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M5: On board the largest single-masted sailing yacht in the world

24 November 2020• Written by Marilyn Mower

Marilyn Mower steps on board the 78 metre sailing yacht M5, to discover how Ron Holland, Rob Doyle and RWD have redesigned the VT Shipbuilding superyacht...

At 75 metres, Rod Lewis initially dismissed Mirabella V as too much boat. A dozen years ago, the Texan owner was looking to build a composite sailing yacht of around 60 metres and had been developing ideas with naval architect Ron Holland. As Lewis had already chartered 64 metre Felicita West, Holland suggested he refine his wish list by looking at two more of his designs – the 2004 Mirabella V and the recently launched 56 metre Salute – and maybe even purchase one as an interim yacht.

M5 was originally launched under a different name in 2004. All imagery courtesy of Giuliano Sargentini.

Mirabella V was a bigger boat than he was looking for, but when he learned just how few builders would even discuss a 60-metre-plus composite sailing yacht, he took another look. While it needed modifications, he knew the boat’s owner, Joe Vittoria, and in 2011 negotiated a deal, renaming the yacht M5. Although he’s a serial sportfisher owner, this was a big step for someone whose previous sailing boat ownership consisted of a Sunfish and a Prindle Cat. Lewis, son of a US Air Force pilot, is better known as a collector of vintage warbirds, which at last count numbered 35.

“His first love is flying,” according to M5’s co-captain Don Anderson. “He finds a lot of similarities between sailing and flying.”

State-of-the art faceted carbon-fibre sections match the yacht’s ethos. Lewis added the red boot stripe at the last minute.

“That’s true,” says Lewis. He flies everything from helicopters to float planes to multi-engine jets to get from his home base in San Antonio to his work in south Texas. “I’m probably flying a helicopter three days a week and a plane five.” He’s also rated to fly almost every kind of Second World War aircraft, plus more modern fighter jets and trainers, and he flies them all regularly, including a CF-5D Freedom Fighter that approaches Mach 1.3.

“I’ve got a need for speed,” Lewis offers. “I’ve had M5’s helm at 22 knots; that’s my fastest. It’s kind of like flying on water.”

The interior has an on-trend high-contrast scheme forged of old and new pieces, new stone and a nod to art deco in the hardware.

In the energy business where he made his fortune, Lewis is known as a “wildcatter”, someone who sinks oil or gas wells on speculation, often armed with only geology reports and a hunch. It’s fascinating, then, to hear of the measured approach he took to M5 by sailing the boat with his family for a year while learning about her pros and cons. 

A first refit accomplished between 2013 and 2014 at Pendennis saw major modifications including a stern extension, repowering, switching to Carbo-Link carbon fibre and titanium rigging for the world’s tallest mast (saving nearly 18 tonnes aloft), cutting the bulb off the keel to reduce weight below, adding a bimini top and gutting the interior, replacing it with one designed by RWD. These were overseen by Holland and his former employee Rob Doyle, who had established his own studio in Ireland after Holland relocated to Canada.

There are plenty of lounge spaces on board for unwinding.

M5’s latest refit, begun in 2019 and completed in the spring of 2020, involved nearly two years in patient planning, according to Anderson. Two of the big-ticket items were changing the hull and superstructure colour and replacing the fabric and stainless steel biminis with composite structures. The other major work would be five-year survey items, reinforcing the mast, increasing the brute force of the bow thruster and solving a problem that arose because of slashing a 60-tonne chunk of lead ballast off M5’s keel in 2013.

“When we cut the trailing bulb off the keel [because the lighter rig required less ballast for a safe righting moment], it changed the pivot point on the lifting mechanism,” says Doyle. This imbalance caused the 96-tonne keel to scrape along the forward edge of the keel box. “It was [like] screaming cats for 11 minutes and the keel box is right next to the owner’s bed.”

The main deck master suite is reached via a gallery corridor that separates the suite from the owner’s office.

“It wasn’t just the noise,” says Anderson. “The whole boat was doing the Watusi as the keel would bind and then release over and over.” The issue wasn’t discovered until M5 relaunched at Pendennis and underwent sailing trials. By that time, winter was closing in and there wasn’t time to study and re-engineer the situation without losing another season. With the new rig and overall stability a success, it was deemed safe to defer rebalancing the keel. Lewis and his crew went out and sailed the boat hard, including a lap around the globe, and raced in the 2015 St Barths Bucket Regatta.

“We had put fibre optic sensors in the mast, and we realised the column was getting a lot of pressure at the spreaders and was in need of extra carbon fibre strengthening at these points,” says co-captain Ryan Bergman.

The red jasper tones along with grey gave RWD the direction of the colour scheme for new soft goods.

Anderson adds: “We began planning a refit in conjunction with the next big survey and began interviewing yards at METS [Marine Equipment Trade Show] in 2017.” After much research, NCA in Italy’s Carrara region was selected as the yard. Marine Results, a British firm that’s been involved with the yacht’s mast and rigging since day one, would supervise pulling, ultrasounding and repairing the mast on location.

