SPORT Timekeepers: Mark Mills


In conversation with the maverick yacht designer behind FlyingNikka, the first-ever full foiling sailing boat in the Mini Maxi category.

As the founder of Studio Mills Design, Mark Mills specializes in performance yacht design for racing and cruising. With every project, he’s essentially changing the way the sport approaches design. One of his latest collaborations is FlyingNikka, the first-ever full foiling sailing boat in the Mini Maxi category. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that FlyingNikka is the most exciting high-performance yacht out there today. As Mills puts it, ‘It’s not just a new chapter in the yacht design book. It’s a new book.’ We had the privilege of talking to Mills about FlyingNikka, the creative process behind its unique design, and the yacht’s impact on the world of sailing.

It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mark. Thank you for joining us on The Edge. First things first, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Sure, I’ll try to keep it short. I was born in San Francisco and moved to Ireland when I was 12. My parents got me into a sailing school because they were worried I didn’t have anything to do. I had been very interested in airplanes and I discovered that sailing boats are actually, from a design point of view, very similar to airplanes. And maybe even more interesting. So it opened up a whole new opportunity for me and I fell in love with sailing, and sailing yacht design, and was very lucky to start my own business in the late nineties and have been working successfully based in Ireland ever since.

Let’s fast forward to FlyingNikka. How did the project come about?

The full story of FlyingNikka begins with the client Roberto Lacorte’s previous boat, SuperNikka. It was probably 2014, 2015. Roberto asked about the design of a new 62 footer for him, which became SuperNikka. It was an amazing revelation, to discover an owner like Roberto. He had the energy, the positivity, the dynamic drive to achieve something which turned that project into an amazing success, for us and for everyone involved. 

For a boat to race at the Maxi Yacht Cup five years in a row, and win four of them, is a landmark achievement. It says a lot about the boat, but it also says a lot about Roberto and his team. I think it’s a signature of Roberto’s that he is very loyal to the team that he enjoys working with. And so when he decided that it was time for a new boat, he talked to me. Even when he decided it was going to be a foiling boat, because we might not have been the obvious choice as a foiling boat design office, he showed real commitment and encouraged us to draw FlyingNikka. 

  • Roberto Lacorte & Mark Mills

How would you describe FlyingNikka to someone who isn’t familiar with sailing?

This is a situation where a picture speaks a thousand words. When anyone thinks of a sailboat, as I did for almost all of my career, you think about a hull in the water floating. And FlyingNikka is the first, outside the America’s Cup, of a new generation of boats which are being lifted up out of the water on hydrofoils. On wings underneath the water that provide the lift to elevate the entire boat above the water and remove all of the drag that normally comes from trying to push a hull through the water. So it opens up the opportunity to go so much faster. You’re really flying now, literally the entire boat may be flying a meter above the waves. 

« My starting point was always, ‘We can achieve something.’ You have to be confident that you can achieve something. »

Mark Mills Designer

That’s amazing. What sort of challenges did you face while working on a project?

Where do we start? This was the largest group of collaborators I’ve ever assembled, or ever worked with, on a big project. The technical requirements are so high. The design of the hydrofoils on its own really is the area of an entire career. Nat Shaver, who produced the hydrofoil design, is an America’s Cup foil designer. That’s his job. The sail designer. The CFD guys running the fluid dynamics. The engineering guys running the FEA. Every part of this boat really had to be designed from scratch. We had no, or very few references, to work from to be able to develop this. 

And in a funny way, the fact that we didn’t have an unlimited budget. We had to remain very lean. We had to remain very focused. Everybody was involved in a very positive way. There were no ego conflicts. And when you get this group of very smart people all excited and happy, you get this sort of cross fertilization because the foil guy, he still has super good input on the mast design. It’s a very fertile, creative process. 

As a designer, what excites you the most about FlyingNikka?

It’s the totality of it. The fact that the entire thing, in my view, is a good looking solution. It’s a very successful solution. It is quite close to the original vision that we hammered out, as to how it should look and work. I think all of it together evokes an extremely cathartic emotion.

I’m going to change tack a bit. How familiar are you with TAG Heuer and its relationship with sailing?

I know you were a significant sponsor for the Oracle America’s Cup campaign. But the TAG Heuer part of the business went all the way back to the catamaran Formule TAG Heuer in the eighties. I think there was a 100 footer, probably in the late eighties, early nineties, that was a TAG Heuer sponsorship? So I certainly am aware that there’s a long history of it. And I’m incredibly excited to see FlyingNikka join with TAG Heuer. It’s a wonderful combination.


You’ve summed it up nicely! Is there a particular timepiece that has caught your eye?

Yes! For me, it’s the Heuer Yacht Timer. It’s large, bright and colorful. It could do with a reissue! You guys should look at producing a modern version because it’s a lovely thing. But I also like your current range. There’s a green TAG Heuer Aquaracer Professional 300 in titanium. Beautiful watch. So yes, I do look out for nice watches.

Do you see any parallels between watchmaking and yacht design?

It must be exactly the same between the watch world and the sailing world. You must have some designers who are only about aesthetics, and they fail on the practical requirements of a functioning watch. And then the alternative is you give an engineer the opportunity to build a beautiful watch, but it has no spirit, no aesthetic character. The same is true with sailing. And in a funny way, I think I benefit by having started my career at the end of a previous generation, where there was less computer involvement and it was more free flowing. It was just coming from the designer’s experience. And so for me, I think there are a few elements of the FlyingNikka design that are not just about the aerodynamics or the engineering. I tried hard to bring a little bit of identity to it beyond just its technical side.


That’s a lovely insight into your process. Finally, is there any one particular cup or event that you’re looking forward to this year?

Well, the Giraglia and the Maxi trophy are two of the biggest events of the year. But Roberto has started his own offshore race in Italy called the 151 Miglia. And so I’m sure, in his heart, that would be the biggest event of the season. Watching two of his projects come together. 


Thank you so much for talking to us, Mark. 

My pleasure.