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Sunseeker: The Full Spectrum

Sunseeker has gained a devoted international clientele by combining a bespoke build philosophy with good old-fashioned British craftsmanship. After 50 years, that’s not going to change.

Story by Michael Verdon


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Sunseeker is one of those enduring English marques, such as Jaguar, Rolls-Royce or Bentley, which has gained more of an international than domestic following. One reason is the brand’s strong emphasis on ­advanced design, blending a subtle British sensibility with the bold strokes used by many of its Italian competitors. There is also the reputation for quality that its Poole-based shipyard has earned after putting thousands of hulls on the water over the last 40 years.

But Sunseeker’s real distinguishing trait is the level of customization injected into its elaborate series build approach. Other yards tend to personalize the yachts with décor, finishes or placement of the odd non-structural bulkhead, but Sunseeker usually consults with clients on the initial design, then drills deep into the DNA of each yacht to deliver as much of a custom product as possible.

“We try to make each yacht bespoke to the customer, whether it involves moving cabins or shifting layouts,” says Sunseeker Production Manager James Lambert, who is leading Yachts International on a tour around Sunseeker’s facilities. “We build each yacht to suit how the owner will use it—and where, since we ship them all over the world.” Sunseeker actually exports 99 percent of its annual production to 66 countries around the world.

Any manufacturer with that broad of a market must account for a wide range of tastes, climates and design idiosyncrasies. Sunseeker’s customization ranges from big-picture features like the hull color—owners have requested extremes such as Ferrari-red or Smurf-blue ­exteriors—down to the small interior details that distinguish a yacht. They include customized galleys, state-of-the-art entertainment systems, glass bulkheads and tailor-made desks.

This kind of customization requires organization. During our mid-July visit, Lambert leads us through an extended tour, following all stages from initial layup, production, customization, testing, all the way to the final owner-prep stage aboard the yachts docked along the shipyard’s quays. The manufacturing sites on the waterfront campus are buzzing with activity. Sunseeker employs more than 2,300 in Poole, making it a sought-after place of employment for skilled tradesmen. While prime time is spring, with a big push to get boats ready in time for the summer season, in July, the shipyard’s quays still harbor a dozen or more yachts either on land or in the water awaiting finishing touches.

Like every other yachtbuilder, Sunseeker is emerging from a rough patch in 2009 and 2010. It felt the pain of the global recession, but company managers are confident with a strong order book for the year ahead and a successful shift in product mix to larger yachts, while also pushing into new territories.

Indeed, the production line in Shed 1 is bustling. This is where workers do the layup for the 80 Yacht, the 88 Yacht and Predator 84 models. They walk around the molds as they prepare them for vacuum infusion. There are four layouts available on the 80 and 88, with owner-specified variations on each model. “That yacht over there has a tropical spec for its climate-control system,” says Lambert. “The air conditioning tends to be a major consideration in the early build process, as do the different regulations the boats will fall under—be it under RINA or MCA charter rules or just those relating to a non-charter pleasure craft.”

A sign on the wall reminds workers: “Focus on quality. Our customers do, and so should we.” There’s an old-fashioned feel to that message, like a sign from a World War II factory reminding all workers that their best efforts could have a significant impact on the eventual outcome of the war. Beyond visual reminders, Sunseeker has embedded quality-control processes into the heart of manufacturing across all of its platforms, so that every piece of work or installed part is checked four times before the yacht leaves Poole.

The system’s backbone is called In Process Control (IPC), a kind of “build manual” for the whole boat that is used in each stage of production. “It’s a check-off manual that lists all the jobs on the boat down to a certain detail,” says Lambert. “That would include relevant drawing numbers and build specs. When the jobs are complete, the operator would check the job and sign off the work as correct.” A supervisor would then double-check to make sure the work is correct, and any mistakes would be rectified. After that, inspectors check the work before it moves on to the next stage of production. A final check on all the work is carried out during the pre-launch phase. The result is that the yacht has been checked multiple times before the shakedown cruise.

