The James Bond movie franchise has never shied from any chance to include a yacht in the narrative and as part of the set. And given the urgent nature of the glamorous secret agent’s business, these have tended to be fast powerboats, starting with the Fairey Huntresses and Huntsmen in From Russia With Love (1963) through to the Glastron GT150 speedboat, which performed a spectacular 120‘ (36.6m) leap in Live and Let Die (1973), and a clutch of Sunseekers in subsequent films. In 2006, while filming Casino Royale, the filmmakers decided to do something a bit different. Alongside their usual high-velocity petrol-fueled fare, they featured a sailing yacht: a 54‘ (54‘ 9“/16.7m) sloop with a long counter stern and seemingly acres of flawless varnish, which James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) sailed into Venice during a romantic interlude in the film.
Cast in the enviable role was the Spirit 54 designed and built by British boatbuilders Spirit Yachts, located in Ipswich, Suffolk, on the east coast of England. And if that wasn’t enough notoriety for the somewhat obscure custom builder, the producers repeated the trick in the 2021 No Time to Die, this time using a Spirit 46 (46‘ 6“/ 14.15m) sailing yacht for James Bond to sail around Jamaica during his “retirement” scenes.
The pairing was in many ways a marriage made in heaven. Just as James Bond has come to symbolize the aspirational best of British wit, style, and appetite for adventure, Spirit Yachts offers the best in bespoke sailboats, combining high-performance modern hulls with a classic aesthetic and a price on par with Bond’s generous expense account. The formula has inspired a devoted following and led to a unique line of yachts, steadily increasing in size over the years, from the original 37-footer (11.5m) built in 1993 to its biggest creation so far, the 111‘ (33.8m) Geist, launched in 2020.
Spirit Yachts is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2023, so it seemed the perfect time to visit its expanded boatyard facility in Ipswich, where Spirit has become an increasingly important part of the regeneration of the disused docks and looks set to play an even bigger role as plans for a company-centered boatbuilding university take shape. The year started with the announcement of a major management reshuffle. Founder and chief designer Sean McMillan (now 72) is in effect taking semiretirement, handing ownership to a consortium of Spirit yacht owners and the day-to-day running of the company to Management Director Karen Underwood and the office’s newest recruit, Production & Design Director Julian Weatherill.
Yet the first person I see when I walk through the office door is McMillan, looking as suave and relaxed as James Bond himself, and bearing a roll of drawings for his latest design. No surprises there. Spirit Yachts has always been inextricably linked with this former-art-student-turned-boat-bum-turned-boatbuilder-turned-company-director. It turns out that he’s staying on as a consultant for the next three years, before fully retiring from the scene. Though it seems to me unlikely that will ever really happen.
“Sean is hanging on to the bits he likes [the designing] and letting go of the bits he doesn’t like [running a busy boatyard],” says Underwood, with a cheerful chuckle. She has worked in the marine industry for the past 25 years (including 15 years at Oyster Marine), and you get the feeling the company is in very safe hands.
She and McMillan are meeting a client at 11 a.m., so after a lengthy chat, newly promoted Marketing Director Helen Porter shows me around the yard. “We’ve had both sheds full of new builds for the past three years, catching up with pent-up demand after COVID,” she says. “We’ve had three 72s, one 68, one 52, and two 30s. We’ve now finally got space to take on some refurbishment projects, one for a couple who has been waiting a couple of years. The 52 in-build over there is Spirit hull number 80—or Sean’s 100th boat, if you include the ones he built before Spirit Yachts.”
It’s all a long way from the cottage in Saxmundham, about 18 miles (29 km) north of Ipswich, where I visited McMillan and his then-business-partner, Mick Newman, in 1994. They had just built their first boat, the Spirit 37, in a disused cowshed at the back of Newman’s house, and I had come to interview them and take photos of the boat for what would turn out to be the first-ever test sail of a Spirit yacht. Not that any of us had the slightest inkling of what was to come.
It all seemed to be a bit of a laugh. Sean had already had his fingers badly burned when his company, McMillan Yachts, had gone bust in the global financial crisis a few years earlier. Those boats were strip-planked gaffers, usually with modern underwater hull shapes and fancy joinery that fairly shouted out, “I am a wooden boat!”