The work list increased as Lewis discussed the project with the yard. For one thing, when he bought Mirabella V, there were no biminis or awnings in the flybridge. “Our owner likes to sail the boat and he discovered how hot the sun can be when sailing downwind with no shade,” Bergman says. The 2013 solution was to erect a frame and cover it in canvas.

Originally, there was no sun protection on the flying bridge, except that afforded by the arch for the domes.

“After the last refit, it was practically a brand new boat and I appreciated that. But it still wasn’t the boat I wanted. It needed to be tweaked. One of my main issues was the flying bridge,” says Lewis. “I wanted it to fit the boat. And I wanted more than three feet [one metre] of shade from the arch. The canvas top we had added worked, but I didn’t like it. I wanted a modern-looking boat. I wanted something high tech and lighter than those two-and-a-half-inch [6.4-centimetre] stainless steel tubes.” He also wanted modifications to the helm stations, especially adding a fourth monitor screen to each side and finding some way of shading the screens and the helmsman.

The captains introduced BM Composites, one of the largest carbon-fibre fabricators in Palma, whose work they had seen on other yachts. Commercial manager Luke Hendy picks up the tale. “Usually, people come to us with the design and we model, engineer and build it. We needed a design and I reached out to Adriana Monk, an independent designer I knew from building her components on several Wallys,” he says. Monk, an American who now works in France, had been an automotive designer well versed in aerodynamic shapes before turning her hand to yachts.

New overheads and floors and an updated colour scheme have refreshed the owner’s office and library.

Monk developed three helm concept directions for the owner before meeting on the boat in Charleston, South Carolina, in October 2018. Since she identified three function areas of the deck – sun area forward, bar and dining in the centre and helms aft – she and Hendy realised the top would be better in three specialised sections. 

“I started by looking at legs for the structure. Using carbon fibre would mean we could minimise the size of the supports and a sunroof at the dining table would allow guests to look up and see the sails. I don’t like a bunch of spotlights, so we concentrated on indirect lighting in the structure. The geometry of the lines of the mainsheet to the traveller were my inspiration and designing the helms and the hardtop together would result in features that looked like they belonged together in the boat,” Monk says.

Looking slick and sleek, the metallic grey hull and two-toned superstructure pair well with the carbon-fibre spars.

Solving the keel noise, meanwhile, took on an exhaustive engineering approach in which the owner was fully engaged, according to Doyle. “We looked at five options from adding a second lifting ram to straighten the travel angle to a totally new keel with its own box, but that would have involved massive disassembly of the owner’s stateroom. In the end, the best solution was the easiest one: we removed the keel, cut it in half, moved the lifting pin forward 375 to 400 millimetres and closed it back up. It was so simple that we almost ignored it. This also gave us the chance to replace all the keel bolts and locking pins. Its shape and 96-tonne weight remain unchanged. The boat is better than new. This is the boat living up to her potential.”

As to the new hull colour, “The owner had seen a grey motor yacht he liked and his sportfishing boat is grey, so we zeroed in on that,” says Anderson. “The last refit saw the boot stripe painted dark blue and the crew kept a careful eye on it watching for signs of print-through in the sun. Doyle had models painted with various colour combinations while NCA made up a number of one-square-metre fibreglass panels painted in various shades to be tested for heat generation and how the substrate reacted.” A metallic grey from AkzoNobel tested the best for heat reflectivity, with a lighter colour in the same range selected for the superstructure and the whole thing given a clear coat. “It looks sleeker now and faster,” says Lewis.

The dramatic new bar top was cut from a slab of precious red jasper stone.

During planning, the interior was just going to be refreshed, replacing like for like, with new overheads, new floors and new marble countertops, but as these things often do, “what-ifs” took hold and RWD, which was working on a refit of Lewis’s sportfisher in Seattle, was asked to provide direction and update some materials and the colour palette of the soft goods. The latter was inspired by a spectacular piece of ancient Egyptian red jasper belonging to one of Lewis’s friends, a marble expert who lives in Rome. He offered it to Lewis if there was a way to use it on M5 and they decided it would make a fantastic bar top. 

“There were eight pieces to be cut from the block to assemble into a bar top. Nobody in Carrara would cut it as jasper is the hardest stone; everyone said it would ruin their tools, or it was irreplaceable and they didn’t want to risk cracking it,” says Giulio Pennacchio, who manages NCA’s team. “All these enormous things went smoothly and here was a bar top about to ruin the job!” In desperation he stopped looking for stone cutters and started looking for sculptors, finding an artist in Forte dei Marmi to do the work. “It took 75 days to cut the stone. It is a job made with soul.”

With her 14.8 metre beam, the main deck living spaces are anything but crowded.

“I don’t think there’s a lot more that I could do to the boat,” says Lewis, now nine years into its ownership. “We sail it a lot. Many of my trips are just five days, but I crossed the Pacific and Indian Oceans; those were 28 days each. This time I will be on the boat for 45 days. It feels good to do something wind powered; I make my money out of the natural-gas business, but I like the idea of my boat being powered by the wind.”

This feature is taken from the November 2020 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.


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Vosper Thornycroft   78.4 m •  2004