San Lorenzo superyacht

Superyachts: high-tech on the ocean waves

Image credit: San Lorenzo

As they flock to this year’s Monaco Yacht Show in their tens of thousands, visitors can expect to see five billion dollars-worth of luxury craft, tempting the super-wealthy to part with their money. What’s new in the world of superyachts?

Forget about their property portfolios or art collections; the single biggest luxury investment portfolio item of the world’s 1,826 billionaires is the superyacht. Co-founder of Google Larry Page owns one. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen goes one better in owning two in the top 100 superyachts list. The family of the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs owns the $100m Venus. Software giant Oracle’s Larry Ellison has owned several, including the Sir Norman Foster-designed Ronin, built by the legends of superyacht design, Lürssen.

According to French bank BNP Paribas there are 100,000 people in the world who can afford to buy a superyacht and with only an estimated 5 to 7 per cent of that number having availed themselves of the opportunity, there is plenty of reason for designers, manufacturers and brokers to be confident of the market’s future.

However, it’s not just tech industry moguls who elect to display their wealth in the form of these giant floating futuristic palaces. Harry Potter author J K Rowling and Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour both own superyachts (although theirs are wooden rather than white). Chelsea football club patriarch Roman Abramovich is the owner of Eclipse, the world’s second-largest superyacht. Tennis Grand Slam superstar Rafael Nadal owns the MCY76 Beethoven and sums up the attraction of superyachting like this: “When you have a boat you feel free. You can go to different places, you feel free to move around. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”

This unbelievable feeling comes at an unbelievable cost. The annual Monaco Yacht Show is the biggest event in the superyacht calendar. Last year’s event brought together 125 vessels (average length of 49m) with a total value of $4.5bn, and we can expect more this September as the event increases in size. While it is a social occasion for the wealthy, it is also a place where brokers and designers get together to discuss their clients’ specifications, while also being a technology showcase. What Formula 1 does to advertise automotive technology, the Monaco Yacht Show does for superyacht engineering.

Monaco Port superyacht extravaganza

Image credit: Nick Smith

There is no official regulation for what makes a yacht qualify as a superyacht. According to the editor of Boat International, Tim Thomas: “These are not ships, nor passenger cruisers. No, these are the epitome of the luxury yachting lifestyle. They are all bespoke, from the underwater lines to the topsides styling, and from the glassware to the last bolt in the engine room.”

Yet there are some industry-agreed parameters, starting with a 24m baseline, which is set because in some countries, vessels longer than this are required to have a permanent crew. Anything above that is a superyacht, although sometimes those over 100m in length are informally dubbed ‘megayachts’, or even ‘gigayachts’.

If the world’s top 100 superyachts were moored in a line, they would stretch for six miles. The longest masts are taller than Big Ben and the sails the size of football pitches. Although there are different way to measure record-breakers, the biggest superyacht is Dilbar by volume. Of course the owner of Azzam, which is longer than Dilbar by 24m, might contest the point, but since Lürssen built both, the German shipyard wins either way. Yet with widely circulated reports of a dual-helipad, 50-guest, 200m, $770m Double Century being worked through the concept phase, it seems that when it comes to size, the sky’s the limit. Or is it?

Thomas says: “What you need to remember is that as length increases, size and volume of these vessels increases exponentially – as does the cost to build them. Building costs are closely guarded secrets, often the stuff of rumours and supposition. When you are dealing with highly designed and engineered masterpieces with features that range from snow rooms to submarines, there is no average cost.”

Facts and figures

Superyacht superfacts

With the cost of building a superyacht coming in at around a million US dollars a foot, it’s no surprise these vessels come with an astounding array of record-breaking facts.
Maintenance and running: it costs on average 10 per cent of the original purchase price to keep a superyacht up to spec.

Most expensive superyacht: the 180m (591ft) Azzam that cost its owner, the UAE’s President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, an estimated $600m.
Biggest superyacht crew: Al Salamah (the 11th longest), owned by the Crown Prince Sultan of Saudi Arabia, employs a permanent team of 136.
Superyacht charter prices: start at around $20,000 per week, rising to $2m.
Fastest superyacht: the 42m (138ft) The World is Not Enough (Millennium Superyachts, 2005) that tops out at 70 knots, twice as fast as Usain Bolt.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s superyacht Octopus: has underwater survey vessels that discovered the wreckage of a Japanese battleship sunk in 1944.
Oldest superyacht: El Mahrousa, built in London in 1863, currently serves as Egypt’s presidential yacht.
Dilbar has 1,100km of on-board cabling: that’s more than the distance from London to the Monaco Yacht Show.
Second-hand yachts: in 2016, 268 superyachts were sold second-hand at a total cost of $2.68bn.
Largest superyacht currently on order: the 181.6m (596ft) REV project. Once delivered it will be the longest superyacht in the world.