“I was already playing with the visual joke about having a traditional-looking boat which is very modern below the waterline,” McMillan says. Not everyone got the joke, however, and after building a dozen boats, the company ground to a halt.
Back in ’94, he had joined forces with Newman—a former barge sailor—to create something completely different. The original Spirit 37 was inspired by the skerry cruisers of the Baltic, with their improbably tall rigs designed to catch the wind blowing over the tops of the flat islands, and their long, narrow hulls for optimum speed rather than comfort. But the new partners wanted to push the type to its limit by building the boat in super-lightweight materials and with a modern underwater shape—that McMillan joke again.
The Beginning of Spirit Yachts
The first Spirit 37 was by any standards an extraordinary boat. With her long overhangs and narrow 7‘ (2.1m) beam, she looked superficially like a classic yacht from the 1920s, but underwater her bulb keel and skeg rudder told a more contemporary story. A judicious use of modern materials—including a strip-planked hull sheathed with fiberglass set in WEST System epoxy—meant the boat turned out exceptionally light: just 2 tons (4,000 lbs/1,814 kg), with an impressive 60% ballast/displacement ratio. It had a retro-looking fractional rig with knocked-back mast (curved aft at the top) combined with a modern-looking T-section boom and full-battened mainsail. The double cockpit and modern deck fittings suggested she was a serious racing boat, while the black walnut trim set it all off to dramatic aesthetic effect. Below decks, the boat had only sitting headroom, despite her 37‘ length, and the fit-out was stylish but spartan.
The pair named the boat the Spirit 37, not from any spiritual conviction but due to the volume of spirits consumed during her construction—hence the distiller’s retort flask in the logo. They had considered calling her the Hashish 37, but wisely decided against that in the end.
On the water, the boat proved nothing short of spectacular, clocking 11.7 knots on that first trial (a record she would take many years to break) and as light and responsive on the helm as an overgrown dinghy. She was every bit the fun boat McMillan and Newman had intended, but at that time she was a complete anomaly. The Spirit of Tradition class had yet to be created, and there were only a handful of identifiable “modern classics” in existence—mostly big cruising boats from the boards of Bruce King and André Hoek.
“[Back then] we were whistling in the dark,” McMillan later told me. “We had no idea whether there was a ‘retro’ movement or not. We just built the boat we wanted, which was fun and of a size we could relate to. Luckily, it struck a chord.”
The Spirit 37 was one of the standout boats at the Düsseldorf boat show in January 1995 and was quickly snapped up by a German buyer, who sailed her for the next 25 years. The company also received two orders for 33‘ (10.1m) versions of the boat that would satisfy size restrictions on European lakes. Since then, Spirit Yachts hasn’t looked back.
The 37 was followed in 1996 by the 46 (14m), complete with carbon fiber mast, teak decks, and a serious turn of speed, reaching 18 knots on plane (though, according to my notes, McMillan claims he once got 26 knots out of a 46). Ten 37s were eventually built, as well as a dozen 46s. McMillan is keen to emphasize that no two Spirit yachts are identical, as they are all custom built, and even the 37 has three slightly different hull shapes, never mind the various interiors and deck layouts.
The year 1996 was a significant milestone in another way: it was the first time the Antigua Classics featured a dedicated class for modern classic yachts, and by a happy coincidence it named that class Spirit of Tradition. The Mediterranean classic-yacht circuit eventually followed suit in 2003. Suddenly it seemed that Spirit Yachts’ eccentric foray into imaginative boat design was not so contrary after all and was in fact on the leading edge of a new and growing movement. The bad boys of British boatbuilding were trendsetters in a glittering new vein of yachting.
Crucial to all this was McMillan’s background in fine art, for while he is just as concerned with performance and seaworthiness as other designers are, it is his willingness to take aesthetic risks that has set him apart in what is an intrinsically conservative industry.
“I take the view that yacht design is an art with science applied,” he says. “You have to have an instinctive understanding of how the hull moves through water. I gained that by sailing tens of thousands of miles as a delivery skipper, by leaning over the side of the boat and watching the hull, by getting more curious and studying hydrodynamics, and by going out and doing it. Some of the boats were great, and some not so great, but I learned a lot along the way.”
Despite its growing success, the business remained in the old cowshed behind Newman’s house until 2003, when they had to erect a temporary extension to build a 70-footer (21.3m), which was a full 10‘ (3.1m) longer than the shed itself. That was the final straw, and the following year the company moved to bigger premises at the old docks in Ipswich.
