65-metre Galactica Star

Superyachts: building a floating palace

Superyachts are the ultimate status symbol that only the world’s richest people could ever dream of owning. Heesen’s boatyard in Oss in the Netherlands shows us how they are built and what you get for €75 million.

It’s a windswept frozen day in the small town of Oss where, in a colossal enclosed boatbuilder’s yard, the sights and sounds of good old-fashioned metal bashing are in the air. A 50-metre-long skeletal aluminium framework forms the bones of what will become one of the most luxurious yachts the world has ever seen. For those inspired by the fabrication of big shiny things, these construction areas (the size of aircraft hangars) at Netherlands-based boatbuilder Heesen are a joy to behold.

However, for those who like their superyachts sleek and finished, elegantly cruising the Caribbean main, it appears that - on the surface at least - this primer-pink carcass of a ship has a long journey ahead of it. It will be months before the client will even set foot on what is ultimately a floating private palace that displays the wealth of Croesus.

Founded in 1978, Heesen is one of the world’s leading brands in superyacht design and manufacture. Earlier this year, the boat­builder scooped no fewer than three gongs at the 10th annual World Superyacht Awards. MySky (51 metres), Elena (47m) and Alumercia (37.9m) all made their ostentatious mark on the event.

Heesen is making waves in technical innovation, too. In May this year the firm launched Azamanta, the world’s first 50m-plus motor yacht with a fast-?displacement steel hull. When it comes to the bells and whistles that go with the sumptuous luxury of the finished product, the boatbuilder has also announced a custom 51m motor yacht in collaboration with Eidsgaard, one of the biggest international names in superyacht design.

To understand the world Heesen works in, there are a few terms that need to be understood, the first of which is ‘superyacht.’ Basically, this is a luxury seagoing vessel, which means that its primary purpose is to serve the pleasure of the rich, famous or powerful. It will be motorised, expensive and professionally crewed. But to earn the prefix ‘super’ it needs to be more than 24 metres in length. The classification has been around for more than a century; its first recorded use described the Jemima F. III, which in 1908 was the largest yacht in the world at 111 feet (33.8m).

Superyacht hulls are constructed of either steel or aluminium and come in three broad design categories: displacement, semi-?displacement and fast-displacement. The more of the yacht’s hull that sits in the water, the more sedate its progress. Heesen makes all three types from both materials. While the largest vessel of its type ever to go to sea - the Azzam - can boast a length of 180m (Roman Abramovich’s Eclipse is a mere 163.5m in comparison), the Dutch manufacturer is confined to a relatively modest niche specialising in yachts at around the 50-metre mark. Such modesty is still financially out of the range of almost everyone. To take delivery of a top-of-the-range Heesen yacht you’ll need to hand over somewhere in the order of €75m (although the entry-level models at €15m are a snip).

Peter van der Zanden is Heesen’s general manager for design and development. He is keen to point out that the overall physical dimensions of the company’s products are limited not by the firm’s prowess as boat-?builders, but by geography. Heesen’s shipyard, where the hull construction takes place, is located in the city of Oss, southern Netherlands. Being landlocked some 150km from the port of Rotterdam means that the first leg of a Heesen yacht’s maiden voyage to the delivery point of Gibraltar’s international waters is necessarily along a river, passing under nine fixed bridges. This restricts the air draught (height above the water) of the vessels as well as the beam (width), which is confined to 12m. The lowest of these bridges has a clearance of 9.5m, so “we have to find a gap between the underside of the bridges and the top of the water. But we make parts of the structure such as the mast removable, and we transport them by barge and reassemble these parts when we arrive at the coast.”

Sara Gioanola, who is part of the management team at the superyacht builder, says that the company has been able to make a virtue of necessity. The river journey means “our boats have evolved to be streamlined and sporty. Even our displacement boats, compared with other manufacturers’, look less like a floating palace.”

Aluminium or steel?

Van der Zanden admits that this restraint can present a disadvantage, as it will always be a case of the bigger the better for some clients. “If the boats are 50 metres in length, they can have three decks. If they are 90 metres, then they can have four. If they are 130 metres, they can have five. It’s that simple. They grow in all dimensions and so we are restricted in length as well as height.”

Whatever the length or width, no two designs will be the same, from completely custom designs to ‘semi-custom’ which are built on standardised platforms to customer modifications. “This is where the owners can specify their own interior architecture, the outfitting and so on. But the semi-custom models are in fact series designs with the same hull and superstructure. If you want, you think about what might be a typical Heesen yacht. This refers more to the styling of the boats, which is instantly recognisable. In the way that you can see what is a BMW or an Audi with cars, it’s the same with yachts. Ours are sportive in design.” They are also blue and white, which for Gioanola is “very important.”

