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From spy ship to superyacht: Inside the transformation of the 68m Olivia

14 October 2020 • Written by Cecile Gauert

From Soviet spy ship to a luxury explorer yacht, 68.8 metre superyacht Olivia has an intriguing story to tell. Cecile Gauert uncovers her colourful history...

Not too many yachts out there have a monkey island. But then again, 68.8-metre Olivia is no average yacht. She was born a Soviet spy ship during the Cold War era and then maintained her low profile as a privately owned explorer yacht. In spite of that, she’s long had a fan club, starting with her current owner and professional crew, who have travelled all over the world on board – on average 10,000 nautical miles a year for the past decade.

As she travels around the world she often gets recognised as the Soviet spy ship she once was. All imagery courtesy of Guillaume Plisson.

The yacht’s owner was fascinated by her even before he bought her and knows much about her history from the time she emerged from a Finnish yard in 1972. “Her purpose was to spy on all the NATO movements of ships and submarines into the North Sea. This was the Cold War era, when both parties were doing nothing else but engaging in watching each other,” he says. “She had been equipped with Finnish and German machinery and was designed to go on long missions in the North Sea. The purpose of her design was to serve the Russian navy as a submarine-spotter ship.”

The boat had the aforementioned “monkey island” – a deck located directly over the bridge, its lofty position ideal for surveying the horizon – as well as an observation tower rising about eight metres into the air, where “the men could stand in the midst of winter, moving 15 degrees side to side and back and forward at the tallest point of the ship, and a cofferdam, which housed sonars”.

The monkey island doubles as an outdoor gym.

The builder was the now defunct Finnish shipyard Oy Laivateollisuus, whose main customer was the Soviet Union. The mandate was clear: this ship, which was officially designated as a hydrographic survey vessel and named Valerian Albanov after a famous Russian polar researcher and navigator, had to be able to go out and stay out, no matter what the conditions. And so she did, keeping watch every hour of every day, until the end of the Cold War. With the advent of perestroika and the tough economic times that came with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, she was one of many ships offered for sale. And she was a steal.

In 1991, an entrepreneur thought she’d make the perfect commercial expedition boat for the Galápagos because, says the owner, “she was as sturdy as they come”. For whatever reason, he could not make a go of it. Rebranding her (Rem Fantasy, Galápagos and Red Dragon) did not help and the business venture ended. By then she was a little worse for wear but still a mighty Ice-Class ship. Another chapter of her life started around 2005 at the hands of a man Olivia’s owner describes as an Italian with serious hobbies as an architect, pilot and boat captain, who found her in Hamburg, Germany.

The upper deck is home to a comfortable saloon, a cinema room and dining room.

“He decided to make her his retirement home. He always wanted to be on the most noteworthy converted ships he could find. He is the one who took her from Hamburg to the Philippines,” the owner says. “He worked on her for four solid years.”

Why the Philippines? It was the most cost- effective way to carry out a major conversion. Rouvia Road Yacht Design & Construction, a design, charter and refit business located near the Mariveles ferry terminal in the Bay of Mariveles in Bataan, was tasked with restyling the exterior and putting a new interior in the boat, then known as Delta Bravo One.

The capacious spa pool is a favourite with kids of all ages.

The cost of such a refit was much lower in the Philippines than it would have been in Europe, and the owner did not skimp on anything. This was to be a floating home and he wanted the best of everything. The entire interior, including the crew area, was clad in 38-millimetre-thick solid rosewood, which is now impossible to find. Rosewood was shaped to form the outer frames of portholes in all the cabins. The decks were laid with wide planks of teak and more teak garnished the handrails, in places wider than the hand.

Whatever steel had been damaged was replaced, while the bridge was redone and updated to the latest technology available at the time. Everything was changed – from the pumps, generators (three 300kW Cummins) and air conditioning systems to the cranes. To improve upon the comfort of the sea-kindly hull, Rolls-Royce fin stabilisers were added. The intention was to replace the original 1971 2,000hp Deutz engine with a new one, but this played havoc with the timeline. So instead, he had the vessel’s original slow-churning engine renewed. According to Olivia’s captain of 10 years, it works like a Swiss watch. Well maintained, he says, “engines are forever”.

A desk by Marc Newson is the centrepiece of the office on the upper deck.

The forward part of the ship was organised with a cargo hold large enough for motorbikes, where he also put an incinerator and fuel station. The ship’s stores can hold enough food for several months. The water-maker produces 24,000 litres of fresh water daily. “He wanted this to be able to go around the world and be totally self-sustainable,” Olivia’s owner says. And then some. He put in a top-of-the-range galley, sourced from an Italian supplier. For the tenders he chose a 9.5-metre Hurricane Zodiac, a RIB with a range of 200 kilometres, and a Royal limo that seats 12 people in a cabin with a hydraulically operated roof for easier boarding. He also filled her with diving equipment. But just as he was knee-deep in the project, he became ill.

