Advances in superyacht lighting design

21 January 2015By Kate Hubert, By Sally Storey
Sea Force One uses coloured lighting to great effect throughout the interior.

Superyachts are the apogee of good taste and design, the best of the best… well, almost. Boasting the latest communications technology, the finest textiles and most fashionable décor, until recently these vessels were nearly perfect. But one feature rather let the side down: lighting.

Only in the last few years has superyacht lighting begun to attain the superlative standards one would expect. Instead it tended to be something of an afterthought. Where wiring happened to run determined the position of ceiling lights, with the addition of a scattering of lamps to cast a glow in neglected corners. And just as on land, these mundane fittings can be far from ideal.

Specialists such as Sally Storey from UK-based Lighting Design International are exasperated by lighting she says harks back to the ‘bad old days’.

‘Previously, it was just a package of effects,’ she explains. ‘For example, if there was a coffer, a ring of light would be added, whether or not this was the right solution. And often it was not, as the ceilings are always reflective and the cornices too small, so the effect would be greatly compromised. Glaring low-voltage downlighters were arranged as symmetrical grids, when they should have been used in relation to the interior elevations.’

But things have begun to improve, and improve rapidly.

‘The big change is that now lighting is being considered as an integral part of the interior and being detailed into joinery,’ says Storey, who was responsible for the lighting on the 57.5m Royal Huisman ketch Twizzle. ‘The other major development is the revolution of light sources, which have changed more in the last two years than in the previous 25,’ she adds.

Superyacht Twizzle’'s bow looks stunning from the crow’s nest.

Marine lighting is being dragged into the 21st century, and owners can now enjoy the same exceptional standard of lighting that they would demand in their homes. But until this approach is repeated across the industry as a whole, lighting designers will continue to be frustrated.

Lee Prince from Light + Design Associates, which worked on the 47m Heesen_ Blind Date_ comments, ‘I don’t understand why something as important as lighting is sometimes left by the yard for the electrical contractor to deal with, rather than using specialists.’

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too damning about past lighting schemes, as the challenges of illuminating a yacht are numerous. Lack of space to run wires or build access units for maintenance, movement and vibration, overheating issues and a highly corrosive environment add to the complexity. Such challenges demand superior solutions.

‘Due to space restrictions, accessories need to be significantly smaller, and sea water-, UV-ray and shock-proof,’ says Kristin Schaedel from Yachtlite, which has provided lighting design for Solemates, Big Fish, and RoMa, among others.

Advances in LED (light-emitting diode) technology transformed marine illumination. In their early stages of development, LEDs were deemed cold, difficult to dim and too restrictive to be a serious solution. But they can now produce warmer, dimmable light of much higher luminosity.

In contrast to incandescent lightbulbs, LEDs are semi-conductors that release photons of light when voltages are applied. This means they are more robust and can last 50 to 100 times longer. They also produce less heat, use 90 per cent less energy and can save up to 68 per cent in carbon emissions compared with incandescent bulbs.

Their low heat emission provides additional benefits. ‘When lighting loads go down, so do air-conditioning requirements and more space becomes available,’ says Storey.

Kristin Schaedel of Yachtlight, designer of RoMa'‘s lighting, says a yacht’s lighting system must be more reliable than a land-based one.

Prince is passionate about what good lighting can achieve. ‘Many people only realise what comfort there is in a correctly lit space after experiencing poor lighting and usually by that time it’s too late to do anything about it,’ he says. ‘Lighting creates atmosphere and helps to bring out the colour and texture of the interior finishes. Get it wrong and the most expensive of timber or marble can look dull, flat and the wrong colour.

‘For me, light is about an emotional response to the environment I’m in,’ he adds. ‘Imagine an interior space filled with beautiful floor finishes, wall coverings, exquisite joinery and paintings with no natural light and unlit, nothing would be seen. Starting with this as a canvass one can start to paint with light, bringing out strong accents and soft ambiences to create the most comfortably lit composition, working to enhance the interior.’

Colour is an obvious and effective way of changing lighting themes, and now that the range available in LED is so broad, their place alongside more conventional sources has been assured.

