Yacht consultant Brad Butterworth

Brad Butterworth’s America’s Cup wins have positioned him at the forefront of a new class of sailing consultant serving a client pool with a growing appetite for privately funded grand-prix racing boats and superyachts. Matthew Sheahan reports

Brad Butterworth on Rainbow at the 2014 Loro Piana Caribbean Superyacht Regatta & Rendezvous
Brad Butterworth on Rainbow at the 2014 Loro Piana Caribbean Superyacht Regatta & Rendezvous | Image: Luca Buttò/Studio Borlenghi

In New Zealand’s small but intense sailing scene, Brad Butterworth was a celebrity sailor well before he hit the big time. Having grown up with the sport since childhood, he started his working life as a sailmaker before taking various crewing roles aboard competitive race boats. His list of achievements is varied and impressive, from inshore match racing to winning every leg of the 1989-1990 Whitbread Round the World race as a watch captain on Steinlager 2, Peter Blake’s legendary Kiwi boat.

Butterworth was rarely in the spotlight but frequently at the heart of successful campaigns, and so, by the turn of the century, both his stock and his reputation were high. He had won and successfully defended the America’s Cup and remained staunchly Kiwi. To his many supporters, leaving Team New Zealand was unthinkable, but when he did in 2000 – along with his friend, America’s Cup skipper Russell Coutts, and others – to form a new Swiss team, the move was bold and controversial but would shape his career.

Funded by Swiss pharmaceutical billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, Team Alinghi was out to win the America’s Cup. Three years later, in 2003, it did just that, and lifted the Cup from the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron’s trophy cabinet. For the next America’s Cup, held in Valencia in 2007, Butterworth skippered Alinghi after Coutts had fallen out with Bertarelli. Once again he denied the Kiwis the Cup as the Swiss team defended successfully. But in 2010, during the following match, his luck ran out when Larry Ellison’s Oracle Racing team, which Coutts had joined, won the America’s Cup and took it to Ellison’s home club in the US. From here, as the Cup format took a giant leap into high-powered, high-speed, wing-masted catamarans on hydrofoils, Butterworth decided to step out of the ring.

Dan Meyers’ 51.6m schooner Meteor at the 2014 St Barths Bucket Regatta.
Dan Meyers’ 51.6m schooner Meteor at the 2014 St Barths Bucket Regatta. | Image: Carlo Borlenghi

Calm and collected, smart and witty, he is best known among the yacht-racing fraternity for his tactical prowess on the course. But a decade in the media spotlight had brought his name to the attention of a much wider audience. His knowledge and expertise, along with his track record and impressive contacts, increased demand for his advice on building, sailing and running some of the world’s fastest race boats and most elegant superyachts. The audacious change of teams 10 years earlier had launched the already decorated sailor into another league.

His work with Alinghi had meant relocating to Geneva, where he remains today – a move that has placed him at the centre of a powerful and influential European client pool, where the appetite for privately funded grand-prix racing boats and the world’s biggest superyachts has been growing at an impressive rate. Although he remains a committed and sought-after racing sailor, turning other people’s aspirations into a reality is now a large part of his work. To many in the sport, Butterworth has become a millionaires’ matchmaker. “Initially at least, it is about trying to match owners’ expectations with reality,” he says. “Understanding what they want to do and what they are trying to achieve are crucial first steps, particularly as the choice is so wide today. Then comes the issue of timescale. Building a superyacht may take around two to three years. It can be a longer process than people think, which takes a great deal of planning.”

One of the best examples of this is Dan Meyers’ Meteor, a €24m, 51.6m modern interpretation of a classic schooner. Butterworth’s initial role in the project was to listen to what his client and good friend Meyers – a competitive sailor himself and one with an eye for classic-looking vessels, as well as grand-prix craft – wanted to achieve and then develop the concept around it. The result is one of the most elegant, well-known and well-travelled superyachts on the circuit.

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The superyacht scene has grown rapidly in recent years. Defined broadly as yachts over 100ft (30.5m) in overall length, many are designed with cruising in mind, but racing has become a big draw for owners, who now include several Mediterranean and Caribbean regattas in their season’s programme. “The big surge in interest came in 2011, after the Superyacht Racing Association was set up to provide more structure to the racing,” says Butterworth. “Classes were arranged to try to group boats of similar types, while the rules were adapted to take account of these huge yachts and make the racing safer. Pushing 300-tonne boats hard within metres of each other can be a risky business.”