That dedication to quality certainly shows in Sunseeker’s flagship 40 Metre Yacht. This 131-foot yacht was launched last year at the Southampton Boat Show. It’s an evolution of the Sunseeker 37 Metre, but with design and technical improvements. “She retains the full-beam owner’s stateroom and the extremely voluminous hullform of her predecessor,” says Ewen Foster, Sunseeker’s director of design and naval architecture. “That endows her with incredible interior volume compared to displacement craft of a similar length.”

The extra length means larger salons and accommodations for up to 12 guests and eight crew. The designers also built clever layouts throughout the yacht so that the crew of seven can move discreetly without disturbing the guests. The size also allows for a wide range of design options. “The 40 Metre Yacht takes our ability to offer the client a bespoke build a step further,” says Foster. “For example, a client can specify salon side-patio doors, or automated balconies for the forward master suite and main deck. The clients can also specify an aft tender garage and stern styling similar to the Predator 130. They can even change the hull-side window styling or upper foredeck layout.”

The 40 Metre’s deep-V hull allows the yacht to reach 25 knots with the twin 12-cylinder MTU 4000 diesels. But it has also been designed to run efficiently in semi-displacement mode at 10 knots, with a range of 1,500 nautical miles. The sharp, aggressive bow is a Sunseeker trademark, as are the fluid but angular windows and cascading stern where each deck gently steps down to the one below it.
The Sunseeker flagship’s accommodations plan is owner-driven, but the main deck is generally designed with a generous salon and separate dining room, along with a galley amidships and full-beam master suite. The lower deck can be divided into the four-cabin standard of two double and two twin suites, or much larger full-beam staterooms. The 40’s upper deck features a full-beam second salon, pantry linked by a dumbwaiter to the galley and high-tech wheelhouse. The skydeck also employs a modular approach to its décor, allowing the bar, barbecue, dining, sun pad and spa to be positioned at the owner’s request.

The 40 Metre Yacht is built to RINA and optional MCA LY2 Unrestricted codes.

“It slides in just inside the 350-gross-ton volume threshold,” says Foster. “Above that, charter compliance is considerably more complex and costly.”
Foster says each new launch is an “evolution rather than a revolution” in design. There is a delicate balance to keeping a “family” look and adding a cutting edge to a new model to demonstrate the line’s progression. “Great care and consideration is taken in designing each individual surface that makes up the whole,” says Foster. “The effect that light and shadow have on a particular curvature and angle of face is as important as the larger styling elements. Some elements are more obvious than others, and some remain unnoticed by most. But the ‘Sunseeker look’ has always been a combination of elements that are true to our family heritage.”

The Predator 115, which was launched at the London boat show in January 2011, is arguably one of the most cutting-edge sport yachts in its class, but still a Sunseeker. With its long, aggressive forefoot and svelte superstructure, the 115 is a scaled-down version of the larger Predator 130. But Sunseeker’s designers were careful to increase interior volume so it has the same space and accommodations plans as the 34 Metre Yacht, a 111-foot trideck. The full-beam master suite, expansive flybridge and variable accommodations plan, along with options like balconies, foldout bulwark sections and skytop, transform the energetic-looking sport yacht into a palatial cruising machine. “We’ve pushed the boundaries of innovation with this craft,” says Robert Braithwaite, Sunseeker founder. “It offers exceptional performance as well as the trademark attenuation and smooth riding for which Sunseeker is renowned.” The Predator lives up to its name, a beast that reaches 30 knots.

The flybridge Manhattan collection also saw two new additions in the last 12 months—the Manhattan 73 and the Manhattan 53, which made their American premiere at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. The 53 joins last year’s Manhattan 63 as the heart of the flybridge family. “Our goal with the Manhattan 53 is to increase the internal volume while keeping the Sunseeker exterior,” says Foster. “We were able to improve on the outgoing 52 in two main areas. We have turned the standard twin guest stateroom, which had a bunk before, into a true two-berth cabin. The owner’s stateroom is also more spacious, with excellent headroom and space around the bed, largely because of the way we designed the salon above it.” Braithwaite says the Manhattan 53 has 20 percent more interior volume than most boats its size, and the main stateroom is equivalent to that of a 60-foot yacht.

