Covid-19 has changed the world – including the landscape of superyacht design. Kate Lardy learns how designers are accommodating a shift in owner priorities.
Sailing off into the sunset and away from the woes and worries of life on land might seem like a cliché, but it became a reality for more people than ever during the altered times of Covid-19. The pandemic prompted a seize-the-day mentality across the world, which has brought about record-breaking yacht sales. “I’ve been amazed in the last two years at how many first-time buyers are entering the market,” says Ian Sherwood, sales broker at Burgess, adding that there has been a renewed zest for yachting all around. “I’ve seen clients who have been owners for a long time and split their yachting among their other vacations and commitments, who are now very excited and keen to be yachting again.”
Parallel to this, there has been an uptick in the number of first-time charterers. Yachts have been the ultimate safe haven during the worst of the pandemic. It’s hard to imagine a better bubble than a boat, particularly one with all the bells and whistles to act as a moveable private resort when actual resorts were too crowded or closed – or going ashore required insurmountable red tape.
These days, designers are being challenged to accommodate prolonged stints on board and new sensibilities on how a yacht will be used, including as an office or classroom. Owners have learned that “work from home” may as well be “work from boat”.
“The pandemic definitely accelerated the understanding of clients that life could happen on boats as easy as at home, but with a tremendous amount of more freedom,” says Marnix Hoekstra, co-creative director at Vripack. This shift in use and rise in popularity has ushered in a new way of thinking about life on board.
But, perhaps most importantly, the pandemic has been a wake-up call to how short life really is and has served as a reminder to not let dreams languish. “Almost everybody we’re talking to has said, ‘I’ve always wanted to do this,’ but now they are doing it. The ‘planners’ are now out there building boats,” says Bill Tripp of Tripp Design Naval Architecture. “It’s the feeling that life is for living now – or life is for living, period.”
“A lot of owners are now spending much more time on board. The design is changing for that reason, so it becomes a much more functional space and more family-friendly,” note Greig Jolly and Matthew Wilkinson, partners in Winch Design’s yachts and aviation team.
“Comfort and practicality are even more important,” says Mike Fisher, founder and creative director of Studio Indigo. “Because people are now spending longer on the boat, you’ve got to have an environment that is much easier on the eye and is much more conducive to relaxation.” He calls it the opposite of “Instagrammable” and the antithesis of the maximalist style that is trending in hotels and restaurants. In those cases, “If you take photographs, it looks ‘wow’, but in reality, it’s a bit more ‘whoa’. It’s too intense.”
A new wave of clientele is also driving this change, says Laura Pomponi, CEO of Luxury Projects. She describes these owners as fearing Covid-19 and seeking a safe space. They are different from the classic yacht owner, she says, and often younger. “This translates to [a more easy-going] interior in terms of materials and layouts,” she says. “They are not requesting traditional spaces like a reception or a formal dining area and separate offices. They want convertible areas such as a lounge that becomes an extra cabin, or a flexible dining area where they can have social gatherings, all with the idea of having a laid-back atmosphere.”
These younger owners are also bringing their parents on board their sanctuary, as well as their kids, which affects functionality. “Although the clients are very tech-savvy, it’s got to be pretty simple,” Fisher says. “Mum and dad need to be able to switch the lights on and off, listen to music and work the TV. You’ve got to look out for kids as well, so safety becomes important.”
Doing it all
Greg Marshall, head of Gregory C Marshall Naval Architect, confirms that he’s being asked for fewer high-end interiors and more robust designs. “It’s a hard shift,” he says. “I would say probably 80 to 85 per cent of what we’re doing nowadays is a much lower-grade finish, and much more oriented for ‘How many things can I do in a day?’”
Space that a showstopping interior would have once taken up is being given over to deck and garage space for ATVs, landing barges and submarines. For instance, his firm is currently working on a design for a yacht that will carry a 160km/h, 21-metre tender on deck, as well as a 10.7-metre camper. “We’re seeing this in owners from their late twenties to mid-forties; they’re all about doing stuff. They want the finish to be nice, but they don’t want any maintenance,” he says.
“We are going through a period where every boat needs to have a lot of amenities,” agrees Gabriele Maestri, head of Castagnola Yacht. “This is because the boat is used as the centre of the vacation and not only as a means of transportation.”
These extras also matter more than ever when it comes to the charter market. “Guests are looking for yachts that have all the amenities, with a massage therapist, hairdresser and great chefs on board. You’ve got to consider them like floating islands,” says Sophie Spain, charter broker at Burgess. “Watersports are a big thing, too. The yacht has to have Seabobs and jet skis, and a lot of families love the slides.”
The long haul
Yachts also need to have the ability to sustain guests for longer periods of time. “People discovered during the pandemic that they do spend more time alone, or with family or close friends, and I think it just evolved into their psyche, in terms of wanting a boat that is much more self-contained. The approach is, ‘How do I sit offshore for two months?’” says Marshall. What this means design-wise, he explains, is bigger tenders, more thought into how the tenders are used in order to be less reliant on docks, larger stores for food and supplies and more refrigeration.
