When you pack your bag for a trip to Dubai, it's just as well to include, along with your sunglasses, passport, and gold credit card, some suspension of disbelief. Nothing quite prepares you for the place that a generation ago was little more than a few mud-brick dwellings and some concrete warehouses lining the now-famous dhow-packed creek.
Today it is one of the world's two biggest building sites (Shanghai is the other), and while the dhows are still there, plying their ancient trade across the Persian Gulf, the long, deserted beaches and barren, sand-blown desert landscape are rapidly turning into an Arabian version of Miami—but with more money, bigger hotels, and worse traffic.
Suspension of disbelief also proved useful during my test of the Azimut 103S, the day after the Dubai Boat Show drew to a close. It seemed faintly incredible that the most successful international dealer for this top-flight Italian shipyard is now Art Marine of Dubai, but then, not many dealers worldwide can afford to exhibit practically a whole manufacturer's product range at their local show—and clearly no one was quicker off the mark in finding a launch customer for the new flagship of Azimut's S sports range.
Equally hard to believe was the fact that this is the fifth S-class yacht in just four years. Since the concept was launched at the 2003 Genoa Boat Show, with the ground-breaking 68S, we've witnessed the arrival of the 86S, 62S, 43S, and now this 100-ton behemoth. But in spite of the unprecedented 60-foot span between the smallest and largest boats in the range, the design inside and out retains a unity of purpose and coherence of form that makes each model an instantly recognizable member of the family.
With a hull finished in a discreet dark burgundy, the 103S was not the biggest yacht at the Dubai show—she was not even the biggest Azimut—but she certainly attracted the most attention. The Sheikh himself visited the boat—twice. And for the test we even had our own VIP onboard, in the guise of Marcello Lippi, the legendary, World Cup-winning Italian national soccer coach. Our Italian crew was as thrilled as schoolboys—but managed to concentrate long enough to cast off the lines and take us to sea.
There was a swell running not far offshore, which given our waterline length, proved as challenging as a short chop might have been to a smaller sportboat. Deadrise at the transom is a pretty deep 18.8 degrees; more depth to the midships and forward sections might have ironed out the seas a little better. The 103S is designed for jet drives, which provide excellent maneuverability and control at low speed as well as relaxed and vibration-free fast cruising. But for the period in between—accelerating onto plane—they seemed to struggle with the yacht's weighty displacement.
The steering was extraordinarily sensitive, with full port-to-starboard lock in less than one full turn of the wheel. Such responsive handling naturally took a little getting used to, but once mastered it meant that this sizable yet lively machine could be hurled about with unseemly abandon and, with practice, placed practically inch-perfect among the waves to provide the smoothest ride. There is certainly no shortage of horsepower; I recorded just over 33 knots (37.8 mph) in these far-from-ideal conditions, and Azimut's skipper claimed to have seen well more than 34 knots (39 mph) on the way from the docks to the show.
The 103S's performance trials were another area where credibility was stretched to the breaking point: Here we were, cavorting on the high seas as if we were towing a banana packed with screaming teenagers, surrounded by 100 tons and 100 feet of luxury, in a four-bedroom apartment. The 103S's interior is Azimut S-class at its very best: modern, cool, and faintly minimalist, but underwritten everywhere with quality detailing and a high standard of finish. There is, obviously, more area and volume for the designers to play with in the 103 than on any of her predecessors; although the layout follows convention with a full-beam midships master suite, a VIP cabin in the bow, and a pair of en suite twins between them (each with an extra Pullman berth), the spaces breathe well, and the design's emphasis on horizontal planes is for once matched by a commensurate amount of floor space. Space is, after all, the ultimate luxury. Headroom through most of the accommodation is 6'8". Light floods into all the cabins from six sets of topsides windows. In the spectacular master suite and the terrific VIP, it's almost like being ashore.
This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.