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Elfje at full sail
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On board with sailing yacht owner and philanthropist Wendy Schmidt

“Wealth is a responsibility,” superyacht owner Wendy Schmidt tells Georgie Ainslie. So she built the fuel-efficient, 46 metre ketch Elfje – and founded 11th Hour Racing, to help safeguard the oceans.

Wendy Schmidt could do nothing for the rest of her life. She could jet from one seven-star destination to another, embraced forever in a world of supreme luxury that only 10 billion in the bank can guarantee. But that’s not her style. Instead, she’s taken on the small task of trying to save the world’s oceans – and building her very own sailing yacht to race on them.

I first met Wendy last year at the launch of my husband Ben’s ( Sir Ben Ainslie) bid for the America’s Cup. In between talk of the Cup and what the Duchess of Cambridge was wearing, she said: “Only five per cent of the ocean floor has been mapped to date, so we know more about the backside of the moon than we do about the bottom of the ocean.” 

Since then we’ve met in trustee meetings for the 1851 Trust, or at dinners – but today, over tea in London’s Knightsbridge Hotel, it’s all about her. And I want to know why she’s taken on a problem as immense as the oceans. That, as Wendy explains, might just be “a Silicon Valley way of thinking. I’ve watched a revolution happen in 35 years or less, so when people say to me we can’t change this, I say, really? We’ve changed the way we do absolutely everything”. 

As the wife of Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt, who has amassed a $9.1 billion fortune innovating technology and changing the way we communicate, you can’t blame her for thinking anything is possible with ideas and application. “We’ve been extremely lucky in our lives. You have to make a decision about what you’re going to do with that. Wealth is a responsibility, one way or another,” she says, alluding to the Schmidt Family Foundation, and its 11th Hour Project, founded in 2006 to support the wiser use of our energy, food and water resources in a world where, Wendy and Eric contend, “everything is connected”.

The 11th Hour Racing project, based in Newport, Rhode Island, works to engage sailors and the maritime industry in stewardship of the oceans, through sponsorship of regattas and sailing teams, and by supporting the development of new environmentally friendly production practices in the industry. It’s an approach Wendy applied to the building of her boat, the 46.4 metre eco-friendly yacht  Royal HuismanElfje, designed to use as little fuel as possible. She is not a woman to do things by halves, and by her own admission, sailing has taken over her life since she got into the sport eight years ago.

“A friend from California who also spends summers on Nantucket convinced me to buy a boat with the promise of match racing his boat one day. So I agreed to purchase a 46ft (14 metre) W Class wooden sloop that Eric and I travelled to the Caribbean to check out in the spring of 2007. The children were grown, and I thought, why not? I didn’t know how to race, or even how to sail but I knew I liked to be a passenger on a boat,” she remembers.

“As a condition of the purchase, my friend solved all the logistical problems, arranging for the boat to travel from Antigua to Nantucket, hiring me a captain, and getting the boat a mooring. That was the beginning. Her captain taught me how to sail and I was surprised to discover, looking back, that we had sailed every day that summer, all the way into September.” 

For Wendy, who helms her own boats, “sailing is a conversation with the wind. Sometimes it’s a wonderful conversation, and sometimes a scary conversation. In helming I found myself able to focus on something so small as a fraction of a degree, yet so large at the same time. I found that really interesting”.

In the winter of 2008, when she and Eric were home in California, Wendy missed sailing so much that she and her captain entered a classic yacht regatta in the Caribbean the following spring. But three days before she flew to meet the boat, the charter fell through. 

Without any other classic boats working out for the race, Wendy agreed to sidestep the original plan and instead cruise for the week aboard a Swan 80 called Selene. When she returned, she told Eric it was the best holiday she had ever had. Later that year, on her birthday, her husband presented her with a gift: a Swan 80 called Selene.

“Suddenly I had a crew and a big boat and I had to learn all about it. The following March we entered Selene into the Heineken Regatta in St Maarten. It was a year of extraordinary conditions. I think we had 10-foot seas and up to 35 knots of wind. I was at the helm and I just followed directions. I hung on and drove the boat into conditions that would really worry me now, but ignorance is bliss, I suppose, and we went on to win.”

Is winning important to her? “I usually helm when I’m on board. Most anyone can drive a boat, but can they drive it well? I work to drive well. Winning is a nice affirmation, but frankly, I love being number two. Nobody is trying to knock you off the pedestal.” 

