Mike Simpson: Finding Freedom in a Beneteau
Mike Simpson has reawakened his love for sailing since buying a new Beneteau Oceanis 46.1, which he has named Freedom in tribute to a yachting lifestyle he has promoted since founding Simpson Marine in 1984.
When Mike Simpson talks about freedom, he may not rival Mel Gibson’s rousing speech as William Wallace in Braveheart, but he’s still pretty convincing. And these days the word has a double meaning for the man who founded Simpson Marine in 1984 in Hong Kong, where he still lives on Lamma Island and makes his way to his Aberdeen office and back driving his long-serving Windy speedboat.
Simpson believes freedom is ultimately what yachting is about, leading to the company’s tagline, ‘Yachting Freedom Since 1984’. And he also chose Freedom as the name of the Beneteau Oceanis 46.1 he bought last year, over two decades since he last owned a sailing yacht.
“That word is in the Simpson Marine tagline for a reason. It captures the whole idea of sailing, enjoying the sea breeze and the oceans. It’s all about freedom, this sense of escape. That to me is the greatest enjoyment of boating, getting away from all the pressure of work, of city life,” says the Managing Director of Asia’s largest yacht dealership, who employs over 100 staff in seven territories.
“It’s just the exhilaration of it. When you’re out on the water, you’re cutting yourself free. There’s this sense of total escape and freedom. It’s always with me whenever I get out on the water. You’re out in a different world and you can just let the pressure and stress drop away. Freedom is a metaphor for sailing.”
Simpson has sailed in many parts of the world including North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia, and it was sailing that brought him to this region. Having been travelling since retiring from the British Army in the 1970s, he was in Taiwan when he started building a yacht to sail around the world.
Although he reached Singapore on his first attempt and Hong Kong on his second, each time somebody took a liking to his boat and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. On the third attempt, Simpson ended up selling his yacht in Singapore again and received an order for another yacht. “The penny finally dropped and I realised I had stumbled on a business opportunity,” he smiles.
Beneteau was the first major brand that Simpson started representing and he’s now in his 36th year as a dealer for the iconic French builder. He took it on in 1985, a year after creating his company and a year before the launch of the Oceanis line.
Since he last owned a sailing yacht in the 1990s, his sailing has included occasional days out and regattas on friends’ boats in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia, as well as longer cruises during summer holidays in Europe, where he keeps a house in France.
However, Covid scuppered his usual summer plans last year as boating activity and ownership in Hong Kong had enjoyed a sharp rise, with residents, unable to holiday abroad, spending more time exploring their own city’s natural attractions. It was partly Covid and partly luck that led to Simpson finding Freedom.
“It was serendipitous because I usually try to get across to Europe in the summer, spend time at my house in France or flying my aeroplane back in the UK. Last year, that wasn’t possible, so I stayed in Hong Kong and watched everyone else getting out on to the water,” says Simpson, whose company sold 112 new and pre-owned yachts last year, recording over US$200 million in sales.
“It was amazing how many sales we were getting because of the lockdown, so obviously the message penetrated to me, that maybe I should be doing the same thing.”
Simpson had considered an Oceanis 51.1 before a well-specced First Line version of the Oceanis 46.1 became available in Hong Kong, after the intended buyer in the Philippines asked Simpson Marine to sell the yacht.
“I went on board and really liked the look of it, the layout and the equipment on board,” Simpson says of the 46.1, part of the seventh generation of Oceanis models. “It just seemed to fit the bill perfectly.”
FAST, FUN AND ROOMY
Boasting an overall length of 48ft, the model has a Pascal Conq-designed 45ft hull that offers a roomy beam of almost 15ft. Compared to the standard version, the First Line version has a 3ft-taller mast, 28 per cent more sail area, Harken deck fittings, a deep lead-bulb keel and the Performance running rigging.
“It’s just a blast. I’ve been doing eight to 10 knots relatively easily. This is a yacht you could happily take to the Philippines and you’d be roaring down there in the right wind,” says Simpson, who typically takes his yacht out at weekends.
“The great thing about this new Oceanis range is it offers many qualities of the First range, especially if you opt for the performance package. It’s for owners who want a yacht that’s fun to sail, light, fast and easy to operate.”
Simpson is a big fan of the cockpit, which has long sofas either side of a folding table, plus sun loungers either side of the companionway. At anchor, the transom folds down to become a swim platform.
