Robb Reader: Arksen Founder Jasper Smith

The world’s major boat shows are always replete with technical and aesthetic innovation – but rarely does a newcomer roll up with an entirely different ethos on what a water craft’s purpose actually should be. That happened last month, though, at The Dusseldorf Boat Show, when Jasper Smith – founder of gaming businesses including Playjam – unveiled a yachting venture which is all about marine research and global exploration.His wares are not just yachts – they’re high-class explorer vessels.

“Owning an Arksen is not a status symbol – it’s a statement of intent.” Can you explain this company ethos?
Our awareness of our activities is thankfully much greater than it once was. The majority of the best sailors and explorers feel a responsibility to do something for the good of the world, our environment and for the benefit of next generation. So we build vessels that are robust, highly efficient and designed to minimise maintenance, in the most sustainable ways we can. We also take a much wider view than most boat brands; by running the Arksen Foundation we offer owners access to curated marine research and media projects conducted on Arksen vessels, whilst the Arksen Explorers Club offers adventure and explorer trips for our community, providing powerful life experiences.

What inspired this approach?
Any new company today needs a strong set of values at its core. For that we’ve looked to companies that I have followed for years and that have inspired me such as [American outdoor clothing company] Patagonia. Yvon Chouinard has built a hugely successful and sustainable business that has a strong, socially responsible mission which, through their one per cent pledge, has invested millions of dollars in multiple projects to help protect the environment. My aim with Arksen is first and foremost to develop exceptional products that are built with their full lifecycle in mind; from sourcing to recycling at end of life. My second is to work with our community to ensure that our fleet is used in part to drive a wider and deeper understanding of the ocean ecosystem through supporting scientists, film makers, artists and journalists and providing them with a platform via which they can craft and tell their stories.

Who is your typical customer?
Most sailors are adventurous at heart. Many I talk to want to go further afield and get to the more remote parts of the world, but the majority of production yachts are really not designed for remote cruising. So one of the things that was important to us when we started the design process was to come up with a very efficient hull form that was extremely capable in a wide range of sea states, with exceptional range, good speed, stability and with sufficient storage to allow for very extended cruising. Our aim was to ensure that if you bought an Arksen vessel, you felt that you had everything that you might need to embark on your greatest adventure.

What do you bring to this project from three decades in games and technology?
I think there will be much more in common between the industries than there is now over the next 10 years. In the games sector machine learning, deep data analysis and AR have been used for years to create innovative game play scenarios or to map out consumer behaviour. As we move towards auto and marine autonomy much of the learning from the games industry is migrating to other sectors. At Arksen, I’m hopeful that we will be able to create autonomy systems that will allow us to move unmanned vessels around the world, thus reducing costs for owners and allowing transport between A and B in the most economical manner possible.

Do catalyst moments, that made you become more engaged with sustainability, come regularly?
I recently read that [Norwegian adventurer and ethnographer] Thor Heyerdahl came across oil pollution almost every day when he crossed the Atlantic on the Ra Expedition in the early 70s. We tend to think of global warming and the drive for sustainability as a new thing, but the reality is that the need for it has been evident for decades. If you listen to [environmental scientist] James Lovelock talk about the Gaia theory, he proposes that living organisms interact with their surroundings to create a self-regulating, harmonised and complex system that maintains and perpetuates the conditions for life. It’s hard to argue against this logic.

What about a moment of clarity in terms of engagement with nature?
About 20 years ago I sailed around the Pacific, climbing many of the mountains and volcanoes along the way. As we sailed around Kamchatka I was enthralled by how majestic the landscapes were, how remote and how pristine it was. I’ve always thought of that trip as the moment when I woke up to the beauty of the world, but my journey really started a bit further back when I sold my first company and started the World Ocean Trust – which aimed to celebrate and advocate clean oceans. This time around, I feel there’s a lot more awareness and that we are in a zeitgeist moment where we have a unique opportunity to encourage behaviour change and to see the benefits. A bit like going on a diet, or getting fit, it feels pretty difficult at first but then you start seeing the results and it feels great.

What personal traits do you feel people like Nansen and Cousteau had that set them apart from ‘ordinary’ people?
These explorers have been huge inspirations for me, and I loved the idea of building a brand that reflected some of their values and attributes: courage, honesty and ambition for change. Jacques Cousteau is the man who invented the aqualung and who brought a whole new world to life for millions of people through his extraordinary films. These people provide such a powerful narrative: of innovation, of challenge, of adventure and exploration, of science. If they were alive today, I hope that they would look at what we are doing and want to be a part of the project.

Is luxury moving away from the tangible, towards the experiential?
Yes. People are seeking more meaningful experiences – ones which better themselves and others. Meaningful activities generate positive emotions and deepen social connections and increase our satisfaction with life.

In what circumstances do you get your best creative ideas?
Creativity is a bit like treasure hunting. You overhear a conversation on the bus, someone says something over dinner, you read an article in the paper, you see poster, a TV programme, a film, a friend introduces you to someone new who has a story… These incidental moments have been the genesis of ideas throughout my life. Ideas don’t arrive in a flash, but over weeks and months of exploring how you might give life to a project and how you might reinvent the market around it. As a young man I studied sculpture – and loved how you could use shape and form to deliver emotional response, and so now I find my best creative moments come when I can de-clutter my mind and find my emotional response to an idea. If the idea makes me smile, makes me feel happy then I explore it further. If it feels aggressive, overly complex and does not deliver a response that I think I want to invest in I leave the concept behind.

Who in the world – dead or alive – has inspired you the most and why?
One of the greatest inspirations for building Arksen was my children. The world is a complex place today and whilst I have sailed extensively with them in the Mediterranean and around the UK I began to dream of taking them on some of the much longer passages I did a few years ago. I then thought how wonderful it would be to take them on some of the extraordinary journeys of our role models: following part of the explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s Fram journey north, sailing in the wake of Bill Tillman, diving some of the sites Jacques Cousteau discovered, following the Kon-Tiki route and so on. Life is short – it skips by. I thought, if there is one thing I can do for and with my kids that will allow them to see the world in a profoundly different way, it’s perhaps to show them the world at its most natural and complete.

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