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On Board with Donald Sussman, owner of the 16.5 Metre Eagle 53

On Board with Donald Sussman, owner of the 16.5 Metre Eagle 53

American financier and philanthropist Donald Sussman has made himself comfortable in the well-appointed saloon of his 50-metre Westport motor yacht. The beautifully proportioned boat is moored at the end of the immaculate sculpture garden that makes up part of his Fort Lauderdale home. The final exhibit among an impressive array of artwork, Sheherazade is also now perfectly positioned to benefit from the rather impressive Floridian sunset.

He may casually dismiss the yacht as his “floating RV” but I can only feel that, like everything in his life, it was all rather considered. When I ask why, of all the motor yachts in the world, he chose this one, I am offered a glimpse into the research that went into his decision. “I figured out they were designed for these waters, they are shallow draught and they are easy to maintain… and Larry Ellison had one that he put 8,000 hours on in four years – he was all over the world in it!”

Not a bad endorsement. And he clearly has a soft spot for Sheherazade, which he bought in 2017 as a replacement for Alice’s Restaurant, a 39.6m Westport. He’s a man with a limited amount of free time, but when he takes a moment to step on board, he concedes he “feels a great sense of pride. It’s unbelievably comfortable… this is a really beautiful boat.” Rather than an adventurous traveller, her regular route is north in the summer, up to the Hamptons, or, if he’s in Washington DC (Sussman is passionate about US politics) the boat travels there to meet him.

Although Sheherazade was refitted in 2014, tweaks to the Westport are ongoing. The Italian-designed modernist table lamp in the main saloon is bothering him – “it needs to be changed,” he admits. Sussman is a man with an eye for design, but also efficiency and, as I was about to find out, bold innovation.

But I haven’t travelled to Fort Lauderdale to discuss motor yachts. My passion is sailing, and Sussman had this spring taken delivery of a boat I was very keen to talk about. The Eagle 53 was, without doubt, the talk of the sailing world. Heralded as the most exciting technological development in sailboat design for some time, it’s a “full-scale model” of what will eventually be a 78ft carbon-fibre foiling machine called the 8X.

Sussman’s vision for it came from watching the fastest racing boats ever built foil across San Francisco Bay. The AC72s of the 34th America’s Cup were powered by giant wing sails and, despite their size and weight, flew around the bay on hydrofoils, touching speeds of 40 knots. As the rest of us gazed in excited wonderment, Sussman was hatching a plan. “Why can’t my 27-metre cruising Gunboat Sunshine be more like that?” he mused. It opened his eyes to a new way of indulging his lifelong passion for sailing.

He asked Tommy Gonzalez, his longstanding Gunboat captain, to make it happen. It was to be powered by a practical wing plan but, crucially, would not require a crew full of professionals to get the most out of it. It was quite an ask, but the brief didn’t end there. Sussman also wanted to “create a space that’s comfortable, luxurious and light, but gives the opportunity to enjoy a sailing experience at a different level than people have experienced up till now.”

Unfazed, Gonzalez, who owns a company called Fast Forward in Bristol, Rhode Island, that makes composite parts, turned to the experts for help, recruiting some of the America’s Cup’s most renowned smarts, among them foil experts, wing sail specialists, systems and automation engineers and a world-class team of high-end composite boatbuilders.

If they were going to deliver the performance jump and efficiency that Sussman was seeking, they’d need to start from the ground up, combining bold thinking with off-the-chart, cutting-edge technology.

I suggest that it could be seen as quite audacious to attempt to mimic the technology common only in the most extreme, most refined racing boats, a bit like researching Formula One when designing a car. “Well I have a good sense of which ideas actually work or don’t… I’ve an ability to listen to people and see if what they are talking about makes sense,” he confirms.

“But you’re not a naval architect. You’re no engineer,” I naively interject.

“Nor am I a computer scientist, yet I wrote some of the biggest computer trading operations in the world… I’m a good listener.”

Touché. Along with David E Shaw, Sussman is credited as being the mastermind behind the application of computer modelling to stock trading, a development they initiated in 1988. This skill for using technology to achieve gains in business was behind his decision to apply a similar approach to further develop his passion for sailing.

His previous boat, the Gunboat 90, is a fantastic cruising catamaran. He used it for day sailing from his base in the US Virgin Islands, and in the first year he owned it, he sailed it for 200 days. Gunboats are modern, well designed and plenty fast enough, but Sussman thought Sunshine could be smoother, faster and more comfortable. When sailing, it rarely lifted a hull out of the water, so, when he saw the America’s Cup boats fly, he could see the potential to sail at speed with a stable platform. “We owe that to Larry Ellison, to say ‘Wait a minute – here is a way to make this whole thing more efficient,’” he says.