Teamwork is a Wendy Schmidt watchword. I get the impression she is a strong believer in collaborative as well as independent thinking. Certainly when it came to conceiving, designing and building her biggest sailing project to date, the Andre Hoek-designed ketch Elfje, those working on the yacht were encouraged to make decisions together.

“It started as a discussion of what would a boat be, what do you want in a boat; there are so many things you could have. Somehow we arrived at the idea of a ketch. I had worked as an interior designer for 16 years so I wanted to be very involved visually. My grandmother, I’m told, got off her deathbed to rearrange the furniture, so I have that in me.” 

Was there any Silicon Valley thinking applied in the design? “I did do things differently. Normally when someone builds a yacht like this they go from naval architect to engineering to shipyard to interiors and everybody passes along drawings at each stage. I wanted to make things simpler and said we would all sit down with one drawing from the first day. They told me they didn’t work like that – but I can be very persuasive and said let’s try it. 

“When you’re designing a sailboat it’s like a 3D crossword puzzle. You have a narrow hull and want it to be light and to be fast, but also to be comfortable. You’re going to have to compromise about what you think you want.” 

What about the people charged with the task of designing Elfje Wendy’s way? “I chose Andre Hoek as our naval architect because he has such a good artistic sense. We just clicked, we understood each other and I knew it was going to be fun. A lot of it has to do with chemistry.”

Although Wendy previously owned and ran her own interior design business, she was keen to get Redman Whiteley Dixon (RWD) on board. “I liked them because their background is in industrial design. They thought about every single thing from that perspective and made features functional and elegant. At the shipyard, we built mock-ups of actual-size cabins and cabin houses made out of plywood and tried different things out. We set up the entire engine room. We just laid everything out, and it was a good problem-solving exercise because, while the materials to build a boat are hardly sustainable, you can still advance the way you use energy better on a sailing boat.”

Design meetings took place in Holland, at the Royal Huisman yard and in Amsterdam, as well as in New York, Newport, Nantucket, London and Beaulieu in Hampshire, where RWD is based, to discuss every stage of Elfje’s creation. From concept to finish, the yacht took four years to design, build and dress. At the end of all that, did she get what she wanted?

“I wanted to have what Selene meant to me – which was the best of both worlds: a boat that could be optimised for the course you wanted to sail and, at the same time, could be a very cosy and comfortable personal space if you wanted to cruise, and the two things wouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

“With Elfje, we made smart use of the space. We planned it carefully. People do wild things on boats, like put in bathtubs. I understood what I needed, which was a really good internet connection and curl-up-comfortable seating. One of my favourite design features on the boat is that anything you touch on deck or inside has a soft edge to it.” 

Where most owners might want to keep crew and owner and guest areas separate, Wendy feels differently. “I wanted interaction between the owner and the crew and the guests because Selene had that. I want to sit at a table together, so we have a galley that can be opened up into a dining area. There is a herb garden in the galley where live plants can grow in front of the window. The space feels like a home.”

There is also a coffee table unlike any other. A Plexiglas tube cuts through the middle of it and through the hull, so sea life can be seen day and night. Last time on board, Wendy witnessed a giant octopus speed by.

With sustainability key to Wendy’s ethos it’s not surprising that she set up a system of variable generators on Elfje that trade off the load so the boat doesn’t have to use full power at all times, just when required. “We made a really good honest effort here to reduce fuel consumption. This boat will use a lot less fuel than a boat its size would normally do.”

So Elfje ticks the boxes in terms of performance, layout, comfort and is as green as she can be, but I’m still unsure how to pronounce her unusual name. Wendy knew she needed a name for the boat, and by the end of 2012 was growing weary of referring to the boat as Project 11/11, one of the numbers assigned to it at the shipyard. So she searched online – Google, surely – as she considered a name. She found the Dutch word for eleven – elf – and decided that wasn’t quite right, but then discovered elfje (“elf-yuh”), a form of Dutch poetry using only 11 words. Elfje also means angel or fairy.

With the number 11 cropping up all over the place, and it becoming something of an inside joke, Wendy announced one evening in Holland, in December 2012, to a table of – you’ve guessed it – 11 members of the design team, that their collaboration would be named Elfje

As she remembers it, “Yard owner Alice Huisman responded in smiles and tears and, when asked why, she explained that Elfje was the very same name she and her sisters had been using for years, as a kind of code name for me at the yard when they referred to the project. So I knew I had arrived at the right name for our boat.”

And it would seem that for the woman who is on a mission to save the seas, she has created the perfect yacht (with good broadband, naturally) from which to do it.

This article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of Boat International.

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