Enigma: On board the iconic 74.5m Blohm+Voss superyacht
by Stewart Campbell
Martin Francis’s iconic creation is finally stepping into the spotlight 25 years after her launch. The designer reveals all about the birth of Enigma, her remarkable first owner, and those amazing windows...
Martin Francis has been waiting 25 years for this. Enigma’s designer was denied the opportunity to speak to any media when the yacht was launched back in 1991 and so she has remained true to her name ever since — off the radar, a little mysterious.
But now Enigma’s for sale, the shroud has been lifted and Francis is basking in this long-delayed moment in the sun. “I’m terribly emotional,” he says on board. “I’ve given so many years to this boat.”
Born Eco, renamed Katana and finally Enigma, she is still a gut-punch of a design: a long, lean destroyer dressed in silk. Technically, she’s a profound achievement. She was the first superyacht to be fitted with an underwater foil, which provides 120 tonnes of lift at the stern to help her achieve that outrageous top speed of 36 knots.
Those iconic windows are a masterstroke of design and construction. And, after all these years, Enigma’s still totally vibration-free — even when the centrally mounted gas turbine is flicked on and winds up to its max output of 18,500hp.
This boat should be fêted, up in lights, on the marquee in massive capital letters — ENIGMA. Francis, meanwhile, should be one of the most in-demand superyacht designers in the world.
Yet… Francis’s phone didn’t ring for eight years after Enigma was launched. Meanwhile, some of the exciting young designers he had incubated at his South of France studio — Espen Øino, Dan Lenard, Mark Smith and Jonny Horsfield — drifted off to conquer the world on their own.
“It doesn’t always pay to be ahead of the curve,” he says a little ruefully as we tour the yacht. But regrets? Not one. Enigma was Francis’s first motor yacht design after a career spent penning sailboats and working with the likes of Norman Foster, and the pride he feels when showing me around the boat is evident. “See the shower drains?” he motions in the master cabin’s bathroom. “I even designed those.”
It’s easy to recognise the brilliance of Enigma’s design today, but back when she was launched the reviews weren’t all glowing. Naval architects queued up to rubbish her: the bridge is on the wrong deck; the windows will break; who sticks a big appendage under the water when you’re trying to reduce drag? “The boat initially came in for an enormous amount of stick,” Francis remembers. “It was really quite vitriolic.”
Fortunately, he was working for a man who occupies a special place in the pantheon of visionary superyacht owners: Emilio Azcárraga. The Mexican billionaire was a media titan, owner of mega-brand Televisa, which ran — and still runs — TV networks and radio stations across Mexico and the US. He was, Francis says with genuine feeling, “the most amazing client I’ve ever had”.
Designer and owner became almost symbiotic, with Francis going on to design a number of projects for the Mexican, including a roof for the giant 100,000-seat Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.
Azcárraga loved the boat Francis designed so much he chose to die on it. “He had homes all over the world, but he lived the last six months of his life on board, in Miami,” says the designer. In the six years of his ownership, Azcárraga became famous for the time he spent on board, including six transatlantics.
In one memorable season, he joined the yacht in Hamburg, took it up to St Petersburg, then across to the UK, down into the Med and the Balearics, then across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal and up to Los Angeles. To assist all that passage-making, Azcárraga’s rep, the ageless George Nicholson, of the Camper & Nicholsons dynasty, bought a tanker so she could refuel mid-Atlantic.
“I found it in Denmark,” he recalls. “It was the smallest tanker that I could buy at 1,000 tonnes. We called her Eco Supporter. It would buy fuel at the best prices, then clean it so we always had a 200-tonne tank full of clean fuel. We used to send the tanker way ahead of Eco and make a rendezvous somewhere at sea.”
Nicholson also remembers the owner fondly. He sold him a 36 metre CRN, Caribe III (now Nordic Star), in 1974, kick-starting a long association. Azcárraga then went on to buy two Feadships, Azteca (now Lionwind) and Paraiso, both designed by Jon Bannenberg.
In the mid-1980s, he started thinking bigger and asked Bannenberg, Francis and the famed car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro to dream up some concepts. “The ideas and suggestions from Martin were by far the most radical and pleasing to the client,” Nicholson says.
But Francis recalls the process of settling on a final design being slightly tortuous. Initially Azcárraga asked for something akin to Azteca, the 1983 Feadship designed by Bannenberg in his faceted, militaristic style, but he wasn’t happy with the proposals he was getting back.
Frustrated, Francis says he stormed back into the office one day and said: “Throw everything he said out of the window. We’re going to make it long and with everything curved.” So conceived was the legend.
Those windows are the first thing you notice. The idea came from curved Parisian windows, which are designed to limit internal reflections. Their installation on Enigma didn’t serve any practical purpose — it’s all about style — but the effect they have on the view from inside is dramatic. All the glazing was made by Flachglas in Germany and caused a few palpitations when first proposed.
“At that stage we did not know if the hull and superstructure would be really stiff, and were afraid that these large and special windows would crack,” recalls Nicholson. To date, in 25 years, only two panes have.
“It was a work of art to get them right,” says Francis, not least because the Lloyd’s surveyors weren’t big fans, thinking the frames fronting the bridge wouldn’t be able to take the force of a big wave — a problem on slender boats like Enigma, which tend to be wet.
