Superyachts have come a long way over the past 40 years. Sam Fortescue takes a trip down memory lane and finds out what the future may hold...
Wind back the clock to 1983 when BOAT International first hit the newsstands and join me in a helicopter (it’s a Hughes 500) over Monaco. A youthful Alain Prost is in pole position at the Grand Prix, and a crimson Lamborghini Countach makes for a sporty safety car. Below us, Port Hercules is stuffed with small, plastic boats – and the most striking thing? Lots of them have masts!
Moored stern-to along the Quai des Etats-Unis is one of the big new beasts of the nascent superyacht world: 59.2-metre Le Pharaon is the last word in 80s opulence and grabbing all the headlines. This Feadship motor yacht with lines by De Voogt has a classic raked bow, lots of sheer and overhanging side decks.
Fast forward 40 years and it’s a different story. Monaco’s pontoons bristle with 60-metre-plus power boats. Creations such as 74.9-metre Kenshō – the masterpiece from Admiral – with her reverse bow, deep hull chine and complex, swooping curves, 80-metre Artefact from Nobiskrug, the golden trimaran Khalilah or 160.6-metre Lürssen Blue.
Compared to the early 1980s, you’d notice immediately how much bigger the yachts are – and how colourful. “The last 40 years have seen quite a dramatic evolution in yacht design,” designer Espen Øino says. “They used to be quite conservative 40 years ago – always with white or dark blue hulls. Today, you have very young, very wealthy people who are much less conservative and who are willing to break the codes and explore new technologies.” New materials have given designers much freer rein with shapes and structures. Metal plate can be much more precisely cut and bent, while lightweight carbon fibre makes it possible to mould shapes artistically without losing stiffness or strength.
And glass has changed the game entirely. While Feadship calculates that the yachts built in the 1960s used glass for just seven per cent of the superstructure, today’s can contain more glass than metal. Just look at the radical Abeking & Rasmussen yacht Excellence (2019), whose reflective glass panels are two decks high. Structural glass, with little or no support, is here.
“Now you see glass everywhere because owners want a great view, like living in the mountains,” naval architect Hans-Maarten Bais of Diana Yacht Design says. “Bent glass construction that can carry the loads of two to three decks just didn’t exist in the past.” Stronger glass has also made underwater lounges a reality, as well as the dappled effect of light shining through a glass-bottomed pool. All this was unthinkable 40 years ago.
Speed was the name of the game when BOAT International was launched. Gas turbines were being used to achieve dizzying performance (with astronomical fuel consumption), such as on the Aga Khan’s 46.6-metre Shergar, built by Lürssen with 6,100 horsepower to push her to 45 knots.
Contrast that with 1,989GT Kenshō delivered in 2022 – a yacht with three times the volume that does 15 knots using 3,800 horsepower. Instead of a traditional propshaft, Kenshō uses nimble electric Azipod thrusters drawing power from diesel generators. Such hybrid propulsion is more and more common, having been adapted from the world of commercial shipping.
On large sailing yachts, change has been more marked still. Projects such as Maltese Falcon and Black Pearl show sail handling can be achieved without dozens of burly crew or gigantic deck winches. Their DynaRigs allow one person to set, furl and reef a superyacht at the click of a mouse. “They can sail 70 to 80 per cent of the time because their DynaRigs are so easy to handle,” says naval architect Gerard Dykstra, who was central to developing the system. “It took [Maltese Falcon owner] Tom Perkins as a venture capitalist, used to making calculated risks. Fortunately, we have a few of them on the drawing board now, close to being built.”
The benefits of sails go further, too, because a portion of the wind power they capture can now be diverted into regenerating electricity to service the boat’s hotel loads. In this way, Black Pearl famously crossed the Atlantic without any fossil fuel.
Many shipyards from Lürssen to Sanlorenzo are grappling with the next stage of the energy transition, which will use a form of hydrogen for fuel. Lürssen sales director Michael Breman considers this evolution to be a stepping stone to further developments. “Nuclear power is also an interesting carrier of energy,” he says. “Maybe somewhere there is a solution in that field.”
One of the keys to less polluting yachts is, of course, better hull design. And the last 40 years have seen some big advances. Back in 1983, the apex of hull design might have been a costly tank-testing process somewhere like the Wolfson Unit in the UK or the Davidson Laboratory in the US. Now computational fluid dynamics (CFD) – the ability to accurately simulate water flow and drag on a hull without producing a physical model – has changed all that and become a key tool. With a broader range of shapes, modern hulls have lower drag, better stability and generate less noise.
Hulls have become 15 to 20 per cent more efficient, according to James Roy of Lateral Naval Architects. “What CFD has allowed is exploration of a greater solution space in a far more rapid and cost-effective way than the older approach of design and test,” he says. “But hull development is not just about minimizing resistance; it is also about optimizing for seakeeping, and equally about practically fitting everything in.”
Interiors have changed too. Forty years ago, marine blues and high-gloss hardwood prevailed. Today, there is no typical yacht interior. Owners, who tend to be younger, come from diverse cultural backgrounds and have different expectations. Owners from the US generally emphasize comfort and tend still to shy away from ultra-modern interiors. Asian owners might tend toward daunting volumes, while the Russian and Middle Eastern markets often seek opulence.