The key to successful lighting is using controllers to set the mood and tone. There needs to be flexibility to suit all the locations a yacht may visit.

‘Lighting needs to be bright in the Arctic and softer in the Caribbean,’ says Storey. ‘It is essential the mood in the day is different to evening and night, as this sets the atmosphere and the mood of the guests.

Casino Royale'’s underwater lighting, designed by marine lighting specialist Ocean LED, looks stunning in a marina.

‘Another challenge is working out the best type of control, making it simple for the guest and easy to operate for the crew. The crew should be able to get all the guest areas to change mood at the same time, so the mood is seamless throughout,’ she adds.

There are now mood controllers tailor-made for the superyacht market, such as UK-based Lumotics Marine’s ‘Mood Magic’. As with many of these new systems, wireless controls can be added so it can be adjusted from an iPad or iPhone.

It is essential to know when to use an LED and when to use a conventional light form, as both have strengths and weaknesses.

‘LEDs are ideal for shelf lighting, low level floor washers, uplights etc, but when dimmed they will become less bright and will not warm up like a halogen source, unless particular new products are selected,’ explains Schaedel. ‘Dimming a standard LED will normally create a grey, flat light. Low-level lighting underneath fitted furniture helps with the layering of lighting effects, but care must be taken to choose the correct LED source, as some can be too white and can bring out the wrong colour of materials.

CNB 100 Chrisco’s en suite shower room changes light depending on the mood, courtesy of 4,700 LEDs.

The small size, low heat emission and long life of LEDs means they are ideal for building into yacht structures.

‘LEDs can also be incorporated into materials such as carpets, fabrics or even in glass,’ says Schaedel.

Floorlite, a treadable illuminated display that can be inlaid in the deck or cabin sole, has been developed by Yachtlight and can be used for decoration or as a safety feature, for example by changing from green to red to display where access routes.

As owners and designers begin to realise the potential of a sophisticated lighting plan, they are becoming more adventurous. Storey is dealing with increasingly elaborate requests.

‘The latest thing we are being asked for are dual schemes. For instance on beach club or in a tender garage that clients want converting into a disco at night, with all the latest laser and effect lighting technology,’ she says.

But yacht lighting is not exclusively concerned with aesthetics; safety is paramount on board.

‘Inadequate lighting or incorrect positioning can jeopardise safety ,’ says Schaedel. ‘Too much light can be dazzling. Dimmers, RGB colour change diodes and “intelligent control” can help.’

The new technology extends into the bridge. To protect the vision of crew on watch at night, it’s usual to change the bridge lights from white to red, which previously meant separate hot bulbs or filters. These can now be replaced by cool-running LEDs.

Increasingly blue LEDs are used at night in yacht exteriors as they can accent features such as stair treads without dazzling the eyes, so guests are free to climb to the sun deck and do some stargazing

LEDs are used everywhere from ceiling fixtures to stair treads – such as in Big Fish, above – and built into railings.

LEDs do seem to have become the light of choice – their reliability and robust nature makes them ideal for navigation and bridge lights, and they are often used as surface-mounted or through-hull underwater lights. But their position is being challenged.

Underwater Lights Limited, a UK-based marine lighting company, has produced light-emitting plasma fittings. These LEPs use radio RF waves to power the plasma, rather than the electrodes used to spark an LED. They produce an incredibly bright white light – and so are ideal for underwater use.

The yacht lighting industry is progressing rapidly, with designs becoming out of date in just a few years. Although it is imperative to include lighting in the design plan from day one on a new-build, it seems sensible to leave the ‘finer detail’ decisions to as close to launch as possible to be open to innovations.

A good designer should be capable of future-proofing their schemes so the infrastructure behind the installation can cope with any changes, especially since some products are so new they’ve not had long to be evaluated in real-life yachting situations.

‘Soon the pace of change will slow down and designers will become more confident in their decisions as the products will be tried and tested,’ says Storey.

As the industry embraces the advances in technology and design, it is finally approaching true enlightenment.

Originally published: July 2011.

Photography: Jeff Brown/Superyacht Media; Nicolas Claris; courtesy of Sally Storey