Owner Insight: Irvine Laidlaw on becoming Lord of the Seven Seas

Written by Gemma Fottles

Lord Irvine Laidlaw - famed competitive racer, owner of the 68-metre custom Feadship Lady Christine, and winner of the 2015 World Superyacht Awards Legacy Award - is undoubtedly one of the most experienced yachties in the world. Although never connected with the world of yachts as a young person, (“We’ve got miserable weather in north-east Scotland,” he assures me in a soft, lilting Scottish accent. “The water is freezing and the season is about two months long… two minutes long some years!") Laidlaw’s ownership journey began in the early 1970s. Already a successful entrepreneur, the discovery of yachting was a direct response to desperately needing a relief from a hectic work life.Lady Christine at Kata Rocks Rendezvous 2017You would be forgiven for assuming that an entry into yachting as an escape would mean charter… that is the most-stress free form of yachting, after all. But not for Laidlaw. Taking a couple of sailing lessons, it wasn’t long before he jumped straight in at the deep end and went full throttle, purchasing a half-built Varne 27’ with a partner in 1975. “We thought we could rebuild this boat ourselves, in maybe, 200 hours. We looked again and said, maybe 400 hours. So we bought her, and every weekend we would work on her.” How did that go, I ask? “We rapidly came to the conclusion that if we keep doing it with just the two of us, we would complete it in about 1985,” he laughs. “So we got two professionals to work on it, and even then we didn't launch it until the end of May ‘76!” 

The Varne 27 was the start of a long list of Laidlaw owned boats, and since then, he has bought, built and sold a total of 36 boats of varying shapes and sizes - motor and sail. With two more yachts in build, we caught up with Laidlaw at the latest edition of the Loro Piana Superyacht Regatta, where he was again on the racing circuit with his current Swan 115 racing dream Highland Fling, to ask his advice to those in the game for a brand new superyacht.    Lady Christine at Kata Rocks Rendezvous 2017Upon completion of your very first 27’ sailing boat, you decided to cross the English Channel to France. How was your maiden voyage?  

Well… we reached the other side! I knew a little about navigation, but when we started sailing I soon realised I knew virtually nothing about actually how to sail. In hindsight it was idiotic, but we survived and continued to cross the Channel four times a year for the next three years. She was incredibly small, this boat. There were five of us guys who would go on holiday on the boat every summer, and there was one bed that we nicknamed ‘The Shelf’. I think we only managed to sleep thanks to the large quantities of wine we consumed in the evening! It was a great introduction to sailing.

Your passion for yachting began with sailing, but today you are equal parts sailing and motor yacht enthusiast. Do you think you would have the same passion if you had started with motor?  

Probably not, it’s easier to get passionate while sailing, but really I think the argument between them is silly. They are totally different. Though we did a fair amount of cruising on several of our sailing yachts for the first 15 years of yachting we realised that cruising on smaller sailboats is extremely uncomfortable! As you get older, comfort becomes higher up the list of priorities. So we bought our first motor yacht, an Azimut 78 - the first Lady Christine! - in 1990 and now we don’t mix the two. We race with sailboats and cruise with motor yachts.  Loro Piana Superyacht Regatta Day 3Photo: SuperYacht TimesHow was the Azimut 78? Would you recommend this as a good starting point for motor yacht owners?  

She sailed like a brick, but yes, she was a good starting point. We had her for three years and we bought her second hand, relatively cheaply. It was great fun but we very quickly outgrew her. We sold her in ‘94 and bought a Heesen 138 which we also named Lady Christine. She was being built on spec, but we still had quite a bit of room for customisation. She was a massively better boat, but we were still learning what we wanted with motor. In those days I was set on a fast, 22 knots boat. I remember Nick Edmiston told me I should get a displacement boat instead, and I told him, ‘Nick, no. I want to go fast.’ But in reality, we only did 13 - 15 knots most of the time.     

On the point of learning what you want in a boat, did you charter motor yachts before purchasing?  

No I didn’t, but remember I already had a lot of experience with boats, and there were fewer boats available for charter at that time. If someone was considering buying a boat with no sailing or cruising experience whatsoever, I’d almost make it a requirement. It’s a different way of life, and you may or may not take to this life. You test by chartering, perhaps something smaller at first, and then a boat of the size and price you have in mind for your purchase.

You’ve owned 36 boats over the past 40+ years - have you ever chartered any of them out?

With the 55.6-metre Oceanco Lady Christine (now Queen Mavia), we did consider chartering when we listed her for sale back in 2009 - but we always thought that she would sell the next week, the next month. She took four years to sell in total! We did actually charter the Feadship Lady Christine once. It was an absolute disaster. The captain ran her aground! Then he destroyed the tender by showing off to guests… It ended up costing me just as much to repair the boat as it would to charter her out. Loro Piana Superyacht Regatta Day 1Photo: SuperYacht TimesSpeaking of charter, a lot of superyacht owners have very limited time to actually spend on board. How much time do you typically spend on board every year?  

Around 6 weeks. I think if you’re not spending 6 weeks on board a year, then you should just charter.  

How do you make the decision to build or buy?  

