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Making waves

The preferred attire of yacht designer Ron Holland is oilskins and sailing boots; but one night in May he could be found wearing a dinner jacket and red bow tie in London’s prestigious Guildhall

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The occasion was the World Superyacht Awards, the Oscars of the leisure boat industry, where one of Holland’s sailboat designs, the graceful 56m Riela, won the coveted prize for best superyacht over 45m. Built by the Tuscany-based yard Perini Navi, the dark-hulled cutter-rigged Riela is a typical Holland design characterised by elegant, sea-kindly hulls that go, as one owner remarked, “like scalded cats.”

Probably, this is what you’d expect from a designer who grew up racing dinghies in his native New Zealand.

Whatever the reason, Holland is credited as one of the young Turks who, back in the eighties, produced a new wave of fast and exhilarating cruising yachts made with lightweight but robust materials that quickly replaced the previous generation of wallowing heavyweights made of timber or even concrete. For instance, Riela’s hull is fashioned in high-performance aluminium and its passage times are extremely rapid.

And this being a superyacht whose owners put as much emphasis on the living space as on the performance, the sumptuous and spacious interior by Frenchman Remi Tessier would have garnered a lot of votes from the judging panel.

“This is the award that every designer, boatyard and owner wants to win,” enthused Holland on the night. Indeed it is, with the judging panel composed mainly of superyacht owners who surely know better than anybody else what makes for a winning design.

Riela was only one of four Holland projects that made the finals. The others were: Ethereal, the 58m sailboat owned by US software billionaire Bill Joy and wife Shannon that has been featured in dozens of magazines; the 50m Baracuda, also from the Perini Navi yard; and an earlier design named Juliet, once the subject of an entire book, that was up for a gong in the best refit class.

Anybody fortunate enough to attend the annual awards might be forgiven for asking: “Recession, what recession?” The obligatory event of the year for the industry responsible for producing the motor and sail-powered palaces that fill up the marinas of the Med and elsewhere, the Boat International-sponsored awards invariably produce a panoply of vessels that embody an eye-snapping array of creativity and, of course, a mind-numbing amount of money.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation puts the value of the winning yachts alone at over $600m. As for the 100 nominations, the total investment could hardly be less than $1bn at a conservative estimate. Although some of these vessels were commissioned before the financial crisis, they were all launched during 2009 as required by the rules.
Once they’re in the water, these boats aren’t cheap to run. Annual maintenance and running costs can be estimated at 10 percent of the vessels’ capital cost. After all, there’s no change out of $100,000 to fill up the diesel tanks of a big, motor-powered yacht for an ocean-going crossing. A crew of eight including skipper, mates, deckhands, stewards and chefs may be required to look after just 10 guests. In short, with pleasure boats of this size, nothing’s changed that much since banker JP Morgan Jr told a friend who was thinking of buying a yacht similar to his own: “If you have to ask the price you can’t afford it.”

There’s two categories in the awards – motor and sailing yachts. The term “superyacht” is not an exaggeration. The motor yacht divisions start at below 500 gross tonnes and rise to 1,300gt and heavier, which might be called the Roman Abramovich class – the owner of Chelsea football club has his own flotilla of superyachts.

As for the sailboats, the categories extend from 30m up to 45m plus, or nearly half the length of a rugby field. Any of these awards are highly prized, but the award for the best yacht of 45m upwards – the giant-sized category – ranks as roughly the equivalent of best motion picture of the year.

Over the years Holland has become one of the select circle of designers who win commissions for the really big, envelope-pushing boats. It began years ago with Whirlwind XII, the first 100-footer (30.5m), for British captain of industry Noel Lister and has gone on with the 160-footer (49m) ketch Thalia in 1994, the 210-foot (64m) Felicita West and, stunning the yachting world, the 247-footer (75m) Mirabella V with her 300ft carbon fibre mast. Mirabella is still the biggest single-masted sailboat in the world and likely to remain so for a long time yet.

Although owning a superyacht will always be like standing under a cold shower tearing up bank notes, one thing has changed since JP Morgan Jr’s days. Because of the revolution in communications, captains of industry can manage their affairs while anchored in a sheltered cove off the Med or, for that matter, off Tonga.

As Holland explains: “Compared to the early days of yachting’s golden age, yacht owners can now run their business from the yacht. They can have privacy aboard their yacht to a degree that is not possible ashore but can still stay fully in touch with their business interests.”

Also, JP Morgan Jr needed a lot more people to run his yacht per square metre. For instance, the sail on Mirabella runs up her 300ft mast at the touch of a button. Even with 20 men sweating on the halyards, that would have been impossible even 40 years ago.

And today’s breed of superyachts are much greener. Take the much-publicised Ethereal, for which billionaire Bill Joy brought in a team of scientists. “The Joys’ green pioneering has opened up new areas for energy efficiency without any sacrifice to comfort,” says Holland. “Some of the systems introduced aboard Ethereal are still too expensive to specify for our conventional designs, but they are playing an important part in our design thinking.”

Although Holland has built his reputation on superyachts, he still likes to mess around in much smaller boats. A pet project is a no-frills, 10m called the Omega which he’s developed with Sweden’s designer/builder Rolf Gyhlenius. It’s a simple, highly affordable yacht with enough room to sleep in overnight, albeit not in great comfort. It’s a project that takes Holland back to his roots, but it won’t win any prizes at the World Superyacht Awards.

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