In Depth

Princess Yachts and the art of craft

Having spent a decade with McLaren, the luxury-yacht company's MD Antony Sheriff is no stranger to opulence. But how do the two compare?

The truth is, nobody needs a supercar. All you really need is a Fiat Panda – then all the traffic goes away, fuel efficiency goes up. Nobody needs to go as fast as a supercar will take you. But it's not about that. It's an object of desire. And a boat is the same thing – it's an absolute luxury. Indeed, people speak of yachts having an image problem, as totems of excessive wealth, but that's because they're still rare. Bentleys are a dime a dozen now. There was a time you'd see one and want to take a look at who was driving, but not any more. A yacht still has that draw. It's more a means of personal expression – even a private jet is, by contrast, ultimately just a tube, regardless of what you do to it inside. Besides, people who own yachts tend to really use them because they're not just about getting from A to B. They offer a different type of lifestyle, and access to a real community of like-minded people.

I'll admit that I'm really a car guy – I haven't spent much time on the water yet, though I've found that, when I do, one perk of the job is it's a very nice place to have a meeting. The new job has been a touch disorientating to me. But I love making things, and that's what boat-building is all about: the craft. We have metalworking, woodworking, moulding, real hands-on making, and nearly all of it happens in one place – in Plymouth, with all that shipbuilding heritage.

What's really surprised me is the efficiency with which a new boat is delivered – it's less complicated than with a car. The car industry has all those resources – the people, the money – and yet typically puts out fewer products than most boat builders. We could develop a boat in the same time and for the same resources that some car companies spend coming up with a set of door handles. And I'm not joking – I've seen it time and time again, where the administrative side of car-making gets so big that the level of overheads is unsustainable unless production increases.

This isn't to say boat-building couldn't learn from the car industry. Boat-building could have a much more systemised means of production, for example, and I say that as head of a company that produces, on average, a £1.5m boat every day. It's been slow to take on technology that could provide more efficiency – quieter engines, for example – while the car industry takes on too much tech for tech's sake. I'd like to see Princess offer more advantages of technology. Coming from McLaren, I just can't help myself.

But technology can't ever get in the way of beauty. Unfortunately, that's what so many boat-builders sacrifice first when trying to push design. In car design they actually talk about 'boat curves' – those lovely flowing lines you see in 1950s and 60s classic cars in particular. But a lot of boat designs now are all jagged edges because there's a sense that it's in some way more impressive. Of course, different people have different tastes. But I think if you're spending the kind of money a yacht entails, you want to be able to look at it and love it. And for me, that means curves.

ANTONY SHERIFF is the chairman of British luxury yacht-builders Princess, a company he joined this year after a decade as managing director of supercar manufacturer McLaren Automotive; princessyachts.com

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