In the first of a series of interviews with individuals who are pursuing a passion away from their professional background, we talk to technology entrepreneur Jasper Smith about sailing, boat building and saving the world’s oceans
Jasper Smith built his fortune in gaming, media and technology. His passion is for boats and the ocean. Throughout his life he has loved the sea.
He has established the Arksen Foundation, a non-profit organisation which supports a range of ocean conservation and research projects, alongside Arksen, the boat-building firm in Southampton.
I trained as a sculptor, and creativity has always been at the core of everything that I have done.
I fell in love with sailing, climbing and adventuring as a boy. We lived in Battersea in London and spent holidays in the Brecon Beacons in Wales so I was lucky enough to experience the vibrancy of the city – and feel the adventure of the mountains.
The ability to get off the beaten track and re-connect with nature has always been very important to me. Spending time on and working with boats allows me to combine both passions.
I enjoy long-distance sailing in remote parts of the world. I love the solitude and interdependence between the elements, the machine and crew.
I started off working with telecom firms in Europe to build pay-TV networks and gradually moved in to games. The industry is great fun and incredibly dynamic, with almost constant change.
Over the years I have built a wide range of tech and engineering businesses and have been lucky enough to sell a few along the way, which has created the opportunity to do other things.
A friend of the family had a small boat when I was a child and he would take me out around the Isle of Wight. It was a dinghy really, but it gave me my first taste of the ocean and of its potential.
I would always look out to sea and think… one day. I became fascinated by the stories of the great ocean explorers and in time set off on a few epic adventures myself.
Many years ago I sailed a 55ft ketch from Sydney to Alaska via Kamchatka (to the far east of Russia) over about seven months with some close friends. The entire trip was a wonderful experience, but the highlight was being in Kamchatka just as communism was collapsing. The northern fleet was in harbour, half sunk.
People were very unsure about the future, but they were unfailingly kind to us. We had an extraordinary time, climbing all of the active volcanoes over a month or so and flying around in a huge Mi8 helicopter to some of the most remote places I have ever seen.
A few years ago I was asleep on a boat that capsized. It was pretty terrifying waking up and not knowing if we had lost someone. Luckily, we hadn’t – and the boat was more or less ok, but it’s definitely not an experience that I would like to repeat.
I love the stories of Bill Tilman, an eccentric Englishman who bought ex-navy pilot cutters and set off on amazing expeditions to places like Patagonia and Greenland.
Jacques Cousteau, too, brought the ocean to life for millions of people – I found his films breath-taking. Nansen, the great Arctic explorer also inspired me greatly – not only for his great expeditions but almost more so because of his humanitarian work repatriating refugees after the Second World War.
Scientists estimate that only 7% of all life in the ocean has been identified. There is a new world to discover.
Gerry Clark, the New Zealand sailor-writer, whetted my appetite for adventure with his awesome accounts of his expeditions. Quite how he survived three years sailing around the Antarctic I don’t know – his book is an epic read.
Building a boat like an Arksen is a bit like building a city – it needs to incorporate a whole range of critical systems. Most boat builders have become good systems integrators, but generally they do not have software skills in-house.
As an industry, we are heading for a marine autonomous future and that cannot be achieved without a profound and deep understanding of technology – so it’s a key asset.
I am very proud that we are working with a UK team and building in the UK. We have such a great depth of marine talent in the UK, but for so long marine businesses here have struggled to compete. The other thing that makes me proud is that we are changing the model of yacht ownership. Our owners donate a minimum of 10% of the vessels’ sea time to research projects.
Our aim is to create one of the world’s largest private marine research fleets over the next decade. Scientists estimate that only 7% of all life in the ocean has been identified and so there is literally a whole new world to discover.
I try to envisage the challenges that might lie ahead and make sure that I’ve thought through the contingencies. Like most things in life a lot of the preparation for a long trip comes down to planning – where is the trip, what communications do we need, where are the refuelling points?
If it’s an Artic trip there are a host of other things to prepare for – like fuel freezing. Lastly, a few days before I leave, I try to acclimatise to the watch system we are using, as otherwise the first couple of nights really stress me out.
There are many ways for the next generation to get involved – from sailing to research programmes. Platforms like the Arksen Foundation are designed to inspire a new generation of explorers and sailors.
Stand on the shore and look out across the ocean and think 'what if?'
The more people learn about the ocean the more inspired they are. When I told my kids that the ocean regulates our global weather patterns, has the capacity to power all of our energy needs and feed most of the world they were amazed. When I said that only 10% of the deep ocean has been mapped, they began to see how wonderful and mysterious it is.
For old time sailors, think about going a bit further and for longer. Find the time to be at sea. For new sailors, dare to dream. For the young: stand on the shore and look out across the ocean and think “what if?” Every action starts with a moment of inspiration, so focus on that, because most of the time all you need to do is take the first step.
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