The brief was “extreme speed” – with a penalty built into the contract should they fail. So a top yard and illustrious designers raced for victory on a project that would help define their careers. Marilyn Mower delves into the extraordinary story behind the historic 50-metre Feadship Sussurro.
Henk de Vries III is very clear about when the Sussurro saga started. It was the year he got his first mobile phone: 1996. “We had been having discussions with a client about a unique yacht; these things take time, but I was scheduled for a camping vacation in France. The team said, ‘We can’t reach you if you are not in a hotel. You must have a cell phone.’ I said, ‘OK, I will get a cell phone, but I am going on vacation.’”
De Vries, a member of the family that co-founded Feadship in 1949 and today CEO of the Dutch yard, was somewhere in the Loire Valley when he took he call. “Can you come to Ibiza?” the client’s representative asked. The next morning, he took the TGV high-speed train to Paris (300 kilometres in one hour) where a private jet was waiting. At the airport in Ibiza, a driver motioned him to a black limousine. “I remember we stopped to pick up boating magazines on the way to the harbour.”
“The meeting with the client’s team was held aboard the Lürssen-built Coral Island (now Coral Ocean). They wanted me to see the interior,” recalls de Vries. “We had lunch, discussed price and I was back in Tours in time for dinner.” The client wanted a very special boat to take him to his favourite Red Sea diving spots in a hurry – a hurry being more than 40 knots. He insisted on a speed clause in the contract, “with a relatively severe penalty if the boat failed to achieve that speed. I agreed but asked for a bonus if we went over that speed,” says de Vries.
“Everyone was terrified. We had not built many fast semi-displacement boats, besides 44-metre Azteca and the Gallant Lady sportfishers, and they were small [26.6 metres]; this was 50 metres! Hull 656 was going to have to be aluminium rather than steel – aluminium and composites and carbon- fibre possibly. We had not done that,” he adds.
The team had several meetings in London with Terence Disdale, the client’s designer. Disdale, it turns out, was a step ahead of Feadship in the process. He’d actually done a displacement yacht refit for the client and so was put in charge of designing its replacement.
“The first design for him was actually a catamaran,” Disdale confides. “It made a great fishing and diving platform, but it was cost-prohibitive. His original target was 50 knots and 50 metres. He switched to a monohull and the best guy for a fast monohull at the time was Don Shead.”
Offshore racing fans will recall more than 140 Grands Prix events won by Shead-designed boats, while yachtsmen will point to King Juan Carlos I of Spain’s turbine-powered Fortuna, the Aga Khan’s Shergar, or a series of yachts for Thomas Sopwith named Philante. “For his racing boats, he had turned to advanced aircraft engineering and materials that were not used on boats – yet,” says Disdale. “Don worked on the hull shape and power requirement and gave us the weight calculations; the numbers were pretty scary – 198 tonnes dry to achieve the speeds, or about half that of a typical 50 metre.”
Hugo Van Wieringen, at the time lead designer at Feadship’s De Voogt Naval Architects, engineered and tank-tested Shead’s deep-V design. “I always say you should challenge yourself but also, you should not attempt what you cannot do,” says Van Wieringen. “So, I thought we should bring in experts for that kind of speed and the experts at the time were Frank Mulder and Don Shead. I thought we should contact Shead as he had more open sea experience.
“Usually, if you want to make a fast boat, you make it flat. The more deadrise you have, the more drag you create – but the ride is more comfortable. The key is how far aft you carry the deep-V,” notes Van Wieringen. “Too flat aft and you spin out in a turn, too deep and you would never make the speed.”
“To achieve light weight and great strength we used longitudinal frames with transverse stringers,” says de Vries. There was a bit of that in the Gallant Lady yachts. “Shead’s hull design was like a sailboat. The shell plating could be thin, just something to keep the water out rather than to provide strength. Where the transverse frames met the longitudinal stringers, instead of being like a welded bar, there was a little round opening to make the joint not so stiff. It was radical. I remember showing Frank Mulder through the hull when it was under construction. He almost cried and said, ‘I’ve been trying to do this my whole life but I never had a client who would pay for it!’”
The De Voogt office and the yard’s engineers, notably Gerard and the late Johan de Vries, planned where to save weight. “Some things are a given – the weight of the engines and the jets for example,” notes Van Wieringen. “Piping is heavy; we made the systems as light as possible by rethinking the materials, replacing copper with PVC where we could. Gerard was very good at simplifying a complex system. Johan and I had often disagreed about the role of composites in large motor yachts – our first parts were hatches on Double Haven – but this project would require the upper deck and hardtop to be composite and he came to embrace it.” Henk de Vries remembers that Shead and Johan de Vries “got on quite well from the beginning”, which aided the exploration of new territory for the yard tremendously.
Everything was subject to what we now call “lightweighting”. “Normally, we would have had 25 tonnes of sound insulation in a 50 metre; Sussurro had a budget of six tonnes. There was no hull insulation in the crew area. It was pretty noisy if the boat was at speed, but then crew would likely not be in their cabins then,” says Van Wieringen.
