Spirit Yachts — 50DH
Spirit Yachts of the UK has helped to reignite interest in classically-styled, wooden yachts that feature modern build techniques, rigs and underwater shapes. With their new deckhouse series, the builder aims to make their yachts good-looking and suited for offshore sailing that also take well to light airs
On the waterfront at Ipswich, on the UK’s east coast, is a shipyard that has spent the last 19 years exquisitely using wood-epoxy build methods to create some of the world’s most alluring spirit of tradition boats. Spirit Yachts use traditional designed, strip-planked timber hulls, with modern appendages (rigs, keels and rudders), to produce lightweight performance yachts.
But it’s the aesthetic showpieces like alluring overhangs, swept teak decks, sparkling glosswork and chrome that really do the dazzling (the Spirit 54 even made an appearance as James Bond’s personal yacht while in Venice in Casino Royale). But far from skin-deep beauty, Spirit Yachts’ build methods have depth to them. Using Douglas Fir planking with double diagonal veneers of mahogany laid on top is a combination of two methods (strip planking and cold-moulding) produces fantastically strong hulls according to Managing Director Sean Macmillan – hulls that he claims are as light as those in carbon fibre, with a higher tensile strength even than steel.
The new deckhouse line
McMillan is the chief designer for each of the 52 boats from 37–100-foot that have now left his yard (plus drawings for a 110ft and 130 footer) – with no moulds involved. This represents high custom wooden boatbuilding volume. “Over 90 percent of the company’s production has gone abroad, leading to the Queens Award for Industry in 2008,” says McMillan. Up until last year these were all fairly classic looking, with very low freeboard and subtle coachroofs maintaining beautiful sweeping lines.
But their new range of Deckhouse models offer more of the voluminous comfort demanded by today’s yachtsmen – and while they remain light displacement yachts, the deckhouses offer protection and shelter, including two sea-berths, while the freeboard provides full standing headroom below. The first four to launch were between 50 and 65 feet, while an 80 and 100 DH have also been drawn.
The dark blue hulls of the first two examples, a 50 and 57 Deckhouse, made a handsome first impression for our trial sail. Their tumblehome stood out, together with a fuller hull that buys interior space with as little impact to the classic lines as possible. At the same time, the revised editions should allow their owners to head further offshore than Spirit’s previous lines. The deckhouses themselves are beautifully sculpted, sleek with concave curves, producing an appearance that Spirit Yachts likens to a pagoda.
I took what proved to be an ultra light helm on the 50DH and fetched with the ebbing river doing around seven knots, with a fully battened main and 110-percent jib tasked with maximising a fluky breeze of not much more than the current speed. As soon as a puff of breeze comes, these boats heel onto a gunwhale, bring their waterlines into play, and take off. In fact, most other boats of this size that morning would most likely have needed to resort to the engine, especially when the wind dropped down to four or five knots. Yet this lightweight Spirit easily matched the average force three wind speeds when close hauled.
The exposed helm sits high, giving more of a daysailer feel. And while the cockpit may feel somewhat constrictive compared to today’s production boats, with little space to stand either side of the wheel, the rewarding tactile wheel on which to gently rest a directing finger is a pleasant compromise. Operating the winches from the helm is simple – the mainsheet can lead back to one winch as we had it, or to winches each side of the helm, while the traveler resides on the deckhouse roof. The test boats also used powered aft winches so you could lead jib sheets aft to these when short-handed.
Aboard the four-tonne heavier 57DH that afternoon, we had a healthier force four to play with and duly short tacked back out of the river at respectable speeds – eight knots at 50 degrees true in 12-15 knots. Nudging up to a close-haul, we were still sitting pretty in the late sixes. The helm continually felt ever so light, with little feedback to communicate a potential groove, but a delicate smidgen of weatherhelm does make itself known once acquainted with her. As the increased freeboard of these deckhouse models invites offshore sailing, slightly more feedback might aid confidence however.
The cockpit is large enough to sit around a table on the 57DH and is more spacious and comfortable for helming – although I’d still prefer more standing room to each side of the wheel (which would help access too). A Meridian control panel is neatly mounted on each side of the wheel column/binnacle for controlling vang, outhaul and backstay. Both the Code 0 and the asymmetric provided easily deployed extra horsepower, clocking an effortless 8.5 knots in 16 knots of breeze.
But while they are lightweight boats, reactive and very slippery, such figures are not what these boats are all about. For me it was carrying the kite all the way back up the river (with her designer, sailmaker and some of those who put her together onboard) that produced the heady pleasure these boats are so capable of. Spirit Yachts certainly awaken your spirit.
Fit for Royalty
You have to go inside a Spirit to really appreciate it properly. The precision, detailing and quality of finish is captivating, transcending you into a timeless era by showcasing the true beauty of wood. Like being on deck, everything appeals to the senses – the joinery is so tactile, you can’t help but to stroke it, and the smell of the different timbers and lacquers is intoxicating.
The creation of standing headroom below is the selling point of this range, while the deckhouses themselves produce a stately area within, with buttoned seating (doubling as practical passage berths) and a very comfortable chart table to navigate from with surround views. For such a sleek structure, it’s impressive how much light these wheelhouses let in and the views on offer.
But I still get drawn back to the masterful joinery and cabinet-making skills – these DH models contain so much to gawp over – book-matched timberwork, felt-lined cabinets, bare teak soles, tongue-in-groove deckheads and Douglas Fir planking to name but a few. Personal favourites are the satin-finished mahogany frames that make features throughout – it almost makes you wonder why fiberglass has a place on boats at all. The butterfly hatches are as practical as they are enchanting, extending headroom (crucial on the 50DH), while pouring natural light into the saloon and galley. Spirit Yachts also manages to blend the modern and traditional well – intricate cabinet making hides a flat screen or iPod dock, while buttoned leather cushions reside next to a carbon mast base.
The 50DH, finished in smart blue upholstery, had a cosy bunk cabin below the chart table, with day heads opposite. The saloon is compact with a small table for four opposite a linear galley to starboard in a secure alcove. This model had optional hull windows, which proved effective, the dark hull ensuring they didn’t impact from the outside.
The 57DH has a similar layout, while offering more space everywhere – the big difference comes down to headroom (more like 6ft 3in throughout against the 50DH’s 5ft 10in). It also has a double ensuite guest (or owner’s) cabin to port, linking to a dedicated shower room that a Pullman opposite can also use. The forward (owner’s) ensuite cabin has a large hatch illuminating the beautiful structure, drawers and intricate dressing table.
Spirit Yachts have produced an intelligent alternative range with these Deckhouse models. Not only a different aesthetical look, they provide a protected area for the watchkeeper, including sea-going berths within the wheelhouse, together with a higher, fuller look that buys standing headroom in accommodation space more in line with current expectation. They still have the classic overhangs, which will always pinch volume and potential stowage from each end, but for the handmade quality on offer, these DHs are competitively priced, while it’s so much easier to see visually where the money’s gone over a plastic alternative.
Technical Specifications – Spirit Yachts 50DH
Beam (Max) 3.4m
Disp (lightship) 8,500kg
Sail area: 100.5 square metres
Price (ex VAT) £720,000
Engine: Yanmar diesel