van der valk yacht lady lene was designed as a family yacht with wheelchair access

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Lady Lene: How Van der Valk built a 34m wheelchair-accessible yacht

6 February 2023 • Written by Kevin Koenig

When a dedicated owner, talented design team and Dutch builder got together to accommodate a mobility-challenged family member, the remarkable Lady Lene was born, says Kevin Koenig.

As I walk the superyacht docks on a Saturday night at the Cannes Yachting Festival, the parties are in full swing. DJ booths thump bass-heavy dance music and women in sequined sarongs dance provocatively upon bouncing passerelles. As I take in the spectacle, my eyes track toward the stillness of the inner harbour, where Lady Lene bobs placidly and with quiet dignity in the relative darkness.

Lady Lene is from this glamorous world but not in it. Her steadfast lines by Guido de Groot Design betray her Dutch pedigree, and her not insubstantial 33-metre length and 268 gross tons have all but a few boats at the show beat. But she isn’t typical of the ephemeral and earthly delights of the megayacht class. Instead, this is a yacht chiefly concerned with another sort of ephemerality: that of life’s fleeting moments.

Some may wonder why a yacht this size wouldn’t have a sundeck, but with limited guest mobility as a driving concern in the design, it simply wasn’t necessary. A happy byproduct is that the yacht’s look is explorer-like, and she has a low centre of gravity
Credit: Stuart Pearce/Yachtshot

“In the yachting industry, a lot of times we are selling the image of the sexy girls and the champagne,” Barin Cárdenas, founder of Miami’s YachtCreators and the owner’s representative, says. “But the reality is that many of these yachts are for families that span multiple generations, and the oldest members of the family sometimes can’t move around all that well anymore. It’s not talked about a lot, but it’s quite common. And Lady Lene is, I think, one of the  best examples of what smart and dedicated design can do on a boat when you’re dealing with guests of differing physical abilities.”

The matriarch of the family that owns Lady Lene needed a wheelchair to get around, and her family ordered the yacht so she could make the most of the time she had and surround her with love. The family’s circumstances informed nearly everything about this vessel’s unconventional design and construction. The custom yacht, which was delivered in a truncated time frame, has already collected accolades and may well show the yachting industry the way forward in accommodating guests with mobility constraints.

In an unconventional layout, the dining salon is forward to starboard on the main deck, conveniently close to the galley to port
Credit: Stuart Pearce/Yachtshot

“We built this boat from scratch for my grandmother,” a family member says. “We needed to cut the build time, so we used an existing hull and extended it a bit. The focus was always to make Lady Lene more accessible for her.”

The family is a highly experienced yachting clan from South America. They knew what they wanted and needed in this boat and had the utmost confidence in the Dutch shipyard Van der Valk’s ability to get it done since they had previous experience with the builder on another of their boats, the award-winning 90ft LeVen delivered by Van der Valk in 2019.

Carla Guilhem’s first full-blown foray into marine interior design produced an elegant and clean look throughout Lady Lene. Large, open spaces and wide passageways are a hallmark of the yacht – they allow for good wheelchair access
Credit: Stuart Pearce/Yachtshot

The wheelchair-compliant features and design traits on display on Lady Lene are numerous and begin the moment you step aboard. Jouncing passerelles can be a vertigo-inducing hazard for even the most athletic of yacht guests (French dancers excluded). So for Lady Lene, a sturdy gangplank was a must. The walkway on this yacht is 2ft 8in from side to side, wide enough to make it wheelchair friendly. The passerelle also pivots 90 degrees, so the yacht can dock anywhere in the world, be it the US or the Mediterranean.

A second feature that is readily apparent is the boat’s large and open aft deck, which Guido de Groot describes as his favourite part of the vessel and the “starting point” from which the rest of the design sprang. The space takes up nearly half the main deck and has a semicircular lounge in its after section, an al fresco dining table for eight a little further forward and ceilings equipped with an infrared heating system.

Credit: Stuart Pearce/Yachtshot

“The owners are outdoor people, and the aft deck is where they will spend a majority of their time socialising, even when it is cold,” de Groot says, “but the space is so large that it changed the rest of the boat’s layout. The main saloon is relatively small for a boat this big, and also boats this size usually have main deck masters, which of course this boat does not have.” (Lady Lene has a dual owner’s cabin layout, one on the bridge deck and another one on the lower deck for a total of five cabins.)

One of the main reasons Lady Lene does not have a flying bridge is that it wasn’t deemed a very usable space, particularly for the matriarch. However, a wheelchair can roll right onto the aft deck from the passerelle, so this spacious main deck exterior is the yacht’s prime entertaining space.

An elevator is a rare feature on a yacht of this size.
Credit: Stuart Pearce/Yachtshot

Of course, wheelchair accessibility extends to the yacht’s interior. All floors are flush, and an elevator connects all three decks, not a common feature on a 33-metre yacht and one of the challenges the shipyard had to overcome. All passageways are wide enough to push a wheelchair through and to allow it to turn on its axis. A happy byproduct of this design trait is that the yacht is a joy to walk through.

