A bold and eco-aware project has turned a neglected classic into the comfortable, modern 42m yacht Istros, says Cecile Gauert.
Istros: Inside the renovation of the historic 42m superyacht
It was a momentous year: 1954 was the first time a British monarch travelled to Australia, it was the year the Americans tested an H-bomb in Bikini, the year the Soviet Union stopped asking for reparations from West Germany – and a Dutch yard finished the construction of 42 metre Istros.
The post-war reconstruction had rewarded enterprising Greek shipowners, such as Aristotle Onassis and Stavros Niarchos, whose massive fleets allowed them to create two of the world’s most iconic yachts. For Onassis, that was 99 metre Christina O, the converted anti-submarine frigate that went on to host every mid-century celebrity from Winston Churchill to Marilyn Monroe; for Niarchos it was 115 metre Atlantis.
The Pappadakis family invested in fewer tankers but did well enough to finance the construction of Istros, which was then the largest yacht built in The Netherlands. Good thing a couple of nosey Dutch reporters were at the Amsterdam De Vries Lentsch shipyard for the launch, to record for posterity details such as the yacht’s radar, white private telephone – both of which were pretty cutting-edge in 1954 – and violet-blue bathrooms.
The size and luxury of his yacht notwithstanding, the family patriarch did not enjoy the limelight and taught his children the art of going unnoticed in a crowd. This may explain in part why Istros – which was known for a time as Andros – left very few breadcrumbs that would allow her history to be retraced. Little is known, therefore, about Istros’s next half-century.
We do know she had a fan club, however. An admirer snapped her up and embarked on a major refit about eight years ago, but the project came to a screeching halt. It happens, family and business circumstances change, and passions rise and fall. Another suitor came along but perhaps realised that the project was a bit much to handle – Istros was left to languish tied to a quay in Malta.
That’s where captain Tristan le Brun first spotted her. He was there with the successful charter yacht Etoile d’Azur, a 30m Moonen which he and the owner had refitted, and he decided to take a closer look at Istros under the cover of night. He was intrigued, but made no further intimations of interest at that time.
A competitive sailor who studied economics before becoming captain at the age of 22, he occupies whatever idle time he has searching boat listings and sorting the boats that are for sale by category. A few years after his Malta encounter with Istros, he was engaged in one such search – this time for a new project that the owner of Etoile d’Azur might enjoy – when he noticed that the classic boat was on the market.
“It was easy to get the owner excited about this because he loves projects. He is in yachting because he loves beautiful machines and that’s why we get along,” he says. “Before the refit of the Moonen 97, we already had looked at doing a restoration but eventually concluded that it wasn’t worth it.” Instead, they focused on other challenges, doing “double seasons in charter and two Atlantic crossings”. Once they ticked off all those boxes, they found themselves in need of a new challenge. Istros looked like the right project: a pedigreed yacht with loads of charm at a very attractive price.
“The owner told me, ‘let’s buy it but keep it to ourselves and carry on researching the project’,” Le Brun says. They priced the cost of materials and asked several shipyards for bids. Le Brun was very keen on working with Feadship, but it took time to agree on financial terms. It helped in the negotiations that the project also appealed to Feadship, which has been building its heritage fleet, as well as launching new yachts. Eventually they reached an agreement and work began in Malta in late 2018.
Even the best-laid plans sometimes hit a snag, and the refit of Istros proved to be a bigger challenge than anticipated. First, there was not much available in terms of archives and drawings; the specs of the original engines, for example, were non-existent. Because of their age and of the way they worked, the owner and captain had decided to replace them. “The owner likes elegant things, but he is very modern. Neither of us like old things. And we weren’t interested in turning Istros into a museum piece,” Le Brun says.
The original engines were not practical for a yacht that was going to charter frequently, and they weren’t efficient. “To reverse or go forward, you had to turn off the engine and restart in the other direction. Some people love that,” Le Brun says, “but that was not for us. We wanted a magnificent boat that could move in and out of port like any modern yacht.”
They took the decision to repower the yacht with two fuel-efficient C18 Caterpillars. What no one expected was that the original engines, weighing 36 tonnes, represented more than 15 per cent of the boat’s weight – by comparison, the new engines are two tonnes each, with the gearbox. That was very significant in terms of the yacht’s stability and would warrant an enormous amount of lead ballast.
Another discovery helped derail the initial plans – extensive corrosion all around the steel superstructure had particularly weakened window and door frames. The owner and captain wanted the yacht to be compliant with Lloyd’s and the classification society said that to comply they had to replace the original teak doors with watertight ones anyway. Eventually, it became clear the better path forward was to excise the problematic superstructure.
“De Voogt Naval Architects came up with the solution of building a new superstructure in aluminium, much lighter than steel, and that we could make with good frames and good doors. Today what costs the most are man hours, more so than materials,” Le Brun says. In other words, it’s more cost-effective to buy new aluminium than spend months repairing corroded steel. “On all levels, it was the most logical solution.”
Before cutting the original superstructure off, the refit team did a full 3D scan that would be used to build a new structure. Then Istros left Malta on a barge bound for a metal specialist in The Netherlands where the partially riveted steel hull would undergo additional repairs. Finally, in August 2019, the yacht arrived in Makkum for 11 months of detailed work and outfitting.
