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Designing the Superyacht

Superyachts are big, bold and technologically brilliant. Luxury London talks to the experts who build the ultimate luxuries

The Boat International World Superyacht Awards ceremony is an understandably high-end affair. Held last month at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence – lauded by the organisers as the birthplace of the artistic Renaissance – the great and the good from this exclusive and sometimes mysterious uber-culture gathered to compete for, and revel in, top accolades in the yachting world. 

The nominees were, to a machine, extraordinary – a grand mix of sailing and motor yachts, refurbished, rebuilt, newly-designed. Big and bold. Small and nimble.

The winner of best rebuilt yacht was the Malahne, whose fortunes were turned around by Pendennis Shipyard Ltd. Mike Carr, joint-MD at Pendennis, remembers the saving of Malahne fondly: “Yachts are romantic vessels. She was a really iconic vessel with an Art Deco interior, and we had the pleasure to work for a client who literally left no rivet unturned, because of the romanticism of the boat. We had to make it as authentic as the day it was first built.”

The passion the new owner showed, says Carr, was infectious. “If a client comes and shows interest, and is clearly passionate about the job that’s being done and how it’s being achieved, they get so much more out of it, as does the team.”

Involved with Pendennis from the outset, Carr is in a good position to notice growing trends. One of the most important is, understandably, quality. The standard to which companies work is ever higher, with modern navigation, electronics and communication playing a large role for the consumer.

Andrew Winch, of Winch Design, agrees wholeheartedly: “The benchmark of quality is much higher. If I achieve a fantastic standard on one project for one client, their friend wants more. If you’re fishing for carp, you want the bigger carp; if you want a yacht and your friend has one, you’d like one a little bigger. 

If you’re fishing for carp, you want the bigger carp; if you want a yacht and your friend has one, you’d like one a little bigger. 

“We built the motor yacht Dubai, which is 161 metres, then along comes a yacht for a different owner called Eclipse, because it’s 164 metres, and it’s great. I don’t have any problem with that.”

Carr echoes this sentiment, with the challenge of space becoming more of an issue: “Yachts are getting bigger all the time, so our facilities have had to change. We started with a 40m shed, and now we have two 90m sheds and a 150m dry dock. 

“You just do the engineering on a bigger scale. The salt water might have gone through a two- or three-inch pipe, now it’s a six-inch pipe, so the challenge is to alter your equipment and your in-house skills.”

The use of newer technology is not limited to building bigger vessels. Over the past few years, attention has turned to the ecological effect superyachts have on the sea. Kiran Haslam, marketing director of Princess Yachts (whose boat Antheya III won the ‘best semi-displacement or planing two-deck motor yacht’ award in Florence), sees this as the obvious next step: “Evolution in this day and age results in efficiency – whether that’s efficiency in terms of alternative energies to drive performance or derive pleasure, lower consumption, or a quieter boating experience. 

“Whether it’s feasible to implement right now is anybody’s guess, but we are all undoubtedly looking in that direction. I would love to imagine a reality where the boating industry can outperform other industries in terms of its efficiency, because it is one which has the potential for very rapid change. 

“The processes behind tooling, equipment and the manufacturing of cars can result in a car being on the road eight to 13 years after being thought of. With boats, we can do that within two to three years, so implementing change is rapid. We have an opportunity, and we would be foolish to ignore it.”

Andrew Winch has been a long-time advocate of responsible sailing, having grown up, he says, on the likes of conservationist and explorer Jacques Cousteau, and more recently Sir David Attenborough.  

“We support Blue Marine, which is a marine charity trying to create marine reserves to help the sea save itself. We want our clients to understand the oceans and enjoy them,” says Winch.

“There are some significant clients who have been investing to help save the sea. Prince Khaled [of Saudi Arabia] has his Golden Odyssey fleet and he’s been helping to investigate the coral reefs. 

“The clients are looking for their yachts to be as green and efficient as possible. There are clients looking at cleaner systems, so they leave no footprint as they travel around. You can do so much now to make them efficient, whether it’s carbon fibre hull structures to make the yachts lighter, fluid efficiency, even wind efficiency, so that they are easily driven through the oceans. They can be statements, but the reason people go on a yacht is because they want to see the sea.”

The reason people go on a yacht is because they want to see the sea

For all the talk of efficiency and technology, superyachts are a playground, an unnecessary toy on which the rich while away their days. Owner of Y.CO, Charlie Birkett, while a strong proponent of ecological responsibility, thinks there’s no reason to dispel this claim: “We’re seeing a new generation of clients coming through, and they’re looking at yachting in a completely different way. They’re young and active enough to be spending time on the water with friends and family, and they’ve worked out that the lifestyle you can get from having a superyacht is probably like nothing else. 

“They design their boats in an unconventional way. There’s more focus on having one deck living space. Design-wise, it’s a good challenge, because it challenges young and even established yacht designers – they’re moving away from the conventional wedding cake tier approach, to quite long, low volume yachts.”

This signifies another trend common across the yachting world. Bespoke design has always been important when designing a superyacht – without it, why bother at all? – but the advent of the internet has seen demands reach another level. Winch revels in the creative collaboration between designer and client: “They love seeing new ideas, new things, and that stimulates them. I always get excited about design.

“Some clients will want to be involved on a daily basis, those that love the building process, and actually owning a yacht is secondary to the satisfaction of building these amazing floating homes.”

This doesn’t stop at the exterior, with the contents of a yacht all chosen by eager future owners. One of Winch’s favourite designs is that of a coffee table that folds out into an entire planetarium. His reason? “Who wants their yacht to look like someone else’s? It’s unique. It’s got to be.”

Princess’s Haslam agrees, adding that the owner’s enthusiasm for the interior can sometimes become a little heavy-handed: “There is a behaviour which is unique to the boat world, and particularly to the superyacht world, where we will have a conversation with a customer, and they will focus heavily on the base price of the product. It might mean six or seven consultations, over a period of seven months to a year, and when we finally arrive at an agreement, all of a sudden they start selecting options for their boat, and they might very quickly accumulate four or five million pounds of options. The cost of the options is never a discussion point. It’s what they want.”

There’s general consensus on the state of the superyacht world from Birkett, Carr, Haslam and Winch. Technology and the money involved has reached new levels. Add to this the continuing enthusiasm of new owners from the internet age, and you have a creative atmosphere almost second to none. As Winch says: “We’re in an era now that’s the equivalent of the 1930s of wealth and ambition and of incredible opportunities – to create new ideas, new yachts, new dreams.”

And of the astronomical sums involved? “If you can afford it, have it.”