They demanded Francis design some removable mullions that are supposed to be slotted into place to strengthen the screen in a big sea. “We’ve still got them,” says Enigma’s captain, Stuart Lees. “We never use them.” The 19mm toughened glass has withstood it all — helped by a locker-cum-wave breaker on the bow.
The positioning of the bridge on the main deck was the main thing that riled rival designers when Enigma first appeared, with one even suggesting that placing a wheelhouse at this level should be illegal. The original plans had it higher but Azcárraga wanted the best views for himself.
“He said, ‘but that’s the best place. I want to be there. The pilot of my plane never looks out of the window. I don’t see why the captain needs to’,” remembers Francis. “And that was that. He had spoken.”
The current skipper says he has no complaints about the positioning, and often finds himself piling on the power when the water starts hitting the screens. “Sometimes, when it gets rough and the sea is picking up, especially if we’re heading straight into it, we’ll go faster and it just lifts the bow a bit and it almost wave-pierces through, so where you’re actually pitching quite heavily at 15 knots, at 25 knots you’re wave-piercing through it and you pull yourself out of bad weather.”
When it comes to Enigma’s power, Francis loves one particular story. “On one of the first sea trials, we were having a problem with the gas turbine. We got it sorted out around lunchtime. We were off Palma and Azcárraga said: ‘Captain, let’s go to Porto Cervo’.
“The mistral had been blowing so we set off in a swell and had a Mexican lunch at about three and a siesta, and then watched a few movies, and a late dinner, and at midnight we were in Porto Cervo. There’s nothing out there that will do that. Nothing. Twenty-five years later there’s nothing that will do that.”
Speed was central to the brief from the start, Nicholson says. The engines chosen for the job were heavy-duty Deutz lumps, outputting 5,000hp. They were coupled to Kamewa waterjets, since Azcárraga loved nosing into deserted — and often poorly charted — anchorages, and had damaged props in the past.
The two diesels will get Enigma up to nearly 20 knots, but the punch to top speed is provided by the central General Electric gas turbine. “It was the first production turbine for civilian use,” says Nicholson. “I had to sign an official secrets paper in order to buy it. The Aga Khan bought the next three engines for his transatlantic record-breaker, Destriero.”
All that muscle comes at a cost — Enigma is a thirsty ship at speed. At her 36 knot top end, she’s burning 5,000 litres an hour. In 48 hours at full pace she can empty her 240,000 litre fuel tank. “I know because we’ve done it several times,” says Captain Lees.
Drop back to her cruising speed of 18 knots and Enigma’s range extends to about 2,200 nautical miles. Her efficiency is helped by a piece of revolutionary hydrodynamic hardware — a large underwater wing that sits slightly aft of the transom jets and attaches to the hull with two struts.
It took 11 tank-testing campaigns to settle on a final design for the hull and foil, which not only prevents the stern from “squatting” at speed, it also limits Enigma’s trim, which varies just 1.5 degrees from zero to 36 knots.
It was originally thought hanging so much steel off the boat would have drag penalties at low speed, but in fact it was found that at 18 knots efficiency improved by almost 20 per cent. “The foil wasn’t in the original spec,” says Francis, “but when they saw how much performance it gave them, they couldn’t afford not to put it on.”
What was in the spec from the get-go was the Maule amphibious seaplane, which was stowed on the expansive aft deck. Azcárraga had lost a number of friends in helicopter accidents and so the plane was the only choice — and quite a challenge to incorporate into the design. It could be stored on board without folding the wings and was powerful enough to take off and land in the boat’s length.
The plane was ditched by Enigma’s second owner, Larry Ellison, who turned the aft deck into a basketball court. He also added a glass-enclosed superyacht gym on the main deck aft, a new exterior stair to the upper deck and a spa pool on the top deck’s wing station.
Plug-in controls (now removed) meant the yacht could be controlled from this level and legend has it the former captain used to moor the boat while having a soak. Zero-speed stabilisers, meanwhile, were added in 2009.
The layout has been fiddled with rather than ripped up by the three successive owners — an upper deck dining room is now a saloon, for instance, while the position of the bed in the owner's cabin has changed a few times. Each time someone has wanted to change Enigma, they’ve called in Francis. He designed her interior originally with François Zuretti, working on his very first yacht.
A beam of 11.2 metres is modest for a 74.5 metre yacht, yet you don’t feel too pinched on Enigma’s main deck. High central topsides mean the guest accommodation enjoys the full beam, and large windows give a real immediacy to the view.
The upper deck is the owner’s enclave and can be isolated from guests with a partition door. Another door on the deck above means the owner can turn the forward part of both decks into an exclusive duplex.
Sitting in that sundeck saloon, looking out at the world through those convex windows is a unique experience, doubly so because they’ve never been copied. In an industry sometimes notorious for producing “just another big white boat”, Enigma stands truly alone.
The only coverage Azcárraga would allow about the yacht all those years ago was an article in the February 1992 issue of this magazine, about her incredible performance.
“Eco is one of those very special superyacht projects where the designers and builders have been encouraged to redefine the boundaries of their trade; to explore the limits of their ideas and to push the frontiers of technology and engineering,” we wrote.
Were Enigma launched tomorrow, those words would still apply — and might still in another 25 years. She is an icon, a great, a hall-of-famer and, after a quarter of a century, unmasked.
First published in the December 2016 edition of Boat International