Sunseeker CEO Christian Marti has announced the passing of luxury yacht manufacturer founder Robert Braithwaite
Sunseeker International founder Robert Braithwaite has passed away today (7 March) at the age of 75.
Sunseeker CEO Christian Marti announced the news on the company’s website, writing: “Sadly, in the early hours of this morning, Sunseeker’s founder Robert Braithwaite passed away. Robert was an inspiration to everyone at Sunseeker and to the wider marine industry, recognised as a boating pioneer, a true visionary and someone who changed the face of boating forever. Robert was not only the company’s founder but the father of the ‘Sunseeker family’ here in Dorset, and worldwide through our dealers and clients. He will always live on as the driving force behind our success. Our thoughts and deepest condolences are with his immediate family.”
Arguably the most influential boat builder of his generation, Robert grew the company from its humble beginnings as a small Poole-based boat dealer into the biggest motorboat brand in the world.
Famed for his modesty and tireless work ethic, he was just as comfortable sweeping the carpet of Sunseeker’s boat show stand or polishing one of his boats as he was shaking hands with celebrities, many of whom bought boats from him over the years.
He was also a fierce defender of British manufacturing and craftsmanship, treating his employees as members of the extended Sunseeker family.
Born in 1943, Robert spent his early years in Otley, Yorkshire before leaving school at the age of 14 to attend technical college in Keighley. His father Idris was a draper but moved the family down to Christchurch, Hampshire in the 1960s to set up Friar’s Cliff Marine selling American made Owens sportsboats. Robert joined the business, later renamed Poole Powerboats, but it wasn’t until Owens pulled the plug on its European operations in 1969 that Robert saw his opportunity. Borrowing £5,000 from his friend John Macklin, he drove to Owens’ offices in Arundel and bought the moulds to a new 17ft sportsboat hull the company was developing to set up his own boatbuilding business.
Robert towed the first two completed Sovereign 17s to the 1971 London Boat Show and promptly sold them for £1,500 each. His brother John Braithwaite joined the company the following year, helping to develop a growing range of boats including the Sports 23 and Daycab 23, and going on to become Sunseeker’s design director – a role he only retired from last year.
Robert’s next stroke of genius was to invite racing legend Don Shead to design a sporty new range of boats with his eye firmly set on the Mediterranean market. “If you’re going to ask for someone’s help, you might as well ask the best there is,” Robert told MBY editor Hugo Andreae in 2004. “We were still a small company and he was the world’s leading offshore powerboat designer. At the time we didn’t have any money, so we offered him royalties instead.”
Don Shead took the bait and so began one of the most successful and enduring partnerships in British boatbuilding. The first product of this collaboration was a 28ft offshore sportscruiser which Robert felt deserved a more exotic name.
“I wanted to create a brand name that would become synonymous with powerboating. I wanted us to become the Hoover of the boat world so we drew up a list of potential names and picked Sunseeker.”
The Sunseeker 28 Offshore set the tone for a series of ever larger, faster offshore sportscruisers including the famous Tomahawk, Thunderhawk and Superhawk ranges.
As tastes changed and the emphasis shifted towards style, comfort and luxury, Robert ensured Sunseeker followed the market by moving into flybridge boats and then superyachts with the launch of the iconic 105 Yacht at the turn of the century.
In 2007 he was awarded a CBE for his services to British industry and the following year he appeared in a cameo role driving a restored Sovereign 17 in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though, Robert fought a long but successful battle with bowel cancer during his 70s, donating over £3.5 million to Poole Hospital in 2015 to help fund a state of the art surgical robot. He was also forced to sell the majority of his shares in Sunseeker in 2010 when the recession hit and the banks threatened to call in a loan early.
Through it all Robert remained a picture of stoicism, staying on as company Chairman and helping to restore its fortunes. Only a day before his death Sunseeker announced the launch of a new 70mph Hawk 38, reviving both the name and the spirit of those early offshore powerboats Robert loved so much.
He died on 7 March of an unrelated illness, leaving a wife and two daughters.