The new Manhattan 53 and Manhattan 63 have made a big splash in North and South America, according to Paul Burgess, Sunseeker Florida’s director of sales and marketing. He has seen a pickup in activity in North America in the last year, but also a boom in emerging markets like Brazil, where Sunseeker Florida’s parent, Nautikos, has set up a sub-dealership. “We sold five boats there last year,” says Burgess, who at press time expected to have sold nine yachts in 2011. “We’re also seeing good activity in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.”

The larger size ranges also remain popular among Sunseeker owners, but there has been a new attraction to the “sweet spot” in the three models of the redesigned Manhattan series. “We have a lot of clients looking at the 63 because they’d like to be able to handle the boat themselves, but the size of the yacht also gives them the ability to hire a captain if they need it,” says Burgess. “The 53 is also doing very well. It’s got the features and performance, but an exceptional quality of finish at a reasonable price point. We were right on the mark with that model.”

Its larger sibling, the Manhattan 73, is also spatially enhanced, and the longer, deeper hull allowed designers to create a third full-size double stateroom instead of the previous bunk arrangement. The salon is on a single level, giving the entire deck a sense of seamless space, especially with a galley-down configuration. Another great feature is that its flybridge extends farther aft, providing shade for the expanded social area. “It’s a highly efficient hull design,” says Foster. “It also offers an excellent crew cabin, and the guest staterooms, salon and galley layout options provide a surprising amount of flexibility in accommodation.”

Sunseeker has been working with world-class design houses like Armani/Casa to create interiors that rival any pied-à-terre in Paris or London on all models across the spectrum of its 84 and 60 Predator models as well as the Manhattan 63. “The aim is to present a range of Armani/Casa design styles to clients who want to create exclusive style for their own personal yachts,” says Stuart Jones, Sunseeker’s interior design manager.

Beneath the svelte exteriors and glamorous interiors lies a solid technological foundation. Sunseeker’s Technology Center stays abreast of advanced composites and building techniques, using the knowledge of engineers who previously developed Formula One racecars to keep the yachts as light, fast and fuel-efficient as possible. Many are experts in carbon fiber applications, which Sunseeker is increasingly using to minimize weight. Over the last five years, Sunseeker has also invested heavily in eco-friendly technologies. The Italian standards association, RINA, recently awarded Sunseeker with its Green Plus Certificate after the builder successfully passed a rigorous testing process. RINA evaluated 10 different pollution sources while also monitoring environmental control procedures of the boats.

Back on the production line, as an 88-footer sits in the final stage before delivery, Lambert points out the yard’s minute attention to detail. In the main stateroom, a handful of pieces of blue tape mark minor blemishes—unseen by this untrained eye—that the final inspection has uncovered. A perfectly matched finish will be applied so the surface is flawless when the owner takes delivery. Beyond the impeccable finish, we did notice that the grains of the bulkhead are perfectly matched. The carpenters use a single sheet of wood rather than several with mismatched grains to gain an almost computer-simulated look.

“We do as much as we can in-house,” says Lambert. “We are responsible for the design, woodwork, stainless steel, electrical upholstery, layup and almost every other part of production. We find that allows us to keep tight control over quality.”

But design will continue to be a Sunseeker hallmark, with upcoming launches including a Predator 53, a new entry-level Portofino 40 and the new flagship 155 Yacht due in 2014. “We are trying to increase feelings of space and light, trying to give some of the interiors an ambiance so that it’s almost like being part of the exterior,” says Foster. “We’ve maximized the glazing on all the new models.”
That’s particularly true of the 28 Metre, presented at the 2012 London show. Its 360-degree banks of windows infuse the main salon with natural light but also give the space a squarer, more “classic” look, a deliberate nod back to older Sunseeker designs. It also promises to be a fresh departure for Sunseeker.

“We’re innovators, not copiers,” says Braithwaite about the new 28 Metre. “Once again, we’re building what our clients want. That’s how we’ve moved forward over the past 50 years.” ■

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