If you had to imagine what a James Bond sailing yacht would look like, it would probably be a modern classic with exaggerated hull lines and a generous helping of shiny deck gear. So, it was almost an inevitability that sooner or later Spirit Yachts’ classy finish and understated power would attract the creators of the world’s most famous secret agent—and the 54‘ Soufrière was duly built for the 2006 Bond movie Casino Royale, complete with a luxurious interior comprising two cabins, en suite heads, and (that rarest thing on a Spirit yacht of that era) full standing headroom. The yacht was shipped to the Bahamas and sailed to Puerto Rico, then shipped to Croatia and sailed to Venice, where she is said to have been the first sailing yacht to go up the Grand Canal in 300 years (albeit under power).
All these efforts yielded just a few minutes of footage in the final film, but it was enough to turn Spirit Yachts, until then mainly a British success story, into an international brand. Following the release of Casino Royale, inquiries at the yard increased fourfold—though more often than not the phone went quiet when a price was mentioned. Not everyone, it seems, has a Bond-caliber budget.
Soufrière turned out to be exceptionally fast and, under her new real-life owner, won a string of trophies at home in Ireland and at the annual British Classics Week in Cowes. Her success prompted McMillan to build a slightly smaller version for himself. Launched in 2007, his 52‘ Flight of Ufford has proven equally competitive, regularly clocking speeds of up to 16 knots and winning British Classics Week three years running in 2014–16—though since 2017 he has had to take turns at first place with the stripped-down, flush-decked 52-footer Oui Fling, built for Baron Irvine Laidlaw of Rothiemay. McMillan’s proudest moment on his boat, however, was being invited to join the Queen’s Jubilee Pageant on the Thames in 2012—the only modern yacht to be summoned.
The year 2007 was also a landmark for a more somber reason, as McMillan’s longtime business partner, Mick Newman, died in a plane crash. Sadly, he would never see the full flowering of the company he helped to create.
The 52 went on to become the yard’s most popular boat to date, no doubt helped by McMillan’s enthusiastic campaigning of Flight of Ufford on both sides of the Atlantic. It also led to the yard’s biggest and most challenging commission. After the Spirit 52 Happy Forever hit a rock in the Baltic, she went back to the Spirit yard for repair, and while her owner (a young German shipowner) stopped by to check progress he spotted a design McMillan was working on. He asked him to design a 90‘ (27.4m) version, and when that wasn’t quite right, asked that it be drawn out to 100‘ (30.5m), then 105‘ (32m) and, finally, 111‘ (33.8m). While the yacht’s hull grew longer with each design iteration, her freeboard remained unchanged—she just got sleeker and more stunning each time.
The result was Geist, the Spirit 111, said to be the biggest single-masted wooden boat built in Britain since the J-Class Shamrock in the 1930s. Not only that, but the yard claimed it was “one of the most environmentally friendly sailing superyachts ever created.” Built mostly of sustainable timber (except for those endless teak decks), it boasted a 100-kW Torqeedo electric engine served by four banks of lithium-ion batteries that could be recharged by the propeller while under sail.
Belowdecks, the owner specified that he wanted only organic shapes—there should be no straight lines and no sharp corners. It was a challenge that the Spirit workforce (with some help from the design agency Rhoades Young) rose to, creating a cocoon-like interior with rounded bulkheads, curved seating and sideboards, and shell-like beds that seem to hover in space. Storage space is mostly hidden behind panels with sensor-activated doors that open to the touch. It was quite simply, as Underwood puts it, “a floating work of art.”
“Building the hull wasn’t a problem; that’s our bread and butter,” says Yard Supervisor Adrian Gooderham, who has worked at Spirit for more than 20 years. “But building the interior was a challenge, especially as they wanted the veneers to match, even in the sink areas, where it comes down the bulkhead onto the countertop, down the side, then onto the shelf, and down again—all matching. If there was a defect in any part of it, you’d have to find another veneer and start again.”
Most of the internal joinery was farmed out, but Gooderham built the distinctive saloon table—56 curved legs arranged in a circle, with a round glass top that bolted to the top of each leg. “Quite complex,” he admits.
