The story of Spirit Yachts, the best wooden-hulled boats in the world

As they sail towards their 25th year, Spirit Yachts remain world-leaders in wooden boat-building

Hammers ring out. Welding torches crackle. Drills whine through wood. And yet, Sean McMillan – CEO, head designer and founder of Spirit Yachts, talks through the noise. Standing atop a raised platform at one end of the Ipswich boatyard, he smiles. “This is our empire!”

The reclaimed warehouse where Spirit’s 40-strong workforce craft the world’s best wooden-hulled boats was once used to industrially store flour. Every time you knocked a beam, McMillan tells me, a shower of flour would fall from the ceiling. Today, it is clouds of sawdust that fill the space, thrown into the air by tools manual and electric.

The story of Spirit Yachts, the best wooden-hulled boats in the world

The boatyard is buzzing with activity. A large mezzanine platform in the centre of the space allows the workers to nimbly navigate the sprawling network of scaffolded walkways that connect Spirit’s three ongoing projects. The largest of these, the beginnings of a 111-foot sailing yacht, sits upturned in the centre of the floor like a vast wooden skeleton – and is destined to become the brand’s biggest build to date.

"As they sail towards their 25th year, Spirit Yachts remain world-leaders in wooden boat-building..."

“Planking will begin within two weeks,’ McMillan says, pointing at the ring frame. “And then, after that, we’ll fix two levels of diagonal veneers on top to form an armour of sorts. Let’s go take a look.”

With that, McMillan heads down a steel staircase onto the floor of the boatyard, still showcasing the enthusiasm of the man who launched Spirit decades ago.

The story of Spirit Yachts, the best wooden-hulled boats in the world

In the mid-eighties, the boat-builder worked in advertising, starting a graphic design studio in Spain. But upon realising he hated the industry, McMillan moved back to Britain to build boats. He braved the storm of the early-nineties recession, and then set up a small business in the Suffolk town of Saxmundham. It was here that the first Spirit yacht was born.

“I think it was the winter of ’92,” says McMillan, skirting around a steel frame on the floor, “and it was so incredibly cold that rather than boat-building, we sat in our office drinking coffee to keep warm. And we started talking about our ideal boat. Long, thin, easily-driven, rakish and supremely elegant. And we talked and talked and talked about this boat until, one day, I called up and said: ‘I’m not coming in today. I’m going to stay at home and draw this boat’.”

These designs inspired the duo, and soon the boat was built. Incredibly beautiful and meticulously wrought, the first Spirit made waves at the 1994 Dusseldorf boat show, where two were sold and the brand established itself. In the two decades since, many vessels have been handcrafted – and the boatmakers are now on number 66.

The story of Spirit Yachts, the best wooden-hulled boats in the world

As we pass the workers on the floor, McMillan gestures at the various joiners and engineering experts. “The team we’ve got now has taken those 20 years to build, and we get applications from all over the world. As we’re unchallenged at what we do, there are workers from Italy to Chile in here – and we’re still yet to advertise for a job in a quarter-century.”

The community spirit of Spirit is clear. The craftsmen work diligently, but still chat and joke – even as they crane a huge engine into a 70-foot motor yacht. Tea flows, laughter  is heard above the hum of the machines and a broken tape measure lays discarded on the floor – ‘knackered’ scrawled casually across it in marker pen.

A Spirit Yacht takes around a year to make from the design to build stage. The smallest of the three current projects, a 63-foot boat, sits at the front of the warehouse. McMillan climbs aboard, and invites me to follow him through a hatch in the as-yet unvarnished deck.

The story of Spirit Yachts, the best wooden-hulled boats in the world

“You can see here,” the boat-builder says once we’re inside, “just how good our craftsmen are. If our joiners know there has to be a cupboard here or a vanity table there, they’ll just build it how they feel – and that way we get unique and beautiful designs. The design ethos of many builders today is to get as much into a marina berth as possible, but we’re the opposite. We start from the outside, and then work in.

“Just look at an Aston Martin. It’s only got two seats and there’s no room for your golf clubs, but who gives a damn? Look at it.”

The Aston analogy is more than fitting. In the 2006 film Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s superspy not only drove a DBS, but he also sailed a Spirit yacht – the first sailboat to venture down Venice’s Grand Canal in over 300 years.

The story of Spirit Yachts, the best wooden-hulled boats in the world

“There are many trades where you work with your hands,” says McMillan. “But, because every boat we build is different, in effect we’re prototyping the entire time, problem-solving and building simultaneously. So it’s not only a very skilled workforce, but also a very intelligent one.”

"Incredibly beautiful and meticulously wrought, the first Spirit made waves in 1994..."

Spirit’s customers are similarly forward-thinking. As we explore the frame of the biggest build, McMillan explains that the owner wants an electric drive system, to be as ecologically-friendly as possible.

“Wooden yachts in general are the only genuinely ecologically-sound way of building a boat,” says the yacht-builder. “Our sails are recyclable, we never overengine the boats and we even deck them out with eco-friendly appliances. Because the customers really do care – they turn up in Teslas. We had to install a Tesla charging point outside because so many have electric cars.”

The story of Spirit Yachts, the best wooden-hulled boats in the world

But, with all the pioneering technology and eco-friendly firsts, it’s important to ensure reliability. And Spirit are so confident in their craft that, to reassure their client base, they’ve taken a bold move.

“We don’t have a warranty department here. Because things rarely go wrong. If they do, the calls come through straight to the management team – but that hardly ever happens.”

Spirit Yachts, then, are not only beautifully-crafted, but they’re eco-friendly, a pleasure to sail and hold their value as well. McMillan climbs back to his vantage point and turns, once again surveying his empire.

“There are very few manufacturers who can say that.”

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