“A ship that is 65 years old holds surprises,” says Pieter Dibbits, manager of special projects at the Koninklijke De Vries shipyard. It wasn’t an easy time in the project, but everyone was invested in a successful outcome.
To that end, the yard had to reinvent the way it works, Dibbits says. They had eight to 10 drawings to go by, compared to the usual 5,000-plus available on a new build. Back in the 1950s, a boatbuilder worked very differently – they relied on their eyes and feel rather than precise mathematics with a tolerance measured in millimetres. And the original boatbuilder had a very good eye. “She is a rather narrow boat, which is part of her beauty, and she has many curves, (in fact) there is not a straight line on her,” Dibbits says.
Part of the challenge was to preserve the beautiful balance the original boatbuilder had created but also to make her better able to accommodate modern comfort and what comes with it – lots of electrical cables and pipes.
“We decided to make the superstructure slightly higher, about 10 centimetres, and the bulwark is also a little higher, so that the lines are the same,” Dibbits says. “It was a chilling moment to see the superstructure land on the hull that it had never seen. It fitted like a glove and the lines are spot on. From a distance you won’t be able to tell that the superstructure is higher. It turned out amazing.”
There are many details that are not visible at first glance. The shipyard moved bulkheads to accommodate a new modern layout suited to charter and new machinery. This entailed moving several portholes laterally. To avoid having to install storm shutters on the lower portholes, the yard came up with a custom-made solution borrowed from a new build project: they made a hatch using two layers of tempered glass separated by a void and sealed it in a watertight frame. The class society approved a similar solution for the portholes. “We had it tested and it is stronger than steel,” Dibbits says.
The shipyard also replaced the original teak masts with identical-looking structures built in aluminium and clad in a wrap that mimics teak. The same wrap is used on watertight doors that replace the original teak ones. “Not only does the wrapping look like teak but it also feels like teak,” Dibbits says.
The funnel, which on many classic yachts becomes an ornament (sometimes used to store deck chairs or brooms and brushes) still works as a conduit for the clean exhaust produced by a very modern class-approved Capstone microturbine. “It’s funny,” says the captain, “when we start the turbine, a little steam rises that looks like a white cloud.”
The owner wanted the interior to be modern, comfortable and family-friendly. To this end, he decided to keep the original teak wheel in what is now a paperless wheelhouse. Children, he thought, would get a kick out of turning it, but he did not care if it still worked.
The shipyard could not abide the idea of a decorative wheel and so they rigged it to work with the modern electronics. “It works flawlessly; that’s the only thing we used on sea trials,” Dibbits says. “All (the captain) has to do is to make sure he disengages it when the kids play with it.”
The traditional teak wheel is an eye-catching piece in the otherwise white pilothouse. “It looks like it’s made for Captain Haddock,” says Tracey Canavaggio of Van Geest Design. The designer, who does work for Feadship, was introduced to the captain by the shipyard. The boat was classical enough; they did not want darker woods and historical references, they wanted something fresh and livable.
“It was clear it would be a family boat, uncluttered, simple to live and practical for the crew,” says Canavaggio who handled the project with design partner Pieter Van Geest. “We started with a Scandinavian design, minimal lines but keeping it warm as well, and because it’s going to be mostly in the Med, we said let’s keep it white and crisp,” she says.
The main idea was that of a beach house for carefree living. The cabins have large comfortable beds and the showers stalls, all with bench seats, are spacious. The materials are easy to care for. The children’s cabin is part of a two-cabin suite in the aft section of the boat and has bunk beds, because kids love to climb. They gave the crew direct access to the galley on main deck and had a good time outfitting the galley with all that’s needed to serve up quality meals and drinks.
Contrasting with white bulkheads and ceilings, are oiled teak floors, dark stained spruce details and touches of colour for throw pillows and accessories.
Almost nothing was pulled off a shelf in a boutique. The owner introduced the designers to Belgian furniture maker Reul Frères and together they created nearly all the innovative, stylish furniture on board.
Most of the outdoor furniture is built out of Corian, including the outside of sofas that look as smooth and shapely as eggshells. Because the yacht has a lot of camber, they devised a creative way to fasten the furniture to the deck using two disks on wedges. “You turn them until you find the right curvature,” Canavaggio says. They also designed foldable deck chairs built in teak, stainless steel and linen. They are wide, sturdy, stable and elegant. Like Istros herself, they are a mix of classic and modern – timeless but new.
It’s unavoidable that people will ask, could the owner have built a new Feadship and get the same results? The answer is no. “If you try to build the same boat new, you would not be able to do it (because boatbuilding and rules have change so much). You can’t just make a replica. It’s not how it works,” Dibbits says.
“A new boat is just not the same. When you get on board an older boat, you know it has a history. You can feel it. It’s psychological but it is also the way it looks,” the captain says.
Istros no longer has blue-violet bathrooms or a big white telephone. But she has plenty a nosy reporter can marvel at – an internet-based TV system, fast induction phone chargers, flat panel antennas and a small turbine that spins on air bearings to power them all. She is a better version of her former self.