The focus is on increasing autonomy. Winch Design has even incorporated greenhouses onto yachts’ tank decks, where herbs and produce can be grown under controlled conditions with UV lighting. The firm has been doing a lot more explorer yacht work of late, including a recently revealed collaboration with Heesen. “We are getting more and more inquiries for yachts to go further, to go anywhere, tailored for spending more time on board,” says Jolly.
Tripp agrees that Covid-19 has encouraged exploring. “We’re seeing people who want to be on board while they’re making these passages, so the boats really need to be good at seakeeping,” he says. “We think that aligns very strongly with better fuel economy, because length for a given volume is the best way to have the motion at sea be better, and it’s also the best way to have the boat be more efficient. A 500GT boat that we are currently entertaining is 55 metres. It’s a really attractive boat and it burns 82 litres an hour at 12 knots.” It doesn’t need big engines, he explains, it uses a diesel-electric system that includes a pancake generator between the engine and transmission that charges the batteries while underway.
Another side effect of longer stints on board is bigger and better accommodations. “Cabins have to have lounges, a breakfast table and preferably a small outdoor space to offer a level of privacy to individuals who are staying on board for a long period of time,” says Wilkinson. “If you’ve got all your family on board, you might just want to go and sit in your cabin for a day and not speak to anyone.”
With owners running their businesses on board, connectivity is more important than ever, as are classrooms for kids learning remotely. A space that would have been unheard of prior to 2020 is the “Zoom room” for conferencing – a request that Marshall has been getting a lot lately.
A material world
When the news was dominated by reports of the virulent virus, good health suddenly became a worldwide aspiration. This focus on health is affecting the materials used on board. “Three or four years ago, there was a group of people that were sort of curious about materials that were earth-friendly or sustainable, but it was more of a curiosity. I would say now it’s more of a demand,” says Marshall.
This is something Jolly and Wilkinson have witnessed, too. “We have some clients who are really focused on what the materials are, that they don’t give off toxic odours, they’re not made of resins, this kind of thing. And they really want natural materials. I think that’s coming from spending longer on board as well, in a trapped environment.”
Cleanability is also a concern. With easily sanitised high-gloss finishes no longer fashionable, Pomponi searched for alternative low-maintenance materials. She discovered the practicality and durability of next-generation high-pressure laminates, which she used on board the 60 metre Amels Moonstone, launched in 2021. Thanks to the latest technology, the inexpensive material looks better than ever. “It’s the perfect background for a very beautiful piece of art. You would never expect that it is a high-pressure laminate. And it can be sanitised and cleaned without affecting the colour and finish,” she says.
Technological advances have also improved synthetic leather. “They don’t smell like petroleum anymore,” says Pomponi, who used synthetic leather in the master of Moonstone in lieu of harder-to-clean suede or leather. The anti-microbial material wipes clean of stains with just a damp cloth and was manufactured without harmful chemicals.
In superyacht design, the spotlight on health and well-being has meant gyms are taking centre stage in the general arrangement. “Quite often the gym was the last thing we would design,” says Jolly. “[As in] ‘Oh, there’s a bit of space down here, we’ll put a rowing machine there, chuck it in the corner, maybe with a couple of dumb-bells.’ Now, a lot of owners are putting a lot more focus on having a yoga space and a well-kitted-out gym space. Everyone’s focusing more on health and realising how important that is.”
“Big gymnasiums on board are definitely a big shift,” Marshall concurs. “We used to see a guest cabin given up for a gym on a smaller boat. Or a small gymnasium on a bigger boat. Now we’re seeing giant gymnasiums, where owners on a 50-metre will give up two full guest cabins to have one.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Pomponi, who embarked on her second refit of Nero in 2021 in order to bestow the 90-metre yacht with new and improved wellness amenities. She converted the sundeck snug into a good-sized gym with professional Technogym equipment, and she transformed the small gym on the upper deck into a full-service beauty salon and a seventh cabin into a convertible massage room.
A new trend that Pomponi has noticed as of late is what she calls detox bars. Located near wellness spaces on board, they serve healthy cocktails instead of alcoholic ones.
On three recent Vripack projects, clients have wanted to future-proof their vessels. “ The owners were super specific on including a proper office, proper quarantine rooms and a proper hospital, because of the relaxation of the pandemic [restrictions],” says Hoekstra. “They understand that they probably could have a moment in the future when they would be on board longer than they might anticipate.”
They told Hoekstra to not only plan for Covid-19 but also for anything worse. In two of these projects, this resulted in a separated quarantine space that can be completely isolated, both locally and systemically from the rest of the boat. “It’s like a black plague room,” says Hoekstra.
As Covid-19 continues to impact the world, people are figuring out how to live alongside it. The fortunate few with the means are able to create the best possible refuge and diversion. As a client friend once said to Bill Tripp, “Money is just bottled energy.” One of the answers to co-existing with Covid-19, Tripp says, is to “take this bottle of energy and turn it into something to treasure”.