From it's beginnings in a cowshed, to creating a yacht for James Bond - the story of a boatbuilder with spirit
PUBLISHED: 19:10 10 January 2019 | UPDATED: 10:21 11 January 2019
Twenty-five years ago, boat restorers Sean McMillan and his friend Mick Newman set out to build the most beautiful wooden boat that they possibly could. The resulting company, Spirit Yachts, has been doing that ever since.
Mr McMillan, who was also a fine artist, learnt how to engineer the boat’s construction, and the pair got to work in an old cowshed in Benhall.
The turning point for the business came in 2006 with the opportunity to design and build a yacht for the James Bond film Casino Royale.
“It took us from being relatively well known in the UK onto the world stage,” says Nigel Stuart, who took over as managing director of Spirit Yachts four years ago.
He claims that there are virtually no other companies in the world building luxury modern classic wooden boats as they do, from their 1,500 square metres base at Ipswich Haven Marina.
While the classic old-style boats tend to be quite slow and heavy, Spirit Yachts’ boats are very lightweight and that fact, married with carbon fiber rigging and masts with vast, racy sails, makes for surprisingly fast boats.
“We like to say that we’re building a very agile piece of furniture,” says Mr Stuart. “Other boat owners look and go ‘isn’t that gorgeous? Why is it overtaking me?’ We’re quite obsessive about making sure they go quick.”
Fast for Mr Stuart means doing 11.5 knots upwind in a 63-footer, which he claims is unheard of for a boat that size. The vessels are made using Douglas fir from Canada, and the “beautiful bits” are from African hardwoods “that look like mahogany” – but all come from managed forests.
“We play a game of looking very traditional internally, but actually we’re using woods that grow very fast coming from an ethical source,” says Mr Stuart. “We don’t use pure mahogany anymore because it’s a timber we shouldn’t be harvesting.”
The boats are all custom made, and it’s no surprise that all that effort makes them “reassuringly expensive.”
How much? “How big is your dream?”
It’s such a niche market that the boats attract a certain type of clientele - typically someone from the UK, Europe or the US who has owned a few boats before, and become disillusioned with fibre glass white boats that Mr Stuart scoffs at as being “like buying another Ford Escort”
“They want something exciting and beautiful, like an Aston Martin. They’re the kind of people who live in lovely, quality houses with history behind them. They spend sensible money on sensible items.”
Spirit Yachts vessels have gone on to sail far and wide, with one client sailing his yacht single-handed from the UK down through the Med, the Caribbean, the Panama Canal and up the American coastline to California.
Mr Stuart claims his boats can last for 100 years, adding: “Like the classic boats, people restore them and love for their lifetime.”
Craftsmanship of wooden boats is an ancient Suffolk tradition that goes back to the time of Sutton Hoo and even earlier. But although Spirit Yachts’ boats are “labours of love,” the way they’re constructed is very modern. “The boats are hand crafted with electric hand tools,” says Mr Stuart.
The boats are built purely out of wood, but the wood is engineered rather than just making frames out of wood and sealing the gaps with glue.
The process begins when Sprit Yachts designer hand-draws a boat and furniture to suit the clients’ needs - based on where they might be sailing, and whether boat will be for a family or for racing in.
“We’ll do three or four iterations of that drawing until we get to a stage where they go ‘yeah, that’s exactly what I want’,” Mr Stuart explains.
The boat designers are allowed some degree of artistic license. “We’re letting them use their flair within certain guidelines about how joints and fiddles are done. So when you walk on the boat, you feel that the designer really cared about what they were doing.”
Mr Stuart has noticed a rise in customers requesting boats that run on renewable energy and don’t pollute the water.
“The strange requests we get now tend to be built around the idea of ‘I want to push the eco-friendly ability a little bit further than before’.
“We’re just about to start a 44 foot boat – that’s the smaller we go - electric propulsion boat, with solar panels hidden into the teak. It uses no hydrocarbons at all – the energy is generated by sailing through the water.”
Among the more outrageous requests is one for a night sky constellation carved into the ceiling of a yacht.
Spirit Yachts is halfway through building the majestic Spirit 111, an electric drive 33.9 metre boat with a curvaceous interior that boasts floating beds inside cocoons made from steamed tapered timbers, and a sofa with sweeping curves that took 1,000 hours to build.
This yacht is capable of eco-sailing for three to four days non-stop and is also environmentally friendly when it comes to cooking, heating, hot water and sewage treatment.
The business lowdown
Spirit Yachts now employs 54 staff and is a growing company, but there are challenges to finding people with the right skillsets for boat-building.
“The problem we have is we are doing very high-end joinery - we don’t have the ability to fill in with filler, paint over a mistake and hide it,” Mr Stuart explains. “We need people who understand that level of attention to detail and quality.”
Employees tend to be taken out of college where they’ve had a year’s training, then it takes a whole other year of work before they’re “let loose to chisel on a boat”.
“We don’t do apprenticeships at the moment because we can’t have such junior people on board,” he explains. “They can learn faster at college.”
While Mr Stuart proudly believes his company is doing all the right things for a long term sustainable business, he admits that the profit margins are “incredibly low”. “But let’s not worry about that, let’s make sure there are 54 people with happy lives,” he adds. “They get to work by the water, and half of them now cycle to work Our staff go home having enjoyed their day’s work – and that’s something very special.”
The Suffolk factor
Although it tends to be the Solent coast that’s thought of as the “marine heart” of England, Mr Stuart believes that Suffolk is giving the sailing strait a run for it’s money when it comes to boat-building.
As well as Spirit Yachts, Suffolk can boast Suffolk Yacht Harbour, which has become a hub for classic boat restorations. “The Solent is great for sailing, but if you want to buy a boat or have it looked after then come to Suffolk,” he says.
“I think is lovely to have such a wealth of talent and knowledge in this part of the country. We’re doing all the right things - we’re offering a unique hub where you can buy your boat, bring it and get it restored – right here in little old Suffolk. It should be shouted about, not just in the UK but to the rest of the world.”
Brexit and boats
The fluctuating pound has made the wood Spirit Yachts imports more expensive, but on the plus side, it makes them seem cheaper to overseas customers. “But I haven’t seen people rushing to buy boats since the referendum because they see it as better value now,” Mr Stuart admits.
But Brexit did have one welcome side effect. “Brexit meant that everyone who has stocks and shares made a lot more money because they went up as a course of Brexit, so we’ve had a few UK sales which I think were generated by people selling off shares at the right time. I think the wealthy did well out of the referendum.”
And how could Brexit affect Spirit Yachts in the future? “We’ll have to wait and see, but I’m quite sure we’ll still be trading in ten year’s time, despite the challenges it might throw up.”