FIRST TEST - SPIRIT 44CR ELECTRIC
Yachting Monthly|December 2020
A wooden boat that blazes a trail for modern technology and sustainability sounds too good to be true. Theo Stocker went to see if she is as good as promised
Theo Stocker

SPECIFICATIONS

MAKE/MODEL Spirit Yachts 44CR Electric

PRICE FROM £800,000 ex VAT

DESIGNER Sean McMillan

BUILDER Spirit Yachts Ltd

Om/spirit

Boats have been built out of wood since Noah first put axe to tree, but when it comes to cutting-edge yachts, timber is right back at the top. Spirit Yachts have been building head-turningly pretty wooden yachts with stiff, lightweight laminated wooden hulls since 1993, including the largest wooden yacht built in the UK since the 1930s in the shape of the Spirit 111, launched this year. But away from all the fanfare, the Ipswich-based yard has also just launched Avvento, smaller sister to its 47 and 55 Cruising Range yachts.

Far from being a lesser vessel, however, the Spirit 44 Cruising Range Electric (44e for short) hides advances in sustainable technology under its gleaming topsides that offer a glimpse into the future of boat building. Unrecyclable fibreglass and sails, toxic antifoul, and fossil-fuel propulsion are replaced by sustainably sourced timber, self-sufficient electric propulsion and zero-carbon emissions.

The proud new owner is Vincent Argiro, a retired technology entrepreneur who lives and sails in British Columbia in Canada. Explaining his motivation to go for such a radical concept, he said, ‘My first sailboat was also the first of its kind to be built all-electric. I have never owned anything else, nor will I. To me, it is a terrible corruption of the beauty and simplicity of sailing to add internal-combustion propulsion to it.’

She is built, Spirit claims, to last a hundred years and to be largely recyclable when the time does come. In the intervening century, she will burn no hydrocarbons whatsoever with not even a backup generator on board, or, for that matter, any obvious renewable energy sources. I was curious to see how she worked.

CATCHING ZEPHYRS

The river Orwell in Suffolk was flat calm and basking in the heat of summer’s last hurrah when we arrived. No more than zephyrs ruffled the water’s surface and the 44e’s brightwork glinted above her navy blue painted topsides. On first appraisal, a sharp bow sweeps back into a gentle sheerline, the sleek coachroof rises out of a pale yellow Lignia wood deck and an oval cockpit encompases winches and wheel ahead of a decadently long counter stern and raked transom beneath the sweeping quarter deck.

The design brief for the 44e began as a shorthanded racing yacht that was also suitable for coastal cruising. Argiro explains, however, that now the boat is built, ‘I definitely expect to do long passages, including offshore races – genuine adventures. I also expect to live aboard for many months.’

As one of the Spirit cruising range, she has more beam and higher topsides than the thoroughbred Classic range but her modest beam and fine stern are a long way from the current trend for square quarters, wide hulls and high volume – she sacrifices fully 4m (13ft 4in) to her overhangs, but with a modern shallow bilge, high-aspect ratio fin and bulb keel and deep carbon spade rudder, coupled with an exceptionally light displacement for her size, I was hopeful that her performance wouldn’t disappoint.

Slipping the lines you notice the lack of an engine rumbling into life. Flick out the throttle on the binnacle, nudge it ahead, and the Oceanvolt 15kW (20 hp) saildrive motor eases in. Power is delivered smoothly from standstill with no minimum tickover. It’s not noiseless but there is none of deep rumble of a diesel, and engine bay insulation was still to be added on the test boat, so it could be matched to the right frequency.

This is very much a sailor’s boat. The breeze had increased to just 5-6 knots, but enough to set sail. We began tacking downriver, against the breeze and the last of the flood, making 4-5 knots and around 50-55º to the true wind direction over the ground.

It’s not a wide channel at this point, so we were tacking frequently; the short waterline means the 44e spins on a sixpence – if anything I needed to slow my tacks down, though the boat lost little way through the short tacks. This responsiveness makes the boat feel like a big dinghy; a gentle nudge of the wheel will have her sailing to every lift and header, and with a displacement of just 6.5 tonnes, you can feel her accelerate with each little puff, gaining waterline length and speed as she heels. This is a boat that rewards concentration, though she is well enough balanced that you can lock the wheel and leave the helm while you winch in a headsail or trim the main.

Her slender lines aft mean that when she heels, she does so along the centreline. While some of the power of a wide hull is lost, it is a more efficient shape in the water. The helming experience is also noticeably different, in that you are not perched high up on the aft quarter where the motion is worst, or forced to a limited view on the leeward side. Positioned well forward and midships you have a good all round view and a feeling of connection to the water.

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