Ipswich: Spirit to create $20m racing yacht

A SUFFOLK boatyard is about to create a piece of seafaring history. Paul Thomas went to find out more.

Spirit Yachts is about to create perhaps the most incredible event in British marine history – the building of a fabulous $20 million J class racing yacht, the first built in this country for 75 years and one of less than a dozen in the world.

Construction will start in the next few months at the Spirit boatbuilding yard in Ipswich. To be named Cheveyo, she will grow over the next three years to become the finest quality wooden yacht money can buy – and then be delivered to a group of Americans aiming to race and cruise her worldwide.

Only the eleventh of these incredible, beautiful, slim and fast J class yachts ever to be built, she will be of Douglas fir from Scandinavia, and put together by the leader and staff of one of the boating industry’s best kept secrets – Spirit Yachts.

At a price of about $20 million (approx �15 million) she will take up to 60 craftsmen to build her – 24 of which will be recruited in coming months.

When she is launched onto the River Orwell in 2015, she will head down-river for her trials dis-masted – for her mast stepped is nearly half as high again as the Orwell bridge!

She is the largest single-masted wooden yacht ever built – and just one more tribute to the quiet, workmanlike, unpretentious Suffolk yard owned and run by Sean McMillan, a designer and builder of the world’s finest wooden classic boats – but largely unrecognised by the more general sailing world, or East of England marine industry.

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Sean McMillan built his first boat – a sailing dinghy - when he was 12. Born in Kent, he is married to Jennifer, now his financial director. He has been bust once, starting again 20 years ago and proud that today, with perhaps the world’s finest wooden classic boat-building business – he has no debts or overdraft.

So dedicated to his task is he that he admits his wife sees the wooden boat as his mistress – and he is so proud of the 50 Spirits he has built, plus the forthcoming J.

Surprisingly he has no marine design or boatbuilding qualification. He does have however a Fine Art degree (“perhaps my sense of aesthetics stood me in good sense”) and he became an advertising designer in the 1970s, even then when building his own 48 foot yawl. Then he went to Spain to run his own advertising agency before returning to start McMillan Yachts at Snape.

In the late 80s recession the firm foundered and as a result Sean created his two rules, practised to today: No debts or overdraft; if you’ve no work, walk!

He started Spirit with partner Mike Newman in 1992. Tragically Mike was killed in a light aircraft crash in 2007 so Sean owns 100% now with Jennifer.

Spirits are well known, long, sleek, known for their wheelhouses and the sailing range is from 46 feet to 100 feet with superyachts of 110 and 130 feet designed; also even a wooden power boat range from 35 to 100 feet designed thanks to Sean.

Sean is managing director and has as project manager, Scottish-born Innes McGowan. Innes was a consultant for five years but now works full time at Ipswich, commuting from the Solent where he took a couple of days off to race aboard Ranger, the J class design which has inspired Cheveyo.

The firm is recognised as the foremost expert in the sophisticated wood/epoxy build technique. Spirit Yachts has assembled a portfolio of over 125 elegant designs that cover a diverse range of modern classics, from racing yachts, racer-cruisers and power-boats, to true superyachts. Spirit Yachts holds the Queen’s Award for Enterprise.

Today J class owners are all from abroad – American, Holland, Hawaii, Brazil – but not Britain.

These yachts, mainly built and restored recently in aluminium and typically 135 feet long, slim in build but deep in keel, take crews of up to 35, eight of which may be full time professionals, to seriously race them. While some owners helm themselves, a top professional helmsman, or navigator to plot winning courses and tactics, can cost �2,000 a day and their travel and accommodation (not usually aboard) can be hefty too.

Plus annual boat running costs likely to exceed a million pounds, possibly two, if her American owners enter the typical style of long distance, luxury cruising, alternating with competitive racing particularly in Caribbean, Mediterranean and British waters.

Many of the crew members are from New Zealand, America and some Dutch, from which nation also major support has come from four leading shipyards involved in construction and refurbishment of Js.

This summer they J class held British regattas at Falmouth and in the Solent, which I witnessed. My trip was to find out just what they are like – and found spectacle yet great competence by sailors from around the world, here in a scene that was far from typical of British yachting.

They are legends, not only for their size, speed and luxury below decks – but also for starring in the original America’s Cup series, once the most famous yachting event in the world.

The most significant names in the J class are the three original, now immortal boats – Shamrock V, Velsheda and Endeavour, all built in Britain in the 1930s for our own famous sailors, Sir Thomas Lipton, William Stephenson and Tommy Sopwith.

Today Endeavour is immortalized on the east coast by the Burnham racing trophy carrying her name and fought for by racing fleets here.

Those three originals nearly died – rotting in mud berths for years in the late 1900s before being rescued and restored by modern-day equivalents of their original benefactors.

The main and sad difference however is that today J class boats all belong to international multi-millionaires, but none of them British.

Now those three originals race against a handful of new replicas, created in the last decade or two – with the latest challenger, code-named Cheveyo to be built right here in Suffolk. Our boatbuilding industry should be so proud.

: : Paul Thomas is consultant editor of Anglia Afloat, the East of England’s lifestyle boating magazine, which first revealed news of the Cheveyo. Follow her progress through future editions.


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