As interest grew, so the events flourished. Among the current favourites is the St Barths Bucket Regatta, held on the chic island of Saint Barthélemy in the Caribbean in March. Despite an entry cap of 40 boats, the total fleet value can easily reach around half a billion dollars, with vessels ranging from 27m to as much as 88.1m. “This event is spectacular and is now one of the ‘must-do’ regattas of the season,” says Butterworth. “In fact, some owners are not just planning their season around the Bucket, but the design of their next boat, too. The 66.7m ketch Hetairos is a good example; she was built to win the event in 2012.”

Which she may well have done, had the $30m yacht not run aground and damaged her keel during a close battle with a competitor, ending her chances and forcing her to limp back to port and sit out the rest of the event. If nothing else, the incident serves to highlight how hard these boats are pushed and how fiercely the competition is played out. Superyacht racing is no longer a parade of sail. With armies of highly experienced paid crew, many of the top owners are there to win, and nothing else.

Brad Butterworth on board the Jethou during Rolex Capri Sailing Week
Brad Butterworth on board the Jethou during Rolex Capri Sailing Week | Image: Rolex / Carlo Borlenghi

Another top event in that part of the world is the Loro Piana Caribbean Superyacht Regatta & Rendezvous in Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands. “A client of mine called to say he wanted to race a J Class at this year’s event. Just finding one of these classic boats to charter was a bit of a struggle, but in the end we were able to secure Rainbow.”

If there’s a yacht that makes all racing sailors go weak at the knees, it is the evocative J Class that was designed specifically for the America’s Cup. The vessels were famous for representing the leading edge of yacht design in the 1930s, and the past two decades have seen a resurgence of enthusiasm for rebuilding and racing these classic, supremely elegant boats. Today there are few, if any, to restore, yet J fever has taken such a hold among wealthy owners that new-builds of former designs have been created. Rainbow is one such boat, a modern replica of Harold Vanderbilt’s original yacht that was sold for scrap in 1940 but had successfully defended the America’s Cup in 1934 against Thomas Sopwith’s challenger Endeavour.

Hanuman is another example. Launched in 2009, she is a modern replica of Sopwith’s second America’s Cup boat, Endeavour II, which was scrapped in 1968. Ranger is yet another, and so the list goes on. On top of price tags of about $10m for a restoration and $18m-$22m for a new-build, owners can expect running costs of $1.25m for a five-regatta campaign, which would include $450,000 for a season’s suit of sails. Those looking to charter would need to brace themselves for a $90,000 bill for the week, plus the costs associated with fees, flights and accommodation for 25 crew.

Riva Aquamara
Riva Aquamara | Image: SEA&SEE/Guido Cantini

But the cost of competing is still one of the smaller hurdles for many owners. Sorting the logistics for a major event can be a much bigger task, as Butterworth knows well. He works frequently with J Class owners and crew to plan out a schedule that their boat can meet, while securing key crew members well ahead of time. A thorough understanding of the timescale involved and an extensive contacts book are two essential elements in this role.

There is a thriving and popular circuit for classic yachts, particularly in the Mediterranean, with the Panerai circuit comprising six events: Les Voiles d’Antibes, Argentario Sailing Week, Le Vele d’Epoca a Napoli, the Copa del Rey de Barcos de Epoca, Vele d’Epoca di Imperia and the Régates Royales in Cannes. Managing such projects can be a different affair. “These are magnificent events,” says Butterworth. “Classic yachts represent a very different world to that of the superyachts. For a start, you need crews with highly specialised skills – people who understand how to handle and trim the yachts using time-honoured techniques and equipment. Everyone who owns or sails one has fallen in love with them. From their lines to their wooden construction and the deep-varnished surfaces, these yachts are really something special. Around 30 to 40 per cent of the running costs of the boats is simply maintaining them, which means that their overall annual running costs can be as much as 15 to 17 per cent of their value.”

