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Distillate Of Wood

Spirit Yachts is the successful story of yard that has established itself as one of the best builders of modern classic wood. Let’s discover how this tradition has found a new life starting with a mahogany table. 

Some boats convey emotion just by looking at them and the Spirits are among them. Over the last 15 years, this British boatyard based in Ipswich, 100km north-east of London, has produced 45 “cameos” ranging from 12 to 30 metres; taking their inspiration from the Golden Age of yachting of Fyfe, Stephens and Herreshoff and capitalising on the enormous technological progress made in the new millennium. Each motor powered or sailing Spirit is created from the most traditional material – wood, combined with classic aesthetic lines, and an ultra modern centreboard plan. Recently awarded the “Queen’s Awards for Enterprise” for having increased exportation seven fold in the last 3 years, Spirit Yachts has become a symbol of British elegance. So much so that the film director Martin Campbell opted for a Spirit 54 when choosing a boat to go with the archetypal British secret agent 007’s legendary Aston Martin and dinner jacket (in the film Casino Royale). To better understand the secrets of this success, we went to the Monaco Boat show and met Sean McMillan who, along with Michael Newman, is both an owner and the boatyard’s designer. When asked about the use of a material that runs against trends, Sean explained that wood has aesthetic as well as a technical/practical advantages. He said, “The main reason we use it is because with the strip planking technique (literally “covering with strips”, the strip planking is covered longitudinally with epoxy resin) we can produce boats that are not just beautiful but incredibly light, with a reduction of up to 50% in weight compared to constructions in traditional fibreglass. Our latest 100 foot craft, for example, with a displacement of less than 50 tons is a real sprinter and we managed to reach 27 knots this winter in the Caribbean”. As further proof of its quality, in the last Antigua Classics Regatta, the craft in question measured up in terms of beauty and performance against the award-winning J Class Vesheda and Rangers that are more than 10 metres longer. In all honesty penalised, with all respect for seniority, by a tonnage almost four times greater.

To understand the performance and elegance of each Spirit, you have to observe the installation of every single component. Let’s look at the origins of the 100. The Douglas pine keelson (beam arranged on the lower part of the hull) is placed on the male mould where 24 Sapele frames are positioned (150x80mm), “ribs” of an external “skin” made up of three different layers with differing functions. The first 35mm one is longitudinal planking in Brazilian cedar (a species with a unique limited weight) that assembled with the strip planking technique brings lightness and insulation, as well as a precious internal finish. The second 9mm one, made up of three laminate layers of Khaya mahogany positioned at 45°, increases the rigidity and the strength. The third of the external finishes consists of a two layered cover of mixed fabric in biaxial fibreglass and Mat, guaranteeing smooth, compact walls. The hull, which up until now has been upside down, is turned over and fitted with completely customisable interiors that enhance rather than disguise the precious frame. The deck is made up of mahogany beams and marine plywood planks, finished with an upper 9mm layer of teak for the main deck, and varnished mahogany for the gunwale, deckhouse and sprayhood. All exalted both in and out of the water by a touch of high tech: the rudder and mast are strictly in carbon fibre and the keel has a blade in special steel with alloy torpedo in lead/antimony and stainless steel stud. The construction methods and materials are more or less the same for each Spirit, the only significant difference being on large boats where a reinforced steel (laser cut) H structure, strengthened by the corresponding frames, is used on the points with the heaviest load (chain plates, mast, keel, helm etc.). The same can be said for the motor powered boats as in the case of the P100, a 31 metre craft still just a project on paper, capable of a maximum speed of more than 50 knots, with a steel structure almost as long as the craft.
Another impressive project in the pipeline is the sailing D130, designed to compete among the big names in the esteemed Large Classics circuit that covers different regattas in the Mediterranean and Caribbean. As the D in the initials say, the new 39 metres aims to be the best distillate representing the spirit of the Ipswich boatyard (the “alcoholic” reference is evident to those who look carefully at the logo).

You either fully embrace or reject the graceful, harmonious soul of each Spirit. Whether one decides to buy a neo-classic craft inspired by glorious history of yachting or a futuristic one with a proto-aeronautical design, the decision is first and foremost an instinctive and emotional one; a state of ecstasy achieved through the mahogany and steel or carbon fibre and Plexiglas. “The crafts have a pronounced sleekness, and as well as being very fast, also elegantly adapt to the sea. All non-essential elements, like the deckhouse, should be kept to a minimum or one risks destroying the deck’s perfect line. In the same vein, the equipment on deck should blend in as much as possible. It is essential that all the equipment is in the same style and material so that each element is part of the overall look rather than a haphazard collection of parts”. The highly British consistency that Sean is talking about is far removed from modern sailing trends. Let’s take any boat in our marinas and make a quick list of materials and finishes – no less than 7 including stainless steel, various aluminium finishes, plastic, teak and skid-proof material. Now let’s compare these with those on a Spirit, where in any exterior or interior area, wood and polished steel are used in singular contraposition, working together in perfect harmony. Tradition and technological development, classic lines and a modern centreboard plan are still fairly unknown in Italy. Why? We asked McMillan to shed some light and outline the boatyard’s target: “Our clients are all expert sailors from a mainstream market that has never completely satisfied them. When they come to us, they want what they have already tried and tested, performance and quality interiors but with the addition of the wow factor that we know how to give them. It doesn’t matter how big, beautiful or glamorous a boat is, if it does not leave everyone gobsmacked as it comes into port, then it does not have the wow factor.”

We have left these last three lines to talk about the downside of the Spirits that like all classic designs have excessively sleek compressed interiors and low walls. Even if, after so much beauty, who would bother to criticize?

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