If you have not got enough time, then don’t build. You will only end up with a boat that doesn’t satisfy you, and then you might as well have just bought a second-hand boat in the first place. If you really enjoy a project, a build is very satisfying and a lot of fun. We were in the Feadship yard for two days a month every month during the latter part of the construction of the 68-metre Lady Christine. We were hugely involved: we signed off on every single light switch. Feadship is a great yard, and we had a fabulous time building with them. The boat that came out at the end was uniquely our boat.  But if you don’t care where those light switches are, then just don’t bother building. You should go around a dozen yachts for sale at the Monaco Yacht Show, at FLIBS. All you have to say is ‘I’ll have that’ and write a cheque, and you’ve saved yourself a lot of work and money - second-hand yachts are obviously always worth less than new boats. But if you want to be heavily involved in a project and you want to carve it very much to your tastes, building boats is very addictive.

You’ve previously stated that you will never build another motor yacht with anyone but Feadship. Why?

They went above and beyond to exceed my expectations. An example: I told them I wanted slide-out seat terraces. They had never done that before, but the answer was immediately yes. But what they delivered was so much more. Not only did they incorporate sturdy terraces useable at sea, but they had also designed them to automatically drain and self-dry the teak. They didn’t even charge me for the addition.
Between when we started building Lady Christine in 2007 and today, I suspect the quality gap between Feadship and other builders has probably narrowed, but for me, Feadship is the best. Other people have definitely brought up their game - Abeking & Rasmussen and Lürssen immediately spring to mind.  Lady Christine in VenicePhoto: Benoit DonneExperience, time and interest granted, what is your advice to those building a boat for the first time?  

I think project managers can get in the way if you want to be really involved yourself. We didn’t have a project manager for the 68-metre Lady Christine. The same goes with a captain: in general, it’s a bad idea to have them on board during the build because they are then building their boat, not yours. Of course, if you are not experienced in boat building, you need advice and help, but be careful with whom you choose. You also need a good yard who is willing to work with you, not against you. I’ve had both.  
An example of a yard working against you is found in the yard who rushes the client into the contract too quickly. You're going to make mistakes, you're going to want to suddenly go back and say ‘I want XYZ’ and they say, ‘Of course we can do that,” It will take another couple of months and it will cost another couple of hundred thousand, but they’ll do it. It’s how they make their money. Some yards regard you simply as a customer and not as a friend, enthusiast or builder.  

And what about custom yachts? When would you advise an owner to go fully custom and build and design everything from scratch?  

Again it all comes down to time and interest. I spent two solid weeks in the fabric room of Harrods when we were figuring out the right materials for the 68-metre Lady Christine. 10 full days. If you don’t have that level of interest, then buy a production boat or get an interior designer.

Lady Christine in VenicePhoto: Benoit DonneAs an owner who likes to cruise with a lot of toys on board, what’s your stance on support vessels?  

Support boats look rather sexy, but that means an entire additional vessel to organise. With a big enough boat, you can have your helicopter, submersibles and a couple of tenders. We don’t have a submersible on board because I don’t have any interest in it, but at 68-metres we have plenty of room for the usual dive compressors, toys, as well as a helicopter with a proper landing pad, and 7.5 tons of fuel.  
It’s cheaper to buy a support vessel than to commission a brand new yacht, but you’re not comparing apples with apples here. On a 70-metre boat, you have much more space for toys, but also for yourself. I found 40-metres too small for a transatlantic or transpacific crossing. If I were given the choice between a 40-metre motor yacht accompanied by a 40-metre support vessel or a new 70-metre, it’s an easy choice. 

What do you think of explorer yachts?  

I’ve gone pretty much everywhere I can go: the Philippines, the Chilean canals, Australia, Vanuatu… I can tell you that you really don’t need an exploration boat unless you’re going to Antarctica. In which case you’ll really want an Ice Class exploration boat. We’ve taken both the Oceanco and Feadship around the world and it was amazing. Exploration is great – but don’t think you need an explorer type boat to go exploring.  

You’ve now owned the 68-metre Lady Christine for 8 years. Will you commission a new, large motor yacht in the future? 

I have two yachts currently in build - a racing Botin 56 which will be delivered this year and named Fling 16, and a Hunt 74 motor yacht which is due for delivery in 2019 and will be named Seaflower. We just can’t conceive a boat that would suit us better than Lady Christine! She does everything we want her to do. She’s beautiful inside and out, but of course, we signed off on everything - so if she’s not great, we’re to blame. Maybe we will sell her at some point to move to a smaller boat, but I am not sure about that.  

Lady Christine in VenicePhoto: Benoit DonneWill you return to Feadship for that?  

I’ve actually talked to Feadship about doing another one a few times. The first thing I ask is what new technology can be offered on a yacht that I don’t already have on my 2010 yacht. The answer is that, really, there’s nothing that new. There’s a lot of conservatism with motor yachts, maybe rightly so. There are a couple of hybrid boats being built, but they’re not particularly satisfactory. I don’t think the hybrid technology is developed enough for big yachts yet. And what’s the upside? They say it’s quieter? I can't hear the engines anyway on my boat. What’s the upside for me?  

There’s a lot of talk surrounding the environmental aspect of hybrid yachts?  

I don’t think it’s a huge environmental benefit. It's not like an electric car where the electricity is made en masse and is more efficient than an internal combustion engine. You can't plug your boat in every night - though perhaps marinas will develop that in the future.  
The one innovation is the use of more glass. I think that’s quite a plus. If I did ever do another boat, I would do more glass throughout… but I don't see that the technological advances are enough to justify building a new boat right now.  

So you think there needs to be more innovation in motor yachts?  
To tempt me again, yes.  

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