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Samurai: The record-breaking racer refitted as a superyacht

Once a record-breaking racing yacht, the newly refitted Samurai is now a sleek performance cruiser that honours her history without compromising on speed – or style.

“Commence lowering tables,” comes the order from the captain. “Lowering tables,” comes the response from the deckhand, and the cockpit tables are folded and stowed. This is not part of the starting sequence for typical racing yachts, especially ones that average speeds in excess of 20 knots. But then Samurai is far from typical, either in her original build or in her freshly refitted cruising incarnation.

As Mari-Cha IV, the 42.4 metre schooner’s sole purpose was to set speed and distance records over offshore courses with all sails handled manually (two teams of grinders and trimmers working 21 winches on deck). Delivered in 2003 to her former owner, Robert Miller, she accomplished her goal with such feats as breaking the transatlantic record right out of the box, making the crossing in six days, 17 hours, 52 minutes (a record that was only broken in July 2016 by Comanche) and setting a sailing record of 525 miles in one 24-hour period.

She also won the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge, broke the Guadeloupe to Antigua record and the Hawaii Pacific Ocean record, where Mari-Cha IV sailed 2,070 miles in just over five days, smashing the old record by 32 hours. But fame is fleeting; this former superstar was sold and eventually put out to sailing’s equivalent of pasture — a slovenly backwater berth.

Mari-Cha IV was so purpose-designed by Philippe Briand, Clay Oliver and Greg Elliott that there was just one spartan cabin below for the owner. The crew – and there would be 25 aboard to race – slept hot-bunking on pipe cots wedged fore and aft of ballast tanks and huge boxes housing hydraulic rams that canted her keel up to 40 degrees either side. The shallow underbody, more like a surfboard than a sailing yacht, and the towering schooner rig made her a theme park ride capable of 40-plus knots. She was a rocketship.

Times and ideas change. Now, those in search of speed records favour foiling multihulls or trimarans. Monohull fans favour smaller boats in the super maxi class. Even though Mari-Cha IV was state-of-the-art in composite building in 2003, a comparable sloop today weighs about 20 tonnes less. When a specialist sailing yacht broker, Will Bishop, of Yachting Partners International, began sounding out potential owners who might be interested in turning the boat into an exciting cruiser, racing purists cried “heresy”. “Of course, none of them were stepping forward to rehab the boat,” he says.

And then, from an unlikely corner – classic cars, to be precise – came an interested party with a singular vision. Her history as Mari-Cha IV needed to be preserved and honoured, he said, and the best way to do that was to show how she could be a no-compromise cruising experience. He rejected sketches that showed the yacht’s rig and deck modified, including one with a deck saloon. Respecting the original profile was paramount and that meant maintaining the twin towers of carbon fibre that carried 893 square metres of sail.

Out of sight would be desired modifications to power the winches, allowing the boat to be sailed with 10 crew, and a lifting keel to access more harbours. The big challenge would be fitting in a cruising interior, a galley, watermaker, sewage treatment and air-conditioning without wrecking Mari-Cha IV’s performance.

The owner and Bishop began by tracking down Elliott to shepherd the numbers and hiring British firm Rhoades Young to take care of the styling and interior design. Jonathan Rhoades and Dick Young have probably designed more lightweight sailing yacht interiors than any other company. What the firm often doesn’t receive enough credit for is its contribution to exterior styling. For this project, it was key to add mod cons without destroying Mari Cha IV’s stealthy profile.

“Truth be told, Samurai is all about ‘the experience’. No one else seemed to get it,” says Rhoades. “The owner wanted a new superyacht. What drew him to this project was the pedigree. He had tonnes of photos of Mari-Cha IV racing. He wanted a ‘blowing-[your]-socks-off experience’. What he’s done is create a completely new animal.”

Bishop agrees. “I’ve sold nine sailing yachts in two years. People want performance more than anything. Today, owners are designing boats for superyacht regatta racing. That used to be an afterthought. Mari-Cha IV was not only beautiful but she accomplished her mission; the owner felt she just couldn’t be allowed to rot.”

Max Riedl, of Cornelsen & Partner, a project management firm with an impeccable history of refits and new builds, says he was “worried about making [Samurai] a compromise between a racer and a cruiser and being very bad at each job”. But the owner, he says, had a vision. “He saw this as a modern Endeavour in that the original mission would be honoured.”

In modifying the boat, weight was the critical driver – and unrelenting master, says Elliott. As the one who knew the most about her original engineering, he was brought on as the numbers man and designer of a new lifting keel for Samurai. When the owner said he wanted to keep the yacht’s profile, he meant the entire profile, including the pair of 45.1 metre masts that gave Mari-Cha IV her unprecedented power. 

“The weight budget was where we began. That rig,” he says, pointing skyward, “is made for a certain load, a certain righting moment. Keeping the rig and changing the keel from a deep canting foil to a lifting vertical foil gave us an equation without much room for error or interpretation.”

The team refined the plan and made more interior room by removing the hydraulic rams that forced the original keel from side to side for stability. The mezzanine-level nav station was cast aside to provide an atrium entrance to Samurai’s saloon. Cockpit coaming was added to make a safe seating area for guests during sailing and to shelter alfresco dining when moored.

The modifications to the carbon structure were extensive owing to the complexity of incorporating the new lifting keel and the interior, so leading composite specialist Gurit was brought in to rigorously scrutinise and design the whole process. Once the plan for Samurai was organised, the refit went to bid with several yards. While Royal Huisman’s price wasn’t the lowest, the owner chose the yard in April 2014 because of its reputation and brand pedigree.

