A new racer has taken the sailing world by storm. BOAT takes a closer look at Skorpios, the colossus that took line honours in this year’s Fastnet race
Skorpios is a yacht that towers over history. When the new supermaxi racer rounded Ireland’s famous Fastnet Rock Lighthouse in the Rolex Fastnet Race in August, it was the first boat in the event’s 96 years to look down on it, its mast being four metres taller than the historic structure.
The largest yacht ever to enter the Fastnet, and ultimately to win line honours, Skorpios is also potentially the fastest offshore monohull in the world. This milestone design is one of the most significant new sailing yachts in a decade. Yet Skorpios is a ClubSwan 125, hailing from a long-established family of related designs. So how did Nautor’s Swan, famous for its semi-custom and one-design Swans, come to build a one-off record hunter?
In 2015, Russian businessman and investor Dmitry Rybolovlev visited the Düsseldorf International Boat Show to discuss the ClubSwan 50 project, the first of the company’s one-design cruiser-racers (the ClubSwan 36 came in 2018 and an 80 was announced last year). Nautor’s Swan conceived ClubSwan as a high-performance line, occupying the kind of space that M5 and AMG hold for the BMW and Mercedes-Benz brands respectively.
The new 50 was right for Rybolovlev and he eventually bought two because he liked the idea of two-boat training to build a top race team. His family trust had bought the Greek island of Skorpios, once owned by Aristotle Onassis, and the yachts, Skorpios and Skorpidi, were to be based there.
The training paid off and the team was successful in its pursuit of trophies. With Rybolovlev at the helm, the Skorpios team won the 2019 World Championship title in the ClubSwan 50 class and in 2020 took the bronze at the World Championship in Scarlino, Italy, becoming the only team to date to win medals in two consecutive ClubSwan 50 World Championships.
But there would be more. While the two ClubSwan 50s were in build, in 2016 Rybolovlev chartered a yacht to race in the Swan Europeans in Sardinia. He invited Nautor’s senior advisor, Enrico Chieffi, to discuss another, larger sailing yacht. Chieffi leafed through designs for Swan maxis and presented a few other ideas but, as he recalls, “after a few minutes I could see he [Rybolovlev] was not very interested.”
However, he had also brought along details of a moonshot project, a concept by Argentinian designer Juan Kouyoumdjian for a radical 38-metre monohull. It was an audacious vision for the fastest superyacht ever built, menacingly aggressive in appearance and blindingly quick. It would sport a host of afterburners: a canting, lifting keel with a draught of 7.4 metres; a single curved, asymmetric profile C-foil to counteract leeway, maintain righting moment and reduce displacement; twin rudders; water ballast to further increase righting moment and help with fore and aft trim; a vast downwind sail area of 1,961 square metres; and a 55-metre high-modulus carbon rig. Unlike production series ClubSwans, there would never be another like it and the moulds would be destroyed after it was built.
“I said this could be a very different way to be special, something that has never been built before and looks into the future,” says Chieffi. “I could see his interest immediately.”
A second meeting was set with Kouyoumdjian, which led to detail studies and costings. “After six months, we came up with a price,” Chieffi says. By May 2017 the contract was signed.
Originally, Skorpios was destined to be a super-fast inshore racer to blast away the opposition in superyacht regattas. But the concept morphed during the development phase. The owner and everyone involved realised that it could potentially be the fastest yacht around the most famous offshore courses, such as the Fastnet Race and the Sydney Hobart. It had the capability to be quicker than even the 30.5-metre super-wide “aircraft carrier” Comanche, launched in 2014 for Jim Clark and built to conquer open ocean records (Comanche still holds the monohull transatlantic record of five days and 14 hours).
So then weight was paramount. The lifting keel was changed to be canting only – less complex, safer when sailing into big waves offshore and significantly lighter. Of the yacht’s 58.8-tonne displacement when launched, 23.2 tonnes are in the fin and bulb package.
In the process the teak decks also went out, as did the hull windows and interior with walnut and leather. The coachroof shown in early renderings stretching forward of the mast became a geometric fighter-jet-style lookout. The interior became more like a spacecraft capsule.
