Few builders possess the power of seduction demonstrated by British wood epoxy experts Spirit Yachts. David Glenn reports
Today, Ipswich-based Spirit Yachts is embarking on a new phase in its development, having recently launched a 111ft sailing yacht that exploits the benefits of electric propulsion, the latest high voltage lithium battery technology and smart control systems to reduce the need for fossil fuel power.
Like all Spirits, she was constructed in timber from sustainable sources and because of her light and easily driven hull she could potentially become one of the most efficient sailing yachts afloat. On the face of it she’s an eco-warrior’s dreamboat, which means she was scrutinised down to her last plank of Douglas fir before her launch last year. But more of her later.
In spite of a full order book, Sean McMillan, founder of Spirit Yachts, whose distinctive design style and inherent skill as a woodworker are responsible for these luscious-looking yachts, is the first to admit that it hasn’t always been an easy ride: “It’s been a roller-coaster, but it’s also been a great experience,” he says.
McMillan’s passion for wooden boatbuilding, and dogged determination to retain a highly skilled workforce through thick and thin has put him and Spirit at the very forefront of modern wooden yacht building.
Raising the profile
Five years ago the Ipswich-based company was facing a tough market as the ripple effect of the 2008 financial crisis continued to hobble business. Refit came to the rescue, but only up to a point. “I knew that we could not afford to lose staff,” said Sean, who has always placed his boat builders at the heart of Spirit’s success.
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The directors also realised that running the company and designing the yachts (as well as not being able to resist some hands-on boat building), was too much for one man to handle. So they appointed Nigel Stuart as managing director. He came from Discovery Yachts and quickly raised Spirit Yachts’s profile.
Together with the Brexit effect and the consequent fall in sterling, making British products considerably more attractive, things began to look up. Today the company has an enviable, trend-bucking order book.
Fling in timber
After just a seven-month build period Spirit launched one of its more remarkable modern classics in the summer of 2017, the completely stripped out Spirit 52D for high profile, serial racing yacht owner Irvine Laidlaw, who was keen to add a modern classic to his fleet of Highland Flings. The D incidentally stands for ‘Distilled’.
On her first outing at the Panerai British Classic Week in Cowes, Oui Fling, surely the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing, dispatched the opposition in short order. Her victims included Sean McMillan (sailing his own Spirit 52, Flight of Ufford, which is anything but stripped out) who couldn’t quite catch Fling on handicap!
Laidlaw’s boat, which apparently touched 16 knots in the Solent, weighs just 6.8 tonnes – extraordinary for a wooden 52-footer – and is two tonnes lighter than Flight.
In addition to Oui Fling’s exploits, the announcement of the 111ft sloop contract was a massive boost, in fact a potential game changer for Spirit. Sean McMillan believes she is the largest wooden yacht of her type built in Britain since the J Class Shamrock V was launched by Camper & Nicholsons in 1930.
The Spirit 111 is, of course, a largely wood epoxy build, but incorporating a high voltage lithium ion battery-powered electric propulsion system and smart electrical management. Together with an original interior by world renowned designers Rhoades Young, and the appointment of a specialist project manager in the form of the highly experienced German Jens Cornelsen, this yacht places the company firmly in the superyacht league.
Spirit Yachts put its toe in the water with larger yachts when the 100ft Gaia was launched in 2007, but there were issues, especially in race mode upwind, when her timber hull deflected marginally more than anticipated, making it difficult to keep rig loads stable. The structure was re-worked back in Ipswich and Gaia returned to the circuit in good shape.
Refreshingly, Sean McMillan is not afraid to admit that he and the company have had to learn lessons over the past 27 years. With limited scantling and engineering information available from classification societies for modern wood epoxy construction, Spirit has, at times, had to feel its way along the design route. Today, with what they call their ‘file of evidence’ containing historic calculations and structural data, they are con dent about tackling just about anything.
For the Spirit 111’s structural engineering, there was input from Sean McMillan, his experienced in-house naval architect Lawrence Peckham, composite structures expert Gary Scott-Jenner of Ipswich firm Synolo Design, and the classification society RINA.
Work involved 30 laminated sapele ring frames over which Douglas fir planking was laid and then finished with quadruple diagonal layers of 3mm mahogany veneer. There is some local reinforcement in carbon fibre and the entire structure will underwent epoxy saturation for structural integrity, impact resistance and longevity.
The owner of the Spirit 111 had an unfortunate accident with his previous yacht, a Spirit 52, when he hit a rock at eight knots while sailing in the Baltic. The yacht took in no water but a number of ring frames were cracked, so she returned to Ipswich for repairs to include‘ sistering’ or doubling up the frames in question.
Demonstrating his faith in Spirit, while visiting their offices to check progress on the 52’s repairs, the owner caught a glimpse of a previous design Sean McMillan had been amending. Not long afterwards the deal for a boat that would be more than twice the size of the Spirit 52 was on the table.