The Zen of sailing

Marc Lichte, Head of Design at AUDI AG, is every bit the sailor. His boat is his refuge, the place where he replenishes his inner reserves so he can keep thinking ahead.

Bernd Zerelles (copy) & Rouven Steinke (photo)


It’s often the little things that reveal the most about a person. Take, for instance, the wind sensor at the top of the mast on Marc Lichte’s yacht: “See how on all the other boats the wind sensor comes directly off the mast or points straight ahead? I wanted mine to instead follow the upward line of the mast, aerodynamically bend and only then to extend forwards. That way, it is angled perfectly to the wind and measures it precisely. I designed the device myself. It’s one of a kind and it’s perfect.” While his left arm and pointing finger extend above his head, Marc Lichte uses his right hand to trace the wind sensor’s perfectly streamlined curve as it adjusts to the wind. He continues in clipped tones, “Then there’s the bow thruster—that’s also unique to this boat. I often sail alone and it helps with docking and putting out to sea. The shipyard promised me they would install it with a one-millimeter joint. I was there in person when they did it and oversaw the process. And they actually managed to do it. One millimeter—it was unbelievable. For regattas, of course, I remove the batteries to save on weight.”

Keeping pace with 48-year-old Marc Lichte is no easy task. Behind the frameless Titanal spectacles—“a high-tech design that is as light as a feather”—his shining blue eyes appear placid, but his words pour forth like a waterfall. With his jam-packed schedule, the head of design at Audi AG only has time to meet us here at his hideaway—a marina in a small town on the German Baltic coast where his yacht is berthed. This is, after all, the man whose new design strategy has for the first time taken the form of a production car—the latest Audi A8—while his vision for the future of automotive mobility can be admired in the brand new Audi AICON. Barefoot and dressed casually in olive chinos and a dark blue wool sweater, Lichte welcomes us on board his Xp 38 X-Yacht. The European magazine Yacht describes the boat as, “sleek and fast—a performance cruiser that will strike fear into the heart of anyone pitted against it in a regatta.” But Lichte’s yacht is unlike any other Xp 38. Except for the hull most of the important components are made of carbon. So are the cage, keel, mast, the full complement of appendages, rudder and retrofitted Doyle sails. “The thing is so rigid, nothing budges,” Lichte raves. “Every tiny gust of wind is converted into speed. It makes for incredible sailing."

Marc Lichte, born August 9, 1969, in Arnsberg, Germany


In 1996, while still pursuing his degree, he started his career at Volkswagen AG. As head of the Exterior Design Studio, he was responsible for the VW Golf (generations 5, 6, 7), Passat, Touareg and Arteon. Lichte stepped up as Head of Design at AUDI AG on February 1, 2014.

The new Audi A8 is the first production car created under Marc Lichte’s new design philosophy. In the future, each model will not only have its own character but also embody the brand.

The lines are the most important thing on a yacht, the length and proportions—just like with the interior of the new Audi A8. Elegance and recurrent design principles are combined with technology to create a generous feel and convey progressiveness.

Performance is a key priority for the passionate yachtsman who was already sailing an Optimist dinghy at the age of six. From there, he followed the quintessential regatta career, progressing through the Laser, cruising dinghy and quarter tonner classes. Lichte notched up three wins in his class at Kiel Week and two second-place finishes in the German championships. Even with the demands of leading a 440-strong design department, Marc Lichte tries to sail whenever he can find the time. A member of Bayerischer Yacht-Club—whose logo naturally appears on his yacht in the Baltic—he’s equally happy on the club’s home waters, Lake Starnberg, in a smaller boat like the one Germany’s best Star keelboat sailor Johannes Polgar competes on, or single-handed on a Laser. “It’s a great abdominal workout,” he says.

But first and foremost, Marc Lichte is of course a designer. Which is also why his yacht stands out—everything from the tonneau cover to the rudder is customized. “The colors harmonize throughout so that the entire vessel appears cast from a single mold.” The interior color scheme is reduced to two tones and the hull is an RAL shade. Unlike other Xp 38 yachts’, his hull shimmers black rather than white. “No, no, no. It’s not black. Black wouldn’t look right—much too harsh. You wouldn’t call carbon black. After all, the hull must match the superstructure.” That’s what spurred Lichte to search out various standardized, precisely defined RAL shades that might harmonize with carbon. He had these painted onto plastic sheets of one square meter and then held them up in front of the boat in the harbor in different lighting and at different times of the day to assess the color effects. Only then did he give the go-ahead on the paintwork. “This dark gray complements carbon perfectly and makes the boat look really stylish, don’t you think?” What Lichte expects of his boat is quite simple: “Its performance has to be flawless—and so do its looks. The Xp 38 fits the bill. It sails like a dream and has almost timeless lines, which matters a lot to me. That’s the parallel with car design. The lines are the most important thing on a yacht, the length and proportions—just like with an Audi.” Marc Lichte is an obsessive, a mad genius who won’t settle for anything less than absolute perfection. In both performance and aesthetics, he aspires to what in the Audi idiom might translate as a never-ending quest for Vorsprung in technology and design.


