When the fabulously rich and famous want a yacht they can part the waves with, it is English designer Andrew Winch they turn to. As the Abu Dhabi Yacht Show approaches, Jonny Beardsall talks to the man who can make all their dreams come true. Winch, when you think about it, is an almost comically appropriate surname for someone who designs boats. Andrew Winch smiles. "It was rather obvious when it came to choosing a company logo," he says.
Winch, 53, is one of the world's leading designers of award-winning sail and motor yachts. He lives on a small farm near Cranleigh, Surrey in south-east England, but spends much of his time at his studios on the River Thames at Mortlake, in south London. "I have to be able to see water," he says, pushing back clumps of thick russet-coloured hair as he stares across the river from his windows. The luxury yacht industry is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It is hard to find a precise figure, but Winch's current projects are worth "approximately 500 million (Dh2.5 billion)". And, for many of the immensely rich, Winch is the man to go to. "Right now there must be 25 superyachts over 50m being built in the world, five to 10 of which will be mine," he says. Size, it appears, isn't an issue. "When a client wanted an Olympic-sized pool and another, a helipad that would take his Sikorsky Blackhawk, boats just got bigger."
Unrestricted to floating palaces, he also designs the interiors of private jets, which carry his highest price tags. Given that he creates dining rooms, bedrooms, cinemas and even nightclubs inside the fuselage of anything from the Boeing 737 to the Airbus A380, it is not surprising. "It always costs 10 times more because of the safety factors and the many engineering issues," he explains. With projects in the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, the US and Russia, he sees customers all over the world and attends major shows, including the Abu Dhabi Yacht Show later this month.
He designed the 60m Slipstream, the largest boat ever built at CMN shipyard in Cherbourg, France, which became part of Abu Dhabi MAR last year. "Slipstream was one of the stars of last year's Monaco Yacht Show. She is owned by an Australian and berthed in Dubai." While he is extremely discreet, declining to tell you anything he doesn't want you to know, many of the fabulous vessels he has worked on are so talked about that the owners' identity are the cause of much speculation. Winch smiles - he can't possibly comment.
He did the interiors on the 133m motor yacht, Al Mirqab, which, reputedly, belongs to Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al Thani, the prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar. The vessel has a VIP suite for the owner and another five for 10 guests. Another astounding venture was the 162m motor yacht Dubai. When it was launched in 2006 it was the largest private yacht in the world and believed to belong to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
But with a worldwide recession hitting Dubai, you might assume that it is curtailing orders. "Actually, I've no outstanding contracts in Dubai, but have five elsewhere in the Gulf, all of which are proceeding. I'm certain the region is the future client base for this industry," he says. "The only cancellation in the last 18 months was a 95m three-mast square rigged sailing yacht for a Russian. Plans were finished and the shipyard booked when it was suspended four months ago."
Winch's modern office is light and airy with leather-topped desks and cream carpets. There are framed pictures, sculptures and ceramics as well as sea shells, nautical knots and scale models of boats. The shelves are lined with coffee-table books on art, architecture and travel. "I love picture books. You have to read to look for fresh inspiration." A picture of a futuristic-looking vessel immediately catches the eye. Painted in gouache and crayon by the New Zealand artist David Barker, it shows a boat with twin helipads and a wheelhouse straddled by a pair of curious bridge-wings that resemble the foils on a submarine. "They're purely aesthetic," says Winch. So will it ever be built? "I really hope so. It has been designed to a very specific brief and we're currently discussing it."
On a low table is a model of the BronzeAge sun chariot discovered in Denmark, a horse-drawn, six-wheeled wagon with a golden sun-shaped disk. "It's one of a set of seven made by the Danish government, each intended as gifts to heads of state. This one was for Brezhnev [the former Soviet leader]," he says, but doesn't elaborate as to how he comes to own it. While he treasures his Fabergé glass, ceramics by Picasso and a silver albatross, some pieces are enjoyed only on a temporary basis and may be heading for a soon-to-be-finished project.
"I'm always looking at Christie's and Sotheby's for interesting pieces." A silver yachting chalice - one of which was presented annually by Queen Victoria to the Royal Prince Albert Yacht Club - sits on a pile of books. "I bought it with a yacht's dining room in mind." So do clients ever walk into this office? "Yes I've had three Middle Eastern princes in here. I've worked for one for 18 years but finally met him for the first time just before the delivery of his last yacht. Another new client just walked in off the street to talk about a plane. He said, 'I don't want a yacht but will you do my 737?'"
Winch grew up messing about in boats in Chichester harbour, on England's south coast. "I've always loved the sea," he says. After art school at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London and a course in three-dimensional design at Kingston College, he crewed and skippered yachts in Caribbean. He then served a six-year apprenticeship with the designer Jon Bannenberg. During this time, he worked on his first aircraft interior, which was a 727 for the billionaire American publisher Malcolm Forbes, who was renowned for his lavish lifestyle. "It had 'The Capitalist Tool' painted on its tail in gold letters," remembers Winch.
In 1986, Winch and his wife, Jane, started Andrew Winch Designs which occupies three adjacent buildings on the river's edge. Spread between a traditional Thames river house and the old fire station building, this is where he takes the tiller while his wife is the financial director. "We don't take work to bed and never tread on each other's toes. Just as I couldn't work well if I was married to another designer, I make sure I have nothing to do with numbers."
Concepts begin with the dreams of the clients. "My team - who are the best in the world - will sketch and discuss these visions. They'll know where I'm going with an idea and I'll adjust what they come up with and be exactly where the client wants me to be." With the combination of technical advances and demands for larger yachts with more facilities, design is continually evolving. With helipads becoming a common request, Winch also applies his aviation design experience. "We've designed and developed a concept in conjuction with the yacht brokers Edmiston, and leading helicopter company Eurocopter," he says.
If anything distinquishes these yachts, it is that every one is completely different from the next. Winch points to a scale model of a classic green-hulled motor yacht just behind his desk. "It's being built in Chicago and will be ready in three months. This has been a four-year job and we're already building another for the same client." Why, you have to ask? "He thinks it's lovely but he's decided it may not be big enough for his family."
Constantly diversifying, Winch is also working on a Chicago apartment inspired by New York art deco, and an ultra-contemporary one in Moscow for existing clients. "I've never wanted to be cast as someone with a certain look. Our signature is our individuality so now we're designing homes. I don't mind if I'm asked to design a house or a yacht, jet, car, helicopter or a chair or even a shoe. I just love design, full stop."
The Abu Dhabi Yacht Show runs February 25-27.