A technical masterpiece or a piece of art? The new Spirit 111 is somehow both, and is one of the most remarkable large yachts Toby Hodges has ever sailed
Powering upwind with green water rushing over the leeward rail, an enormous mahogany-clad wheel in hand and a view of the cleanest flush decks ahead, I couldn’t help but feel this was as good as it gets. This is real big boat sailing, yachting glamour at its finest.
It is tempting to compare this Spirit 111, with her timeless lines and towering sloop rig, to the mighty J Class, which are well known to evoke such rapturous feelings. After all, this is the largest single-masted wooden yacht to be built in Britain since the oldest existing J, Shamrock V, launched in 1930.
However, striking though any initial impressions are, there is so much more to the Ipswich-built Spirit 111 than first meets the eye. It has a multitude of qualities which combine to make it incomparable. In short, this is one of the most sensational yachts ever built.
First, there is the scale of the project. Not only is this one of the largest timber craft constructed on our shores, it is also one of very few yachts of this size capable of being sailed without a professional crew.
Spirit’s new flagship is a technical masterpiece. It is conceived to be one of the most environmentally friendly superyachts to date, a particularly demanding brief which has driven some fascinating solutions for the equipment and engineering throughout.
And finally – yet to my mind fundamentally – this Spirit 111 is an art exhibition, a yacht that takes aesthetics to new heights. The interior, from layout to furniture design to craftsmanship, is unlike anything seen on a boat before.
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Geist, German for ghost or spirit, is “a project for someone who wanted to do something different from the norm,” confirms Spirit’s managing director, Nigel Stuart. This someone is a young European owner in his mid-thirties, who already has a Spirit 52, but wanted something larger.
The result of his clear vision is a celebration of bespoke design and engineering. Going below decks feels like walking into a gallery. As long as you can put practicality aside, it’s a mind-boggling, fantastical experience.
The initial design started at 90ft, but in a clue to the importance of aesthetics, got stretched an additional 20ft to ensure the most appealing lines. A skipper will help maintain the yacht, but while on board the owner wants to sail it himself. There isn’t even accommodation for crew. Many of us who view private time aboard our boats as sacrosanct may understand such a request, but it is rarely seen on this scale.
Our trial sail proved that such self-sufficiency really is possible, with most operations able to be carried out from the helm pedestal.
Sound of silence
I joined Geist at Endeavour Quay, Gosport, a significant venue for it was here, under the yard’s former owner, Camper & Nicholsons, that the British J Class yachts were built in the 1930s.
Leaving port is a smooth, peaceful affair. As we glided silently away from the dock and entered the bustle of Portsmouth Harbour, the only detectable noise on board came from the turning of the prop or the whir of a hydraulic pump.
The Torqeedo electric drive is always ready for instant activation, with no pre-heat needed and no throttle lag. Just push the lever. This is particularly handy if you need a quick burst of power to help the bows through the wind or to clear an obstruction while under sail. Spirit has also fitted a power on/off button, a sensible safety measure to avoid accidental operation.
Hoisting sail is equally without fuss. It involves using one finger on a portable remote control to instruct the boom mandrel to unfurl the main, and another to direct the main halyard to pull the sail up the four-spreader carbon mast.
As the genoa released, I let the bows fall off a little and Geist powered up gracefully. What a feeling!
We were treated to a proper sea trial of an elegant large yacht. Sailing upwind at 10-11.5 knots and back down at 12-14 knots makes the Solent seem pretty small. It is a delight in both directions, but particularly on the breeze with a rail awash and 23-27 knots blowing over the decks.
Sheeting off a bit of main in gusts is done via the push of another button to release the captive mainsheet or drop the traveller down the rail. It all seemed so manageable considering the sail area aloft. These are the largest sails yet produced by the OneSails UK loft and use its 4T Forte technology, a recyclable performance cloth.
It was also the most breeze Geist had sailed in and we kept full sail up for the duration. She handled it all with delicious ease as we worked our way through the deeper parts of the Solent.
In its own class
It is easy to fall into the trap of comparing this Spirit to a J Class. I’ve been lucky enough to sail a few Js, including the three built at Camper & Nicholsons that are still afloat today. But there are fundamental differences.
Js are traditional long-keelers that are three times the weight of Geist. They are stubborn, awkward yachts to handle and certainly need a large crew who know their salt. If the helmsman doesn’t work in harmony with the mainsail trimmer, for example, a recalcitrant J will refuse to turn.