The company’s commitment to the environment stems from its early days when, McMillan points out, just choosing to build in wood would label you as a crank. He still feels just as strongly about it now.
“You can’t build boats and not be concerned about the environment,” he says. “The implications for the yachting industry are dire, yet 99.9% of companies are banging out petrochemical products with no attempt to deal with end of life. There has to be a point when you stand up and say, ‘This cannot be right.’ We are gradually getting rid of diesel engines and trying to build boats that have minimum impact on the planet.”
Over the years, the company has refined its focus. Early on, they stopped using Brazilian mahogany when their supplier couldn’t guarantee it came from a sustainable source. They switched to sipo, a similar timber grown as a commercial crop. More recently, they stopped using teak for decks and tried using the teak-substitute Lignia. When that company went bust amid concerns about the durability of the product, Spirit switched to using Douglas-fir, which has proven a good substitute. Various test panels with the alternative decking material are being continuously monitored, in part thanks to an accelerated-aging test tank on loan from electronics supplier Raymarine.
In 2020, they launched the first all-electric Spirit 44E (13.4m), fitted with an Oceanvolt sail drive powered by lithium-ion batteries that can be recharged by two large solar panels on the afterdeck or, while under sail, by the spinning propeller. Her decks were made of Lignia, and her sails were fabricated with 4T Forte recyclable cloth, courtesy of OneSails, which makes most of Spirit’s sails. Avvento was shipped to her owner’s home in British Columbia, Canada, where she cruises in remote areas for weeks at a time with no need for external energy supply. Her owner jokes that he’s more likely to run out of food than run out of electricity. Nearly half of Spirit’s new builds are now fitted with electric engines, though McMillan is quick to acknowledge that, environmentally speaking, they are not the “perfect panacea” due to the use of rare metals in the batteries.
More recently, Spirit Yachts has been applying flax cloth in place of fiberglass to sheathe their 30-footers—Bcomp’s ampliTex flax 350-g/m2 biaxial (+/–45°) 1270mm and ampliTex flax twill 2/2, no twist, 1000mm, 300-g/m2—and will apply it to the bigger boats once they are happy with its performance. (See “Flax Boats,” Professional BoatBuilder No. 197, page 44.)
“We had to be much quicker with the glue when laying up the flax, as it is very absorbent,” says Gooderham. “We had to be precise with the quantities of resin, and we had to post-cure in a tent at 25°C [77°F] during the fairing process.”
They are also experimenting with bio-based resin in nonstructural areas and hope to use it more extensively in due course.
And there are many other, smaller ways the company earns its eco-credentials, as Helen Porter explains: “We recently replaced our plastic paint trays with sugar cane trays, and we’ve replaced our paint brushes and rollers with low-carbon-footprint products. We’re using vacuum bags made out of recycled materials. We’ve discovered we can reduce waste timber by 20% by using CNC to cut wood. So, we are constantly chipping away in the background. The goal is always to lower the carbon footprint of a yacht as much as possible.”
She makes the point that in most instances, the more sustainable solution will offer other benefits such as reduced noise, cheaper running costs, or greater self-sufficiency, meaning there is less need to call on expensive marinas. When the benefits are fully explained, she says, nine times out of 10 the client will opt for the more sustainable option.
Once again, the company’s once-unorthodox stance has served them well, and while most of the marine industry is playing catchup on burnishing their environmental credentials, Spirit finds itself in the vanguard of the movement. Underwood estimates that as many as 60% of their customers “have sustainability in their minds. They are living and breathing it already. They have an electric car. They have a ground-source heat-pump system at home. That’s why they come to us.”
Another sign of the times for Spirit Yachts is a greater emphasis on boat interiors, something designer Tom Smith, who trained partly in Italy, is happy to go along with. “The interior never used to get as much attention as the exterior. Now it’s just as much,” says Smith, who heads a team of four designers at the yard. “Lots of people want their yachts to be as comfortable as their homes. That should be possible, as long as you’re clever. I hate it when people say that yacht design is a compromise. There’s no reason to compromise; you just have to be clever with the design.”
In practical terms, that has meant a shift away from traditional wood paneling toward lighter colors, including white satin painted panels. The company is also collaborating with textiles companies to try out new color palettes including cloths made from recycled bottles.
