Ulysses: Inside the toughest toybox on the water

There’s something wide-eyed and wonderful about Ulysses. If you put a bunch of 10-year-old boys in a room, dosed them up with sugar and told them to design a boat between them, I’d put good money on it coming out like this — and carrying the same sort of kit: six motorbikes, two ATVs, a helicopter, a twin-hulled 50-knot support boat, a Sealegs amphibious RIB and full-on landing craft.

It’s a Tonka truck with a hull. It’s an iceberg-dodging, wave-crunching, mile-munching, ocean-eating, horizon-conquering monster. And it makes perfect sense that Ulysses, now listed for sale with Fraser Yachts, belongs to a Kiwi. “What did you think of her?” asks Graeme Hart, her owner. I think you can figure out how I responded.

The 107 metre explorer yacht looks totally out of place the first time I spot her, anchored off genteel Cap d’Antibes, with not a snowy peak or dreamy atoll in sight. She’s a fair way off shore but still dominates the horizon. Eclipse is also in town but, from a distance, it’s hard to tell that the Blohm+Voss yacht is 55 metres longer than Ulysses, whose 6,000 gross tonnes and six decks tower above the waterline.

Her look, that toughest-kid-in-the-anchorage aesthetic, was a naked statement of intent from Hart and his close collaborator on the exterior styling, Kyle Dick, of OscarMike Naval Architects in New Zealand. “The portrayal of strength is not misleading,” says Hart. “It is what it is. Ulysses is a boat to be used. Everything about it is to be used. My theme with cruising is ‘no limits’.” Dick says they were going for “expedition style with real presence”. Job done on that score.

Ulysses is Hart’s fifth superyacht (a sixth, a 116 metre, is in build at Kleven in Norway). His previous boat was the well-known, no-nonsense 58.5 metre Trinity yacht Ulysses, now called Grand Rusalina. And before that was a 49 metre Feadship now known as Teleost. Each jump up the chain demonstrates an attempt by Hart to achieve the perfect balance in a boat, which comprises three main elements, he says: seakeeping, volume and support.

“I’ve always strived to deliver the best seakeeping because, guess what, people can get pretty fragile in a Force 9 gale. Number two is volume because you want to bring friends and family and you don’t want 10 or 20 people clambering over each other. I remember building our 49 metre Feadship and it felt like we were building the Oriana! But we soon found the volume limiting so went on to build a 1,000 gross tonne boat, and now we have Ulysses, a 6,000GT boat,” he says.

“The last element is support — and that’s about tender ops, activities and things like that. From day one in New Zealand we were brought up in an active boating lifestyle, but you can’t just pull up in a bay and sit there. What are you doing? Well, on Ulysses we have everything you possibly can do. If you want to put some bikes in the landing craft and go riding, then off you go. If you want to get the heli out and reconnoitre, then off you go. The whole suite of support activities is there."

Hart’s journey to find a shipyard that would be able to deliver on all three fronts took him far north, to the fjords of Norway and the little town of Ulsteinvik. There, he found Kleven Verft, a world leader in building offshore support vessels (OSVs). “What we learnt was that the real SUV of the sea was these OSVs that support the oil rigs — that was the big ‘ahhh’ moment. These are the guys that really understand how to build a vessel that’s intended to cope with any sea condition and provide maximum comfort, stability and safety.”

But first Kleven needed to be convinced to take on a project unlike anything that had come before it. “We needed to think through if this was right for us,” says Ståle Rasmussen, the yard’s CEO. “In the end it came down to the partners and how we were able to co-operate and work together – this is what shipbuilding is all about.”

The Ulysses dream team became: Kleven for construction; OscarMike, with heavy input from Hart, for the exterior styling and layout; Marin Teknikk for the naval architecture and London’s H2 Yacht Design for the interiors, working closely with Hart’s wife, Robyn. Outfitting, meanwhile, was done in Germany by Finnish company Europlan, which has a proud history of fitting out cruise ships but a very limited one working with superyachts. But then again, nothing was ordinary about this build. 

“I love building and creating something that wasn’t there before,” says Hart. “There’s no replication. You’re not hitting a ‘I’ll have another one of those’ buttons. You’re creating something that hasn’t been done before, so it’s a journey.”

You get a sense of Ulysses’ commercial roots when stepping on board, with the high door cills, unpolished welds and, of course, that unfaired hull. But it’s all contextual. If you were walking into a high-maintenance interior that cost €20,000 a square metre, it wouldn’t feel quite right.

The job of mellowing the unalloyed masculinity of Ulysses fell to Jonny Horsfield, of H2. “We went for light, pastel colours and a relaxed summer house feel inside,” he says. “We felt the concept of the yacht was to be a go-anywhere ‘superyacht’ rather than a basic functional explorer.

“We worked mostly with the interior contractor, Europlan, who were fast learners. For example, they expect a wall finish to be part of a panel system that can be repeated quickly across a large ship, but we explained that yacht interiors are made up of layers of finishes and they soon understood and adapted quickly.”

One of H2’s big inputs was to bring the spa and superyacht gym together at the rear of Ulysses’ main deck, creating one large wellness centre. Horsfield also suggested relocating the cinema to the boat deck, where it joins a clubby saloon to form a more informal party area, complete with pool table and mirror-finish stainless steel bar.

