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Aquila: America’s largest superyacht reborn in the UK

Hulking in Pendennis’s 150 metre dry dock, 85.6 metre Aquila is an imposing refit project. When launched as Cakewalk in 2010 she was the largest yacht built in the US since the 1930s, and here she has become the biggest vessel yet refitted in the UK.

But gazing up at her hull, and knowing how quickly she’s been transformed, it is the speed as much as the scope of this superyacht refit project that seems Herculean. “No single job was that tricky,” says Stephen Hills, project director at Pendennis, who managed the Aquila refit programme, somewhat surprisingly. “The challenge of this project has been the volume of the changes in the timeframe that was set.”

Indeed, one year was all the Cornish yard had in which to transform the elaborate, traditional design of Derecktor’s 2010 Cakewalk into

a clean, elegant yacht that could pass as freshly launched. That’s 85.6 metres — in one year.

“Nine hundred people between England and Germany have been involved in this project,” says Tony Dixon, design director at the studio responsible for the refit, Redman Whiteley Dixon. Not to mention craftsmen all across the US. “Something like 750 square metres of floor area has been gutted and rebuilt, similar to the total area of a 55 or 60 metre motor yacht.”

With an ambitious brief, the Aquila project would involve major structural changes and gutting the interior. There was also a transformative design by Redman Whiteley Dixon and Susan Young Interiors, making this the second yacht project on which the two studios have collaborated for this client.

Layer upon layer of complex alterations had to be seamlessly choreographed to prevent a carpenter installing a cabinet before the electrician had finished wiring behind it, or a designer placing a panel of silk while a chippy could still get a dusty fingerprint on it.

Pendennis took a military approach to the Aquila project. “The way we’ve gone about it is to treat it as three distinct projects,” says Hills. “So the interior is one and is run by its own dedicated project manager. The exterior paint programme and modifications are the second project, with a project manager on it.

“And the technical changes and upgrades, again with a separate project manager. So by being very clear from the outset that it’s split, with clear leads in each area, you start to break the whole Aquila project down into more manageable amounts.”

And then, of course, there’s the unexpected, which had to be expected. Crucially Aquila’s owners trusted the yard to take decisions. As Hills puts it: “They bought into the idea that it’s better to take a decision, move ahead and achieve the programme, with the risks that involves.”

One of the most substantial elements of that programme was totally reordering Aquila’s superyacht sundeck. It had always been sequestered into fore and aft sections by a trunk of interior areas — the central staircase, lift, dayhead and various technical and service spaces — which have remained mostly intact. On Cakewalk the aft portion of deck space was sliced up by a central spa pool, along with a step down to an aft row of sunloungers.

The new configuration has removed the pool and placed it on the forward section of the deck. The now larger aft deck has a light-up bar, central seating area and loungers further back. It’s a sign of the uncompromising nature of the Aquila project that the old step was removed and a new one added, just a couple of feet further aft, to give the upper space a little more sweep.

This update involved re-teaking the whole area. The forward portion of the sundeck, meanwhile, places a large superyacht spa pool surrounded by sunpads at the more private forward end (they had to strengthen the bulkheads below), and there’s still room for a bar and sofa. A pantry has been converted to a massage and spa room inside, too.

While there is an improved superyacht beach club on the lower deck, Cakewalk’s design precluded the sort of spectacular on-water area that you might find on an 85 metre launched today. Therefore, says Toby Allies, sales and marketing director of Pendennis, “the whole idea of this deck is to create that kind of beach club scene, but on the higher sundeck area”.

On the aft bridge deck below, outdoor lifestyle has also been enhanced. Teak pillars were refreshed and the deck has been sparingly furnished with modern, low-slung furniture, the pièce de résistance of which is circular seating with a fire pit in the middle. Forward, at the entrance to the bridge deck saloon, large wooden cabinets have been removed. Now the broad glass flank floods Aquila’s new interior with light.

The décor throughout is the polar opposite of Cakewalk’s honey tones — cool off-whites and dark smoked eucalyptus woods, taupe suedes, blue and grey velvets and nickel highlights. It was installed by German superyacht stalwarts Metrica, whose precise methods fit well with the exacting nature of the Aquila project.

“The brief was to transform it into a really elegant, modern yacht, within the existing framework,” says Dixon. “He likes a traditional style, with panelling, and she prefers the more modern treatment. By using flat panels and a lot of fabric on the walls, it doesn’t look like a study anywhere that it’s not supposed to. Dark panelled interiors with white look really crisp and sharp.”