Spirit Yachts Under Power
In recent years, Spirit has added a few powerboats to their stable of designs—from a couple of retro-styled launches, the P40 (12.2m) and P35 (10.7m), to a more substantial 70‘ motoryacht, the P70, designed to cross the North Sea from the U.K. to the Baltic and back at 18 knots. Even here, the company is keen to emphasize the designs’ eco credentials, noting that it can build the boats lighter than their GRP equivalents, which means they require smaller engines and therefore have greater fuel efficiency. It’s a virtuous circle that again benefits the client by saving them money in running costs.
Spirit’s most spectacular powerboat to date had finally completed its trials stage when I visited the company in June 2023. The F35 looks every bit like one of those classic North American speedboats from 100 years ago. Long and narrow, with sensuously shaped varnished topsides and foredeck, it appears the epitome of 1920s elegance. But, like her sailing sisters, the F35 has a secret hiding underwater: foils. Power her up to 14 knots or so and she will free herself from the tedious limitations of wetted surface area and fly largely above the water at up to 30 knots (though 22 knots is her cruising speed).
Spirit Yachts joined forces with BAR Technologies (better known for its America’s Cup simulation and design) to create this electric foiler with a range of 100 miles at 22 knots. This is a major step forward in electric boating, and all with a classic aesthetic that you don’t expect to perform so efficiently—that old McMillan joke again.
McMillan is rightfully proud of his new design and, back in the office, shows me a video of the boat in action on Lake Maggiore in Italy. Halfway through, the F35 is joined by a copy of the Crouch-designed Baby Bootlegger, a curvaceous 1924 American mahogany speedboat that inspired his design. (See Paul Lazarus’s “How Fast Will It Go?” in PBB No. 169, page 62.) The family resemblance is clear—though, as McMillan points out, their performance is quite different. The old boat with its 220-hp (165-kW) combustion engine leaves a vast wake, while the big foiler at speed barely dimples the lake surface.
She’s clearly the future of motorboating—fast, elegant, and clean—especially once safety and ethical concerns around some lithium-ion batteries are resolved or competing alternative fuels become viable.
I’m keen to see the roll of plans McMillan has brought in for scanning—he still works in the early stages with pen and paper before submitting his drawings to CAD for the development and production stages—but it turns out they’re top secret. All he will say is that they are for an “extremely radical” electric foiler, considerably bigger than the F35. Even at 72, he is still clearly excited by this latest project.
Spirit Yachts’ Academy and Beyond
McMillan is willing to talk about another project close to his heart: the new Spirit Academy. In the past the company was able to recruit staff from all over the world to work in the yard, but that has become more difficult since Brexit, and like most companies in the boating sector, Spirit has suffered a skills shortage. The solution McMillan decided on is to set up a training center in a disused building right next to the yard. The Spirit Academy will be the first university-standard boatbuilding college in the world, training students to a high skill level so they come out ready to start work using modern tools and materials. The course of study will comprise most aspects of boatbuilding, including design, rigging, and sailmaking. The only thing that won’t be in the curriculum is fiberglass construction, which McMillan is convinced will soon “come to a crashing halt.”
He said he hopes to start restoring the building this autumn, with the first intake of students possible as early as fall of 2025. The plan is to enroll two classes a year of 12 students each for a two-year course, with a total of 48 students when it’s fully up and running.
Meanwhile, Spirit Yachts will continue building its distinctive brand of high-quality wood/composite yachts. Despite recent forays into powerboats, sailing yachts will continue to be their focus, particularly in the 60‘–90‘ range (their “sweet spot,” according to Underwood). The new 72-footer is particularly popular right now, with three built in two years—one for charter (with a cabin forward for paid crew), one for racing, and the third for bluewater cruising.
McMillan shows no signs of slowing down, and neither does the company he created in a disused cowshed all those years ago. At last, it seems the world has caught up, and the McMillan joke of delivering modern performance boats with vintage aesthetics is one we can all understand.
Meanwhile, Spirit’s new retro-styled foiler stands ready to serve when the next actor cast in the correspondingly retro role of James Bond takes the helm.
About the Author: Nic Compton is a freelance writer/photographer based in Devon, U.K. He lived on boats in the Mediterranean until the age of 15 and worked as a boatbuilder for many years before swapping his chisel for a pen and his router for a computer. He sails a Rhode Island–built Freedom 33, currently based in Greece.