On the Beaufort wind force scale, six is defined as a “strong breeze” that sets large branches in motion and makes telegraph wires whistle. On the water, this means large waves begin to form; white foam crests are more extensive everywhere and some spray is probable.

Sailing and automotive design are his two great passions in life. As a schoolboy, the native of Germany’s Sauerland region was already spending every free minute of his time in a boat on Lake Möhne. Drawing was his way of whiling away the time during boring classes: “I sketched cars on the left-hand pages of books and yachts on the right.” His fervent desire for a yacht of his own accidentally helped him to land his first job as an automotive designer. He had just started his degree program in transportation design at Pforzheim University when a design competition was announced. The prize money: 25,000 German marks. “I first had to win the internal selection process in order to represent Pforzheim, and then go on to compete against design schools from California, Switzerland and London. But a shot at getting so much money all in one go presented an incredible opportunity.”

So Lichte hunkered down for a whole year to work on his design concept and model. “I wanted that money, and I only wanted it so I could buy myself a boat.” This incredibly focused will proved the key to success. Lichte won the competition and used the prize money to buy his first yacht, which measured a good seven meters in length. There was one thing he didn’t set nearly as much store by at the time: The jury for the competition was made up of designers from all the top car brands. Having caught their attention, it wasn’t long before Lichte had his first serious job. Today he grins over it: “I really didn’t think about how big an impact it could have on my future career.” A source of equal present-day amusement for the designer is how he then went on to finance the rest of his studies by selling drawings of the manufacturers’ disguised prototypes to car magazines. “At the time, I was paid between 3,500 and 4,000 German marks per picture. Each image took me about a day and a half.” To see him aboard his boat capturing the shapes of cars with deft lines on paper, you could easily be persuaded it went a lot quicker.

Ingenious: “The work I made to qualify as a journeyman was very innovative for its time. Instead of knobs and handles, I had shadow gaps for opening the drawers and doors.”

Sailors’ jargon: Bow thruster—transversal propulsion device installed below the waterline so that the boat can be maneuvered sideways. Cumulus—fluffy clouds that usually form when the weather is sunny and humidity is high. Genoa—a large staysail used instead of a jib.

The Laser that Marc Lichte sails at Lake Starnberg is a sporty single-handed dinghy that, for a boat, quickly starts planing. Lichte is a member of Bayerischer Yacht-Club on Lake Starnberg.

But enough with the chit chat. Time to pull up anchors. Marc Lichte disappears into the cabin and emerges not long afterwards in weatherproof sailing gear. The wind sensor’s display shows 22 to 27 knots, a brisk six on the Beaufort scale. The west wind sends the cumulus clouds scudding across the Baltic’s blue sky. Perfect weather for sailing. The small harbor in Kiel Bay is ideally positioned from a strategic point of view. When the wind is low, the open sea beckons. With a good breeze, as is the case today, the protected Kiel Fjord provides the perfect playground. Lichte prepares the sails, switches on the thruster to push off and pulls up the first of the fenders. Every movement is precisely choreographed. He skillfully maneuvers his yacht out of the harbor’s tight corners and heads the boat into the wind to hoist the sails. For the gentle cruise planned for today, the genoa is all that’s needed. But Lichte also raises the mainsail. Altogether that makes a good 100 square meters of carbon blown taut. That’s pushing the limits in terms of sails for this wind—but hey, there are guests on board, so why not give them the full sporting experience? The skipper bears away until the Xp 38 careens gleefully. Spray bubbles in the boat’s lee, while the shrouds sing in the wind. And we’re off. What is truly striking is how the man has undergone a complete transformation on board his boat. A real live wire on land, he turns in on himself at sea. Intensely focused, his gaze constantly flicks between finding the optimal position for the sails and watching the water for squalls so that he can keep the yacht on an ideal course with small movements. His fellow sailors are addressed only with clear concise instructions: “Pull the sheet after the jibe; please move up to improve the weight trim.” No words are wasted.

Watching Marc Lichte at the helm of his yacht, you’re reminded of an electric car that after a long day in urban traffic finally comes to rest and recharge its battery. On the water, he appears to be all alone in savoring that ultimate freedom—the imagined prospect of right now, this very moment, sailing off anywhere on the planet, wherever the whim might take him. And he really could do it with this boat—that’s what it was built for. Later, when we’re moored again in the harbor and enjoying a traditional post-outing beer, Marc Lichte says, “I’m the type of person who’s a permanent live wire. Everything inspires me: whatever I see or eat, whoever I talk to, wherever I travel. What’s most important for my creativity is freeing my mind. And I can do that here on the boat. It’s quiet, just the wind. The exact opposite of my everyday life.” His boat’s stern bears the name “Heima,” which is Icelandic for “home.”

Further photo credits: Benne Ochs, AUDI AG, Mierswa Kluska, Johannes Polgar