Reflections of Perfection
It’s an incredible task to create a flawless yacht finish.
When a megayacht pulls into a marina, all eyes turn to her. Often her lines will spark comments and even debate over her styling. But almost never up for question is the quality of her paint. On nearly any megayacht you encounter, the hull paint is deep, lustrous, and seemingly without flaw. How can such a big, complexly shaped object have such an impeccable appearance?
This answer is, money, expertise, and dedication. Originally the process began mundanely enough with scaffolding and tarps; the scaffolding providing access so that painters and workers can reach every part of the yacht and the tarps protecting (mostly) the yacht; from the elements. Access is key because the challenges posed by painting a yacht go up exponentially as her length increases. The longer the yacht, the more difficulties there are in maintaining a consistent finish. Given the prospect of having to do the whole job over again if a demanding owner isn’t satisfied, it’s a hell of a task.
But, like the person who looked at a loaf of bread and thought there had to be a better way to make a sandwich, Jim Bento, president of Ocean Marine in Portsmouth, Virginia, looked at the megayacht-painting process and decided there had to be a more efficient way to achieve a consistent finish. And so began his three-year investigation that culminated in 2001 with the opening of Ocean Marine’s state-of-the-art painting shed.
It is, as you’d expect, big—big enough to swallow the 143-foot Prediction with room left over. Big enough to accommodate even the 204-foot Fortunato and still have plenty of room for a painting crew to grind off her old paint and apply and buff out a new coat.
Moving a big yacht into a big shed is actually the easy part. Then the real work begins, which often includes a fair amount of non-painting maintenance work. Engines may be rebuilt or an interior refit done, and to accommodate both, sometimes-large sections have to be cut from the hull, then be welded back into place. Once all this surgery has been performed, multiple layers of faring must be applied to the hull to completely hide any dings, dents, or welds. The hull surface has to be as smooth as is humanly possible, and that means backbreaking labor—thousands of hours of it.
Only after all the prep work comes the paint. The key to a shiny, head-turning paint job is controlling all the variables: in temperature, in air quality, in paint mixing, and finally in application. To do that Ocean Marine built its paint shed from the ground up to mitigate as many of these factors as possible.
First, temperature. Solid, heavily insulated walls, ceiling, and floor minimize weather-related variations. Think of a paint job in terms of mail delivery: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night must stop the job. To bring the interior environment to an ideal mid-60F temperature and keep it there, pipes in the cement floor carry a constant stream of hot water. To control dust and other particulates, after the prep phase, the interior walls are washed with cascading water, washing away even microscopic contaminants that will create a flaw in the finish. To prevent contaminated air from the outside being drawn into this hyper-clean environment, the air pressure in the shed is always higher than that of the surrounding environment. (When I entered the shed, I could feel a small puff of air indicating this.)
When the yacht is ready to be painted, the first coat is not the paint you’ll see when she pulls into port. First the “show coat,” a layer of blue paint, is slathered all over the hull. The effect is shockingly ugly but indispensible for revealing flaws, irregularities, and identifying other potential problem areas. This is where Ocean Marine paint foreman Dat Phan shines: He can see problem areas that even the most eagle-eyed captain can’t.
When all the problem areas have been rectified, it’s finally time to apply the finish coat. This job also falls to Phan plus his crew, divided into three teams of ten: mixers, shooters, and hose minders. Though improperly mixed paint spells doom and a hose bumping a wet hull means time-consuming repair and a reshoot, the shooters are the stars of the show. The shooters also use a Genie Lift rather than scaffolding to reduce the risk of bumping the paint as there is less material near the ship. Each must reach every curve of the hull and decide where the breaks in spray should occur. Shooters are typically trained by paint companies, such as AwlGrip, AlexSeal, and Dupont, and account for a quarter of the permanent staff at Ocean Marine.
After the paint has been applied, it’s time for drying, which is abetted by large fans that blow the length of the yacht and across the transom as recessed 6,740F lamps illuminate any flaws, mis-sprays, or sagging where the paint dried too slowly. (Bento admits he may have been a bit overzealous with the lamps as they actually reveal imperfections that would be invisible under normal sunlight.)
And then, it’s time for launching. The effort has been intense, time-consuming, and expensive (a paint job alone runs in the low six figures and takes around 90 days), but as the shiny megayacht slides into the water, everyone considers the final product well worth the effort. Her hull sparkles as sunlight bounces off a perfect surface and off the ripples she produces as she motors away, ready to turn heads in harbors all over the world.
Ocean Marine Yacht Center
This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.