Nigel Stuart on Spirit Yachts’ Eco-Focus and “Tesla of the Sea”

When Sean McMillan established Spirit Yachts a quarter century ago, his philosophy was, “Design and build the most beautiful yacht people have ever seen.” Since that time, its fleet of wooden yachts has expanded into superyacht territory, encompassing power and sail, too. In fact, the Spirit 111 (below), launching next year, is among the largest wooden sailing yachts built in the UK. She’s also an environmentally sustainable project. Nigel Stuart, managing director, nicknames her the “Tesla of the sea.” He also recently wrote in a newsletter, “I am keen for Spirit to continue collaborating with suppliers to challenge technology and create the most eco-friendly, custom yachts on the market.” In this interview, Stuart explains why that challenge is so important. I was struck by how you’re trying to make the company much more environmentally focused. Why?

Nigel Stuart: It’s the way I am. I believe in things that people like David Attenborough say. And I think we need to sit up and take notice as much as we can now, rather than waiting until we’re told to do it. It all fits with what we do. One of the reasons I came to this business is because we build from timber that’s ethically sourced, and in terms of the construction of the boat, it allows us to build in a very environmentally friendly way. At the end of the day, when the boats are a hundred years old, what do we do with a wooden boat? Well, we can burn it and generate electricity. That all sat right with me. I’ve been here now four and a half years, and over that time we’ve worked on how to make the propulsion more efficient, how to make the heating more efficient, and drive all aspects of what we do. The equipment the guys use to build the boats… If you get it right, it can be a cost savings, as well as an advantage in building the boat.

I think customers are open to it. They don’t have the choice with most companies. Most companies say, “Well, this is how we do it.” I think when you talk to customers, they do drive Teslas now; they do care about their footprint. …It’s all about saying, “You can have this, this, and this. You can have a smaller generator, and silent nights because the generator won’t need to run.” And people say, “Oh, that’s fantastic!” They just need to be given that opportunity. You mentioned ethically sourced timber. There have been problems with teak. How does Spirit address that challenge?

Nigel Stuart: We have had a stockpile of teak which dates back four or five years. We’re lucky that someone in the business took that decision to stockpile teak whilst knowing where it came from. It came from managed forests. I’ve met the guy who operates in the forests. But, we’ve all realized there’s too much risk in buying that timber. … Our 44 electric boat is going to use pine that’s been treated in a special way. It looks like teak, it behaves like teak, but it’s not teak. I think people are starting to realize that before teak, we were fitting soft-woods decks. We can treat that soft wood in a manner that makes its properties close to a hard wood. …Again, it just takes a bit of time explaining the options, and showing that the lifespan of alternatives is just as good.

Spirit 111 sailing superyacht Do you think environmental opportunities attract your customers to you?

Nigel Stuart: I think it’s one of a plethora of reasons. We’re a custom boatbuilding yard, and we build boats of a certain style, so I think that’s the initial attraction. What warms them is when they walk in the door and realize we’re not actually using mahogany in our boats. Their comfort comes from the rest of the decision-making. With the eco element, some of them say, “I’m so glad I can tick that in my decision-making process, and before I commit my money, I’m future-proofing my boat.” I think they can all see where we’re going long-term. Burning hydrocarbons as you’re moving about in the water may, in five or 10 years, not be possible. These boats we’re building, because of how we’re building them and their style—the style doesn’t tend to date—people know that these boats are going to be around probably for a hundred years. With the Spirit 111, how did the conversation start, and how did the “Tesla of the sea” come into it?

Nigel Stuart: We were talking about propulsion, and I was giving him options, because propulsion and living are slightly linked. How do you want your air conditioning to work—are you going to run it all the time? Do you have your hatches open for fresh air? Do you have 20-minute hot showers, or are showers short and sharp? All those conversations about how he wanted to live on the boat. This boat is an owner-driven boat, so it’s very much about how he and his friends are going to use the boat. Going through that conversation, we got to the stage where I said, “You’re quite keen on not having a generator run all night, so what about the propulsion system?” And when I summarized it, where I said, “You can have a traditional propulsion system,” which he’s aware of, because he has a smaller sailboat, or “You can have a Tesla,” his eyes lit up. He said, “I’ve got a Tesla.” That was the moment. He couldn’t express what he was after, but when we got to those options, the Tesla just fired him up. He said, “Well, that sums it up.” We didn’t have to go through the detail of how we’d get there with him. That was a very good analogy of what he was looking for. (Editor’s note: See “Spirit 111 Set to Be British Builder’s Biggest Yet” for more details.) Given all of the yard’s developments and even the 111, what’s on the horizon?

Nigel Stuart: It’s trickled down to our smaller boats. The next sailing boat, the 65, has twin electric-drive, variable-pitch props.  That will regenerate as much power as the 111 will when sailing. …That customer is really keen on not starting a generator, ever. Below that, we’ll have the 44, which will have no hydrocarbons: no gas, no diesel aboard at all. It will rely on solar, wind, and regeneration to the propeller. On the bigger front, with our 70-foot powerboat, which we are launching in May, we can run most of it off battery power. We should be able to have silent nights with the air con running. And, in not too-swelly conditions, we should be able to run the stabilizers as well overnight. So, there’s no generator running overnight with a stable boat, which is quite something. That boat is designed to do 1,000 miles at 18 knots without refueling, which is quite a lot of speed at quite a long distance. This just shows that the technology is trickling down our range.

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