While it is tempting to think the current big-ticket technology issues in the world of superyachts might be smart materials, aqua-dynamics or engine design, these are all trumped by connectivity. Increasing demands for broadband and ultra-broadband services have triggered development of a range of high-performance VSAT (very small aperture terminal) equipment leading up to Ka-band, as well as improved ship-to-shore comms. Industry insiders, such as home automation specialist Crestron’s Daniel Kerkhof, are also predicting X’s Project Loon could make an appearance on superyachts of the future. X is Google’s semi-secret R&D spinout developing high-altitude balloon technology to deliver aerial networks to remote places from the stratosphere.

Kerkhof says: “In general, if you are cruising somewhere, you cannot say you will have a high-band internet connection. On the sea there’s still not very much available and, if it is available, it’s extremely expensive. This could be something that is going to change in the upcoming years.”

He goes on to say that he wouldn’t be surprised “if there comes a day when every yacht has its own balloon, just to make sure it has a high-bandwidth internet connection”. Crestron is also seeing a rise in localised Bluetooth systems that allow the yacht to be alerted as device-carrying passengers move around it. “You can have Bluetooth beacons installed so that as soon as a person walks into a room with their phone in their pocket, we know where they are. If we know that the owner likes a certain kind of music, and we know that he likes the lights to be at a certain level, everything can go on automatically.”

Meanwhile, Sara Stimilli of Videoworks is predicting a rise in technical redundancy: “We’re seeing more demands for redundant systems on board yachts.” This provides cover for when the primary server fails, ensuring that systems continue to work “exactly like a back-up generator. It’s new as a concept and means cost savings, so a technician doesn’t need to fly from the Caribbean to Ancona just to get a spare part.”

Chris Gartner, captain of the 106.7m sailing yacht Black Pearl, which made its maiden voyage earlier this year, says the market will look towards its green credentials. He’s convinced future owners will be inspired by his vessel’s on-board eco-friendly technology. Black Pearl cruises at 18 knots using “very little fossil fuel”. He also sees battery storage technology as undergoing a “revolution”. “We are going to see big changes in power-management systems, energy-saving systems, uninterruptible power supplies, and the conversion ability between AC and DC all improving very quickly, driven by clean-energy and electric-car developers”. Gartner reports Black Pearl can operate on battery power for four to five hours with engines on full load, which he sees as a selling point to clients who are looking for environmental sustainability and a lower carbon footprint.  

At London’s recent Superyacht Investor Conference, the session on cyber crime was one of the best attended, with BlackBerry IT specialist Campbell Murray demonstrating the ease with which hackers, armed with no more than a laptop, can take complete control of a vessel and even sail off in it. In practice, cyber criminals are after information and money. The black market value of a billionaire’s financial data is an obvious incentive, and while financial institutions invest heavily in protecting their data, superyacht systems are comparatively lax, with one owner having £100,000 drained from his account. Another had compromising photos hacked, while there are reports of cybercriminals demanding ransoms to unlock breached navigation systems.

Contrary to popular news reports, physical attacks by pirates on superyachts is rare, but there has been an increase in data hacks in the past 18 months. This is due to a change in user behaviour as the purpose of the superyacht is increasingly moving away from that of the floating hotel, to the floating office. A third of all superyachts have a conference room, while nearly all come with business facilities. Malcolm Taylor, formerly of GCHQ and now head of cyber security at G3, says superyachts “require a lot of technology. Security hasn’t kept up and they are vulnerable to attack.”

Murray says that “owners like to have strong Wi-Fi so they can operate businesses from the vessel. But this means the network extends quite far from the actual ship to other vessels and the shore. If you moor in Monaco, who are you moored up next to?”

However, for the owner, the on-board technology and associated risks tend to be secondary considerations compared with the primary function of the superyacht – to display wealth.

With no two superyachts above 100m the same, designers and clients are not just looking for headlines. They’re competing on size as status, a point not lost on Peter Lürssen, managing partner of Lürssen, a company that has been in the shipbuilding industry for 143 years. He may well have built Azzam, but he retains a soft spot for the record-breaking Dilbar: “She is the biggest yacht in the world, but it’s not an offensive size. There are some boats that are too big. If you don’t have a reference boat and you see her passing by, she is very well proportioned. That’s what makes her special. She also has the largest indoor swimming pool of any yacht, is environmentally friendly and has electronics systems at the forefront of what’s possible.

Size matters

Superyachts: Top 10 by length

Despite the colossal market value of the superyacht industry, there are only 133 known units of 75m (250ft) and above. While Azzam, at 180m (591ft) is undisputedly the longest, Dilbar claims to be the biggest by volume.

Rank    Name    Length    Builder

1    Azzam    180m (591ft)    Lürssen (2013)

2    Eclipse    163.5m (536ft)    Blohm + Voss (2009)

3    Dubai    162m (531ft)    Blohm + Voss/ Lürssen (2006)

4    Dilbar    156m  (512ft)    Lürssen (2016)

5    Al Said    155m (509ft)    Lürssen (2007)

6    Prince Abdulaziz    147m (482ft)    Helsingør Værft (1984)

7    Topaz    147m (482ft)    Lürssen (2012)

8    El Mahrousa    145.72m (478ft)    Samuda Brothers (1865)

9    Yas    141m (463ft)    De Schelde/Abi Dhabi MAR (2011)

10    Ocean Victory    140m (459ft)    Fincantieri

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