A relative newcomer to yachting, Miami-based residential designer Carla Guilhem gave the interior its appealing feel and look. There’s no hint of claustrophobia anywhere, and the wide-open spaces, including ceilings over two metres high, play well with the interior’s calm cream tones and subtle textural choices.

Credit: Stuart Pearce/Yachtshot

“We knew Carla from the Miami scene,” the grandson says, “and I wanted someone to talk to my grandmother and find out what she wanted. She didn’t want strong colours, and she could be picky. Carla is a really good listener; that’s a really strong talent of hers. Most interior designers come with an idea already in their head, and they want to impose it. Carla just listened more to what my grandmother had to say. She tried to get her what she wanted while still making the boat look phenomenal. And that played out in the soft colours and overlapped in the little details. Carla got so detailed that she found out how many drawers my grandmother wanted. She helped her pick the plates, everything.”

Lady Lene’s interior design, all built in-house by Van der Valk, is at once simple and complex. With no busy designs or ornate textures, subtlety reigns supreme. “The grandmother loved clean lines, and she also loved marble and natural stone, but she didn’t like veins,” Guilhem says. “She also loved wood but didn’t want to see too much strong wood everywhere, and there had to be no sharp edges. Everything had to be soft and clean, so it was a thin line we needed to walk.”

Lady Lene has dual owner’s suites, one on the bridge deck aft and the other amidships on the lower deck with an adjacent office. Throughout the yacht, details like hand carved fluting and a chevron patterned floor add interest to the soft natural oak interior
Credit: Stuart Pearce/Yachtshot

Guilhem relied heavily on relatively unassuming materials – natural oak, silk Georgette marble, leather, suede and etched metal – with intricate textural overlays. She used lots of light and made the natural oak throughout the boat pop, just a little, by relying on well-thought-out details like contrasts between flat surfaces and elegant fluting, which was all done by hand.  A distinguished chevron pattern on the floor is accented with a few deftly placed lines and stripes. And she chose the silk Georgette marble, named for its softness to the touch because it has very few lines and veins.

Another coup in terms of elegant yet functional design is the placement of handholds at wheelchair level throughout the yacht. To avoid the utilitarian look of a hospital corridor wasn’t easy, but each one is placed just so, as to be useful without being obtrusive and wrapped in finely stitched, butter-soft leather that is befitting of a superyacht.

Guilhem chose a bevvy of Italian brands (mostly) for the furniture, including Minotti and Poliform for the salon and dining chairs, and Gandia Blasco for the outdoor furniture on the aft deck and on the upper deck.

Considerations for a wheelchair-friendly boat extended beyond the interior. It was also necessary that Lady Lene perform safely. The yacht has an aluminium hull and transatlantic range, and her ability to negotiate angry seaways needed to be correspondingly robust. For obvious reasons, avoiding a rolling motion was of utmost concern. The shipyard added six tons of ballast for a lower centre of gravity and took weight out of beams and girders in the upper portion of the boat to ensure a small enough draft to cruise shallower areas such as the Bahamas. In addition, the yacht also has two sets of Humphree carbon stabilising fins and two Seakeeper gyro stabilisers.

Credit: Stuart Pearce/Yachtshot

For comfort’s sake, Lady Lene also has a Hull Vane appendage that reduces her pitch in a head sea and minimises her wake. Underway she looks effortless. The Hull Vane also helps her achieve a highly efficient cruise at 11 to 12.5 knots, as does her wave-piercing (but not bulbous) bow. Other notable hull characteristics include prop pockets for noise and draft reduction, and rudders on the outside of the propellers that have a two-fold purpose: helping with manoeuvrability at slow speeds, and reducing the shaft angle, according to the project’s naval architect, Jaron Ginton.

Credit: Stuart Pearce/Yachtshot

With her throttle pinned, the Van der Valk can hit 18 knots thanks to twin, 1,650hp MAN V12s housed in an engine room with seven feet of headroom, excellent 360-degree access and loads of sound insulation. The engine room is accessible through the crew quarters for six, and the two areas coincide nicely to highlight another feature of this boat – the extent to which the owning family wanted their crew to be happy. Just as the engine room is eminently usable – dare I say, comfortable? – the crew quarters is outstanding. The mess feels more like a legitimate dining room than a place to grab a bite when not on watch. That’s by design. “Crew is important to us,” the owner says. “The idea with the crew is that we needed a nurse for my grandparents so we wanted the whole crew space to be just a bit nicer than what you might usually find.” A baseline crew for this boat is five people, though it can house up to seven, including the nurse’s cabin on the lower level.

Credit: Stuart Pearce/Yachtshot

In the end, all the detailed planning and sped-up construction were worth it for the owning family. They, and their matriarch, got the boat of their dreams, and they got it in a timely enough fashion that the family was able to enjoy life on the sea, everyone together, for just a little bit longer.

Lady Lene is now a floating keepsake.

First published in the March 2023 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.

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Van Der Valk   32.92 m •  2022

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