Weight was one thing, but the power to propel the boat to 42.5 knots was another. Since the early 1990s, Van Wieringen had been taking part in joint industry studies of the potential benefits of water-jet propulsion. He knew that for large yachts needing speeds of more than 25 knots, water jets were the best solution. As an aside, he adds, “below 25 knots, they are an efficiency nightmare, but Sussurro uses the same fuel per mile at 35 knots as at 25 knots because the boat and the jets were made for that.”
Feadship used two Paxman military diesel engines – the best horsepower- to-weight diesels made – to drive steerable Lips jets and twin, TF40 gas turbines linked to a larger centreline Lips booster, another first for Feadship. The result was a combined 15,000 horsepower. On paper and in the tow tank it worked. Now it was up to everyone to hit the weight budget – and they knew the aesthetic benchmark for the interior.
I nearly fell over when I saw the boat for the first time in the early 2000s after she had changed hands for the first time, since no renderings were shared with the press and no photos were shown until then (she has been sold twice since 1998 and is now listed for sale with Burgess, with a brand- new photo shoot). I was accustomed to Disdale’s New-York-apartment style as evidenced in Rio Rita, Tommy, Joalmi and Sea Jewel. This was not that. In fact, it’s much closer to his artisan-centric style of today, a look based on natural materials. “It was our first beach-style interior and [it was] driven by the owner,” recalls Disdale. “He said, ‘I have all kinds of houses and apartments. I want something that relates to nature, to diving and fishing.’”
Disdale is innately, deeply curious. He collects experiences the way other people collect shoes. He’s likely to fly off to India to gather ideas for colours, or Africa to gather beads, or the Philippines to explore Asian furniture styles. Referencing photos of Sussurro, Disdale and lead designer Daniela Zulli point out custom furniture, surfaces and materials, many never repeated on any other yacht of his design, such as a drum table from Bali, ammonites embedded in a dining table, or coins recovered from the wreck of an East Indian trading company ship.
“I wanted to use natural materials. We had spent a lot of time in Africa collecting beads and things that we used to decorate cabinets. In the guest foyer is a cabinet that has the dual purpose of having a rail at the top that you can grab on to. The dimensions of that cabinet were made to match the width of a Zulu belt [which would ornament it]. The first time they made it, it was too wide, and they had to redo it because that was all there was to the belt. It wasn’t like you could open a catalogue and order a bigger one.”
Every element, from furniture down to the last screw, was weighed going aboard and all the packing and scraps were weighed coming off. Electricians’ cable reels were weighed boarding and coming off and all the little snips and cuttings made during the shift had to be collected and weighed as well. “I think we came in three per cent under weight,” recalls de Vries.
The trick was to make lightweight things look substantial instead of spindly. Take the master bed frame, for example. The posts look like heavy carved wood, but they are really veneered high-density foam. And their bronze caps? “Today you have all sorts of options with liquid metal. We used plastic electroplated with copper and chemically patinated,” says Disdale. Many surfaces that aren’t bamboo (there’s a lot of bamboo on board) are shaped leather or parchment. For antique-look pieces, he commissioned a belt buckle artist to make rustic-looking latches, hinges and handrails.
One of Disdale’s most distinct memories is about hollow wall pillars that were to have a hand-hewn look. “We had this amazing Dutch carver to do the pillars in this sort of African style and I couldn’t make him understand the sort of rough carving I wanted. He was making these fine European things. Finally I said to him, ‘I want primitive.’ His reply was, ‘I don’t do primitive.’ In desperation I found some empty cardboard carpet tubes and gouged and marked them up with the pattern I wanted and sent them to the Netherlands. I think the problem was ‘primitive’ didn’t translate.”
As to meeting the speed brief? On sea trials, when the yacht passed the benchmark at 42.5 knots, the Feadship team went for broke and ordered full throttle ahead. They hit 43 knots... then 44... then 45... and even 46 knots! And this was repeated on successive runs. Once, downwind, Sussurro’s GPS recorded 49 knots. “I have a picture,” says de Vries, proudly.
Disdale, De Vries and Van Wieringen all declare Sussurro to be a personal and professional highlight. For Disdale, the creative use of found materials set him on the path to the perennial standout Pelorus and beyond. “There was a lot of innovation in response to the brief and it was a completely fresh concept. Our design today uses this as a backdrop although we aren’t as wild in our everyday work,” he says.
For Feadship, the research on lightweight design and build techniques was ploughed into the 32-knot, 46.63-metre Detroit Eagle and the 36-knot, 86-metre Ecstasea. Sussurro was hull number 656. Van Wieringen, who had been with the De Voogt office since 1986, left to form the naval architecture firm Azure in 2003 with Diederik van der Hoek. They have more than 21 yachts in the water. Michael Leach, who did the superstructure detailing while working at Terence Disdale Design, formed his own company in 1997 and has gone on to style award-winning yachts including Palladium and Lady S.
It is remarkable, in strolling down memory lane with this team, how many details they can recall instantly about a yacht conceived 24 years ago. But then again, the spirit of Sussurro lives on in many of their finest designs.
This feature is taken from the July 2020 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.SHOP NOW
Exterior photography by Burgess; interiors by Bob Marchant.