Not so the Spirit. This is a lightweight composite machine, a speedster in comparison, complete with T-keel, a carbon spade rudder and direct steering. If you have sailed a Spirit before, you will know they are highly rewarding on the wheel and the Spirit 111 is no different. It’s balanced and delightfully direct.
This Spirit 111 is perhaps more comparable to the Js when it comes to use of technology. The original J Class owners were known for pushing innovation in their quest for America’s Cup spoils. Spirit Yachts has done the same here, with a focus on ease of operation and environmental efficiency.
Geist’s highly technical construction uses wood epoxy on stainless steel space frames to ensure a stiff structure for a light displacement under 60 tonnes. The majority of this weight has been kept central and low down, with little to weigh down the 40ft of overhangs, which all equates to a high righting moment and ballast ratio (45%).
The times when I was left alone in the cockpit, with 80ft or so of flush deck up ahead and all that sail area above, were particularly exhilarating and I started to understand the owner’s desire to sail short-handed.
With the push-button controls making it a doddle to trim, and backwinding winches making it easier and safer to ease high loads, in fact Geist is more analogous to an overgrown daysailer than a J, which is more appropriate given the owner’s brief.
Where Js are bewitching to sail upwind, modern performance boats are all about the downwind thrills. The Spirit 111 gives you a taste of both, making you crave every minute on the helm.
Once past Cowes, we hoisted the furling code sail. Manhandling such a large sail, combined with the occasional groan from a loaded winch, were telling reminders of Geist’s size and power. But once set and trimmed, the cableless sail helped generate that sportsboat feel, especially when we had the sea room to heat it up a little.
Hand crafted wonder
The credit for Geist’s timeless lines and her balance under sail goes to Spirit’s co-founder Sean McMillan, who has drawn all the Spirit yachts to date. He has also built up a team of world-class craftsmen in his Ipswich yard.
Look anywhere around Geist’s deck and you’ll be struck by the hand-built details. Around her flush aft deck, for example, you’ll notice the eyelet fairleads in the transom, the way the bulwark curves around her pushpit and the perfect angle of the ensign staff. This is the type of deck jewellery Spirit specialises in. But the real showpiece aboard Geist is reserved for below decks.
I cannot think of another yacht that is so impressive on the outside, so thrilling and memorable to sail, yet the interior is even more striking.
The owner had visited Antelope Canyon in Arizona and drew inspiration from its famously smooth, flowing sandstone shapes, the light beams and reflections. The resultant S-shaped layout of Geist’s interior, with its free-flowing curves and sculptural furniture, is nothing short of an artistic wonderland.
The saloon table and surround seating, floodlit by a fanlight of glass in the coachroof above, is the centrepiece of the yacht. Artistic simplicity like this is incredibly hard to achieve.
There are only two vertical bulkheads on the boat and only three different types of timber used: sipo (mahogany) bulkheads, teak soles and American walnut furniture. The sipo has all been cut from one log to ensure matching grain throughout, which makes for a magnificent sight.
For the first time Spirit used an independent design agency, Rhoades Young, who came up with the novel layout and drew the capstan-style table. This table has 64 wooden legs, all of which are curved, each with slightly different measurements.
Two former Spirit employees, Will Fennell and Ben Jackson, fashioned the artistic steam-bent seating. This exquisitely detailed design feature, which is also replicated on the bedheads in the owner’s and VIP cabins, “blurs the line between furniture and sculpture,” declares Jonathan Rhoades.
Initially the galley was designed to join this table and seating arrangement, however the owner didn’t want anything to detract from the centrepiece. Even now all galley elements are hidden below the countertop and inside lockers.
Aesthetics, you quickly learn, trump all else on Geist. The owner didn’t want to see door handles, so Spirit used sensor-activated latches. Placing a finger across the recessed sensor triggers the latch (and yes, if you lose power, the doors all open automatically).
The joiners have managed to match the grain on these bowed-out sections to the rest of the bulwark, thereby camouflaging the handle recesses by maintaining a contoured look. The result is that you can’t see any cabins from the saloon, or even their doors, just an undulating maze of mahogany.
“This is someone who really knows what he wants as the overall picture,” Stuart comments.
The sofa to starboard appears to float, seemingly growing out of the side of the hull. Above this a panel can be removed to reveal the sailing instruments and electronics that would typically be at the navstation. These screens are hidden away when the yacht is at rest.
The shadow gaps in the panels and joiner work are so precise you can’t see where lockers are built in. Were it not pointed out to me I’d never have noticed the door opposite the owner’s cabin, which leads into a large mechanical room.
