Few builders possess the power of seduction demonstrated by British wood epoxy experts Spirit Yachts. David Glenn reports

For more than 25 years Spirit Yachts has been melting the hearts of yachtsmen with its distinctive range of wood epoxy modern classics. In that time the company has built more than 60 yachts ranging in size from 37ft to 111ft and accumulated a volume of knowledge in sophisticated, timber epoxy yacht construction few, if any, companies in the world can match. In short, it’s a story of great British boatbuilding.

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.


A joiner marking out a below waterline area. Photo: Emily Harris

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


The Spirit 52D Oui Fling racing in the Solent in July 2017. Photo: Emily Harris

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.


100ft Gaia is soon to be eclipsed as the yard’s flagship. Photo: Carlo Borlenghi

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.


A rendering of the new Spirit 111, which will be the largest wooden yacht built in the UK since the J Class Shamrock V in 1930

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.

Highly stylised furniture

Two of the defining features of the Spirit 111 are aesthetics and a determination to use modern technology to make the yacht as efficient as possible, reducing the amount of fossil fuel required.


Nigel Stuart (left) and Sean McMillan are together behind the renewed success of Spirit. Photo: Emily Harris

In profile she has a noticeably low freeboard and while the owner was warned this might limit headroom in the ends of the accommodation he was prepared to sacrifice this for looks. “The freeboard is just 1.4m which means she looks stunning – she’s more J then a J,” said Sean McMillan who is clearly relishing working with a client who won’t let anything get in the way of aesthetics.

Using some unusual, highly stylised furniture as guidance on how he wanted the interior designed, the client went to Rhoades Young in the UK to develop the accommodation. The result, which suits the use of wood construction perfectly, is quite extraordinary.

The yacht’s drive train comprises a 200hp electric engine served by four banks of lithium ion batteries providing a 380V system. The technology has been developed by the German outboard manufacturer Torqeedo, which has branched out into other forms of what it calls ‘water-based electromobility’ in response to the need for boats to be super eco-friendly on European inland lakes.


Nigel Stuart and Sean McMillan visited several companies developing the technology and were impressed by what they saw at Torqeedo in Gilching, Bavaria. One of the attractions is that the company considers the system as a whole, including batteries, the drive train to the folding Gori propeller, the ‘freewheeling’ prop generator system while sailing, and smart control to keep electricity consumption to a minimum.

The electric propulsion package perfectly suits the Spirit 111’s easily driven hull and relatively light displacement of just 59 tonnes. The batteries, which are similar to those used by BMW for their i3 and i8 electric cars, have a nine-year warranty and are small enough to fit under the yacht’s cabin sole in way of the keel.

It is anticipated that the Spirit 111 will be able to remain in quiet ship mode (no generator running) using all domestic appliances including air conditioning and water making for three to four days, assuming charging via the propeller while sailing can be achieved for up to five hours a day. Recharging the batteries using the yacht’s twin 25kw/33hp four-cylinder Torqeedo generators takes just four hours.


The deckhouse of a new Spirit in build showing the fan skylight. Photo: Emily Harris

In addition to propulsion efficiency, low current means running motors for cooling systems for the battery bank and the electric engine itself, plus pumps for the hydraulic system and a Webasto electric water heater, will also be far more efficient through smart control and monitoring. If these targets can be reached, the Spirit 111 will use half the amount of fuel than that of a conventional system, demonstrating a big advance in the search for the genuinely eco-friendly superyacht.

Another yacht in search of low consumption, and attracting considerable attention, is the recently-launched Spirit P70 motor yacht. She’s a semi-displacement fast cruiser with a top speed of 25 knots, whose owner required a 1,000nm range at 18 knots enabling him to complete cruises from Hamble in the UK to Scandinavia and back without refuelling.

Her advantageous power-to-weight ratio is achieved through her lightweight timber construction requiring two MAN diesel inboard engines of just 800hp each to reach the required performance. She carries 10,000lt of fuel, divided into five tanks, which is automatically distributed between the tanks to maintain efficient trim as the fuel is consumed. With luxurious accommodation on three levels this is a businesslike-looking yacht capable of high average speeds in almost all sea conditions.


