A unique op­por­tu­nity to see the glo­ri­ous wooden Spirit P70 in build

Motorboat & Yachting - - Contents - Words & pic­tures Hugo An­dreae

Ishould have known bet­ter than to rely on my phone’s sat nav sys­tem. It has taken me three­and-a-half hours to drive from Southamp­ton to Ipswich, brav­ing the M25 at its rush-hour worst, and I’m not in the mood for a con­fronta­tion with Google Maps. There’s no men­tion of Spirit Yachts at the en­trance to the docks, a steel bar­rier is block­ing my path and even af­ter the nice lady in the ma­rina of­fice has pointed me in the right di­rec­tion, I still can’t find what I’m look­ing for. My phone’s screen sug­gests it’s less than 100 me­tres away but the road seems to end abruptly at the slip­way out­side Fair­line’s test­ing cen­tre, where a crane is inch­ing a Squadron 53 to­wards the wa­ter. It’s only when the man op­er­at­ing it moves out of the way that I re­alise the track car­ries on round the side of the Fair­line fa­cil­ity to re­veal an­other build­ing beyond it. The rolling shut­ters are open on both sides and through the safety net­ting I can just catch a glimpse of an ar­row-sharp wooden bow picked out by the


If this doesn’t sound like a chal­leng­ing enough brief, his key re­quire­ments are that it has to be ca­pa­ble of cruis­ing com­fort­ably at 18 knots non-stop for 1,000nm through the North Sea. That’s be­cause al­though it will be based on the Ham­ble most of the year, he wants to be able to cruise to the Baltic for the sum­mer months with­out having to worry about re­fu­elling en route. And in case you’re won­der­ing, he doesn’t bother with crew ei­ther; it’s usu­ally just him and his wife or a few good mates to help with rope and fender du­ties.

It’s the kind of brief that would have most pro­duc­tion yards thank­ing the cus­tomer po­litely for their en­quiry be­fore sug­gest­ing that they might like to look else­where. Not Spirit Yachts. Head de­signer and CEO Sean Mcmil­lan en­joys a chal­lenge and the beauty of build­ing in wood is that the usual con­straints of fixed moulds don’t come into play. It’s not the only ad­van­tage; when used prop­erly wood is re­mark­ably light and strong with ex­cel­lent in­su­la­tion prop­er­ties against sound and cold, as well as be­ing in­fin­itely re­pairable and en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly. Nor does it suf­fer from the leaks, rot and con­stant need for main­te­nance that wooden boats of old used to. The trick is to use it and treat it in much the same way as the lay­ers of gel­coat, glass­fi­bre and foam cores that make up a con­ven­tional GRP sand­wich con­struc­tion.

The process starts with the cre­ation of a set of ring frames made up from mul­ti­ple lay­ers of sapele, shaped and bonded to the ex­act di­men­sions spec­i­fied by a com­puter pro­gram from Sean’s orig­i­nal hand draw­ings. Th­ese are fixed into po­si­tion on a laser-lev­elled jig and planked over lon­gi­tu­di­nally with sun’s rays. Even from here I can make out the sen­su­ous curves of the hull, so smooth and pale it looks like a sculpted piece of drift­wood bleached and bur­nished by years of gentle ero­sion from the sun, sand and sea.

This is Spirit Yacht’s stock-in-trade, el­e­gant sail­ing yachts with long over­hangs, low free­boards and svelte lines that hark back to the glory days of the 1930s. All of them are hand­crafted out of wood but built us­ing the lat­est hi-tech meth­ods to make them light, fast and sur­pris­ingly tough. What’s less well known is that they also build power­boats. Not in huge num­bers and of­ten for ex­ist­ing own­ers of Spirit sail­ing yachts, but that is start­ing to change thanks to a very spe­cial project tak­ing shape in one of its two main sheds. Known only by its project name of P70, it has been com­mis­sioned by an ex­pe­ri­enced mo­to­ry­acht owner who was born in Nor­way but lives in Bri­tain. He cur­rently owns a semi-dis­place­ment Flem­ing and wants his new yacht to exceed the sea­keep­ing, en­gi­neer­ing and build qual­ity the Flem­ing of­fers, but with the soul of a wooden craft built to suit his pre­cise needs. 27mm-thick strips of in­ter­lock­ing Dou­glas fir screwed and bonded to the ring frames. Once the glue has set all the screws are re­moved and the holes filled to make sure there are no me­chan­i­cal fix­ings to cor­rode. If this sounds wor­ry­ing, bear in mind that Boe­ing bonds the wings of a 747 to the body of a plane for the same rea­son. With the main struc­ture now se­cure, be­tween two and four lay­ers of 3mm-thick kaya wood ve­neers are laid di­ag­o­nally over the plank­ing in op­po­site directions, marked, cut and at­tached us­ing plas­tic sta­ples, which are then sanded off, be­fore be­ing bagged and vac­uum infused with epoxy resin. Kaya looks sim­i­lar to ma­hogany but has a more open grain, which al­lows it to soak up the epoxy in much the same way as wo­ven rov­ing glass­fi­bre mat­ting. Last but not least, a thin layer of trans­par­ent GRP scrim is added to cre­ate a per­fectly smooth and wa­ter­tight fin­ish that can be painted or even var­nished to show off the wood be­neath. The end re­sult is a to­tally in­ert struc­ture with much the same strength as car­bon-fi­bre but with­out that ma­te­rial’s brit­tle, un­for­giv­ing na­ture that trans­mits sound and vi­bra­tion al­most as ef­fi­ciently as a drum.

