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Credit: Carlo Borlenghi

Wild Water: Test driving the custom Spirit BARTech electric foiler

18 September 2023 • Written by Holly Overton

A 21st-century take on a wooden speedster, this custom electric foiler from Spirit Yachts is more than meets the eye, says Holly Overton.

I wish I could say that the sun is shining as I step off the ferry in Cowes, Isle of Wight. But this is England, after all, and in the height of summer I am presented with an overcast morning and choppy seas whipped up by wind funnelling its way through the Solent. The perfect weather for sea trials? Perhaps not. But where’s the fun in flat water?

The Spirit BARTech 35EF cuts a slender figure as she just peers above the pontoon. A 10.2-metre wooden launch with an elongated prow, aft-set cockpit, gorgeous rolled sheer and a sloping stern, she is supermodel material and the product of British boatbuilder Spirit Yachts in collaboration with BAR Technologies. With her toggle switches and analogue dials, it would be easy to mistake her for a restoration, but it’s what you can’t see that sets her apart: beneath the waterline is a trio of retractable titanium foils that let her fly.

Credit: Carlo Borlenghi

She was commissioned by a repeat client of Spirit Yachts whose last build was the Spirit 111 Geist. He returned to the Suffolk shipyard to build a chase boat that could match Geist’s classic good looks. “He was looking for a ship-to-shore launch for his 111ft [34-metre] Spirit, but something quite radically different,” explains Spirit Yachts founder and lead designer Sean McMillan. What appeared on the drawing board was a combination of a 1920s speedboat and a 21st-century foiler.

“It’s the sort of visual joke that I’ve played with a lot of my boats. I love the concept of producing something that looks like it’s almost timeless. It’s the combination of classical style with totally unexpected performance,” says McMillan. “The same applies to our sailing boats. They are extremely fast for what they are, much faster than their early equivalents would be, because underneath the waterline they are a very modern yacht with light displacement, embracing contemporary thinking, but mixing it up with a very classical look.”

The cockpit can be configured in a two-seat “spider” arrangement or “open cockpit” with seating for six. The latter is made possible by inverting the two aft panels
Credit: Carlo Borlenghi

The 35EF harnesses Spirit’s three decades of timber boatbuilding and is made from lightweight Alaskan yellow cedar with carbon reinforcements that take the foil loads, wrapped in African sipo veneer and finished in a high-gloss lacquer. Its svelte lines pay tribute to Prohibition-era wooden lake boats, the most famous of which was named Baby Bootlegger, used for running alcohol across the Great Lakes from Canada into the US. It was America’s answer to a Riviera runabout, capable of 60 knots with a torpedo-shaped body and a pointed stern. McMillan opted instead for a sloped bottom, partly to carry the beam to the transom to aid lift and balance, but mostly because it was prettier that way.

Sitting at the helm with BAR Technologies chief technology officer Simon Schofield, we clear the breakwater, nudge the throttle and, in a matter of seconds, we are flying with unexpected ease. Displacing just 2.4 tonnes, she takes off at a mere 14 knots without a wobble or a lurch as the hull breaks from the surface of the water.

The acceleration is subtle and controlled. Even in the corners, she is extraordinarily balanced as we paint S-shapes in the Solent. Its what Schofield calls “the gin and tonic test”. As the boat banks into a turn, the centre of effort stays in line with the body, which means you don’t have that feeling of being flung to one side. Flying along at 30 knots is effortless and even when a strong gust dares to veer us off course, it never strays.

Drawing upon its America’s Cup design expertise, BAR Technologies developed a trio of retractable foils
Credit: Carlo Borlenghi

This steadiness is owed to a computer system working overtime to deliver the smoothest ride possible. Five sensors relay technical information to a flight controller, which is making constant adjustments, like avionics in a drone, or balancing a broom on your finger. Two aileron-style flaps, one to port and one to starboard, move independently of each other to control the roll and pitch. “You’ve got the ability to dial in different fly heights: you can fly either higher or lower and that’s a trade-off between efficiency and manoeuvrability,” explains Schofield. And if the conditions get rough, the driver can flick it into “skimming mode” where the boat skips from one crest of a wave to the next.

The ability to foil makes her inherently efficient, which is how the model delivers a 100-nautical-mile range at 22 knots once flying. Given that electric yachts of a similar size tap out at around half that distance, the 35EF easily outperforms most current offerings. Beneath the dashboard are three chargers on self-retracting reels that plug into shore power units, as well as a supercharger socket such as you would find on an electric car. And she will soon be fitted with a dual-directional charger to share power with the mothership.

Twin cowls are reminiscent of a vintage race car. Push-button attachments for fenders and mooring lines sit flush with the bodywork, and a swim ladder folds down from the starboard side
Credit: Carlo Borlenghi

The 35EF was shipped to Lake Maggiore in Switzerland for her official outing, where she was joined by the mothership and the owner’s family. What might come as a surprise, given her racy appearance, is that she is at heart a family boat: two aft panels invert to form an open cockpit with a U-shaped seating area for six; the sloping stern has been tried and tested as a slide and the ensign post replaced with water ski pole attachment.

The 35EF is both a nod to the past and a glimpse of the future. A celebration of traditional boatbuilding and of cutting-edge foiling technology. Some purists might say that classic should remain classic, modern should be modern and never the twain shall meet. But dare to cross boundaries and the results can be truly thrilling.

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