London’s Collective Spirit

A community project built and based in Emsworth, England, for the London Cultural Olympiad, the Collective Spirit is a 30-foot encapsulation of over 1,200 donated family heirlooms and parts of U.K. history.

Collective Spirit
Collective Spirit
Collective Spirit, which is composed of over 1,200 donated pieces of wood, was exhibited at the sailing venue in Weymouth during the Olympic regatta.Courtesy of TOBY Adamson/The Boat Project

A community project built and based in Emsworth, England, for the London Cultural Olympiad, the Collective Spirit is a 30-foot encapsulation of over 1,200 donated family heirlooms and parts of U.K. history. Over a year, the "Boat Project" collected these donations and built the boat with the help of a team of volunteers. Collective Spirit, a name chosen by public vote, was christened on May 7.

Former Team GBR Star sailor Mark Covell, who won a silver medal at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia, skippers Spirit and was heavily involved with the design and build. Of his initial task, Covell says, “It was up there with my Olympic campaigns. When all the donations were in their original form, we covered the area of a 25-space parking lot with them—all to fit in one boat!”

Of those donations, Covell’s favorite is a piece of Burmese teak from a crate in the cuddy with “CN Burnett, London” carved into it. The woman who donated it lived in China during the civil war that led to Chairman Mao coming to power. Her father could not bring cash when they escaped in 1941, so he brought high-value goods he could sell in London.

Covell muses, “What that crate meant and did for the family, and the journey it made just blows me away! Its journey continues; it may even return to China one day.”

With regard to Spirit's design, Covell explains, "We could have built what people term a 'classic,' which would have enabled us to fit more wood into the boat. Instead we chose to base the design, with wide counter and narrow bow, on something like the IMOCA 60."

With Spirit's lines and carbon mast, the boat is a rocket through the water. Volunteer crew Julie Wright had never sailed before she came aboard, and remembers what they were told before going out in the boat: "Mark Covell sat us down and explained it was going to be like learning to drive a Ferrari."

Wright’s favorite story from the boat comes from half a table with a snail carved into it in the cuddy. “The table was made for a kindergarten class in memory of a pupil who died of a brain tumor,” says Wright. “His mother wasn’t told it was donated, but when she found out, she was so happy her son’s spirit and legacy would live on in this boat.”

The fastest Spirit has gone is 18 knots, reaching under spinnaker. But in spite of the boat's speed, the project's focus won't be on winning regattas, and Covell intends "for the community that built her to come yacht racing rather than to win races."