Delivered lightning-fast after purchase, the 49.8-metre Heesen Ela is a case study in how semi-custom construction can turn out a beautifully personal yacht in record time, learns Kate Lardy
Ela is a striking yacht, with a chic plumb bow and a lightness to her profile thanks to large expanses of glass. Parked on the corner of the prominent Pier 66 Marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, she is the reason why Heesen director of sales Thom Conboy’s phone has been ringing off the hook recently. But this is no one-off custom creation. Instead, she’s identical on the outside to three other Heesens that came before her.
It’s safe to say that the Dutch shipyard has managed to corner this market of 50- to 55-metre yachts available practically on demand. “Our business model of spec building has led Heesen to wild success in the last 20 years,” Conboy says.
The builder duplicates a fashionable exterior design, popular general arrangement and proven mechanical platform to turn out impeccably engineered and eminently liveable yachts. But at this super-size range, nobody wants a production yacht. That’s where interior designers like Cristiano Gatto come in. The Italian has built a symbiotic relationship with the yard since he worked on the interior of the fully custom yacht Crazy Me, the Gary Grant-designed 50-metre launched in 2013.
“We started to see that the Italian way and the Dutch way can work together very well. A bit of my craziness with a bit of their structure of pre-engineering everything is good alchemy. From there, we started to work together,” says Gatto, who jokingly calls himself “Mr 50” for the many 50-metre interiors he has worked on with Heesen. He’s lost count, but thinks it’s around 12 so far.
One of these latest 50s is Ela, the fourth delivery in Heesen’s 50-metre aluminium FDHF (fast displacement hull form) series, and a perfect example of just how individual a yacht built on a semi-custom platform can be. Like the three yachts that came before her – Home, Erica and Amare II – Ela has an exterior design by Omega Architects, hull design by Van Oossanen Naval Architects and interior design by Cristiano Gatto Design. But of these three firms, only Gatto needed to develop an entirely different look and feel than the previous launches.
So, how does he do it? Mullions, he says.
Any interior vision starts with the exterior, he explains. “I always create an interior effect that reflects what we have outside.” For example, a salient feature of Omega Architects’ exterior styling for this series is the floor-to-ceiling glass that fringes the main and upper decks. Vast windows, which line up with cutaways in the bulwarks, allow extraordinary views from within. So, inside, Gatto started with the mullions. “Each one in the series I design has a new mullion concept,” he says. From that detail, a distinctive interior vision is born.
Ela’s concept is simple yet bold: mullions that are not afraid to be seen and noticed with strong geometry, rich materials and a delightful trick of the eye. Warm Canaletto walnut dominates, trimmed with an almost-black dark-tinted walnut. Topped with downward-facing spotlights that illuminate a path at night and backed by mirrors that touch the glass, they amplify and multiply those fantastic sea views.
“I was happy when the clients said, ‘You know what I really like about the interior? That mullion,’” Gatto says.
Indeed, the owners had an instant meeting of the minds with Gatto when they came to the project late in the build. They signed the contract just three months before delivery and worked closely with the designer to refine his concept to reflect their tastes. “We immediately had a good feeling about each other. We went to see other things together and I was able to establish what their expectation was compared to the standard project,” Gatto says.
This period was a whirlwind of activity, a race against time. Fortunately, the first-time owners and long-time charterers moved fast. “We took the major decisions within three days,” Gatto says. “We transformed a selection of the materials, added some upholstery elements and then completely redesigned the loose furniture.”
The latter had Gatto running all over Italy, from Milan to Venice. Working with four artisan companies, each responsible for one aspect of his original designs, such as a crackle lacquer finish or ultra-light marble, he did the sketching and re-sketching while they did the testing and mock-ups. “That was the fun part. We arrived to do objects that I had never done before,” he says.
The tables are some of his favourite creations. The unique pieces in the main and upper saloons feature unusual shapes and special finishes. However, it’s the lighting inside the main saloon dining table and upper saloon coffee table that makes the biggest impression. Embedded within four-millimetre-thick onyx, it changes the stone’s colour – from pink to purple to blue to green to yellow, and so on.
The overall effect of the owner’s redesign is a warmer feel, achieved by covering some of the cool lacquered surfaces with leather and panels in Majilite’s Novasuede. Revisiting the loose furniture also gave the design “a bit less drama”, according to Gatto. The organically shaped pieces come from Italian powerhouses like Zanotta, B&B Italia, Poltrona Frau and Promemoria, or, as in the case of the main and upper saloon’s sofas and tables, are custom designed by Gatto. The owners did not change the walnut joinery and floors, which contrast nicely with the white hand-stitched saddle leather floor tiles that define the main saloon’s central seating area.
