The dream machines - Knutsford-based Sunseeker’s luxury yachts
PUBLISHED: 00:16 24 October 2013
Knutsford-based Sunseeker numbers royalty, oligarchs and sports stars among its clientele
We’ve split the atom, put men on the moon, brought down the Berlin Wall and raised the Iron Curtain.
But the inner workings of Sunseeker have remained a mystery...until now.
The luxury boat behemoth prides itself on keeping one bow-wave ahead of the competition and guards its multi-million-pound secrets as hawkishly as NASA.
So, who could resist an exclusive look behind the scenes of this shipbuilding giant that has, for more than half a century, built some of the world’s most lavish superyachts?
As Sunseeker celebrates its £320million takeover and a new sales office in Knutsford, we were granted unique access to their rarified world.
The entrance at the HQ in Poole, Dorset -flanked by two top-of-the-range branded Porsches – proffers little clue as to what lies within. But when Jonathan Kingsley, a senior broker who launched the Cheshire office in January, hands me a price list, it becomes clear that only the very, very rich need apply.
I could barely afford the four-foot scale model in the lobby, let alone the full-size fibreglass hulks that lurk within.
Models range from £350,000 for Sunseeker’s entry-level 40-footer – to £22million for their brand new, industry-defining 155ft superyacht, already snapped up by F1’s
Eddie Jordan, a close friend of Robert Braithwaite, the surprisingly down-to-earth Yorkshireman who founded the company 53 years ago.
Under his leadership, the company that started out with seven people now employs more than 2,500, turning out 180 boats a year, with a turnover of £320million.
Twinkly and dapper in open-neck shirt and deck shoes, he has the gleam of a man whose work is his passion.
‘Fibreglass is my mistress, always has been,’ he says jovially. ‘And we’ve come a long way together. I left school in Yorkshire when I was 14, with no qualifications.
‘My parents ran a draper’s shop in Otley but we used to go on holiday to the Lake District and take our small boat. The water was my life. I designed my first boat when I was 17.’
Sunseeker yachts have starred in no fewer than four James Bond films. Robert even had a cameo in 2010’s Quantum of Solace, appearing on screen alongside 007 star Daniel Craig in a vintage Sunseeker.
The new 155 yacht – so large that engineers have had to build a special tent at Sunseeker’s shipyard just to house it - is arguably Robert’s proudest moment.
The yacht, the first of its kind, will be complete in Spring next year after two years of construction carried out by a dedicated 76-man team.
Robert says: ‘The 155 Yacht is my baby. There’s nothing else like it. Because of its unique infused build, it’s 200 tonnes lighter than any of its competitors. Eddie’s been a good customer – he’s bought a number of our boats now – and he’s become a good friend. He’s going to love it. Who wouldn’t?’
Robert prides himself on a family approach. Many of his staff have worked here for years. But they make sure always to refer to him as The Boss, regarding him – and his boats - with a reverent awe.
Jonathan, 46, ran a car dealership in North Wales before launching Sunseeker in Cheshire.
‘I enjoy cars but I’d rather be selling boats. I’m like a kid in a sweet shop. What I like about our clients is their differences. Some want to use their yacht all the time, others are just happy to simply own one. and enjoy quality time on board with friends and family Jonathan has just sold his first Sunseeker – a second-hand 66-footer for £4750,000. He laughs: “In the boat world, we are Bentley, Rolls Royce, McLaren and Porsche – all rolled into one.’
Cheshire is, of course, the third richest county in Britain but it is undeniably land-locked.
‘Our nearest marina is in North Wales,’ he admits. ‘I have to go out and chase the money. Many of our clients are International. They might live in Cheshire but it’s not a problem for them to travel to London or Poole or the South of France if they would like to try one of our boats out on the water.’
Nonetheless, Sunseeker’s customer list is impossibly starry: from Hollywood players to oligarchs. Colin Rowles, Jonathan’s Dorset counterpart, adds: ‘Some we can mention, others we can’t.’
Unlike their competitors, Sunseeker manufactures 70 per cent of its own components – a business with a yearly £60million turnover in its own right - on site: the doors, the equipment, the interiors. Every year, the Technical Centre handles and fits 880,000 miles of electrical cable, enough to travel to the moon and back.
There are three computerised cutting machines used to fashion their bulk material - marine plywood - but almost everything is finished by hand. There are no robots here.
Everything has to be just-so – or it goes in the bin. The attention to detail is paramount.
Before any new Sunseeker goes into production, the interior is built to scale in plywood to test for any issues.
This is the very definition of bespoke. What the client wants, he gets: from Bang & Olufsen sound systems to £500,000 gyms, karaoke rooms even £300,000 ‘touchpads’ to allow transit by helicopter.
We wander round one of these immaculate model interiors - a mock-up of a new 101ft Sport Yacht that has taken three months to build for a long-standing customer. This may be the nerve centre but the power house behind Sunseeker’s success is the shipyard, made of up four separate ‘sheds’ dedicated to the 23-model range. Here, the fibreglass hulls are moulded, fitted out and tested before taking to the water.
Shed One turns out the 84ft, 88ft and 28M Yachts three at a time. Each takes five months and up to 80 men in five four-week stages.
But the new 155 is the prize, so large – a good 25ft longer than anything Sunseeker has built before - that engineers had to construct a tent to house it during construction.
There are three decks, a water-level bar and berths for 10 guests and 11 12 crew. The 60,000-litre fuel tank – enough to power across the Atlantic
Project manager Peter Stembridge – a trained surveyor and naval architect who worked on the complex design – adds: ‘This is a real game-changer that will take
Sunseeker into another league, the only boat of its kind in the world – there is nothing this powerful and grand but this light.’
However, no trip to Sunseeker would be complete without a trip out on the water. Production Manager Ashley Cooper shows us aboard a new 115ft Sport Yacht.
As he eases out the throttle and motors across Poole Harbour, you would barely know that you were at sea. The interior resembles a gentlemen’s club in Mayfair – wall-to-wall satin walnut and Miele appliances, even in the plush staff quarters.
But Ashley’s last build, was even swisher. ‘He just loved beautiful things,’ says Ashley. ‘Even his knives and forks on board were all made of solid silver.’
As we happily reclaimed dry land, I have seldom felt so exhilarated and proud of such an iconic British brand.
Booths Hall | Knutsford | WA16 8QZ
Tel: +44 (0) 1565 757864
Mob: +44(0) 7931 418367