Henderson wooden yacht exterior

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Credit all images: Bush & Noble

Going against the grain: Inside the world's largest wooden motor yacht Afra

11 December 2023 • Written by Gabrielle Lazaridis

Currently for sale for under $10 million, the world's largest wooden yacht was made by soaking sheets of teak in boiling water and then cladding them around a GRP superstructure. But  Gabrielle Lazaridis isn't fooled - while this yacht harnesses traditional construction methods, she's got all the comforts of the 21st century. 

The city of Dubai seems to have a foot in two different centuries. On one side of Dubai Creek, rows of traditional wooden dhows, with their dramatic upturned bows and intricate marquetry, look like they should be sailing the ancient maritime silk roads. On the other side of the creek, modern marinas are home to glossy white yachts that look right at home against the towering city skyline. 

But a little further inland sits a curious-looking motor yacht named Afra that doesn’t appear to belong in either world. It’s a far cry from typical superyacht aesthetics; warm amber wood has replaced the typical white paint finish on this 50-metre custom project delivered in 2020 by UAE-based shipyard Henderson Marine.

Currently lying in Dubai, the wooden yacht is generating plenty of interest across the Gulf States and Asia

“The best way to explain it would be that the yacht has been designed in a modern way by Henderson, but built in a traditional way,” says Brett Noble, co-founder of international yacht brokerage firm Bush & Noble, which recently added the vessel to its sales fleet. The teak yacht is asking $8,995,000.

“The owner built it as a passion project,” he says. “This is actually the third wooden yacht he’s created, the first being a gift for the royal family and the second for personal use.” This time around, however, the owner leveraged his experience to create what is his most ambitious project yet.

The teak-cladded exterior features a fibreglass (GRP) superstructure hidden underneath to optimise the vessel's overall weight distribution, buoyancy and ballast

More than a mere visual marvel, the unnamed vessel is the largest private wooden motor yacht in existence – which the owner is looking to make official with a Guinness World Record – and sports several improvements over its predecessors.

The main difference lies in the superstructure, which conceals a composite core underneath an outer layer of Burmese teak. “It’s a more modern version of what they were building originally,” Noble says. The build team abandoned the prospect of an entirely wooden yacht and introduced composite to achieve a better weight distribution, buoyancy and ballast than earlier models.

The yacht currently represents the largest private wooden motor yacht in existence – with an official Guinness World Record pending evaluation

However, the hull was kept in the traditional style. Inspired by his Middle Eastern heritage, the owner drew on the classic boatbuilding techniques used to build dhows that carried goods across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. The original process consisted of stitching wooden planks together with various fibres, although the advent of steam bending helped modernise practices somewhat.

Evident in the way trees sway in the wind, wood has a certain elasticity that allows it to be bent into shape. The traditional process began with soaking sheets of wood in boiling water inside of a steam box to soften the fibres and make them more pliable. Once shaped, the wood was left to cool, allowing fibres to harden as they returned to normal temperature. A caulking material was used to fill any gaps left between panels and naturally occurring L-shaped pieces were added to reinforce the structure.

The yacht makes good use of deck spaces, including an aft deck complete with an al fresco dining table for guests to enjoy ample time outside

Over time, this protracted method succumbed to the demands of economics and the lure of new materials that increased productivity, such as fibreglass, steel and aluminium. In spite of their traditional shapes, today’s dhows often feature non-traditional materials.

But this custom 50-metre tells a different story, building on a long-lasting tradition of boat building. “One thing people do forget is that this region has a lot of very skilled labour in the market,” Noble says, adding that most people are stunned to discover that the tradition of wooden boat-building still exists at all. “So, when they do come across a yacht such as this, they’re reminded of what’s possible.”

This project seeks to establish links with the past and find ways to preserve the region’s cultural inheritance. That much is clear as soon as you enter the yacht’s main saloon, which sports a wider-than-average beam.

Gazing down the length of the yacht’s main deck interior, there is an unexpected harmony between the classic use of veneer-style teak and holly interspersed with the more familiar trappings of Italian furnishings and white-veined marble. The space is made especially bright by the light from large windows (fitted with electric shades) that bounces off polished stone surfaces. Modern innovations on a platform made to honour the past may seem inappropriate in other instances, but here it seems entirely in keeping with the theme.

Accommodations are for 12 guests in 6 staterooms with 3 additional crew cabins

In terms of the upkeep, maintenance procedures are surprisingly straightforward. “A lot of thought went into selecting the right materials and systems throughout the vessel with the goal to keep it as simple as possible – so it isn’t overly complicated for anyone to use,” Noble explains.

Yes, there is risk of rot and it will require the use of proper sealant, but like anything else in life, he says, “it is all about the preparation.”

An avid boatbuilder himself, Noble says that protecting wood is no more onerous than priming a hull made from steel, aluminium, or even GRP. A wooden exterior needs to be sanded down and topped with a clear coat, but that is not so much different from buffing out material imperfections before applying a primer and paint in the modern building process. “As long as you perform the clear coat process properly, then [the yacht] is protected,” he says. “Then it will last the usual five years until it needs to be sanded back and repainted.”

The yacht is certainly a rare occurrence on the brokerage market, which is exactly why Noble believes the owner approached him. “[Bush & Noble] is gaining a reputation for being the unique guys in the market, meaning a lot of the projects we take on are not your normal projects,” he says. Case in point, he adds, pointing to a rendering on his wall, is Royal Huisman’s latest project– a towering “sportfish on steroids” which Bush & Noble is overseeing as technical managers.  

As to whether the wooden yacht will prove a difficult sell, Noble says it is more a case of marketing to the right audience. Despite all the attention it’s received online, the project so far has attracted people within the Gulf states and Asia – people with an appreciation for the yacht’s specialised heritage.

The yacht has a top speed of 18 knots with power coming from two 1,678hp Caterpillar engines

In this corner of the world, building wooden ships is not just a link with the past but a symbol of the region’s enduring connection to the sea. A wooden yacht of this calibre, however, ensures that this tradition can remain a thriving enterprise well into the 21st century.

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