“It’s a very large cockpit with a big table so you can sit down with a group of friends and have lunch al fresco or you can eat down below with a group. And because it has two wheels, you’ve got a clear passage through the cockpit, to the lower-deck stairs and aft, where you’re straight onto the swim platform and into the water.”
Nauta Design handled the deck layout and the interior, which Simpson is also a big fan of, having seen the Italian studio elevate this aspect of Beneteau’s sailing yachts and Lagoon’s catamarans during his time representing the Groupe Beneteau brands. Freedom has a three-cabin, two-head layout, with a forward owner’s suite and two aft guest cabins, one with an ensuite.
“The interior by Nauta Design is beautiful. It’s a fantastic interior for a 46ft yacht, with a very big saloon, good galley, very large owner’s cabin, plenty of large sea-view windows, plus lots of deck hatches and portholes for ventilation,” he says.
“It’s a very well equipped yacht, with everything you need for cruising and living on board, with masses of stowage space and lockers, like the deep bow locker where you can store a gennaker. I find pretty much every feature and aspect works extremely well.”
Freedom’s technical equipment includes a generator and airconditioning, a fridge, microwave, hob and oven in the galley, as well as an electric winch for the mainsail. He admits sailing yachts have changed in many ways since he last owned one.
“The decks have been cleaned up and improved from a safety aspect, with all the lines led aft from the mast, under cover. And we never dreamt of electric winches – you had to use a bit of muscle power,” he laughs.
“There has been a lot of refinement in the details. The interiors are now really nice and the choice of fabrics and materials are so much better than when I last had a yacht in the 1990s.
“Two steering wheels are also new. In my day, you had one big wheel that blocked access to the sea and you didn’t have the same space in the cockpit. Even having a generator and air-conditioning on a sailing yacht this size wasn’t common back then. They’re great features in this part of the world.”
Simpson’s sailing history has included trips along the east coast of the US and the “rather colder and more rugged” west coast of Canada. He says his most adventurous destinations include sailing out of Venezuela to the Los Roques archipelago, while in contrast, the Caribbean’s peak season in the northern winter offers stress-free cruising through its island chain.
friend who was an experienced mountaineer and adventurer, so we had a great time on that trip,” he recalls. “And I loved the Caribbean in the winter because you’re always beam-reaching whether you’re going north or south.”
However, he still believes the Mediterranean ticks most boxes for cruising, while admitting there’s still much of Asia he has yet to explore.
“If I’m looking at an area to cruise in, the Med is hard to beat. It’s not always the best wind, but you’ve got such interesting places with so much history and culture, beautiful little ports with lovely little restaurants on the quayside. That to me is magical. I could spend a long time cruising around the Med and always have plenty of variety and interesting things to see and do,” he says.
“Los Roques was beautiful. I sailed there with a “Having said that, look here in Asia. I’m now exploring more of Hong Kong. Double Haven is a spectacular place to cruise and stay overnight. And from here, you’re just a few days sail to the islands in the Philippines and then you can head into Indonesia, which I haven’t done yet, but that’s something I’d love to do.”
Having promoted the freedom of the yachting lifestyle through Simpson Marine for over three decades, Simpson spearheaded a collaboration with Sanlorenzo in 2015 that had initially included a gradual exit strategy for him to ease into retirement.
However, at the same time as a potential buyout from a mainland investor failed to materialise, Simpson has found himself rejuvenated by both the success of Sanlorenzo Asia and other businesses within the Simpson Marine Group, which also represents Bluegame, Fairline and Aquila, and operates large brokerage, charter and yacht-management divisions.
“Mentally, I had started thinking about the exit plan and what I was going to do such as sailing and flying my plane, but the company has been going from strength to strength and it has been amazing to see what has happened. I’ve really got back into it and here I am, still at the helm and enjoying it,” Simpson says.
“I’ve got a great team around the region and particularly here in Hong Kong, where the main market is. While my team keep doing a great job and run the business, and I can still take a month or two off each summer to do my flying and carry on sailing, I’m happy with where I am. Whatever happens, the main thing is to stay active. I don’t plan to retire for a long time.”
Note: The original article appeared in ‘Owner’ in Yacht Style Issue 58
The Beneteau Cup Hong Kong in mid-May already has 15 entries, with only the first 20 assured of a place at the event’s evening gala at Middle Island.