At the other end of the design spectrum, modern high-performance grand-prix racing continues to attract big spenders. One such class is the Mini Maxi, flat-out racing machines that, at 18m-22m, fall below the superyacht size category yet still require impressive budgets. It is this high-octane grand-prix world that Butterworth is best known for and in most demand. His tactical expertise is acknowledged around the world, while his America’s Cup expertise has a knock-on effect, both on the race course and when it comes to the application of leading-edge technology. Here Butterworth’s stock is particularly high.

The 37.3m Pumula at the St Barths Bucket Regatta
The 37.3m Pumula at the St Barths Bucket Regatta | Image: Cory Silen / www.corysilken.com

The Mini Maxi scene has gained in popularity over the years, thanks in part to a strict owner/driver rule. While any number of professional crew are allowed, only the owner can helm the boat, but there are plenty who will pay for Butterworth and the like to stand by their side and advise during the racing at any of the typical tour venues, such as Palma, Capri, Saint Tropez and Sardinia.

“There are two broad approaches to competing in the Mini Maxi class,” says Butterworth. “One is to race a semi-production boat, such as a Baltic or Swan 60. Typically these boats will cost €2.5m to €4m, with a season’s campaign cost adding around €800,000. The second is to go down the one-off route. These boats are currently between 18.3m and 21.9m and cost around €4.5m to €6m, with campaign costs coming in at around €1m to €1.5m a year.”

But while racing in the Mini Maxi class continues to thrive, some are still drawn to the ultimate 100ft (30.5m) racing machine, whatever the cost. Here, Butterworth also has his ear close to the ground. “Typically, boats such as Wild Oats, Alfa Romeo and Speedboat cost around $13m to build and around $2m a year to run,” he says. “One of the latest to be announced is a new 100 footer for Netscape co-founder Jim Clark.”

Brad Butterworth’s Riva Ego Super, Miromutu
Brad Butterworth’s Riva Ego Super, Miromutu | Image: Courtesy of Brad Butterworth

But for some, size isn’t the issue. A recent trend for elegant day-sailing boats, typically of 12m or less, has been particularly popular around the shorelines of some of Europe’s famous lakes. In his home town on the shores of Lac Léman, Butterworth has seen for himself the increase in popularity of high-quality day boats. From the modern, minimalist styles of Italian-based Luca Brenta that have inspired a generation of similar boats, to the time-honoured classic styles created by builders such as Leonardo Yachts with its Eagle 44, there is growing interest in elegant cruisers that are as satisfying to look at as they are to sail, but with price tags that often run into several hundreds of thousands of euros.

There is nothing new in expensive, high-quality, classic small boats. Among the most famous are the iconic Riva motorboats. As an owner and a self-confessed fan of the marque, Butterworth has a good measure of both the appeal and the costs. “Rivas are classic, iconic powerboats that have inspired many imitators. But a large part of the Riva history, prestige and mystique lies with some of the people that have owned them.” Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, Peter Sellers, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the Shah of Persia and Prince Rainier III are just a few of the rich and famous who have contributed to this classic Italian motorboat’s reputation.

“The most famous model is the 10m Aquarama, and an original from the 1960s will cost around €400,000,” he continues. “Ten years ago you could have bought one for €75,000. The modern-day equivalent is the Aquariva, which has a price tag of about €450,000. For me, its €2.2m, 20.7m Riva Ego Super is currently the prettiest modern powerboat on the market.”

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If nothing else, it is clear that when it comes to the finest craft in the world, a correlation between length and cost doesn’t exist. Boats, be they power or sail, have rarely been considered as an investment capable of appreciation. Indeed, the adage that compares sailing with standing under a cold shower tearing up £20 notes is as true today as ever. Yet in the past two decades in particular, some of the world’s wealthiest owners have not only rekindled the spirit of a bygone age through the restoration and recreation of some of the finest yachts ever built, but have also moved luxury-boat building into a new age. Guided by a new level of professional expertise from project managers and consultants such as Butterworth, to do this has nonetheless involved tearing up more notes than you could ever flush down the drains.

But whether buying or chartering, modern or classic, restoration or new-build, there is a common denominator for all, according to Butterworth. “Whatever you spend, whether you own her or not, you’re really just renting a slice of history.”

Matthew Sheahan is Yachting World magazine’s racing and technical editor.

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