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The return of British boatbuilding

Britannia ruled the world’s waves for centuries. Now this seafaring giant is reigning supreme when it comes to building series superyachts.

There’s an old saying that mighty oaks from little acorns grow. It was King Henry VIII who, while fickle in his marital affairs, developed a single-minded determination to grow a British navy and, during his reign, a fleet of five ships grew to a force of more than 50. From these acorns – literally, as it turns out, with oak forests being planted specifically to service shipbuilding and repairs for the expanding British Royal Navy over the centuries – began a golden era of seafaring history that carried British interests all over the world.

Fast-forward 500 years and the materials may have changed – oak being replaced by thoroughly modern composites – but a new fleet of British ships is quietly exploring the world and conquering the oceans. Britain is currently at number four in the Global Order Book, with 2,216 metres of yachts over 24 metres in length under construction as of January 2015 in UK yards.

If you have any doubt over the importance of the Brits when it comes to big boats, you need look no further than the three big players in British series superyacht production: Oyster Yachts, Princess Yachts and Sunseeker. The figures speak for themselves: Princess currently has eight yachts of 30 metres and above in build, including two 40 metre, three 35 metre, and three 30 metre M Class yachts.

Oyster has two 885 models and three 825s in build and work is starting on the first 35 metre Oyster 118, while Sunseeker could boast 36 projects over 24 metres under construction at the start of 2015, including the second Sunseeker 155 Yacht and 10 others over 34 metres.

What is perhaps more remarkable is that the production of large yachts is relatively new for all three, yet the numbers are staggering. Sunseeker was the first to breach the 30 metre mark with the launch of the 105 Yacht in 2001, yet in 2015 the yard will deliver its 100th yacht over 30 metres. Oyster has launched 32 yachts over 24 metres so far, while Princess – which launched its first 40M yacht, the new British superyacht Imperial Princess, just three years ago – has gone as far as buying a new yard to cater specifically for its big boat production.

“We’ve always thought of ourselves as being the newcomers at this size of yacht,” says Sean Robertson, Sunseeker’s director of sales and marketing, somewhat modestly, “but we’ve got the experience there now.”

But what makes a British boat so desirable? “Our heritage of the UK being very dominant on the water for centuries is a positive thing,” says Chris Gates, Princess Yachts’ managing director. “There’s a lot of talk about emerging markets, and when we’re in Latin America, the Far East and the Middle East, that Britishness has a big impact: not only the heritage of our boatbuilding skills, but also the fact that we come from a very trusted nation. Our new yard in Plymouth has a heritage going back to the 1700s in boatbuilding and that fascinates our customer base. I also believe that British quality and craftsmanship is above any other builder in the world. Many other European builders have well-earned reputations, but the UK is right up there.”

“I think it’s the people,” adds David Tydeman, CEO of Oyster Yachts. “We’ve got the mindset in everything from management to craftsmen, an enthusiasm to build boats. We’re practical and we’ve got a lot of seafaring heritage.”

This Britishness is central to the development of the Oyster 118: the first 30 metre-plus Oyster to be built wholly in the UK rather than subcontracted overseas, as was the case with the Oyster 100 and 125. “The client wanted the boat built in England – he wanted a boat built by us in our yards,” explains Tydeman. “He didn’t want it outsourced and he would never have bought the 100 or the 125 even if the design appealed to him for that reason. We only landed the contract because it will be built here.”

The Oyster 118 is just one of the new yachts to look out for from British builders. 

We’ve got the right mindset for designing and building great boats in England

The appeal of British craftsmen, and the playing of the Brit theme, is also evident in the proud-to-be-British Sunseeker ethos – spurred not least by the company receiving a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in 2007. 

“For anything we can’t do internally, we have a lot of skilled craftsmen in the UK,” says James Hall, Sunseeker’s superyacht sales manager. “For example, we have excellent wood carvers local to the yard in Dorset, and we use people who have worked for Rolls-Royce. There’s a furniture company local to us who supply many of the Dutch and German superyacht yards – the list goes on.”

It is notable, too, that many of the world’s leading superyacht designers and naval architects are based in London or on the south coast, and for Harvey Jones – technical director at Southampton Yacht Services, part of the Oyster Yachts group – this is no coincidence. 

“There’s a high concentration of Formula One teams in the UK,” he points out, “because we’ve got the research and development mindset, and that plays back to the question of what makes British boatbuilding so special. We’ve got the right mindset for designing and building great boats in England.”

You could hardly argue with that, and it is reflected not only in the UK’s naval heritage, but also in the heritage of the builders themselves. Oyster Yachts and Sunseeker are both in their 40s, while Princess celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2015.  It is doing so in style, having bought back one of its original Princess 31 models to refurbish as part of the celebrations as well as teaming up with London-based luxury retailer Thomas Pink to create a capsule fashion collection.

“When you look at that boat, in its day it was class-leading,” smiles Gates. “The focus was on customer care, and the business has evolved through the fundamental principle of establishing repeat business rather than just being the world’s best marketers. Princess was forced to grow by its conscience of looking after customers, and the company and size of yachts has always grown through pressure of its customer base. Once they are in the family, we like to keep them in the family and satisfy their growing ambitions. That was the fundamental pressure point for us to go off and look at building the M Class series.”

It’s the same story at both Oyster and Sunseeker, and is ably demonstrated by Eddie Jordan, the former Formula One team owner turned TV pundit (and Boat International columnist). He started with his first Sunseeker in 1986 and has grown through the range, including being the first customer for several of the ground-breaking large yacht projects – right up to owning the first 47 metre Sunseeker 155 Yacht Blush.  

Blush was among the 10 best British built superyachts, right up there with Imperial Princess, the Oyster-built Lush, also owned by Eddie Jordan, and classics that harken to British's yacht building heritage. 

As if to reinforce his Brit-fan credentials, Eddie Jordan also recently completed the 2013 Oyster World Rally on his own Oyster 885. 

“What is very important for me is that the after-sales service is, in my opinion, the best in the world,” he says. “No one even comes close. And the Oyster… To build a boat and to circumnavigate in really ridiculous seas on some occasions without the slightest problem – it’s a great recommendation for Britain in that we have the belief and the confidence and that the technology is here and available.”

It is clear that, from humble beginnings, all three builders have grown to make Britain a major force in series superyacht production, drawing on a seafaring heritage, home-grown skills and a pure passion for building yachts for yachtsmen.

Acorns and oaks. Henry VIII would have been proud.

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