capacity of 10,000 litres and a built-in polishing and balancing system provide the final link in the chain needed to reach the required 1,000nm range.
The layout is equally unconventional with the saloon forward and half a level down from the wheelhouse, and the dining and galley area aft another half a level down.
The owner’s cabin sits below the saloon for maximum peace and privacy, with the two twin guest cabins tucked at the opposite end of the boat in the stern. The wheelhouse itself sits proudly aloft at the centre of the action with one door out to the port sidedeck and another to the open flybridge astern with its raised outside helm position and well-protected seating. The only area that rivals it for sheer drama is the engineroom, which enjoys the kind of towering headroom, space and clinical lighting normally reserved for operating theatres.
It all speaks of an owner who knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it. It’s a relationship that Sean clearly revels in, praising the customer’s vision and technical knowledge.
For instance, he insisted on fitting Seatorque’s oil-filled BOSS shafts for quieter running and reduced maintenance, and the electrical system is built around a li-ion battery bank so that it can power the air conditioning and Sleipner curved fin stabilisers overnight without having to run the generator. Even simple things like the deep bulwarks, which allow crew to move safely around the decks without the need for ugly stainless steel guardrails, smack of someone who has extensive experience of boating in all weathers.
Above all you get the impression the owner is enjoying the build process almost as much as he will enjoy cruising the finished boat. It’s not hard to see why. Stroll around the P70’s carcass and you can feel it coming to life. Everywhere you look there’s a craftsman or woman using their skills and experience to create their own little work of art. This isn’t a production line, it’s a group of artisans breathing life into somebody else’s vision.
I had always assumed that the Spirit Yachts name was a reference to the looks being in the spirit of a 1930s classic. Now I’m starting to wonder whether it’s simply because each of its boats, and the P70 in particular, has a spirit and soul of its own.
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