There are no discernible fixings, no plumbing visible in the four ensuite heads. The owner didn’t even want the heads to be seen. Lift the solid timber lid of a heads and you’ll find sections for loo roll and a brush neatly built-in and concealed. It’s precision craftsmanship to the very last detail.
There are no visible light switches either. The lighting uses a network of motion-activated and light-sensitive sensors. If it goes cloudy above the saloon fanlight windows, the interior light adjusts accordingly. It ensures there are no big differences in brightness between outside and in, matching the soft yellow natural light in the morning or a golden evening glow.
At night, motion sensors activate floor lighting to guide you. These are intelligent, so they are designed to light the way to the heads if you move in that direction from your berth. “If a guest starts to go elsewhere in the interior, the system will deduce which way they are going and light the relevant areas in a very soft warm light,” Stuart explains. It’s like being aboard a wooden spaceship.
The banality of practicality
Most sailors will naturally question the practicality issues aboard Geist. Can you imagine setting your mug of tea down on that table? Or being at heel and sliding across the near 20ft of beam from galley to navstation sofa? Unfortunately, were you to do so, you might connect with one of the only hard edges on the boat on the aft end of the saloon seating!
The fear of damaging the woodwork might drive you to distraction. And with the elaborate open spaces of the saloon and so much volume lost in the overhangs, Geist is comparatively compact below. There are only four cabins and no crew accommodation at all.
However, you need to adjust your mindset aboard this yacht. The rules of practicality do not govern art. They’re not something the owner of a seven-cum-eight figure yacht such as this should necessarily be concerned with.
“Sean [McMillan] and I had pointed out the total impracticalities along the way,” says Stuart. “The owner could understand it – he loves racing his Spirit 52 and understands sailing boats.”
The owner did concede elements might need to be added at a later date to make Geist more practical, says Stuart, but initially he didn’t want anything to detract from the visuals.
“It’s not that Spirit can’t do practical. We’re just delivering on his brief,” Stuart points out. This project certainly shows just how customised a custom yacht really can be.
A key priority was to make the yacht as environmentally friendly as possible. The shell of Geist is built using responsibly sourced timber and the yacht is dressed with recyclable sails, but it’s the power system that forms the heart of her green credentials.
The 100kW electric motor can propel Geist silently for 30 miles at 8 knots using high-voltage battery power alone. The propeller regenerates power to the four 40kWh BMW battery banks while sailing too. This makes it possible to run for four days without needing to start a generator or plug into shorepower.
“When the yacht crosses the Atlantic, as long as there is adequate wind, she will not need to consume any fossil fuels,” Stuart predicts. During her initial delivery trips, Geist has averaged 11-13 knots under sail, at which speed she consistently regenerates 3kW.
Two 25kW Torqeedo gensets are installed, but these are for class compliance purposes and will be used only as a back-up to the electric system. “The owner said to go as far as we can while making it reliable,” Stuart explains.
Spirit’s managing director took a holistic approach to this with all the systems that would go on board. There was a certain fanaticism about energy-saving, pushing their suppliers to innovate and work together towards a goal of maximising the time the boat could run off battery power.
Mounted above the electric drive is a Lewmar Vortex reservoir, a system that reduces hydraulic oil needs (and therefore waste) by 90%. It requires just 25lt of oil, giving a weight saving of over 50% over a traditional power pack. The hydraulics can operate in eco mode for lowest battery consumption and have fast cruise or race options.
Meanwhile, the air-conditioning uses a variable-speed compressor, which ensures it can be run overnight without needing generator power.
The hot water employs a highly efficient on-demand system, which minimises wasted water and energy, and Cryogel insulation is used for the refrigeration to ensure low temperature holding for minimal power.
The main engine room space is particularly well-laid-out, with access from the deck or interior, and contains a sewage treatment plant to ensure waste water is clean.
A spirited vessel
I have been fortunate enough to sail many large yachts. Some look striking, sail particularly handsomely or are easy to manage.
Others have standout interiors or the craftsmanship shines above all else. And, latterly, it has been heartening to see more superyachts with an eco-friendly slant.
But I have never seen or sailed a yacht that has so many of these attributes wrapped into one exquisitely elegant, unique and extrovertly custom package. Aboard Geist, art has successfully married with technology and created something truly stunning.
LOA: 33.9m (111ft 3in)
LWL: 24.0m (78ft 9in)
Beam: 6.40m (21ft 0in)
Draught: 4.05m (13ft 3in)
Displacement (light): 58 tonnes (127,867lb)
Sail area: 450m2 (4,844ft2)
First published in the October 2020 issue of Yachting World.