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What makes the British superyacht industry great?

7 November 2022• Written by John Leonida


1. Let’s start at the beginning

The British superyacht industry is, in some sense, a glittering flotilla of individuals and superyacht businesses who are bonded by a common strand of British nautical DNA. At the risk of stating the obvious, the British do like yachting. They have always liked yachting and generally, they’ve been quite good at it. Whether it was King Edward VII’s grand racing exploits on the Cote D’Azur or the superyacht design rock that was dropped in the UK’s design pond in the 1960s by the modern master of superyacht design, Jon Bannenberg, the UK and superyachts have an unbreakable union that persists to this day. No other nation has unfurled its superyacht expertise as often as this island nation has.

Perhaps, there is nothing particularly ground-breaking in that statement, but it does trigger a contemplation on the continuing cultural link of Britain to the business of the sea. So, it is in 2022 as it was in 1754 when novelist Henry Fielding described British sailors as “…perfect masters of their business, always extremely alert and ready in executing it, without any regard to fatigue or hazard,” indeed he could have described any of the then British maritime trades in the same way.

The Restoration of 1660 had the new King Charles II return to England with a passion for the yachts he had seen during his exile in Holland. Charles II had become familiar with the Dutch practice of canal and river boats being luxuriously fitted out for the comfort of the grandees of Dutch society as they travelled by water from town to town. Yachts became a passion for the new king. Although the Dutch gifted him the yacht Mary, Charles wanted better. English diarist Samuel Pepys wrote on 8 November 1660, that Mary “…is one of the finest things that I ever saw for neatness and room in so small a vessel” and on the King’s command a new yacht was commissioned, the designers and builders of which had to surpass Mary and had to do so as a matter of honour and national pride. That yacht became Katherine, the first British designed and built luxury yacht which would eventually make Britain world class luxury yacht builders.

2. Reimaging the future of superyachts

This history has created a narrative from which the British superyacht world draws inspiration, and the rest of the superyacht industry looks to for expertise. All of which gets pulled together by Superyacht UK, the trade association that represents the British superyacht industry. On another level, in the field of superyacht design, the UK often leads.

Jon Bannenberg is described as the father of modern superyacht design. His influence in determining what large superyachts look like is without parallel. Bannenberg, and those who once trained with Jon Bannenberg, have dominated the large superyacht design world for many years. Leading design house RWD had a close connection with that Bannenberg ecosystem with Mark Whitely having worked with Bannenberg alumnus Andrew Winch. RWD is regularly designing one-off bemouths to be built at Lürssen, Feadship or Amels.

The UK is still an unrivalled centre for superyacht design, whether it is interior or exterior styling or indeed yachting naval architecture. For example, the Solent University degree programmes in yacht and power craft design have their former students working at superyacht naval architectural offices and superyacht builders across the world. Some return to tank test their more challenging designs before those superyachts are built in the Netherlands, Italy or Germany.

3. We still build superyachts…. And the clever stuff that makes them!

It is true that the UK may no longer be building the volume of superyachts built elsewhere, but what the UK does design, and build is wanted because of its innovation and the quality of its crafts. The 19th century yacht building excellence that existed on the river Clyde has been inherited by Sunseeker International, Oyster Yachts, Princess Yachts and at Pendennis.

The newly launched Sunseeker 100 is a strikingly luxurious diminutive cruiser whilst the Princess X Class range has torn up the rule book on pocket superyachts. The X Class is a brilliant British superyacht collaboration between Princess Yachts and designers Olesinki who teamed up with Italian styling powerhouse Pininfarina. As of January 2022, Princess Yachts had 30 orders for their X80. Innovation in design yes, but always underpinned by a tradition of doing things right.

The new is always energising, but one could not fail to stand in awe of the restoration of the classic 1929 built clipper bowed gentleman’s cruising yacht, the 71 metre Haida 1929. The restoration was conceived by British designer Adam Lay and beautifully executed by Pendennis. Rebuilt with tenderness and respect. But the UK also has a thriving network that exports marine equipment and provides some of the most spectacular tenders.

4. We know our stuff

The ancestry of a company like Falcon Tenders is an important element of their success. A modern heritage brand if you will. The legendary yacht design and naval architecture of William Fife, GL Watson, or Laurent Giles set the standard in the Golden Age of luxury yachting. Laurent Giles are still part of a cohort of British superyacht subject matter experts that are in demand all over the world, because they are good at what they do. They were responsible for the naval architecture on the new Wally 27m why200 hybrid superyacht, and they are currently working on a 110m hybrid yacht known as Project Atlas. This technical subject matter expertise is widely sought after. The names change but the expertise stays the same. BMT Nigel Gee was a mainstay of the superyacht scene.

They are now Lateral but their know-how and know-why is undiminished and unchanged with current projects stretching from the Netherlands to Turkey. Lateral’s story is not unusual. British-based naval architects, engineers and surveyors are often called upon to do the technical grubby stuff necessary to make a superyacht build or refit successful. If you find yourself at a superyacht builder and ask to speak to the owner’s rep, often that person will be employed by one of the British houses. A Royale Oceanic or Winterbothams surveyor or technical expert is a familiar sight at many a European superyacht builder.

5.  The small print

And when you’re not bumping into a Superyacht UK member surveying or approving the engineering of a superyacht, you will almost certainly find the lawyer or the insurer or the guys who set up the ownership structures sat somewhere in the UK. The way the superyacht world does business has for more than 20 years been built on the legal and tax expertise of some of the best corporate and superyacht lawyers in the world.  HfW, Hill Dickinson, Lester Aldridge amongst others, have framed, legally, how superyachts are built, bought, and sold for many years. It’s true that English law is not everyone’s favourite cup of tea, however even those contracts that are governed by Dutch, German or Italian law have often taken as their text the contracts drafted in the UK where we have a tradition of yacht-specific law that goes back more than a hundred years.

The same goes for insurance and the UK. British superyacht insurance is built upon an insurance tradition that goes back 350 years. The grandfather of modern superyacht insurance broking Nick Sturge, the venerable but now retired and ever charming former paterfamilias of what is now Howden Sturge, had an approach to insurance which is founded on a deep understanding not only of yachting but also needs of the yacht owner that came from the principle that expertise is knowledge plus customer service.

The UK has been very much part of the growth and development of the global superyacht industry of the last twenty years. The British superyacht industry independently or through its trade association Superyacht UK, has often gone about its work quietly but expertly. No Union Jacks have been planted but, the superyacht industry in the UK has time and again demonstrated expertise and the willingness to collaborate with colleagues around the world, a quality that Superyacht UK has wonderfully sponsored. The world often comes to the UK, in part, because the depth of our experience but, they also do so because we are nation of sailors and people who love yachts.

For more information about the UK superyacht industry, visit Superyacht UK