Changing tides: Introducing the new wave of tough luxury vessels

Built to withstand longer voyages and harsh conditions, these boats offer opportunities to explore the world’s most remote and untouched destinations

There was a time when yachting was synonymous with places like the French Riviera, Greek islands and the Caribbean. And none of those bijou boltholes are in danger of running out of glamorous visitors any time soon. But they may be about to discover that the balance of power is shifting.

That’s because, for some ambitious folk, the old classics are beginning to slip down their destination wish list – replaced, in a large number of cases, by locations such as Tahiti, the Amazon, the Northwest Passage and even Antarctica.

It’s part of an emerging trend for trips that prioritise discovery ahead of simply getting a tan and jumping off one of the upper decks. And, according to Nick Lockett of Hawk Yachts, it’s driven by a different kind of customer.

“In the latest rich list there are about 30 per cent more billionaires this year than there were a year ago,” says Lockett. “The profile [of many new billionaires] is much younger and they want more from life. Unique experiences are replacing tangible assets.”

“It’s rich families who have seen everywhere else,” says Jan Jaap Minnema, a broker at Fraser. “They are the people who do not like the obvious areas such as St Tropez and St Bart’s, but they can afford everything. Then you have the young, adventurous tech millionaire guys who have already seen Asia and Australia by the time they’re 25. They want to see what hasn’t been discovered.”

“The profile [of many new billionaires] is much younger and they want more from life. Unique experiences are replacing tangible assets”

Another attraction, adds Minnema, is that dropping anchor several-hundred nautical miles from the nearest telephoto lens means that you can enjoy true privacy. “It’s the only time when you are secure from paparazzi,” he says. “In hotels, there are other people and staff. But on a yacht, it’s your guests, your staff. You can be 100 per cent yourself.”

For others, though, there is another, more important element of the experience. “Observing wildlife in that pristine setting has a powerful effect,” explains Ben Lyons, the CEO of EYOS Expeditions, who says he fell in love with Antarctica on his first visit in 2007. Now his company helps others to do the same. “The scenery is overwhelming. It’s difficult to explain, you have to experience it for yourself. But when you’re in Antarctica, you’re removed from your normal life. It’s totally alien to most people.”

However, this type of off-the-beaten-track experience is only open to those with the right kind of craft. Not every boat can stand up to the necessary demands. “Most yachts moored in the Med are pretty unseaworthy,” says Lockett. “They’re confined to the Med for a number of reasons.” A steel hull is usually required for anyone considering venturing into the icy waters of Antarctica, but even longer voyages in more forgiving conditions can carry a risk for many yachts. “The complexity of their engineering means they should never be far from someone who knows how to fix them,” says Lockett.

By contrast, the three models in Hawk Yachts’ range have been specifically designed for voyages of up to 12,000nm (without having to stop for more fuel or supplies) and to withstand extremes at both ends of the spectrum. They are Polar Class 6: capable of breaking through 80cm of ice; can remain stable even with up to 100 tonnes of ice accretion; and include other touches such as heated door seals to prevent exits from being frozen shut, as well as trash compactors and incinerators to deal with waste in an efficient and responsible way. 

The same craft could also be used to travel up the 2000 navigable miles of the River Amazon’s course, despite its uniquely challenging conditions. Water intakes are designed to deal with silt, air filters should sift out insects and pollen, while brackish water permeators can produce fresh water by reverse osmosis.

Crucially, Lockett says, the yachts, which come in 103m, 75m and 56m lengths, are also handsome enough to be at home in the most chic European marinas. They are, according to the company, “the first true luxury expedition yachts”.

There’s just one problem: they aren’t yet built. The first aren’t likely to have champagne bottles broken on their bows until at least 2020. Until that time, anyone with ambitions of combining an expedition with luxury living will have to be content with a more utilitarian-looking craft like the 47m Hanse Explorer (which does at least appear to have an eminently comfortable interior, including its own on-board sauna) or might choose to hold out for an invitation from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. 

His 126m explorer, Octopus, was built by German yard Lurssen in 2003 and is reckoned to have cost $200 million. It has a helipad, an internal dock which houses a 20m submarine and, in 2015, was used to discover the wrecked Japanese battleship Musashi – the 244m leviathan had languished in the depths of the Sibuyan Sea in the Philippines for more than 70 years after being sunk during World War Two.

But having the right boat isn’t enough on its own. Ben Lyons of EYOS explains that, when it comes to expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic, there are areas which, to this day, remain “uncharted or poorly charted”. Hand-drawn maps and local knowledge are still the most important assets. “What we sell is experience,” says Lyons, who works as an ice pilot, often joining expeditions and supplementing a yacht’s existing crew.

“On expeditions we’ll get people off [the yacht] a couple of times a day to see penguin colonies, visit scientific sites and we have Zodiacs [small dinghies] that can be readied quickly and used to cruise alongside whales.”

"The first aren’t likely to have champagne bottles broken on their bows until at least 2020..."

For longer voyages to other far-flung parts of the world – whether that’s a 3000-mile Atlantic crossing, or a voyage from the west coast of the United States to another emerging yachting destination in northern Australia or southeast Asia – a polar-class steel hull for breaking through ice might not be such a crucial consideration. But size certainly is. That’s partly because, with the kind of full-displacement hull favoured for serious voyages, speed and fuel efficiency are affected by the length of the boat. 

As a general rule, a yacht’s maximum speed in knots is equal to 1.34 times the square root of its waterline length in feet. But a larger size should also equate to more room to store supplies, tenders and toys such as helicopters, submarines, jet skis, fly-boards, stand-up paddleboards and much else besides. “People try to get as much into these yachts as they can,” says Alex Koersvelt, a broker with Edmiston. “You need to have the garage space.”

Boats with the capacity to travel long distances and hold the required supplies are in high demand. Fraser broker Jan Jaap Minnema, who, having set the record for the largest superyacht sold in China, knows a thing or two about large vessels, is working on a new project that should reduce the time it takes for a buyer to get their hands on a craft with the requisite capabilities. 

Project Brage, an 86m superyacht “with exploration characteristics”, will take a commercial platform of the type used for a Brage Trader or Brage Supplier and convert it for a private superyacht with a luxury interior and all the trimmings. Minnema says that this method means customers should be able to take delivery of their order just two years after placing it – rather than waiting the half-decade that would usually be required for a vessel of the same size and specification. “In some cases it takes 10 years,” says Koersvelt. “You are building someone’s dream.”

Elsewhere, says Minnema, Lurssen – the German yard that enjoys the distinction of having built the largest superyacht in the world – has a full order book. Customers are keen to benefit from the same expertise that went into building Azzam, the 180m, $605-million craft owned by president of the UAE, Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, which took the record from Roman Abramovich’s 163m Eclipse when it was launched in 2013.

Intriguingly, luxury concierge company Quintessentially will also join the fray in 2019 or 2020, with the launch of a colossal 220m yacht that will have sufficient range and seaworthiness to cross the Atlantic and function as the “world’s largest floating private members club”.

It will sail into Monaco during the week of the Grand Prix, but it might depart soon after for another Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, or perhaps the Carnival in Rio. It’s not quite the Antarctic, but it is another reason to think that today’s traditional yachting hotspots might not have it all their own way forever.

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