Spend a few min­utes talk­ing to Sean and you be­gin to won­der why more yards don’t build in wood. His an­swer is as telling as it is be­liev­able: build­ing in wood re­quires ex­cep­tional skill and experience to achieve the nec­es­sary strength and fin­ish ex­pected of a high-class yacht as well as a lot of man hours. In other words, it’s nei­ther easy nor cheap. But the best things in life rarely are.

Be­ing a Spirit Yacht it also has to look the part. Its sail­ing yachts are in­spired by the el­e­gant pro­por­tions of J-class yachts but the P70 has no ob­vi­ous fore­bear to pick up on. It does share

some of its design cues with the hand­ful of P40s al­ready built, such as the flared bow and tum­ble­home stern, but the size and vol­ume needed to ac­com­mo­date the owner’s wish for three dou­ble cab­ins, a cov­ered wheel­house, saloon and din­ing/gal­ley area meant some fresh think­ing was needed. The exterior pro­file alone went through 22 dif­fer­ent it­er­a­tions be­fore be­ing signed off and even now some of the de­tails like the an­gle of the bow and design of the air in­takes are still be­ing worked on – the lat­est idea draws in­spi­ra­tion from the in­takes of a clas­sic Mercedes 300SL.

The end re­sult has a recog­nis­able 1930s mo­to­ry­acht aes­thetic but with its own dis­tinc­tive style and lay­out. The length-to-beam ra­tio of 4.5:1 is much slim­mer and more ef­fi­cient than the 3:1 ra­tio of most modern mo­to­ry­achts, while its dry weight of 22 tonnes is al­most half that of a nor­mal 70ft GRP fly­bridge. This in turn en­ables it to use smaller than nor­mal 800hp MAN engines while still push­ing its semi-dis­place­ment hull up to a max­i­mum of 24 knots. Four sep­a­rate fuel tanks with a com­bined ca­pac­ity of 10,000 litres and a built-in pol­ish­ing and bal­anc­ing sys­tem pro­vide the fi­nal link in the chain needed to reach the re­quired 1,000nm range. The lay­out is equally un­con­ven­tional with the saloon for­ward and half a level down from the wheel­house, and the din­ing and gal­ley area aft an­other half a level down. The owner’s cabin sits be­low the saloon for max­i­mum peace and pri­vacy, with the two twin guest cab­ins tucked at the op­po­site end of the boat in the stern. The wheel­house it­self sits proudly aloft at the cen­tre of the ac­tion with one door out to the port sid­edeck and an­other to the open fly­bridge astern with its raised out­side helm po­si­tion and well-pro­tected seat­ing. The only area that ri­vals it for sheer drama is the en­gine­room, which en­joys the kind of tow­er­ing head­room, space and clin­i­cal light­ing nor­mally re­served for op­er­at­ing the­atres.


It all speaks of an owner who knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it. It’s a re­la­tion­ship that Sean clearly rev­els in, prais­ing the cus­tomer’s vi­sion and tech­ni­cal knowl­edge. For in­stance, he in­sisted on fit­ting Seatorque’s oil-filled BOSS shafts for qui­eter running and re­duced main­te­nance, and the elec­tri­cal sys­tem is built around a li-ion bat­tery bank so that it can power the air con­di­tion­ing and Sleip­ner curved fin stabilisers overnight with­out having to run the gen­er­a­tor. Even sim­ple things like the deep bul­warks, which al­low crew to move safely around the decks with­out the need for ugly stain­less steel guardrails, smack of some­one who has ex­ten­sive experience of boat­ing in all weath­ers.

Above all you get the im­pres­sion the owner is en­joy­ing the build process al­most as much as he will en­joy cruis­ing the fin­ished boat. It’s not hard to see why. Stroll around the P70’s car­cass and you can feel it com­ing to life. Ev­ery­where you look there’s a crafts­man or wo­man us­ing their skills and experience to cre­ate their own lit­tle work of art. This isn’t a pro­duc­tion line, it’s a group of ar­ti­sans breath­ing life into some­body else’s vi­sion. I had al­ways as­sumed that the Spirit Yachts name was a ref­er­ence to the looks be­ing in the spirit of a 1930s clas­sic. Now I’m start­ing to won­der whether it’s sim­ply be­cause each of its boats, and the P70 in par­tic­u­lar, has a spirit and soul of its own.

L E F T Deep bul­warks make it a very safe boat to move around, even in big seas MID­DLE The raised aft deck gives the el­e­vated views of a fly­bridge with­out the top-heavy looks RIGHT Won­der­fully el­e­gant 1930s styling

The for­ward saloon al­lows fine views over the bow and marks a break with most modern de­signs Th i s i s a g roup of a rt i s a n s b reath­ing life into some­body else’s v i s i o n

ABOVE The raised pi­lot­house will be a cosy refuge on the non-stop 1,000nm jour­ney across the North Sea from the Ham­ble to the Baltic

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