Growing up in Miami Beach, Florida, the son of an architect, Sussman’s lifelong passion for the sport began with a $1 purchase by his father. The investment was the plans for a pram dinghy from a magazine, and his eyes light up even as he talks about it now. He reminisces on how the excited young boy helped his father build the boat, brimming with impatience as the modest craft slowly took shape. Once that pram dinghy was finished, he was enrolled in local sailing school and, in an instant, he’d fallen in love.

As a student, Sussman discovered a place that offered boat rentals for $5. He regularly roped in a buddy and off they’d go together. They were self-taught. “What’s the worst that could happen – you end up on a sandbar, get out and push it around,” he declared, eyes still smiling with happy memories. (I didn’t volunteer that that is not strictly the worst thing that could happen.)

Time passed, but the love of the sport remained. With a young family and a little bit of money, Sussman bought a popular but modest Canadian cruising boat, the Nonsuch 30. With just one sail and a then-progressive wishbone unstayed mast, it was a good choice for cruising with a young family – simple and clean. As his children got bigger, so did the boat, and the Nonsuch was upgraded to a Freedom 45 named Compound Interest. With an increase in boat size, horizons rapidly broadened. He now felt anything was possible. He went exploring, realising quickly that the discovery of new places by sea never tires. When he sailed into Deer Isle, Maine, he knew he had arrived somewhere pretty special.

Compound Interest is still there, sitting pride of place on a mooring at the end of his garden.

“There are weeks that I’m up in Maine, when I’ll go sailing on Compound Interest and I enjoy sailing that just as much,” he says. “I like getting out on the water and having it peaceful and quiet. I do like everything to work… I hate it when things don’t work!”

It’s no wonder, then, that Sussman is excited about his newest boat. It’s taken some time to float, much of the thinking behind the tech hadn’t been tested. Prototypes of the hybrid wing sail had to be developed both through computer modelling and in real life – some of the technology on the Eagle 53 debuted in Bermuda at the 2017 America’s Cup as the boat was in development at Gonzalez’s company Fast Forward Composites. The hybrid wing sail was developed by Gonzalez and Olympic medallist and multihull sail specialist Randy Smyth. The mast rides on a bearing so that it can freewheel at anchor and, unlike the America’s Cup boats, does not have to have its mast pulled at the end of sailing.

I knew the answer before I ask him whether he enjoyed the evolution process. “People will tell you I enjoy guiding the process to achieve my vision,” he says. The first Eagle 53 has been on sea trials in the Caribbean, turning heads wherever it goes. We get around to sailing chat and, as a lifelong helmsman, my first question is obvious: What’s it like to steer?

“It drives better than my Porsche,” he says. “It’s so sensitive because the boat is so light and smooth in the water. It’s amazing.”

But I’m curious – is it all about the speed or the performance? “It’s about the quality of the performance,” he explains. “What we’ve created is something that looks relaxing and beautiful but is super efficient and really quiet and really responsive. It just moves like nothing you’ve ever sailed, I promise you.”

The Eagle 53 is currently fitted with C-shaped foils to help it “fly”. In layman’s terms, this type of foil is what one could call self-regulating: the more of it in the water, the more lift; as the boat begins to fly, less foil in the water, less lift. They are far more forgiving than the T-shaped foils the boat is about to get. The T-foil is a far more unstable undertaking and will require efficient electronic ride-height controller software to keep it steady and keep the boat riding at the correct height and level above the water. More unstable maybe, but a whole lot faster and smoother. Performance and efficiency: two of Sussman’s watchwords throughout the entire design process.

The whole project has been a significant investment in lots of ways. I ask what sailing gives back to him. “Being outdoors in peace and serenity, moving efficiently and quietly – that’s what it does. I run this very complicated business that has a tremendous number of moving parts and when I go sailing there are so many important things to keep track of, especially on the Eagle, it takes my mind off all the other stuff… so it’s on the one hand peaceful and serene and on the other hand it has this way of cleansing your mind of all the other things that may be in your head.”

With this one statement, Donald Sussman has succinctly nailed the attraction of the entire sport. He’s relating it to one of the most visionary sailing projects we’ve seen in a long while, a project that has required inspiration, tenacity and dedication, but the quote fits. If you’re looking for excitement that also cleanses the mind, I’ve no doubt that you’ll find it at the helm of Sussman’s Eagle 53. And looking at his affable smile, it’s clear he knows it, too.

Photography: Philippe Vermès

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