BOAT International steps on board Geist, the flagship of British shipyard Spirit Yachts that combines classic beauty and green technology with beguiling grace...
When Spirit Yachts’ flagship grew from 27 to 34 metres overall before she had even left the drawing board, she was already destined for the record books. At this size she would be the largest wooden sloop-rigged yacht to be built in the UK since the famous J Class yacht Shamrock V back in 1930. Given her long, elegant lines and low freeboard, so typical of the J Class, it was an interesting comparison from the off. And there was more to come.
The decision to head from Spirit Yachts’ yard in Ipswich on the east coast of the UK to Gosport in the south for the sea trials, was intended to make it easier to get into open water. But it was also a move that provided another connection with Sir Thomas Lipton’s famous America’s Cup challenger. The Gosport base for the Spirit 111’s sea trials was the famous Camper & Nicholsons yard (now Endeavour Quay), where Shamrock and the three other British J Class yachts had been built in the 1930s.
Unlike the competitive Js, the Spirit 111, named Geist, has been designed for a more relaxed life – a cruiser with the ability to take part in the occasional regatta. And while she’s been built in a traditional material, her wood epoxy composite construction on a steel space frame takes advantage of the very latest materials and techniques.
From her carbon mast with its non-metallic rigging, to her advanced sail- handling systems, her classic looks conceal a very advanced technical specification. For example, a bank of four BMW lithium batteries and a 100kW Torqeedo propulsion system capable of regenerating power once under way lie at the heart of her operational hardware.
Another significant difference is in the intended make-up of her crew. Here, the biggest clue as to how she has been designed to be operated can be found in her layout below decks. Aside from being beautiful, it offers an owner’s cabin and three guest doubles – far fewer than you might expect of a boat this size. Furthermore, there is no skipper or crew accommodation: this is clearly an owner/driver superyacht.
Wherever you look, the Spirit 111 is a fascinating boat and when you talk to her creators, (“builders” seems so inappropriate for something so artful and innovative) it becomes clear that the project was a voyage of discovery for them at times too.
“In the early stages we built a model and presented it to the owner who said, ‘No, it looks a bit dumpy. Can’t we pull out the bow and stern?’” explains Spirit Yachts’ managing director Nigel Stuart.
“So the boat grew, but not the freeboard – but this was just the start. As you’d expect in the accommodation, the Sipo mahogany walls were drawn to sit vertically but they ended up raked, sweeping around the accommodation with a crease. There are no door handles and American walnut was used around corners in ways you simply wouldn’t expect and many believed couldn’t be done. The saloon table has 64 individually made legs, while the seating that wraps around it took a dedicated team 2,000 working hours to build. ‘Organic’ was a word that was used endlessly throughout the project.”
Designed by Rhoades Young and Spirit Yachts, her interior is extraordinary. “The client had recently visited Antelope Canyon in Arizona and this was the catalyst for the idea of the warm, soft flowing walls creating unique focal points within the room,” says Rhoades Young partner Jonathan Rhoades. Based on a set of linked circles which sweep around in an S-shape, the bulk of the accommodation is set amidships. The saloon, galley and navigation area is one open, circular area, lit from overhead by Spirit’s trademark fan windows in the deck.
From cooker to chart plotter, every item of equipment can be hidden behind slick fitted panels where the grain provides seamless continuity. Combined with vellum panels and an ingenious lighting system that not only switches on and off automatically but also balances itself against the ambient light, the overall appearance is striking.
Devoid of any decoration or soft furnishings, it looks a little stark at first, but this is an interior to savour. Like walking into a gallery at the Tate Modern, when you stop and look you start to get drawn into the light, the lines and the subtle range of colours that sweep through her interior. It’s an intoxicating experience.
It’s difficult to do the accommodation justice in a few words, other than to say that it has to be one of the most extraordinary yacht interiors I’ve ever seen. From the minute the electric motor propels you silently from the dock, through the effortless hoisting of the in-boom furling mainsail and the roller furling headsail, it is clear how much distance there is between the 111 and a J Class. The classic yachts of the 1930s require well in excess of 20 crew to race them – we cruise around the Solent with just five on board, and really only three are necessary to handle the boat.
On the helm she’s a very different boat to a J. She’s amazingly light, direct and beautifully balanced, steering herself upwind with ease. In 12 knots of true breeze we slice uphill at nine knots. Downwind she’s just as silky smooth and while she’s clearly a very large yacht, she’s also a proper sailing boat with all the feel you’d expect of something a third of her size.
I’m privileged to have taken the helm of both Shamrock V and Endeavour and while these were both very special moments, the fact remains that Geist has a much better feel on the wheel. And so she should.
Her fin and bulb keel along with the carbon spade rudder contrast starkly with the less- efficient rudder that was hung off the trailing edge of the keel on a J Class. At 65 tonnes fully laden she’s also less than half the weight of a J Class. While neither of these characteristics are that easy to see, they are good examples of 80 years of progress.
So, while the Spirit 111 was never envisaged as a modern-day J Class or engaging in the type of sailing that the Js became famous for, she does represent a similar approach: using modern materials and techniques to push the boundaries of design and technology, while at the same time delivering elegance that will turn heads, whatever the era.
The wood works
As a boat that glorifies wood – from her hull to her interior design – it was vital that the Spirit 111’s timber was ethically sourced to fit the yacht’s green ethos. For Douglas fir the yard went to Canada, which it knew had robust regulations. “Those forests have been commercially managed for over 100 years,” says Spirit Yachts’ managing director Nigel Stuart. “They plant two trees for one [felled] and they only harvest one per cent of the timber in Canada a year.”
Taking it a step further, the father of the yard’s timber dealer went to the forest to record “exactly where those trees were felled”. Sipo wood was sourced from Forest Stewardship Council-run forests in West Africa and the teak was also responsibly sourced – although since the project began four years ago, the yard’s view on teak in general has changed.
“There have been certain cases highlighted [within yachting] where teak was bought with the best intentions, but was later found to have actually come from Burma – with all the implications that entails. So that’s why we said that we can’t trust the paperwork.” Instead, the yard now uses Lignia, an alternative from sustainably managed softwood plantations, treated to provide a durable timber that looks and feels just like teak.
But the careful sourcing of wood was only a fraction of the work. The timber is machined into planks before being air-dried for months (a low-energy method). At the yard it is sliced into the required thickness, mostly six millimetres for the interior, revealing the grain’s beautiful flames. “Then we store it on site to let it settle for two or three months,” says Stuart. “It has a tendency to relax when we treat it like this.”
Then the joiners get to work, using only hand tools. “I think we’ve probably got the finest joinery team in the world,” says Stuart. To give an idea of the skill required for this extraordinary interior, he points to the grain on a bathroom wall. It runs all the way from the ceiling, down the wall, undulating over the sink, and down to the floor – perpendicular all the way. This was installed in three separate sections with the grains perfectly matched. That means hundreds of pieces of wood, each referring to each other. Mess up one of the three sections and you start again from scratch.
So fine was the work, they spent eight months making eight doors with flared handholds. They even invented a new method of steam bending walnut wood, which is particularly rigid. The result, however, is one of the most impressive examples of woodwork afloat.
This feature is taken from the October 2020 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.