Chris Pickering visits Princess Yachts and discovers an intoxicating mixture of performance, luxury and craftsmanship
Not far from the steps where the Pilgrim Fathers boarded the Mayflower, and overlooked by the headland where Sir Francis Drake awaited the Spanish Armada, you’ll find an altogether more modern slice of Britain’s maritime heritage. Princess Yachts was founded in 1965 and now ranks as one of the world’s leading luxury yacht producers. Its offerings range from 35-foot sports boats to 130-foot superyachts, all handbuilt within the confines of Plymouth’s historic naval city.
The whole area is steeped in seafaring tradition. The full-size mock ups for the yachts’ interiors are, for instance, constructed in a Grade I listed 18th century ropery, which once wound the rigging for Lord Nelson’s sailing ships. But it’s the blend of modern ideas with traditional craftsmanship that characterise Princess Yachts today.
Since 2016 the company has been run by Swiss-born American businessman Anthony Sheriff. The name may ring a bell, even if you’re not into boats – Sheriff was the man hired to set up McLaren Automotive as a standalone road car brand in 2003 and he went on to lead the supercar manufacturer for a decade, supervising the development of cars like the P1. This background gives him a unique appreciation of the differences between the two industries.
“The super-luxury side of the car industry is known for its craftsmanship, but we take that to a whole other level here,” he comments. “We have 3,200 people who make pretty much everything that you can actually see on the boat. Only the electronics and the engines are outsourced.”
By following its own ‘self-sufficient’ approach, Princess Yachts has total control over both the design and the manufacturing process. Everything down to the cleats on the deck and the waste water tanks can be configured to suit the customer’s individual requirements. And at this end of the market – with starting prices ranging from £300,000 to £17 million – customisation is king. Want a walkthrough gallery to showcase your shoe collection or an onboard playroom for your chihuahua? These guys can help.
Where boatbuilding has generally lagged behind the automotive industry, however, is its adoption of new technology. Sheriff admits this was something of a culture shock when he first joined the company and he has set about applying some of that supercar mentality. And he’s not alone either; Sheriff brought with him Paul Mackenzie – formerly head of McLaren’s Special Operations department and now the Plymouth firm’s chief technology officer.
“The yachting industry isn’t known for innovation. Having come from a supercar company with a background in Formula 1, the concept of not worrying about innovation was a bit foreign,” comments Sheriff. “We looked at the boats we make and asked ‘how can we create a step change in performance?’”
Affectionately known as ‘Captain Carbon’, Mackenzie is a composite materials guru, whose skills have been put to good use on Princess Yachts’ latest creation, the R35. This 35-foot sports yacht is a radical departure from the rest of the range, with an all-carbon fibre hull and a top speed of some 50 knots.
Just as significant is the active foiling system, which constantly trims the boat’s attitude to optimise comfort and stability. This allows a very narrow hull shape to be employed, which is said to result in a step change in performance and agility. With that, however, comes a certain amount of inherent instability, which would normally make the R35 something of a handful, but its clever control system is designed to filter that out. It’s much like the driver aids that allow mere mortals to kid people that we know what we’re doing behind the wheel of a 700hp supercar.
Our chance to sample Princess Yachts’ craftsmanship first hand, however, comes in the form of the S78. It looks suitably imposing as we approach from the jetty, as you’d expect from a boat that’s twice the length of a double decker bus and built on three different levels. You enter through the main deck, via an outdoor area at the stern with a group of sofas. Inside, there’s a large open-plan living space, including a galley and a dining area. It’s here that the owners would generally entertain their guests and there’s room to throw quite a party.
The top level is a ‘sports bridge’, accessed by a set of steps from the rear deck. Here you’ll find the upper helm, from where you can pilot the boat with the sun on your face and the wind in your hair. There’s also a second, larger, cockpit area on the main deck, which doubles up on the controls and provides additional instruments. Both have Naim audio systems fitted with waterproof speakers to provide the perfect soundtrack to your maritime getaway.
The most opulent surroundings are to be found on the lower deck, where the boat can sleep eight guests and two crew. As above, there’s a wonderfully handcrafted feel to everything you touch. Doors and cupboards have a well-oiled tactility to them and the material choice – polished teak, gleaming chrome and deep, fluffy carpets – is reminiscent of a modern Rolls Royce.
Turn right at the bottom of the stairs and you enter the state room, with a large double bed, a sofa and a media centre with a TV and hifi. The three additional guest cabins – one at the bow and two on either side of the mid-section – are slightly smaller, but they still provide comfortable space for two people apiece. All four guest rooms have en suite bathrooms and wardrobes.
It’s worth taking in the sheer scale of this boat, because it adds a rather different perspective to what comes next. For a start, there’s the price. This particular example would set you back around £3.4 million, which seems like a lot of money, but by my (very rough) calculations it works out comfortably less than the equivalent area of floor space might cost you in Chelsea or Kensington, let alone Monaco.
The next thing is the performance. Having watched the Princess’s crew steer her expertly out of the harbour it’s my turn to take the helm. I’ve never been on a motor yacht before and, frankly, I was expecting a big, lazy gin palace, but the reality is shockingly different. With two 24.2-litre V12s producing a combined power of 3,800hp the S78 delivers genuinely exhilarating performance. Out on the deck, you really feel like you’re flat out, scudding across the top of the waves at 39 knots. That’s just shy of 44mph, but trust me, it feels like you’re doing at least three times that speed.
Turn the wheel and the whole horizon tilts as the 54 tonnes of super yacht carves across the water like an overgrown speed boat. Out here on the sea, size is not the same impediment to performance that it is on land and the S78 feels like a cross between a penthouse apartment and a Bugatti Chiron. It’s a strange experience, but one that adds to my growing impression that this boat actually represents something of a bargain. Of course, you’d have to factor in mooring fees, maintenance costs and a prodigious thirst for diesel, but I can suddenly see why these yachts exert such a magnetic pull upon their owners.
In the case of the Princess, you’d also be buying into something deeper. It’s part of a seafaring tradition that stretches back hundreds of years; a unique piece of craftsmanship; and a rare example of British industry flourishing in difficult times. If you’re looking for the ultimate blend of luxury and performance this just might be it.
Chris Pickering @Chris_Pickering