“It doesn’t need to look opulent, and it doesn’t need to look glamorous; simplicity looks rich. I think that Ela has achieved that result,” Gatto says. The main foyer sets the tone with its bianco lasa covelano marble floor and floating walnut stair treads trimmed with a hint of polished stainless steel. Throughout Ela, stones, leather and walnut produce a stylish yet not over-the-top interior. For example, supple embossed leather lines the wall behind the owner’s suite’s bed, and travertine is lavished in the bathrooms and sauna.
“We try not to overdo it with decoration because the view of being at sea needs to catch your eye as much as possible,” Gatto says. The idea is not to compete with the view. “Imagine waking up in the morning in the master stateroom; you need to feel cosy, not cold at all, because you want to be fresh and calm. Open up your window shade and you see, let’s say, the Bahamas. Nothing between you relaxing in your bed and the view of the ocean outside should overwhelm you. Then during the day, when you are seated on the sofas or armchairs, in one of the saloons and you look at the details of the ceiling, of the mullions, or whatever it is, you need to perceive the richness of the detail of structures but without excessive glamour that will obstruct your view.”
The project’s success goes beyond its aesthetics, though, as Gatto points out. Each semi-custom delivery allows him and the shipyard to build on their experience. “We make the engineering that is behind the interior even more perfect, for example. It is very important because, at the end, the quality of the interiors is not just about what you see, but I always say it involves all our senses – hearing, smell, touch, etc. So, you create a mood, not just with the things you see.”
And what you hear should be nothing. Conboy says the yachts in this series, also known as the Nova or Nova Plus class, are extremely quiet. Two of the four deliveries, including Ela, are considered Nova Plus because they have traditional diesel engines with shafts, struts, and props. The other two are in the Nova class; they have hybrid propulsion with electric shaft motors, and, Conboy says, “they’re virtually silent.”
On Ela, twin MTU 2000 series M72 V12s, coupled with lightweight aluminium construction and Van Oossanen’s efficient fast-displacement hull, give a top speed of 19.5 knots and class-leading fuel efficiency.
“The other thing that’s attractive, especially in this part of the world,” Conboy says, speaking from Fort Lauderdale, “is it has a 2.1-metre draught. So, it’s a big platform to take shallow water cruising or to the Bahamas.”
What Captain Nicolas Ruiz loves about the platform is the flexible tender bay forward on deck. “I’m not restricted by a tender garage,” he says. “If I want a different tender, let’s say I had a client who says, ‘Let’s go bone fishing this week,’ OK, we’ll put the flats boat on. Or ‘Let’s go diving.’ OK, we’ll put the big rubber duck on.” Beside the tenders, there is space left over for wave runners, kayaks or surf skis. “It’s almost like an explorer-type bow.”
Furthermore, the tender bay converts into an outdoor cinema. What at first glance looks to be a tender cover is the top of an inflatable deck that fills the bay when the tender has been offloaded. The crew can then set up an Icon Connect screen and projector and this utilitarian space is now an entertainment area. The concept is perfectly in line with how the owners like to experience their yacht. They use the lower deck gym every day when on board, but they like to spend most of their time outdoors, says the yacht’s chief stewardess, Antonia Jukic.
The sundeck is a favourite place for entertaining, she confirms. It features loungers by Paola Lenti (which supplied all the loose deck furniture and cushions), a large hot tub, colour-changing onyx bar, and two custom coffee tables that rise and combine into one. The owners have occasionally used this spot for an outdoor dinner, although they enjoy most of their meals at the custom table designed by Gatto for the bridge deck.
Closer to the water is a stern platform of immense dimensions for a yacht her size. At the centre is a Transformer platform that rises eight steps high from the deck and lowers into the water. As its name suggests, it can be many things, a tall platform to daringly dive from or a low one. Dropped a foot below the waterline and surrounded by rails, it becomes the perfect perch for little ones to splash around on. The captain even suggests it could be a stage for a DJ setup towering over dance parties on the aft deck.
There is certainly a lot of fun to be had, and Ela’s owners are having it. According to the crew, since the owners took delivery, they have spent all their time on board instead of in their shore-side penthouse.
First published in the July 2022 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.Shop Now