The P70 powerboat hull in the early stages of build with major engineering fitting such as engine and stabilisers. Photo: Emily Harris

With these three yachts alone, Spirit Yachts is displaying not only its known ability in sophisticated wood epoxy construction, but also its keenness to use advanced technology available from other industries. It’s a powerful combination likely to attract considerable attention in the demanding world of superyachting.

The Spirit Yachts story: From a cowshed in Saxmundham to building superyachts

Spirit Yachts has come a long way since a 37-footer called Spirit was built in a cowshed in Saxmundham in 1993. The hull of this beautiful long-ended, wood epoxy sloop was so light that Sean McMillan and his late business partner Mick Newman could pick it up between them and turn it over for completion.

Demand for larger yachts soon grew with eleven 46s built to date, four 52s and many other sizes including a 56, 74 and the 100-footer Gaia. Despite a steady flow of orders over the years and a big spike in interest when a Spirit 54 ‘starred’ in the James Bond movie Casino Royale, Sean McMillan had to spend a lot of time explaining the advantages of building in wood epoxy to the boat buying public.


Daniel Craig took the helm of a Spirit 54 in Casino Royale

“Thirty years ago people thought wooden boats were dirty smelly things, difficult to maintain with dodgy stuff lurking in the bilges,” said McMillan. “The journey has involved subtly re-educating the yachting public about composite wooden yachts.”

Due to its epoxy saturated protection, composite wood yachts are almost maintenance-free, they are easy to repair and can be done so invisibly, maintains Sean McMillan. The very structure of the hull is, without doubt, a thing of beauty something illustrated by the interior of the stripped out Spirit 52D Oui Fling. And it is the outward appearance of the Spirit genre that gives it its must-have status.

In 2007 Spirit Yachts launched five yachts including the 100ft Gaia, but it was also the year in which Sean lost his business partner Mick Newman, who died in a light aircraft crash in Turkey. Shortly after that in 2008 the financial crisis hit, although the effects didn’t filter down to Spirit Yachts until 2010 when business slowed.


The stripped-out interior of the Spirit 52D Oui Fling exhibits the yard’s craftsmanship. Photo: Mike Bowden

When Nigel Stuart arrived in 2013, the first thing he did was replace the industrial style metal door leading to reception with a solid mahogany one. He booked a stand at the Düsseldorf Boat Show, fired up the media machine and sat Sean down at his drawing board.

Stuart has also encouraged the company to re-define its range, which now includes, The Classic Style (Spirit 46,52, 56); The Cruising Style (Spirit 47CR, 55CR); The Deckhouse Range (Spirit DH57, DH60); Spirit Superyachts (100 to 130) and then the entirely bespoke. Spirit Yachts expanded into new, modern premises in 2017, making the build process faster. In all respects it’s a very long way indeed from that cowshed in Saxmundham…

The go-faster factor

A key player in almost all Spirit Yachts projects is John Parker of OneSails, based in Suffolk Yacht Harbour. He is passionate about Spirit’s modern classic ethos. His sails are not only Spirit’s preferred choice, but clients are urged to discuss their needs from early on in a project.


The interior of the Spirit 74 is beautifully built in ruby rich mahogany and flooded with light. Photo: Anthony Morris

“It’s important to understand how people are likely to use their yachts,” said Nigel Stuart. “Are they setters and leavers, or non-stop tweakers? Will they simply go cruising or take to the race course?” Based on these facts carbon mast specification can be decided.

“We try to futureproof yachts by building in items like additional sheave boxes and mast track laminate reinforcement for spinnaker poles – it’s amazing how many clients seem convinced they don’t want to race but end up being tempted,” said Stuart.

Low friction rings, soft shackles and bespoke, colour-coded running rigging – even hand stitched leather winch handle pockets – are all part of what’s on offer to ensure clients get the best out of their Spirit and that the boat looks the part.

Adapted and updated from an article published in the September 2017 edition of Yachting World.