The owner’s deck saloon, one level below, has a gentlemen’s club feel with a spectacular bar that Redman Whiteley Dixon and Susan Young Interiors coated with tobacco leaf to give it a rust brown patina, backed with ripple-faced mirrors and metalised fabric wall surfaces by Silverlining, which also made the dining table and bubble-glass doors in Aquila’s bridge saloon.

Sliding glass panels backed with a mirror-like coating were installed behind the bar to create a dramatic foil-like feature. They

slide to reveal two TVs, transforming the use of the space. These panels were designed by Susan Young Interiors and fabricated by Peter David Studio.

Forward, in the owner’s cabin, the design was also fundamentally reimagined. An exterior ladder ran from the bridge deck to the foredeck, cutting down the centre of the owner’s cabin’s forward windows. That has been removed and a proper floating staircase has been created, set apart from Aquila’s superstructure, allowing much more light into the large master suite.

Inside, things changed substantially, too. “The whole owner’s deck was reconfigured,” says Dixon. “We moved the cabin bulkhead aft, opening the whole boat up at the front.” The cabin now takes in part of what was a broad lobby-cum-sitting room that covered nearly as much space as the cabin itself, but offered far less functionality.

And there’s still room for a grand entrance hall in grey veined marble and leather panels, two spectacular bathrooms to either side, his-and-hers dressing rooms, a hairdressing and massage room, pantry and large study.

With the enlarged cabin and the bed moved to port — “having a bed on the centreline, you waste a lot of space because you end up with essentially passageways on either side,” says Dixon — there was space for a sitting room to starboard. There is also now direct access from the cabin to Aquila’s foredeck, which has been enlarged from a technical access walkway to a 60 square metre Portuguese bridge-style deck that provides a neat private enclave for fresh air.

If the owner’s deck got the biggest dose of glamour, then Aquila’s main saloon one level below has become a family haven. “There was a dining room, all enclosed with sliding doors, and these massive wide walkways down either side,” says Dixon. “Then you had this fireplace at the back with a couple of armchairs — a funny little lounge that no-one would have used.”

A new dining table replaced the seating area aft and the semi-enclosed dining saloon forward was demolished and a high-tech cinema was put in its place. The 98-inch widescreen has a professional grade 7.2.4 Dolby Atmos surround system of seven in-wall Genelec speakers and four overhead speakers, plus two Artcoustic subwoofers with powerful 1kW amplification, with a Crestron control system.

“The inside of the cinema has its own false floor,” says Hills, “with a resiliently mounted deck, so that it’s independent from the steel structure underneath it and you reduce structural-borne vibration into the cinema. And when the cinema is in full blast, there is as little as possible transmission of the noise out of the cinema.” On top of this there are heavy doors with acoustic seals and special insulation in the bulkheads.

Forward on the main deck, new flooring, hardware and en-suite bathrooms have been upgraded throughout the guest cabins on Aquila. Even where there are remnants of the older boat, the way they have been used is impressive. “The main staircase is probably one of the most striking changes,” says Hills. “There’s much more of a wow factor to it now — you would not have thought that just changing wall claddings and colours and finishes could have such an effect.”

The floral carpet has gone for a silky grey, and curling wrought ironwork replaced with stainless steel bars, but the wooden base and handrail remain, albeit stained darker. And the central chandelier by Czech company Preciosa is, as Hills puts it, “quite a piece of engineering in its own right”.

On her lower deck Cakewalk already had a spectacular tender garage that opened on both sides — with a Riva Aquariva and a Vikal Limousine tender, both fully serviced in the refit. This area has remained largely unchanged but the beach club aft has been reconfigured and a skylight built in.

Access has also been improved, with a stairwell added to starboard and the watertight door from the tender garage moved to that same stairwell, so the beach club won’t be used as a corridor to the stern platform. There’s also a top-notch superyacht gym on board Aquila.

The crew mess has a new layout, with better seating and counter space, there’s new AV and showers in crew cabins, and functional improvements were made in Aquila’s galley. The factory-sized engine room had a five-year survey and gained a new Hug exhaust filter system. Air-conditioning has been replaced throughout, as has the lighting/blind control system, now by Lutron. She’s also been rewired for LEDs and tech upgraded to UHDTV, high-end audio and state-of-the-art WiFi.

Outside, the finished article was given a suitably cool-toned repaint by Pinmar with a midnight blue hull and ice white superstructure, electrostatic paint guns ensuring a super-even finish. It’s one of a mass of jobs undertaken with a thoroughness that has resulted in a superyacht that feels every bit as fresh as a brand new boat.

First published in the January 2017 edition of Boat International

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