On the choice between aluminium and steel, the key advantage of aluminium is weight. “Aluminium is simply lighter than steel,” says van der Zanden. “But there are also benefits depending on the type of boat you build. If you build displacement boats, as a lot of boatbuilders do, then you simply have a hull, which is an underwater displacement that goes through the water. There will be a maximum speed relative to the length of the boat irrespective of the power rating of the engines. The larger the boat, the higher the ‘hull speed’ is.”

To go faster, van der Zanden explains that you must change the hull design from a displacement configuration to semi-?displacement, where the underwater cross-section is more distinctly V-shaped and the boat lifts, meaning that “instead of being limited by hull speed, you reach a hook in the resistance curve. If you go beyond this hook, you can go faster and faster. The one thing you need to achieve is the bow to lift out of the water, and you can only do this if you have built the boat from a light material. That is why we use aluminium, which is one third of the weight of steel.”

Kilo-for-kilo, the raw material price is twice as expensive as steel. Despite the reduction in weight, switching to aluminium won’t do much to reduce the price of your yacht. “When the hull is made from aluminium, certain critical fittings such as the anchor protection plate still need to be made from stainless steel and bolted on at the outfitting stage. With a steel hull these can be welded. Taking into account the differing construction methods, the price difference is not much.” The things that really load the price sticker are the propulsion system and the interior décor.

Gioanola takes up the story: “Being able to produce our yachts in both materials means that we are able to deliver what the clients want. Those who are looking for speed - which is the core business of our shipyard - will want a boat made out of aluminium. Those who are more interested in a spacious interior or a longer-range cruise will opt for steel.”

The design spiral

According to van der Zanden, overall design weight distribution “is key and needs to be in line with buoyancy distribution. After that, how you design your hull is dependent on your required speed and your choice of hull format. What you have to do is ensure that the ‘line plan’ for the hull fulfils all needs: speed, weight and stability. That is what shipbuilding is. We call it the ‘design spiral’. Then you calculate the power required and check the stability. This is when you might find that the design is not stable enough, and you’ll need to increase the beam. Then you find that your buoyancy increases along with resistance. And so you do another check.” After what van der Zanden describes as a ‘quite difficult’ process that might include three or four such iterations, you end up with a ‘character set’ which meets the requirements of the owner. Reaching the ‘line plan’ for a custom hull can take months.

When it comes to selling boats, speed is a critical factor. Van der Zanden says this is a subjective quality that depends on the owners’ requirements. While some prefer the relative comfort of cruising at 12-14 knots, others will want to reach 30 knots. “It’s an important thing, because this preference will dictate - along with the size of the boat - the engines that we select. At the momen,t if you build a 50-55m aluminium hull, you are limited to engines rated at 4,300kW each. The best configuration for this type of hull is simply two engines with a gearbox, shaft and propeller: one on starboard and one on the port side. For higher speeds the designs tend to be water-jet propulsion, where there is the potential to install a third or fourth engine.”

The timeframe from ordering a superyacht to sailing away in it varies, but it will be years rather than months. Van der Zanden estimates that there will be “in the region of 8-9 months design and engineering if you are going for a new design. Then the hull construction will take a further 12 months, followed by up to 16 months of outfitting, commissioning and sea trials. Altogether, the process could take up to three years.”

Heesen delivers ‘four or five’ yachts annually, which means that at any given time there will be two aluminium hulls in construction with up to eight yachts being fitted out. Factor in the subcontracting of the steel construction “and in total we have the capacity to be working on 12 or 13 boats simultaneously. Maybe more if there are some in the engineering phase too.” This output supports a company of 280 full-time workers, of which 150 personnel are fully involved in production.

More speed, more luxury

At the high end of the superyacht market the prime consideration of every client is speed, which at first glance seems strange, given that superyachts at their fastest are not very fast - reaching about 30 knots (a dolphin could keep up with you). But really, says Gioanola, the issue at stake is image. What might appear to be a disproportionate fixation is of vital importance if you want to compete at this level, because “first of all, you might want to have breakfast in St Tropez, lunch in Portofino and dinner in Capri. But also, you need speed to get clear of bad weather, which can appear suddenly.”

Yet mostly it’s an unashamed statement about wealth, style and taste. Gioanola compares the yacht world with that of the supercar. “Basically, when you buy a very, very expensive piece of engineering, you simply want it to be the fastest, the shiniest. When you buy one of these yachts, you are buying a private hotel, an art gallery and a place to conduct business meetings with absolute discretion. If you are a celebrity, you are buying privacy that takes you far away from the long lenses of the paparazzi. Everything is the last word in luxury. It’s no longer just a case of having somewhere nice to host a fancy drinks party at the Monaco Grand Prix. It is a home away from home. But on the sea.” 

Image credits: Nick Smith, Jeff Brown

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