“He completed the infrastructure, layout and technical side of her, and he passed [away],” Olivia’s owner says. “For years I had been looking for a ship to convert into a yacht,” he says. She had been the dream of one man. “The family did not know what to do with her, so I bought her.”

A Sormec crane handles the two large guest tenders.

The next phase of the ship’s transformation into a world-girding yacht happened in Malta. Here, the current owner had the interior modified and finished to fit his family’s lifestyle and brought the yacht, now named Olivia, up to a whole new level. The yacht’s captain was on site to keep a watchful eye on the one-year refit, which included the major undertaking of giving her a yacht finish. The fairing and painting alone took months.

The owner has worked with Italian firm Droulers Architecture over the years. He asked them to create the interior and work out the deck layouts to include an office and cinema room, in addition to the saloon, dining room and the main deck guest cabins. “I told them not to change the character of the ship, to keep it Zen, and make me a comfortable boat with a very good working and living environment,” he says.

A cabin on board.

The rosewood contributes to a warm atmosphere in a sparingly decorated interior that prioritises comfort and relaxation. The cabins – four plus the owner’s suite – have the feel and smell of a mountain retreat. “The colour of the wood over the years ages according to the amount of light,” the owner says. “We left the wood in its original form. It is the second-hardest wood after teak, and it has a natural wood smell.”

Most of the furnishings were custom made, including a dining table with inlays of minerals and chairs based on an original 1960s Italian design. The decks were reconfigured for comfortable lounging and sunbathing, with the addition of a large spa pool and canopies for shade. A deck below a symmetrical seating arrangement for 10 was created on either side of the funnel, which proves helpful. “Whenever the wind and the sun hit you, you can go to the other side,” the owner says. The emphasis was on modern, practical comfort but the result is also very stylish. “Droulers brought Italian flair and we brought practical flair,” the owner says.

Casual and colourful, the outdoor dining is on the well-sheltered bridge deck.

Over the years, more improvements were made – including the addition of an articulated swim platform that swings from the retractable gangway, a practical workaround for the canoe stern – and the yacht has been lovingly maintained by her professional crew.

The owners spend at least three months of the year on board and they have travelled all over the world with Olivia, whose original incarnation is occasionally recognised under all that Awlgrip. In the Caribbean some years ago, the owner hailed two men in an old Boston Whaler that kept circling them. “Can I help you?” he asked.

Solid rosewood gives all cabins, located on the main deck, a chalet feel.

“Is this Valerian Albanov?” they shouted back. “We were spotters on an American Navy ship in the North Sea and we were looking for her all over the place. We can identify her anywhere. We could wake up in the middle of the night and recognise her by her silhouette.”

Later on, somewhere else in the Caribbean, a sailing boat strained to keep alongside her. This time, the occupants of the boat spoke Russian. The owner asked his Bulgarian captain to translate. “Can I help you?” he asked. “Is this Valerian Albanov? We used to sail her in the ’80s,” the reply came back. And then one time in Europe, they bumped into the German man who delivered Delta Bravo One from Hamburg to the Philippines. He told the owner he’d never been on a better sea boat.

The master suite’s modern bathroom.

Olivia has a relatively low gross tonnage (1,259GT) owing to her open decks. But when asked where he likes to be, the owner responds without hesitation that the bridge is his favourite spot. It is, the captain says, one of the biggest he’s seen. The owner also likes staying on the aft deck. Olivia’s pitch propeller is very deep in the water (to avoid hitting ice blocks) and as a result, she leaves no wake, he says.

The owner also has genuine appreciation for the machinery of his yacht and her abilities. “The rougher it got, the more fun I had,” he says. “With these huge stabilisers, she does not roll, she just pitches, but she is very gentle. You can go up three, four metres and then she goes ‘whoosh’ and there is a huge spray coming up the top of the mast with no consequences except a gush of water,” he says. “No custom-design yacht could offer me this safety.”

All recreation spaces are aft of the superstructure and split over three decks.

With the ability to hold 282,500 litres of fuel and a consumption of around 4,850 litres per 24 hours, says her captain, the range is amazing – up to 15,000 nautical miles – and her Ice Class means no area of the world is off-limits to this self-sufficient yacht.

It may be quicker to list the areas Olivia did not visit in the past 10 years than to list all the ones she did: “We have not been to Australia and New Zealand with her,” the owner says. She’s been all over the Med, to South East Asia – Singapore, Myanmar and Vietnam, to the Caribbean many times and to Cuba, circumnavigating the island, and through the Panama Canal, both ways, with trips to Colombia and the San Blas Islands. The longest trip she took was from Italy to the Far East, roughly 25 days of transit in 2017. “We took her through the Suez Canal, Gulf of Aden and to Thailand,” the captain says.

This world-girdling explorer boasts a range of 15,000 nautical miles.

Olivia kept her adventures quiet for years, but the owner has decided to part with her and so her story needs telling. The ice queen with a warm heart is now looking for a new owner to care for her and add new chapters to her long story.

This feature is taken from the September 2020 issue of BOAT International. Olivia sold in February 2021. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.


More about this yacht

OY Laivateollisuus   68.86 m •  1972