Sunseeker yachts rule the waves
A luxury British boat-builder celebrates 50 years at sea
“If you want to turn up outside the best restaurant in Saint-Tropez and have people say, ‘Wow, what is that boat?’, then you arrive in a Sunseeker,” says Sean Robertson, the company’s sales director. Face tanned from years of salt air and Florida sun, Tudor Black Bay on the wrist, Colgate smile at the ready, he’s a man who knows luxury boats and how to sell them. Thirty-three years and counting. “Sunseeker has been my life, really.” He’s had stints in Mallorca, Mexico, Japan, America, and currently — in a nondescript, strip-lit office set just off a roundabout with signposts towards Dorchester, Blandford and Ringwood, the wind rattling impatiently against double glazing — Poole, Dorset. An unlikely hub perhaps for one of Britain’s most successful independent luxury brands, celebrating 50 years on this briny, southwesterly sliver of the country.
“Our customers are winners in life,” Robertson says, easing back into his seat and pitch. “They’ve taken some risks, they’ve been a bit different, not settled for that nine-to-five job, and that’s what we’re about, always have been. If you want to fit in with the crowd, then maybe you turn up in one of our competitors instead. You’re a winner, so why not show it? That’s Sunseeker.”
Now one of the world’s most prestigious boatbuilders, it’s the largest employer in Dorset, with 2,600 people spread between its offices, tech centres and shipyards in Poole and nearby
Weymouth. Today, one of its fully bespoke, seafaring, 131ft (40m), tri-deck leisure palaces of oligarchic proportions can cost upwards of £20m.
Sunseeker was founded in 1969 as the slightly-less-glamorous-sounding Poole Powerboats by Robert Braithwaite, a self-starter who left school at 15 to work in the marine business. Its first design, the Sovereign 17, launched in 1971, with the rebrand to Sunseeker International arriving in 1985. Its boats have appeared in four James Bond films, with Braithwaite himself making a brief cameo next to Daniel Craig in 2008’s Quantum of Solace.
“People should be speaking about it in the same breath as Aston Martin, Jaguar and Bentley,” says Stewart Campbell, editor of Boat International. “It’s a massive success story for British manufacturing that’s not celebrated nearly enough.”
The day before I arrive at the Dorset yard, it was announced that Braithwaite had died aged 75. He was, according to Sunseeker chief executive Christian Marti, “a true visionary who changed the face of boating forever”. An air of solemnity hangs over the office, many of the staff having worked at the company alongside its founder for decades.
“His passion filtered down through all the different departments, despite how big the company became,” adds Ewen Foster, director of design and naval architecture, and an employee with more than 30 years under his belt.
While the finished products, with their strong fibreglass lines and penthouse interiors, might be enough to make a sheikh quake, building a boat from scratch is unsurprisingly a complicated, labour-intensive task in a shipyard a world away from the harbours of Florida, Ibiza or the Bahamas, where these arks of excess will likely soon be moored. Men driving forklifts ferry materials back and forth, and the acrid smell of resin, sawdust and glue hangs omnipresent in the air. Teams of carpenters, cabinet fitters and technicians work non-stop in shifts, night replacing day. In three years, boat production has increased 26 per cent.
“A Sunseeker is something that looks like a Ferrari in terms of design,” says Foster. “The
difficulty is that it also needs the comfort of a people carrier.”
“We’re bringing houses into boats,” adds Stuart Jones, head of bespoke interiors. “Our USP is we can pretty much achieve whatever the client wants when it comes to design. These are high-net-worth individuals who often buy big straight away, so they’ll ask for an aquarium — which you can’t easily fit inside a boat that is going 30 knots — or a fireplace.” Other requests have included Jacuzzis, water features, karaoke rooms and a Perspex grand piano that plays itself.
“You become a design doctor,” says Jones. “Clients will end up talking to you about what they’re doing with their house, their plane, their chalet, their daughter’s house in Timbuktu, it’s that kind of relationship. That’s why a lot of our clients come back, because we offer that level of service.”
Another challenge presents itself in how different cultures wish to use their shiny new private pleasure vessel. In the Med, they like sunshine and open space. Australians want shade and ample sun protection. Americans like refrigeration, storage, big bathrooms and bigger doorways. Chinese buyers, according to Robertson, “Want to do a quick run out with their friends, meet the captain, come back and have a party.”
“You have to listen to what the clients want to build, take the feedback and try and find that next innovation, that next new idea,” he says.
That next new idea is set to be a collaborative effort, launching in 2021, between Sunseeker and the Dutch shipyard Icon Yachts, which will see the two partner on a 161ft (49m) yacht built with an aluminium hull and tri-deck superstructure, eradicating the size constraints previously presented by fibreglass.
“Sunseeker is the master of building big, big boats,” Jones says while giving me a tour of one nearly finished 131, its interior beautifully dominated by black marble and walnut, all custom-made. There are TVs everywhere and mirrors on the ceiling, a recurring request, apparently. “Just when we think we’ve reached our size limit, clients come to us and ask, ‘Can you build a bigger one?’”