Spirit Yachts founder and chief designer Sean McMillan shares plans for a Spirit Academy
Sitting down with Spirit Yachts founder and chief designer Sean McMillan, you are guaranteed to hear a great story or learn something new and interesting. Sean has dedicated his life to creativity and sailing, and Spirit Yachts is a merger of these two passions.
With Nigel Stuart (managing director) and Karen Underwood (operations director), taking care of the daily running of Spirit Yachts, Sean can be found at his drawing board either at the yard or in his studio at home. When he is not designing, Sean is busy planning Spirit’s legacy, the Spirit Academy of Yacht Construction and Technology.
Here, Sean shares early plans for the academy, what’s on his drawing board right now, future yacht design trends and where he looks to for inspiration.
Sean, what is on your drawing board at the moment?
I am designing a new 68ft Classic Spirit inspired by the customer’s existing Spirit 52. Having owned his 52 for many years, he is now looking for a larger, more practical yacht that retains the beauty of the long overhangs, low coachrooof and flush decks synonymous with the Classic Spirits.
Above: Sean McMillan at his drawing board
Can you tell us about the different designs you have worked on recently?
Despite the challenging nature of this year, I have been very busy with both projects for existing Spirit owners and developing new concepts and ideas. The smallest design this year has been the new Spirit 30, now in build and looking very good. The largest has been a 125ft yawl which, whilst visually a pure classic Spirit, is also bristling with cutting edge technology in materials, power systems and energy resources.
Between these extremes have been my largest motoryacht design so far at 112ft, and new sailing yachts at 72ft, 50ft and 65ft, so I’ve been fully occupied!
Are you seeing any particular trends in the criteria coming from Spirit customers at the moment? Are there any trends you predict will come into play over the next few years?
A strong and ever-growing concern for the ecological impact of each yacht is becoming part of most briefs. Owners are becoming acutely aware of their responsibilities In that regard and quite rightly, owners expect us to be able to deliver in that field as well as building a beautiful, elegant and fast yacht.
We are anticipating that within probably five years we will never fit another pure diesel propulsion drive system. Given the advances already in use on the Spirit 44CR(e), the integrated solar panels, propellor regeneration and solar sails, as well as gains being made with hydrogen fuel cells, sailing yachts have the potential to become truly timeless. By the same token, the trend away from petrochemical and plastic products will radically affect the mainstream manufacturers over the next few years.
Above: the recently launched, fully electric Spirit 44CR(e)
Who do you think are the great yachting designers of the last 100years?
What a difficult question! I would have to acknowledge the huge inspiration from Fife, Herreschoff and C.E.Nicholson, but I would particularly single out G.L.Watson from that era. Also from that time are lesser known, but equally talented designers such as Westmacott, H.G.May, Arthur Payne – the list is long and rich.
Nearer our own time, I have always greatly admired the work of Bruce King whose understanding of ‘the visual line’ is faultless.
Outside of yachting, is there anything that you follow or enjoy for creative inspiration?
Lots of things inspire me in a rather ‘grasshopper’ manner. I love looking at quirks in nature, which can be very inspirational in design. One of my designs owed a lot to the common woodlouse…
Tell us about the plans for the Spirit Academy of Yacht Construction and Technology.
With so many young people out there looking to learn a skill that will stay with them for life, and with the skills shortage in the marine industry still apparent, the academy is a natural project for us. For a long time, we have discussed the potential of a training facility located next door to the main Spirit Yachts yard.
The academy’s curriculum will be 80% practical, focusing on developing hand-crafted skills. It will keep sustainable working practices and materials at its core.
The course will concentrate on modern timber construction techniques, and we will draw on expertise from across the marine sector covering everything from rigging to sailmaking and electronics.
The plans are still in their infancy, but we are all keen to make it happen. We are working closely with local education providers and Associated British Ports (owners of Ipswich Haven Marina), and we hope to open to students in 2023.
If you were talking to an aspiring young designer, what advice would you give them?
Take what you can from academic teaching if that’s the way you choose to go, but realise that, regrettably, you are being taught yacht design as a science. Great designers have always treated it first and foremost as an art form with science applied later.
Draw by hand as much as you can and spend time hanging over the back of a yacht watching waterflow off a hull.
Above: having joined Spirit Yachts in 2017, designer Tom Smith works with Sean
When he is not at work, or walking his dogs with wife Jenny, Sean can be found racing and cruising onboard his own Spirit 52 Flight of Ufford. “Flight” comes with much racing pedigree and has competed at classic regattas all over the world. Watch her in action on the water here: