What happened when serial entrepreneur Prince Bernhard van Oranje turned his hand to yacht design? Charlotte Hogarth-Jones finds out...
"It’s always been my dream to be active in the yachting industry,” confesses Prince Bernhard van Oranje, founder of the Loosdrecht-based company Waterdream. The boatbuilding firm has just launched its second model: the 52' California. “Perhaps given my background it was predestined, but it’s not how my career began.”
He is, of course, referring to a childhood spent on the water. The second son of Princess Margriet of the Netherlands and Pieter van Vollenhoven, van Oranje is no longer in direct succession to the throne, since his cousin Willem-Alexander became king, but he remains a member of the Dutch royal family. As you would expect in a dynasty with a long-held passion for yachts and yachting, every summer was spent taking part in watersports off the back of boats, cruising the Mediterranean and, of course, the country’s waterways.
Images courtesy of Olga Dromas/Blueiprod
“My grandfather had a number of different boats,” he recalls, “I think he started with Piet Hein, a 31.3-metre De Vries Lentsch yacht that was made especially for very shallow waters – that was a beautiful boat, and it’s still out there for rentals.” Then, he explains, there was an “ugly but functional” Grand Banks yacht, a sportfisher, a 25.6-metre motor yacht, and one of the Moonen 85 series that was based in Porto Ercole in Italy, where the family also kept an old Boston Whaler. All were called Jumbo, “like the elephant”, he says.
“Usually, we’d just go out on day trips – some lunch, watersports such as waterskiing, windsurfing, all the other stuff you can do,” he recalls, “but once in a while we’d just go on a mad trip to Elba and hang out there for one night.”
Watersports, in fact, were a defining feature of van Oranje’s holidays. “My parents had good friends in Friesland in the north of Holland where there are a lot of lakes, and we’d often go there. We had another Boston Whaler, a Hobie Cat, a Laser dinghy… but with my parents and my brother, we always went windsurfing, that was a big part of my life,” he explains – from watching international competitions, to going out “almost every weekend, whenever the wind was good”.
It makes perfect sense, then, that water toys are given such prominence in his new creation, but van Oranje’s path to boat design has taken some time. This entrepreneurial Dutchman clearly has an eye for business, and spent a year away from the Netherlands while studying for an economics degree in Washington DC. “I love it in the States; I love the energy,” he explains, “and I always had different jobs while I was out there, from being a bus driver, working in an ice-cream shop, DJing at some parties…” Back in the Netherlands, he embarked on a doctorate in marketing, continuing to DJ in bars before launching his first company with a couple of friends.
“At the time, Dutch students received a scholarship,” he explains, “but then the government reduced it, and gave them a pass to use public transport for free instead.” Van Oranje and his co-founders soon set up an express delivery service, using a network of young students who were flitting across the country, as couriers. “At the end of it, we had six different offices,” he says. “It got quite a lot of press at the time because, of course, that’s not how the card was intended to be used – but that’s how I experienced entrepreneurship and what it’s all about.”
It wasn’t long before van Oranje fully immersed himself in the fast-paced tech industry, and today he’s a man with fingers in many pies. He wouldn’t describe himself as a workaholic necessarily, but he clearly finds working enjoyable, despite the inevitable sacrifices. “When you’re an entrepreneur, you’re always on, so you’re always available,” he explains. “Even when I’m on holiday, I never have my Out of Office on. When I’m with family and friends, I do my best to put my phone to one side, and I try to be more effective when I’m working. Nowadays, I try to work with people who are better at things than I am, so really my job is to inspire people and keep them motivated.”
Before yachts it was cars, and van Oranje became actively involved in the Formula 1 circuit recently, successfully campaigning to bring F1 back to the Zandvoort track, which he co-owns, last year. It wasn’t his sole aim in buying the track, he explains. “Companies and investors wanted to go into new territories and get more exposure, so I knew that taking things back to a small country like the Netherlands would be a challenge,” he says. “On the other hand, with Max Verstappen driving F1 now, the sport has never been so popular, so I thought it would at least be worthwhile to investigate what was possible.”
It was a challenge against all odds, he explains, “and at the time I didn’t want to talk about it a lot, because there were so many different steps to take, and the likelihood that we’d succeed was so small. We weren’t sure that everything would fall into place until the last minute.”
With the F1 deal completed, van Oranje soon began to contemplate boatbuilding and designing as his next challenge. He was looking for a specific dayboat for himself, he explains, and couldn’t find one, so he spied a potential business opportunity. “I thought, I’m going to develop it,” he enthuses, “and if I like it, probably most people will.” He wasn’t wrong, and his first model – the 65' California – found a ready market of like-minded boaters. Next up was the tricky second album, the 52' California, and van Oranje chose the Van der Valk Shipyard and Dutch design firm Vripack for the task.
From the off, aesthetics were a priority. “I didn’t want to do something that ticked all the boxes but looked ugly,” he laughs. “For me, when I see motor yachts, I see a lot of compromises, and I didn’t want that. I wanted a boat that people could keep for 10 years and still love it.”
Of course, every yacht designer likes to think they’re creating the era’s defining classic, but van Oranje and Vripack were keen to take the human element as the jumping-off point for the design, in order to produce a yacht that was as functional as it was good looking. “We really worked backwards,” he says, imagining the owner as the helmsman of the yacht, and then adapting the design to accommodate it.
A defining feature of the 52' California is its striking all-carbon central W steering console, which puts the driver at the heart of the action – a deliberate layout, says van Oranje, based on his own experience. “If you’re the captain of a motor yacht, you usually have to sit right in front, and it feels like you’re not part of the action – it’s terrible!” he says. “When you look at sailing yachts, however, and you see the captain’s position, it’s quite centred, beautifully designed, very minimalistic… I knew that’s what was needed.” He describes the carbon console as a “work of art”. “When you stand behind it, it’s so beautiful, and it’s super fun to drive,” he says, “and even when you’re not motoring, it’s a really nice place to hang out.”
Another compromise turned upside down, he explains, is interior space on board. “We have a two-metre standing height, but we also used the width of the boat,” he says. Tables are collapsible, so at anchor you can create an open, sociable space instantaneously. “I always found those sitting areas so stupid,” he says. “When you’re not sailing, it takes up to 40 per cent of your yacht. This [design] is functional and much better.”
In fact, the 52' California is a yacht that seems destined for partying on. It’s hard not to look at its spacious deck, sleek lines and cool monochromatic colour scheme without imagining a few friends on board for sundowners – something that’s helped by the yacht’s superior sound system. “We really thought about sound at the very beginning.
"A lot of people build a boat, and then someone brings the sound after that,” he explains. “The audio quality we can get up to is top level.” There’s scope for water toys too – unusually for a boat of this size, the 52' California has a stern garage large enough to accommodate a stand-up jet ski or a tender, or you can opt for a personalised selection of toys that can be customised to fit inside exactly.
Van Oranje likens the boat to one of his favourite cars, the Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder – and not just because they share a name. “It was one of the first truly unique convertibles that actually looked good,” he says. “It’s handmade out of aluminium, fast, very agile, but also super elegant and it was definitely an inspiration for me.”
From picking out shades for the 52' California’s interior, to agonising over the exact dimensions of the cupholder, van Oranje has relished every aspect of its creation, something he attributes in part to his relationship with Vripack. The first California took three years to design, and the 52' California took two years, but was built in just five months. The design process can be quite intense, he explains, so “the collaboration has to be with a company you feel comfortable and relaxed with, and you both have to have the same level of patience to realise your ideas.” He describes the Van der Valk Shipyard as being “super efficient”. “Five months is a very short time, even without Covid-19, so they worked really hard to get everything done, and we used extensive virtual reality tooling for the development so that we were ready to build straight away.”
The finished product made her debut in the Netherlands, with van Oranje sailing her through the Amsterdam channels, before taking her to the South of France to enable potential buyers to take her for a spin. His hope is that, as well as an ideal dayboat, many superyacht owners will take on the 52' California as a separate tender, describing the combination as “the best of both worlds”.
He’s got his heart set on a smaller California, the 45', and a larger 78' model for the future, and the plan is for Waterdream to continue coming up with, and developing, new projects. For now, however, van Oranje simply can’t wait to see the public’s reaction to his labour of love. “That’s what I’m really looking forward to,” he smiles.
Certainly the 52' California, which van Oranje is taking to Miami next, is in good company back home. “I definitely think the Dutch build the most beautiful boats in the world,” he says. “In general, Dutch design has really evolved in recent years. Our boats used to be quite solid and traditional, but now our design has come to light as a bit out-there, but also really innovative and beautiful. There are some cool new companies, people like Dynamiq [an Italian builder whose yachts are engineered in the Netherlands] for example, that are doing really interesting designs.” That, coupled with artisans skilled in working with wood and aluminium who are hard to find outside the area, and “the ambition to build a long-lasting product”, as well as a beautiful one, is what makes the country’s future in yacht-building so exciting.
Not that van Oranje is complacent. “I think in terms of superyacht design specifically, there’s still so much to win,” he says. “But the background is there, and so is the inspiration.”
First published in the January 2021 edition of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.