Take a seat in the unpretentious customer room at Princess Yachts’ head office in Plymouth, England, and, provided the tide is in, you will have a wonderful view of the estuary with small boats bobbing around. It’s not shit, except that it, well, is. You’ll have to excuse my language, but as Kiran Haslam, marketing director of Princess Yachts explained, this estuary gave rise to the common phrase “up shit creek”.
Plymouth remains a naval town and back when Britain had the largest navy in the world, there was a naval hospital at one end of the estuary. But warships could not reach it because of the tides, so those injured would be transferred to small rowing boats for what was not just the final leg of their journey, but usually the final leg of their lives. Anyone who was heading that way knew they were up shit creek.
A fascinating anecdote to share at your next soiree, particularly if it is being held on a Princess yacht.
The company was founded in 1965 by three guys who rented premises on the estuary to build a boat for themselves. In order to fund the boat, they built a few more that they planned to sell — and that’s where it all began. Recently, that original small craft was found in Europe and brought back to Plymouth to be painstakingly restored by retired employees and apprentices as Project 31 — adding a few modern materials and touches along the way.
I would have quite liked to take a ride in that original beauty, but instead was destined for bigger, much bigger, things. The over 24m-long Princess S78 to be exact. Before taking the helm of this £3.2-million super yacht, I took a tour of the facilities to see how it and 269 others were built last year.
Remarkably, almost everything is made in-house across five sites in the coastal town. The engines are bought in from truck manufacturer MAN and, according to chief technology officer Paul Mackenzie, they are working together on a future hybrid setup. I also spotted a few other Volkswagen Group components, not least of all the air vents from an Audi TT. Everything else, from the bespoke cupboards to the sculpted bodywork, is made by the company’s craftspeople.
“We are one of the only companies to produce every component from raw material through to finished items,” says Haslam.
Director of design Andy Lawrence took me through some of the processes, in particular how before any new model line is launched, they make a full-size mock-up of the interiors in an old listed army barracks. Here, the designers get a better idea of how everything looks and fits together and the customer for the first boat, referred to as “slot one”, can also get a feel for what they have requested.
It can take anything from six to 18 months to finalise a design and specification for a customer and can then take up to another 18 months to manufacture. That’s not surprising, given that customers can choose almost anything they want, from the furniture, lighting, and audio systems to gym equipment and gear storage on board.
“We’re dealing with products no one really needs,” says Haslam. “It’s easier to justify a private jet,” but “when you step onto a boat, the world melts away”.
To test that claim, I boarded the S78 at the marina where all the development boats are kept. It’s truly a whole other world on board, surrounded by luxury and the opportunity to leave your stresses behind as you push forward on the levers to unleash the power of the two massive V12 engines down below. There were two helms: one inside, ahead of the saloon, and the other on the upper sports deck. I braved a windy day in the English Channel to take the helm, pushing the massive yacht to its maximum 37 knots. It was surprisingly nimble, turning into the waves as though the sea was calmer than it actually was. Of course, skippering a yacht like this is only a small part of ownership; it’s all about the luxury.
From the master stateroom with a great view of the waves through windows sitting at the water line, to the exquisite en-suite bathrooms and the television that emerges from within a side unit, it’s all a masterclass in craftsmanship, perfection, and beauty. It is, frankly, a five-star hotel on the water — more so if you have a crew on board to cater to your every whim as you relax and sip on champagne.
None of it is overdone though, with chief executive and ex-McLaren Automotive boss Antony Sheriff telling me that “we like to think we are masters of architecture on a boat”. He describes the yachts his company creates as “true British luxury and elegance — understated”.
I’m not sure about the understated bit. A Princess yacht, like any super yacht, definitely makes a statement. But it’s not over the top either, thanks to the elegant designs by Pininfarina, Olesinski, and the internal design team, as well as the exquisite interior finishings.
The company has launched 16 new models in the past three years, with 12 more planned over the next year or so. And it’s not all traditional either: the new R35 takes technology from the America’s Cup yachts and the world of F1, familiar to Sheriff, Mackenzie, and others who made the move from McLaren. This technology includes the first use of carbon fibre in the R35, which also features a very clever active foil system. The use of carbon fibre provides a 25% weight saving, and while it is significantly more expensive than traditional materials, the combination improves efficiency by up to 30%.
It’s easy to see why a luxury yacht is perceived as one of the ultimate status symbols, but also to understand why their owners desire them. Head out into the ocean with family or friends and you leave your tethers behind, cruising in a world that is as luxurious as it is unconstrained and makes you feel like a prince or princess.
• From the August edition of Wanted 2019.