Europlan really hit a high note with this unit, says Horsfield. “They are really comfortable with metal finishes and the bar was easy for them to produce.” Two areas where there was zero attempt to restrain the commerciality of the contractors — and to great effect —were the galley and bridge on Ulysses.

The former is a chef’s dream, offering immediate access to a big forward pantry, a huge island and enormous windows. It’s all on the same level as Ulysses’ main dining areas, which are two separate spaces: one formal, with a long banqueting table, and a more informal canteen-like set-up.

The bridge, meanwhile: whoa. Visibility through those forward-leaning frames is outstanding and, such is their scale and height, they make everything else in the anchorage look like a bath toy. “The concept for the bridge on Ulysses was offshore support vessel pumped up with a bit of carbon fibre and teak,” says Captain John Brining. “I’ve worked on the biggest cruise ship in the world — and this is better.”

The entirely Rolls-Royce bridge is also Hart’s favourite part of Ulysses. “I love being up there, especially if we’re going into a new port or anchorage. You can sit in the lounge to starboard and have breakfast or lunch, or if we’re doing a sunset cruise we’ll sit there with a glass of wine. It’s a very social space but you’re not getting in the way. Just the elevation, the windows, the design – it’s an area you could happily spend a lot of time in.”

Space is a theme throughout. Guests, of which Ulysses can carry 36, each get very generous quarters, spread across three decks, with the choicest digs being the two VIPs on the boat deck, each with its own private superyacht balcony. The upper deck guest cabins also get some shared outside real estate. “That’s fabulous because for most guest cabins on yachts they’re looking out of a porthole. Some cabins are bigger than others but there’s no apology needed anywhere,” Hart says. The biggest cabin is naturally the owner’s – and it occupies an entire deck.

Unusually, the bedroom is rear-facing, overlooking a private aft terrace, while forward is a lounge and bar. Horsfield also designed all the exterior deck layouts and furniture, and he kept to the theme. “We tried hard to make sure the functionality of the exterior decks related to the concept of world cruising. The basic concept was: breakfast on the aft main deck, lunch and chilling on the aft pool deck and dinner on the upper deck.”

It’s worked out a little like that, says Hart. “We might have breakfast on the aft deck and evening drinks on the main deck. You go up to the sky lounge to play pool at night and have a pre-dinner cocktail. The pool deck serves two purposes: one as a daytime activity area but it’s also a great party environment at night. We got such a big [11 metre] pool because often, if you’re cruising in the South Pacific, sometimes jumping off the back of the boat is not always the best idea. And if Ulysses swings at anchor, suddenly you’ve got a 500 yard swim home.”

That’s if you’ve got time for swimming, because Ulysses has one big problem: you’re almost paralysed with choice. Housed in the well forward is a 21 metre foiling catamaran, known as U21, owned by the Harts for years, which is an independent cruiser in its own right. It can be craned off in just over an hour (“down from three,” the captain says proudly) and take parties fishing or exploring.

It’s the choice when you want to get up close and personal with nature, something Hart learnt the hard way. “We were in Alaska and went exploring in a RIB and by the time we got back to the boat we almost had hypothermia. If you’re in Alaska and you want to go exploring, you do it in U21!”

There are also two 14 metre Naiad RIBs housed on Ulysses’ boat deck that can be splashed in no time, as well as four sailing dinghies, four jet skis, the landing craft and amphibious RIB. But it’s what’s kept in the toy garage that will quicken the heart of anyone in touch with their inner 10 year old. Captain Brining describes it as a “man cave”, and there’s no other term for it. Complete with sofa and access to a modest beach club, two brand new Harleys gleam next to the untouched Ducatis and zero-miles KTMs. The two ATVs sit temptingly, too. 

“It all comes back to why you’re on the boat,” says Hart. “You’re on Ulysses to make the most of every single day. For some people that will mean sitting by the pool, but for others it will be taking out a motorbike or exploring in some remote area in the ATVs. You can bring the landing craft up alongside and in no time you’re off on land exploring or cruising. It’s just really cool to have a menu of things to maximise your experience.”

Ulysses comfortably ticks the support and volume boxes, then, but what about seakeeping? She hasn’t been tested yet in the wild, desolate seas of the high latitudes, but you get the impression that the huge flared bow will shrug off anything too testing. Brining says the worst he’s encountered at the helm were 4.5 metre seas, which barely registered on the bridge.

She’s a heavy unit – all steel and Ice Classed – so runs pretty flat, or as the captain puts it: “You’d have smashed the interior to pieces before you’d be worried about the ship.” Then, at anchor, the dynamic positioning can be engaged, the huge 13 square metre stabilisers flapping in tune with the bow thruster and azipulls to keep you dead still. The diesel-electric set-up also means that pristine anchorages will remain unspoilt by any chug, as Ulysses quietly slips out on batteries alone.

Then your only decision is what to do with the 8,500 nautical miles in Ulysses’ tanks. “Just fill it with fuel and food and she can go for months,” says Hart. “You just have to figure out what you want to do. There’s a big old world out there beyond St Tropez.”

First published in the September 2016 edition of Boat International

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