If anything, this change of purpose put even greater emphasis on build quality. The new Skorpios was going to be driven hard and pushed into ocean seas. It demanded “the highest top level of workmanship”, says Fernando Echávarri, the Spanish Olympic Gold medallist and Volvo Ocean Race sailor, who was brought in as the yacht’s skipper and part of the project team.
While the hull and deck build progressed at Nautor Swan’s state-of-the-art BTC facility at Pietarsaari in Finland, other elements were made by specialists elsewhere. “You need to create a team of suppliers for a boat as complicated as this, and you need parallel timing from other builders,” Chieffi explains.
Southern Spars designed and supplied the mast and boom and Future Fibres the yacht’s elliptically shaped AeroSix carbon standing rigging. The single rotating C-foil and twin rudders were made by Italian specialists Eligio Re Fraschini. The sail inventory was developed by North Sails.
“It was way beyond what we’d ever done before,” says Barry Ashmore, Nautor Swan’s regional director for northern Europe and Russia. “The resources we put into it and the team we had on it were a Who’s Who of international composite techniques, America’s Cups and Volvo Ocean Races.”
Skorpios was launched in Finland in May. After four years of immersion in the design and build, the sea trials nevertheless surprised Chieffi. “We sailed from the yard to test the systems and couldn’t believe it when we saw ‘Welcome to Sweden’ on our phones,” he says. “Once you start sailing at over 20 knots you cover distances so quickly. If you didn’t look at the numbers, you would never believe you were doing 25 knots. This boat does not feel extreme in any sense. It is really well balanced; it’s not made to have peaks of speed but to have a very high average.”
Even for someone with two Olympics and two America’s Cups to his credit, Chieffi says this machine took some getting used to. “These boats are so fast they don’t have flying sails any more, as the apparent wind angle becomes so tight you cannot use them. We were sailing with three jibs and the mainsail. You end up with the mainsail tight in the middle because of the apparent wind angle as it goes through the flow of the different jibs. The mainsail is sailing upwind even if you are reaching. It is an impressive set-up – very, very efficient.”
Skorpios also has a complex hydraulic system needed to drive the keel canting mechanism and winches and to deploy the C-foil. To power the four hydraulic pumps, the 500-horsepower main engine is run when sailing. Fore and aft trim is adjusted with two water ballast tanks each side: six tonnes in the mid ballast tank and three tonnes in the aft tank.
Among the multitude of performance levers the crew must operate is one for the trim tab on the aft edge of the keel fin. Controlled by the ram attached to the keel head, it produces additional righting moment by creating lift, like the flap on an aircraft wing. “The maximum cant of the keel is 42 degrees so when we are heeled, we can have only 23 degrees from the surface of the water to the keel. The trim tab creates downforce that we can fine-tune,” Echávarri explains.
He produces a large booklet of laminated sheets, information derived from the boat’s polars that he and his crew will use, analyse and develop as references for sail crossovers, keel cant, trim tab angles and mast deflector settings. Scores of optimal settings need to be achieved for this beast to be dialled in efficiently.
To keep Skorpios shy of the red line, a network of load sensors and alarms monitor all the sailing systems. The winches have load pins. Pressure sensors monitor headsail tack points; there are load sensors on the furling units and fibre-optic load sensors on the keel to measure bending and tensile strain. The regular crew includes two engineers
On sea trials, Skorpios exceeded 30 knots downwind. She should always be faster than the wind downwind and will match it upwind to around 15 knots. Whether or not this truly is the fastest monohull ever launched, as her vital statistics suggest, we shall soon see, but she has already proven herself in the Rolex Fastnet Race, completing the 695-nautical-mile course in two days, eight hours, 33 minutes and 55 seconds.
“The boat is very strong,” said Echávarri after the race. “We backed off on speed coming out of the Solent, but so was everyone else. We had an idea of what the boat might be able to do, but we didn’t know for sure, so we learned a lot on this race.”
On board, there is literally nothing to denote Skorpios as a Swan – no arrowed cove line in the hull and no logos, but it will always be one of the yard’s most recognisable creations. It stands as the most ambitious project the company has ever undertaken.
“This is the most complex and expensive yacht we have built by a long way – by a mile,” says Ashmore, with obvious pride. As the company’s new flagship, Skorpios is a dramatic statement of Nautor Swan’s build capabilities and technical breadth. All that is needed now is to topple some records.
First published in the November 2021 edition of BOAT International.