Michael Schmidt has won ocean races, closed big brokerage deals, launched the successful Hanse Yachts brand and now with Y Yachts he has created a new range of large yachts as esoteric as they are captivating.
Pioneering carbon raceboat builder, international yacht broker, Admiral’s Cup-winning skipper and helmsman, creator of the Hanse Yachts brand and now founding director of the award-winning Y Yachts shipyard, Michael Schmidt is one of the sailing world’s great all-rounders with several careers’ worth of experience packed into his five decades at the cutting edge of marine industry innovation.
But why on earth did he go back to the hard graft of establishing a new shipyard when he could be enjoying a well-earned and comfortable retirement?
‘Well, a few things came together,’ he says. ‘If like me you have sailed all your life, virtually since birth and then built thousands of sailing yachts, you have a certain wealth of experience. You have an idea of how a yacht should sail, what a good interior should look like and how the technology should work.
‘When I had time a few years ago and was looking for a boat for myself, there was nothing that came close to satisfying me. So I started to have a yacht built according to my ideas. Lorenzo Argento and Sir David Chipperfield designed the 80-footer Cool Breeze together with me.’
Schmidt’s vision created a beautiful performance cruiser that turned heads wherever he sailed it. But how did that one-off custom build project escalate into the creation and launch of a whole new shipyard?
‘That came a little later,’ he says. ‘When I sailed Cool Breeze, the yacht attracted quite a lot of attention from owners and interested prospects. So my idea of light, easy-to-sail, reduced and yet luxurious yachts seemed to appeal not only to me. Requests came in for a sister ship and I realised that this was a business. In 2016, I founded Y Yachts in Greifswald.’
That core concept, ‘reduced and yet luxurious,’ became the founding principle of the Y Yachts brand. At a time when most of the marine industry is so strongly focused on doing the exact opposite – adding a luxury dimension to yachting by installing ever more complex and sophisticated systems – what does Schmidt mean by reduced?
‘There is this quote attributed to several famous thinkers: “I’m writing you a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one.” A yacht has to be operated intuitively, so you have to rethink and simplify a lot of details, which costs time and energy,’ he explains.
A good example of overcomplicating things, he says, is the current fashion for equipping large yachts’ galleys with induction hobs and electric fan ovens. ‘Why does electric cooking have to be used on a sailing yacht? For that I need either a shore connection or a generator. Why not cook with gas? It’s safe and easy. When the gas bottle is empty, I simply replace it.’
This principle has always been popular among experienced sailors because it boosts the reliability of systems onboard. From backstay deflectors to programmable logic controllers, Schmidt takes a pragmatic and seamanlike approach born out of long experience that favours robust, reliable simplicity over the diminishing returns of adding extra functionality that isn’t strictly necessary.
‘Why do all sails have to be adjustable in so many different ways? If I’m not a racing sailor I don’t need these features which are also quite fragile,’ he says. ‘Why do the electronics have to be completely networked and harbour so many potential sources of error? At Y Yachts, we asked ourselves these questions and many more. We avoid a high level of complexity and thus vulnerabilities and high maintenance costs. That is what I understand by reduction.’
The coronavirus crisis has severely tested the resilience of many marine businesses but Y Yachts has thrived despite the constraints and challenges imposed by the pandemic. ‘We are getting a lot of enquiries,’ says chief executive Dirk Zademack.
‘Customers currently seem to be much more interested in owning a home on the water and separating themselves somewhat from the environment. Our philosophy of building light, fast, luxurious and sustainable yachts also strikes a chord with them. It goes hand in hand with the current neo-luxury trend of authenticity and self-determination.’
The cancellation of so many boat shows over the last 18 months has forced a change in YYachts’ sales and marketing strategy. ‘When this opportunity to generate leads was taken away by the pandemic, we focused even more on the digitalisation of our activities,’ Zademack says. ‘We conducted viewings via video call and Facetime, installed a new website with many new features and drew attention to ourselves with other digital activities. That has worked well.’
Post Covid, are the boat shows likely to regain the pivotal importance that they used to have for the yachting industry? Schmidt has his doubts. ‘I do believe that boat shows will no longer have the status they had before the pandemic,’ he says. ‘This culture that you must have a stand everywhere will disappear.
Perhaps it took this phase to make many people in the industry aware of this.’ Even so, YYachts will still be at a few key events. ‘We will certainly exhibit in Palma and Cannes,’ Zademack says. ‘We are also taking a closer look at the Monaco Yacht Show. At the moment I can’t imagine that we will still be exhibiting at indoor fairs but it’s still a bit early to judge. We’ll just have to observe the overall situation.’
The strong design aesthetic of YYachts is an important aspect of the boats’ appeal. ‘What unites all of our customers is that they are very design-oriented,’ Schmidt says. ‘They like our styling, inside and out. It’s not for nothing that we work with people like Sir David Chipperfield, Lorenzo Argento, Bill Tripp, Javier Jaudenes, Norm Architects or Design Unlimited.
We always work directly with the owners themselves. The geographical range is relatively wide, from the USA to Russia. Many enquiries come from Europe, but we are very interested in further expanding our preferred partner network.’
YYachts’ smallest model, the Y7, is proving especially popular, which Schmidt says is partly because it can be sailed by just two people and also because it’s been exhibited at so many boat shows and has had more magazine coverage than the other two models. ‘However, the Y8 and the Y9 are also generating a lot of interest,’ he says. ‘With the Y9 we have entered the superyacht segment. It is the ideal size to compete in world class regattas like St Barths Bucket or the Superyacht Cup, but still have a spacious yacht for the family with a small crew.’
Right from the start, YYachts has been keen to emphasise the sustainability of its yachts, beyond the inherently sustainable nature of sailing. ‘Our concept only begins with that principle,’ Schmidt explains.
‘For example, we cover the deck with wood from sustainable sources, we install vertical windows to minimise the use of air conditioning and we consistently focus on lightweight construction. Y Yachts are made entirely of carbon, the interior fittings are weight-optimised and they include parts made with material obtained from recycled PET bottles. You will soon see many more ideas on our yachts but in the interest of our customers, we will only implement things we believe in.’
The shipyard has already delivered four yachts this year. First, launched in April, was the Y8 Vegas Baby, a Lorenzo Argento design with interior styling by Design Unlimited. Next were two Y7s, one of which has extensive design input from its owner. ‘Then we handed over our current flagship, a Tripp 90, to its American owner,’ Zademack says. ‘Here we worked with Winch Design on the interior.’
Even larger build projects may soon be in the pipeline.
‘Up to 105ft would be possible,’ Schmidt says. ‘Our competence lies in sailing and with interesting models we believe we can convince many owners of motor boats that sailing is more exciting.’
Covid-19 has not slowed down production. ‘We are very proud that we were able to keep our delivery dates,’ Zademack says. ‘The fact that we rely heavily on regional suppliers is not only sustainable, but also had the positive aspect during the pandemic that our supply chains were hardly interrupted.’
Y Yachts’ goal is to become a global player in the market for full carbon sailing yachts up to 100ft LOA within the next five years. ‘Already in our first five years we have built up a very good image and satisfied our customers,’ Zademack says.
‘We’d like to continue this and convince some motor yacht owners to buy a sailing yacht. We have already succeeded with three of them.’