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On board with Sir Michael Hill, owner of 39m superyacht The Beast

On board with Sir Michael Hill, owner of 39m superyacht The Beast

New Zealand’s most famous jeweller Sir Michael Hill is eagerly awaiting the imminent launch of his latest superyacht – just one of several big projects planned for a busy 2019, he tells Ellie Brade...

Sir Michael Hill always has a plan. Well, most of the time. One of New Zealand’s best-known names thanks to his successful chain of eponymous jewellery stores, Hill wears many other hats: golfer, violinist, fisherman, artist, superyacht owner and motivational speaker. In his inspirational talks Hill insists that everyone should have at least a loose plan and know where they are heading in life. And he should know – he’s the first to admit that before founding Michael Hill International his life lacked direction.

It took a devastating house fire in 1977 to shock Hill into writing the plan that changed the course of his life. Then approaching his 40s and working as the manager of his uncle’s jewellery store, Hill had just completed a four-year house build with his wife, Christine. When the house went up in flames not long after completion it ignited an epiphany.

“Losing everything was what sparked the need to make some big life changes,” he says. His first move was to offer to buy out his uncle; after being turned down, he opened his own store down the street. Aiming to provide affordable jewellery to the average New Zealander, within 18 months Michael Hill Jeweller was far outstripping his uncle’s shop. He quickly achieved his goal of seven shops in seven years, then came the next target of 70 shops in seven more years. Michael Hill International now has nearly 300 stores around the world.

Enjoying downtime on the water has always been an important part of Hill’s life and his first foray into superyacht ownership was with the award-winning 34.2 metre VvS1 (now Akiko), designed by Gregory C Marshall and delivered by Alloy Yachts in 2007. Having previously owned a 17 metre sport fisher, Hill’s decision to upgrade to a bigger boat, never having set foot on a superyacht before, was by his own admission “a bit crazy”. On her launch, VvS1 received international praise and went on to become a popular charter yacht. In 2012 Hill sent her to Europe and made her available for charter, with a new, bigger yacht on his horizon. But after a change of heart, he brought her back home to New Zealand and shelved plans for a new build.

A passionate New Zealander, Hill insists there are no better cruising grounds anywhere in the world, and he intended to make the most of having VvS1 back home to explore the country and neighbouring South Pacific. But then one day everything changed.

“Boats are not easy to sell, and one gets few chances actually, so I had no intention of putting her on the market,” says Hill. “My captain, Andy, had cleverly left out a magazine with a boat on the cover that was very different and I said ‘Ooh, that looks nice,’ and he said ‘I thought you’d like that.’” Inspired, Hill had some designs drawn up by Kiwi naval architects LOMOcean Design to see what a new boat might look like. Two weeks later, out of the blue, a buyer called up enquiring about VvS1. “They asked if she was for sale and I said no, but said that we should find out what they want to pay for it. To cut a long story short, we sold it.”

That was the green light for a new project. “I’d had it in mind to go for a slightly different vessel if I ever built again, because every time you have a boat you always think of things that might be slightly better or different, and I just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have an expedition-style boat that could go anywhere, that was seriously stable?’” Hill says. “And then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be even better, seeing as I love fishing, to be able to put a decent-sized game boat on the back that we could just launch off it, and then go fishing in some of the amazing spots where very few people have the privilege of going?’” With that, the journey to a new 39 metre, christened The Beast, began.

Putting the cart before the horse, Hill and his team set about building the game boat – dubbed the Baby Beast – that would sit on the back of The Beast, buying the moulds from, of all places, New Zealand’s equivalent of eBay. Hill is very proud of the resulting boat, which is simple but extremely stable, and the perfect base for fishing adventures. At the same time plans for The Beast were completed and work began, undertaken by Profab Central Engineering. “She’s at the finishing stage now and it’s all very exciting,” says Hill, his enthusiasm contagious.

The Beast’s many points of difference include the lack of faring below the bridge deck, a camo-style paint job and huge aft deck, reminiscent of a workboat, that will store the Baby Beast and a custom Sealegs tender. Of course, with Hill a “mad keen fisherman”, the yacht will also be equipped with every piece of fishing gear imaginable.

“She’s different to VvS1 but also to anything that anyone has ever done I think... I’ve always tried to be different, well not tried to, but I like taking a different path,” he says. “For starters, it’s a naval catamaran hull, and it’s not a pretty boat; it’s called The Beast for a reason! There’s a lot of upkeep in a glossy boat and when you’re on the vessel you never see the sides anyway so I decided I’d rather have something a bit more low-key. Though even I can’t pretend this one is low-key – it’s probably going to turn heads everywhere, regrettably.”

The Beast will be the largest boat Profab Central Engineering has ever built. So why choose to build a superyacht with a yard relatively unknown in this field? “Obviously price is important, and quality of construction is vitally important, and Profab’s work is incredible. There is no pretension,” Hill says. “Everyone works hard. You come to the yard and you make your own tea alongside the team... that’s very much the Kiwi style, and because of that we were offered a price that was competitive with anywhere else in the world.” Interior work was done by Oceania Interiors, based in Whangarei, Hill’s home town and location of the first Michael Hill Jeweller store. “It’s nice to give back when you are building a yacht, and I am glad we could do that in New Zealand as I wanted to keep things local and let the communities reap some reward from the project.”

Hill and his family are now eagerly anticipating many adventures on board The Beast, which will be under the command of his long-time captain, Andy Grocott. “As soon as she’s been handed over, we’ll head for the top of New Zealand, which is probably the most beautiful scenery in the world, and after a shake-out cruise, the boat will go to Tahiti for three months. I’m so looking forward to it!”

Hill formally retired in 2015, handing over the business reins to daughter Emma, but has been keeping himself occupied since. “I’m not the type to slow down, I think I hardly ever sit still,” he says. “Emma has been doing a great job; the business and retail are going great guns, and I have lots of projects to keep me busy.” Never one to do things by halves, Hill, who celebrated his 80th birthday at the end of 2018, has quite a year ahead of him. One passion project is The Hills golf course, which Hill had built on a farm outside Arrowtown, his home on New Zealand’s South Island, and a new addition to his golf portfolio appeared in early 2019. “I’ve just completed a par-three course on a sublime piece of land, which opened on February 22 after a two-year build, and oh my God it’s beautiful. It looks absolutely amazing.”

The Beast hit the water in early March, shortly after our interview, and June will bring the latest edition of the Michael Hill International Violin Competition, in which young musicians from around the world vie for a $100,000 (£76,500) prize. Having once had dreams of being a professional violinist, Hill says: “It’s my way of giving back. The prize money is life-changing; it sets the winner up for a career.” He also has a new book – his third – scheduled for an October release. The first two – Think Bigger and Toughen Up – were on business and motivational speaking and the latest will feature Hill’s own sketches. “We’ve whittled it down to around 500 drawings... they’re a view into my crazy mind!” Crazy perhaps, but brilliant with it.

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