Royal Huisman for a carbon fibre racing yacht refit? Project director Ronald van Hulst laughs at the question. “We’ve been doing a lot of bits and pieces in carbon fibre and our sister company, Rondal, is a carbon fibre expert – and not just masts. We make parts for other Dutch yards such as doors and hatches and arches.”

On deck, it’s easier to point out what isn’t original to Mari-Cha IV than what is: the cockpit tables and huge C-shaped sofas. The wheels, the masts and booms are all original, as are the winches and the steering gear. The aft pod of winches has been relocated further aft but they (and those at the base of the main mast) are the historic lot, though they are now motorised.

Samurai’s ‘stealth fighter’ look is highlighted by her new suit of black 3Di sails from North, a perfect application of the company’s moulded sail process utilising carbon, Aramid and Dyneema fibre. Engineered to assume the perfect flying shape when hoisted, they appear to present a single, shiny, smooth surface to the air, not unlike a hard wing sail.

The transition from a carbon tube to a yacht with a master and four guest cabins naturally increased the displacement of Samurai, and her difference from lightship to fully loaded is a modest additional eight tonnes. “Where you put the weight is just as important as the amount,” says Elliott, and getting the “yacht look” without massive weight was a puzzle that involved everyone. “I gave them the bottom line of how much weight they could add to the boat and it was up to them to allocate it,” he says.

Royal Huisman weighed the whole structure monthly as a check on the material weights coming on or off the boat. Flexiteek (850.5kg) set into the deck and cockpit provides the non-skid finish, while entertainment electronics account for two tonnes. Samurai’s captain Alec Rhys, a veteran of Whitbread Round the World Races, came up with a way to save 249.5kg in the galley by creating a half-pipe and roller system for managing the cooktop and oven instead of using a standard gimballed stove.

Likewise, the crew created a clever anchor management system that weighs next to nothing (49.9kg versus 598.7kg for a powered anchor deployment system) and disappears for racing. Samurai’s carbon hull is skimfilled and painted with a custom silver paint rather than fully faired. It saves weight but, more importantly, the owner didn’t want to hide that the “boat had a past”.

While Samurai will do some racing, her mission is primarily family cruising. The owner’s brief to the designers was as unusual as the concept itself. “I asked them for Samurai temple meets Portofino beach house,” the owner explains as we punch upwind on a 30-mile race course without so much as a drop of spray spoiling the conversation. “Notice I said Samurai temple, not palace.”

The interior is calm and uncluttered and much larger than you might expect, but Samurai is far from a stripped-out racing machine. Within the weight budget, there is room for both cosiness and flair, which is reflected in the silk wall panels, an ancient Japanese warrior’s armour and a 16th century Edo period sword.

“If a man does not have history, he does not have a future,” says the owner. “We adore history. Look at the place that Japan held in the world during that time. They were the fiercest feudal culture and yet, at the same time, supremely disciplined and creative. The history of the Samurai is clear – he had to be the best at every moment and live by an unbreakable code of honour.”

Rhoades Young and Royal Huisman collaborated on the Samurai’s new general arrangement; a largely symmetrical layout that Rhoades says is really the only one possible. “On a boat you have so many levels and shapes and intrusions… symmetry and order make people comfortable and feel at home.”

In Samurai’s saloon, the fan-shaped panels of 2D curved glass in the superstructure create a strong design element repeated with a floor covering that looks like tatami but is actually a synthetic fibre that is softer under foot and beautifully bound in waterproof leather borders. Port and starboard L-shaped sofas serve for lounging or dining with multifunctional tables made by overall fit-out contractor Greenline Yacht Interiors.

Managing director Gianluca Ascheri adds: “Building the interiors of Samurai was a tremendous challenge, and extremely complicated, considering such dramatic engineering requirements. There were no compromises; we had to achieve an interior with specific luxurious levels and characteristics, yet extremely light, strong and tough. All this within a net space that was not enough to contain it, and that therefore required special custom methods of construction to reduce the thicknesses and dimensions.”

With virtually no tween-deck space to work with, the designers had to be clever with the lighting plan for Samurai. “We obviously had no space for can lights in the overhead,” says Rhoades. “We relied on ambient lighting spilling out of reveals and secret places and used dark corners to create shadow and thus blur the edges of rooms to make them seem larger.”

Rhoades Young undertook its own weight studies to create a balance between spaces requiring durability and sound dampening and those where more delicate materials could be used. Lighting choices and how the electrical supply was distributed were factors. “What do the black boxes weigh and how many cables must you run?” asks Rhoades. “If you choose the right equipment and smart cable runs, you will offset the weight of a piece of furniture. Everything was on a spreadsheet, including the screws and glue.”

Of course, Samurai is a superyacht with Baccarat crystal, Jasper china, Christofle silver and the odd Philippe Starck candelabra. “We really went round and round about the china, then I asked them what they had allowed as luggage weight per person. They told me 80 kilos. I said we will tell everyone to pack light. If we reduce that to 60 kilos per person, there is room for my 200 kilograms of crockery,” the designer says.

So, at the end of the process, was there a penalty to be paid for the ancient armour or the bone china? Apparently not. According to its captain, the boat is “still a weapon to sail”. On the yacht’s delivery from the Med to the British Virgin Islands for her first regatta, the crew – all serious racing sailors – pushed Samurai hard to make their rendezvous with the owner. 

As sailors are inclined, they kept track of each helmsman’s top speed recorded during his or her watch. The winner of the first Atlantic crossing was Xanthe Bowater, the youngest crew member, who is also an Olympic class windsurfer. She topped the chart by surfing Samurai to 36 knots, just five knots off Mari-Cha IV’s best.

“I knew what I wanted to achieve, and this great team found a way to work for the final objective,” says Samurai’s owner as we return to port. “The only thing they didn’t anticipate was the speed at which we sail.”

First published in the August 2016 edition of Boat International

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