The definition of luxury is changing, says Giovanna Vitelli, executive president at Azimut-Benetti. “For a long time it has been interpreted as opulence – an abundance of rich materials or a combination of many materials. This has moved a bit more toward elegance rather than shouted opulence.” Designers and builders report a swing toward greater simplicity – which does not always mean easier. “Very often, doing something very simplistic is not necessarily more economical,” Breman says.
Sustainability is also gathering pace, thanks to refinements in interior building techniques. Wafer-thin wood or stone veneer can be fixed to honeycomb backing for lightweight luxury, and new techniques have created greener engineered wood, synthetic decking and even recycled leather.
The biggest changes since the early 1980s have to do with technology, of course, with implications in design. Ship-to-shore communications have driven a tectonic shift in the way owners can use their boats. Back in 1983, satellite phones had only just debuted and had incredibly narrow bandwidth. “Comms have changed everything,” yacht broker Nick Edmiston says. “It used to be double sideband radio telephone – you’d say ‘over’. Now you can use satcoms to talk to anyone in the world, which means that people can spend more time on their yachts and do business.”
Movie theatres have appeared on the biggest yachts. Where 20 years ago they relied on a library of VHS or DVD titles, today they draw on a media bank stored on a single hard drive. Next-gen satellite systems such as Starlink will further increase bandwidth, dramatically reduce costs and enable onboard streaming services. Because they rely on a flat transceiver, they might even do away with large radomes on the mast.
Covid-19 also had an undeniable impact on yachting. Even as it was decimating other areas of life, the pandemic proved a shot in the arm for the industry. “Covid has changed many things in the mindset of using the boat, because it creates a platform with a safe environment – so owners have spent six to nine months aboard,” Breman says.
Although the threat of the virus has slipped to the back of many people’s minds, there is still a sense that yachting provides a safe haven, as booming order books demonstrate. It also bolstered a buoyant demand for adventure yachts, designer Dickie Bannenberg says. “Covid reinforced an already increasing trend for exterior space in its many forms: beach clubs, balconies, terraces, swim platforms… privacy is the new luxury.”
Stepladders used to get guests from the boat to the sea, but that changed with the advent of the beach club. Lady Moura got the ball rolling in 1990 with her twin fold-down sun terraces just above the waterline, strewn, some say, with real sand. A decade later, the swim platform became standard, with transom openings that transformed the space into an informal living area. The concept has morphed into a multi-level, multi-room affair that often segues into an onboard spa. Lürssen’s 115.1-metre Ahpo is a supreme example, as is the 96.6-metre Feadship Faith, whose curved glass pool floor forms the ceiling of the beach bar below.
“I don’t think there’s a client who comes to us today without a gym and a spa,” designer Andrew Winch says. “It all started when people stopped smoking.” Breman at Lürssen ties the focus on onboard wellness to the rise of a wealthy Russian clientele. “The banya [traditional sauna] is really part of their culture,” he says.
With the shift to larger beach clubs and wellness centres, the storage of tenders has changed too. And so has the role of tenders themselves and big yachts often carry multiple auxiliary craft. Tatoosh, built in 2000, remains a real showcase. She carries two 11.9-metre boats: a Hinckley motor yacht and a Frers daysailer. In addition, her decks hold three more tenders, a safety boat and four Sea-Doos. Tender building is now a booming business. “A tender used to be a RIB and a GRP boat like a Boston Whaler,” Bais, of Diana, says. “Now you see a [9.1m] limo tender with a moving roof, to get the same experience as [you would] on the yacht.”
The growth of explorers has also contributed to the rise of multi-use tenders with longer range. Limos, beach-landers and wake boats are routinely garaged on bigger yachts, alongside submersibles, land vehicles and a wealth of other toys. Octopus, the 126.2-metre Lürssen from 2003, is a benchmark, with her drop-down transom allowing a 18-metre launch to drive into her “mini marina.”
The definition of tenders has widened, too. Helicopters were the preserve of a handful of mavericks in the 1980s. The first helipad on 1975 Lac II, according to Feadship, required two crew to grab the skids of the landing aircraft and pull it down on deck. Nowadays, the very biggest offer hangar space for one or even two aircraft, not just touch-and-go helipads. And Øino sees us on the cusp of a mobility revolution. “If drone technology can be scaled up to helicopters, then we will have personal transportation with something as simple and reliable as a drone,” he says.
As they say, there is nothing new under the sun. So it is perhaps unsurprising that designers report a fresh interest in boats with sails. “Sailboats are coming back into fashion and the reason is ecology; everyone is trying to get rid of diesel,” Winch says. “Finding ways to provide the quality of lifestyle without masses of crew on a sailing yacht is the holy grail.”
Sustainability is the new buzzword in yachting, and one that didn’t exist 40 years ago. For some it means emission-free propulsion; for others it’s longevity. “Perhaps yachts cost more today, but you are not using materials that should become old-fashioned,” Vitelli says.
Everyone agrees on one thing: there will continue to be wealthy individuals who want to spend their money on yachts – and they’ll carry on getting even bigger. “I have to believe that someone will one day break the [198-metre] barrier,” Breman declares. Time will tell.Read More/Why onboard wellness suites are a must-have in 2023